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Getting Famous with the Stars

As co-lead singer of a band called "Stars," Torquil Campbell just might have something to prove: Despite critical acclaim and a Juno award nomination (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy), 2003's Heart didn't exactly garner the band massive fame in America. But with members moonlighting in Broken Social Scene, Stars already has the all-important indie cred, and success looks to be just around the corner.

The Montreal-based quartet spent last winter holed up recording their third album, Set Yourself on Fire, released stateside last week, and it might just be their best yet. Spin spoke with Campbell from his home in Montreal about cheesy songwriting, necessary sacrifices, and how Stars might have accidentally inspired the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

SPIN: What’s the music scene like up there in Montreal?

Campbell: It’s an incredible place to work. I think a lot of people come here because it’s so easy to work here and because there’s so much space and so much time and you don’t really have to earn a lot of money to get by. So, I think it’s become really healthy, because people have had some time to gestate and some time to work on their stuff and it’s grown into something pretty solid and not based on a lot of hype.

SPIN: You guys used to be based in New York, right?

Campbell: Yeah, we started in New York. Me and Chris [Seligman, Stars’ keyboard player] were living down there, and it just started as something we would do to keep ourselves from going crazy. But when people began to be interested in it, we suddenly realized, “Hey, we could avoid real work and be in a rock band.” Once we realized that, I think we decided that it was just too much, it was too hard to survive in New York and try and spend much time as we needed to on the music.

SPIN: Is it true you used to live with some of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?

Campbell: Well, we all lived together. James [Shaw], who’s in Metric, is one of my oldest and dearest friends and Emily [Haines, also from Metric] and us moved into this huge loft and Nick Zinner was also one of the original residents. We all lived there for three years. I’m convinced that Nick having to listen to us make Nightsongs [Stars’ first album] three years is what started the post-punk revolution. It was like, “If I have to listen to these fucking Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark impersonators one more time I’m going to go insane,” and so he started making punk music.

SPIN: On the topic of living arrangements, I heard when you were recording this new album, you guys were living in a house you compared to The Shining.

Campbell: Well I didn’t. I had a great time. Amy [Millan, co-lead singer and guitar] compared it to The Shining. I guess it was like The Shiningin that we were snowed in and it was a big old house, and we all went a bit nuts. But nobody hacked through the door with an axe or anything. And we actually got some work done. I mean, The Shiningis all about writer’s block. We actually wrote. But there were moments that were slightly insane, no doubt.

SPIN: How does the songwriting work within your band, especially with you and Amy both singing?

Campbell: It’s very much something we [all] do together. Even if only one person is writing the words, the other person tends to be around. The way it usually works is Chris and Evan will start to write a melody, they’ll start playing something and they’ll be jamming on it for a while. Then one of us will begin to write words to it. Amy tends to be very painstaking and slow in her songwriting. She works from the melody and then turns it into lyrics, whereas I start with the lyrics and try to find a melody for it.

SPIN: So many of your songs are about romance. Have there been any times when you wrote a line and Amy said, “Oh, that’s cheesy, I’m not going to sing that?”

Campbell: Absolutely, that’s happened. But then I say to her, “You absolutely are going to sing it,” and I go on a little rant about why, and generally, she comes around. And vice versa. I’ve said to her, “God, I don’t want to sing that.” But it’s really interesting. I find that part of the process really cool because me and Amy are constantly having to second-guess ourselves and each other, and really look at what we’re doing and decide whether or not it works. And there’s an enormous amount of trust and an enormous amount of humility involved in that process.

SPIN: How does it feel to know you’re part of multiple bands that are critically acclaimed but, as of yet, don’t have massive album sales?

Campbell: I love my life right now, and I love being friends with these people. In terms of the money, it’s frustrating. It’s heartbreaking to be a musician in this business. You create the music but there’s all these people making money off of it, but you’re not. You make choices. We’ve traded the possibility of being rich for the possibility of making great music and hanging out with our friends and getting to see the world.

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