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Shortly before the release of their latest album, Canadian indie pop band Stars decided to test-drive their new material with a mini-jaunt. At each tour stop, they’d play the album from beginning to end—to audiences who didn’t know a single note.
“People were completely unfamiliar with the music, so we thought it was a worthy experiment because of that,” says keyboardist Chris Seligman. “It was something new, it took us out of our comfort zone, and it worked for us at the time. But I don’t think we would do it again.”
And since their beginnings, that same experimental, on-to-the-next approach has summed up Stars. The five-piece (Seligman, bassist Evan Cranley, drummer Pat McGee, and dual vocalists Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell) formed in Toronto in 2001. They hit the scene with Nightsongs, which showcased their knack for shimmery, delirious orchestrations topped with faintly nostalgic lyrics. They followed up with three full-length albums over the next four years—ranging from the cohesive charisma of Set Yourself on Fire to the ambitious-yet-uneven In Our Bedroom After the War.
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“We didn’t take much time off,” Seligman admits. Throughout the decade, most members of Stars also dabbled in Broken Social Scene or other side projects—refusing to let any sort of gap in the production process go unfilled for longer than it had to. “We’ve come to accept that people—including us and our fans—only have so much of an attention span, so there’s this constant need to retain it and to produce new things. The turnaround for records these days is quicker than it’s ever been.”
With that in mind, Stars hunkered down last year to write and record The Five Ghosts, which was released in June. It’s a decidedly more restrained effort than most of their past work—opting out of overly indulgent instrumentals, instead favoring measured, slow-burning synths. Tracks such as “The Last Song Ever Written” and “I Died So I Could Haunt You” feed directly into the album’s often-grim lineage. But it’s also wisely lightened up by first single “Fixed,” which, reminiscent of 2003 favorite “Elevator Love Letter,” is tightly knit and infectious. Stars also swagger into disco-pop territory with “We Don’t Want Your Body”—giving Millan a chance to drape her sugary delivery over a tale of drawn blinds and ecstasy. It’s the song on the album that sounds the least like the rest—deliberately so.
“We hunt for those directional shifts. Everyone wants to get the point where they can create something new but, at the same time, keep that thing that makes people want to return to you,” says Seligman. “Those two elements make up your musical genetics. Both are vital.”
And both continue to show—as Stars’ latest offering takes a darker lyrical turn, spawning odes to lost loves, eerie haunts and departed souls (Campbell’s father passed away just before the band started recording). Still, in standard Stars fashion, songs are wrapped in a light coating, anchored by the boy-meets-girl vocal balancing act of Campbell and Millan.
Since last spring, they’ve taken that act on the road. Stars will tour through December, then, Seligman says, they’ll take a break, enough time to let newly pregnant Millan—her beau is Cranley—catch her breath and adjust to motherhood. They’ll get back into the studio as soon as time allows, with the goal of releasing a new album next spring.
Given their perpetually planned-ahead schedule, it’s apparent that Stars have the stop-start cycle down pat and can slip back into the fray whenever necessary. It’s an ease that Seligman partly credits to the comfort the group take from the creative process. Band members take on the respective roles they’ve held since the beginning: Seligman and Cranley compose the music, then Campbell and Millan pen the lyrics. As Seligman explains, the hand-off between the pairs usually splits the creative process in two.
“There’s definite separation in the whole thing. It’s partially due to conflicting schedules and partially just what we’re used to,” says Seligman. “But every now and then, we’re all able to create something together, and it’s nice to switch things up.”
Does that mean Stars fans can expect more role-shifting at some point?
“Hopefully. I think we’d all like to get out of our shells a bit more. Do different things, try different roles, get out of patterns,” says Seligman. “That’s what keeps all of this new.”
Stars perform with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona; www.theglasshouse.us. Sun., 8 p.m. $18. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Super Nova: Life changes dictate Stars’ reinvention of sound."