Stars :: Conquer the North


by Fabian Suárez-Amaya

Keeping the same touring and recording line-up together for over a decade, Stars is something of an anomaly among modern musicians. They recently strode through Winnipeg as an opening act for Metric at the MTS Centre. I spoke to Evan Cranley as Stars is preparing to embark on their next tour, promoting their new album The North.

The North had been two years in the making, beginning in 2010 with partial compositions bouncing between Cranley (bass, guitar, synthesizer, percussion, trombone) and fellow musician Chris Seligman (piano, keys, synthesizer and French horn).  While the focus for many fans is the lyrics of Amy Milan (guitar, vocals) and Torquill Campbell (keyboard, vocals), Cranley explained that the music generally comes first. Milan and Campbell draw their inspiration from the “loose compositions,” of the musicians, and begin writing.

Recently returned from a 13-week tour and preparing for another, Cranley spoke about touring with a young child. “We were nervous before going on, about how our daughter would react to the lifestyle, but she was incredible. I think it’s in her blood. She’s a natural entertainer and a natural traveler. She’s got 13 aunts and uncles on the bus. She just makes the tour a happier place to be around,” Cranley laughed.

He continued, “The highlight for me was having Torq’s daughter and my daughter on the bus together in Europe, going to the Louvre together and hanging out in London together, dancing to sound-check in Vienna together. That was a really special time, to witness our children playing together on the road in all these beautiful cities. They came to sound-check every afternoon and danced. We’ve been around for 13, 14 years, and to finally share a moment like that, with the people you make music with and your family, that was a really special time.”

From the Twitter pages of Milan, Campbell, and the band itself (@youarestars), Stars is unabashedly outspoken online, boasting a recent bottled-water free tour, support of Obama, and criticism of certain Canadian politicians.

“We don’t talk about political things overtly, lyrically, and musically. But individually, some of us are very passionate about it. It’s a very delicate thing, to make bold political statements in your music. I think you have to make it about the music first and the message second. [But] I like to be in a band that ruffles feathers, makes people feel uncomfortable. I’d rather be a part of a band like that than part of a collective that doesn’t say anything about anything they believe in. Bands are meant to fuck shit up a bit.”

Cranley admitted that Stars had ventured a bit more openly on The North, with “A Song Is A Weapon,” yet he maintained that subtlety was crucial. “There’s political tones in that.  But the reason why it works is because it could be more than one person. It has a very universal sentiment to it. That’s why I think it works. That person’s never named; it could be anyone in power.”

He was considerably more vocal when asked about a recent article Stars had posted on Internet streaming websites and artist revenue. “All of that stuff hasn’t caught up to the money that I think the artist should be getting. Here in Canada, you can download things illegally, but if you reach your data [maximum] downloading at home, you have to pay cellphone companies money to steal records from artists. It’s like the Wild West out there!”

“The whole thing needs to be revolutionized. It’s totally unfair. I think being an international touring rock act, that’s going to become really exclusive. It’s something that’s for the elite now in a weird way, driven by corporations. I find the whole thing totally gross, now that I’m older. I’m kind of ranting a bit.”

Emerging online resources and continued government funding are possible solutions. “I’m hoping things like Kickstarter will splinter off into other sort of money-sharing socialist internet sites. So emerging artists can get money from their fans directly. Stars has also really benefited from being a band in Canada. We got a lot of money from grants to tour and to make records and that’s helped our career so much. Let’s hope that artist funding doesn’t go away. There’s people out there that really need it.”

The North received some jabs from music critics like Pitchfork and Slant Magazine for its unapologetic thematic consistency with previous albums, but Cranley was resolute in the band’s focus. “These are hallmark themes. These are the kind of things that we’ll battle in relationships your whole life, love and loss, light and dark, they’ll never go away, no matter how young or old you are. The themes don’t change, but the textures, the tones, and the compositions change from record to record. I think that’s the important thing, finding a theme, but being really cautious about repeating yourself.”

The repetition is easily justified: it’s what the band knows. It explains Cranley’s comfort in expressing his excitement about his child to a complete stranger, his voice carrying real gratitude that his song could have meaning to a couple of Winnipeg teenagers, or decrying the music industry less with cynicism than with anger. Stars is a group of honest individuals, who wear their hearts on their sleeve because they’re too big to keep in their pockets.

This propensity for sincere, intense emotional display is most evident when explaining one of Campbell’s more memorable lyrics from the album: “Take the weakest thing in you / And beat the bastards with it.”

“I think it’s better to kill a person with love, than with hate,” Cranley explains. “You know, we all write the songs, but whether Torq or Amy writes the lyrics – leave it up to the listener as to who wrote that. With that song, the love you make is equal to the love you take. And it’s easier to live your life with love than with hate.”

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