It was 6:00 p.m. on a Monday night and Stars got into a bit of a fight on stage. The band had just ended an intimate gig at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The performance, which featured songs off their new album "No One Is Lost," would stream on WFUV, but bass player Evan Cranley clinked and clanked a little too close to a microphone as the emcee finished up the broadcast. Lead singer Torq Campbell tugged on Cranley's shirt and put his finger to his lips. "Shh!" Cranley shook his head and turned off stage.
"Yeah, Cranley got really pissed at me for that," Campbell said the next day sitting in Le Parker Meridian's hotel cafe, sipping an English Breakfast tea. But it was a tame moment, compared to Stars' past antics. "We used to have nasty fights in front of the audience. Dirty looks and fucking tension. That just doesn't happen anymore." According to Campbell, it took him years to learn how to work with Stars co-lead singer Amy Millan, whose high-pitched, ethereal voice is the obvious tell of a Stars song. "I think we just started to understand that there wasn't anyone out there who was going to look after you other than the person you were singing with," he said.
After eight albums and over a decade of making music, Stars has built up a messy personal history to match its catalog. The way Campbell tells it, Millan and Cranley got together (and eventually had a child together) when Millan was engaged to keyboardist Chris Seligman during the height of hype for 2004's "Set Yourself on Fire," their most notable record. Campbell and Seligman have been best friends since they were 8 years old. "We're not a normal band," Campbell said. "I think other bands are less attached to each other, less close."
Stars, though, is not a cool band. It's an eager band that relies hard on Campbell and Millan's back-and-forth vocal style. Newer lyrics, like "I want to be with you / don't want to be alone" and "Hold on when you get love / and let go when you give it," are just as earnest as the ones that made them famous in "Set Yourself on Fire." "We take a lot of pride when we leave we want people to say that’s the nicest group of people I’ve ever worked with. Those people are fucking hilarious. Those people are human humans. They’re not cool," he said. "We invest a lot in this band in not being cool."
Stars' new album, "No One Is Lost," wasn't supposed to be about death, but after someone very close to the band was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, there was no way to avoid the looming theme of loss. "We have to make this an act of hope," Campbell said. The songs read like a great night out followed by the worst, most devastating emotional and physical hangover. The idea of death comes up again and again in conversation. "Sex and death are the same thing," he said. "When you have sex with someone you die a little. There's a person that you were that you will never be again. Those are the two things that motivate people: desire and fear." And later: "I’m afraid to die. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m afraid to die. I don’t want to die and I don’t want to say goodbye to people. Life is very heartbreaking."
In typical Stars fashion, the new album matches tragic lyrics with glittery dance tracks. It's their own brand of pop music designed to make you weep into a disco ball. "I want to make potent cheap music," Campbell said. "Pop music lets you have three minutes of diving into the big things. But in the context of a very light meaningless thing. That’s the whole idea of Stars as a name. Stars means Kim Kardashian and Stars mean the universe. To me, that’s pop music." He sipped his tea and stretched his arms out, revealing a white t-shirt with the words "UNITE THE LEFT," a reference to Canadian politics, written in Sharpie pen. "I want to make stupid-profound pop music."
Stars' muddled message of painful pleasure is perhaps best explained in the title track's hook: "Put your hands up because everybody dies."
In just a few hours, Campbell was scheduled to get on a flight home to see his wife and daughter back in Canada. He missed his 5-year-old, whom he said was just starting to understand that Rock Star Dad's traveling sucks. Family life has only heightened his awareness of the big questions about life and death. "It’s imperative that we be joyful and it’s imperative that we recognize that this is going to end and we’re going to have to say goodbye. The price that all the great shit in life is that you’ll have to say goodbye to it. That’s the price of love, right? We’re willing to pay it and we have to pay it. No other choice."
"No One Is Lost" is out Oct. 14.