Way too often in life we tend to take things for granted; even the bands we’ve come to love. While talking about long-lasting Montreal-based indie-pop institution Stars, both authors of this article realised they have a personal history with their music. Norman fell in love with the band’s third album Set Yourself On Fire in 2005 and actually first saw the band live back then while they were supporting Bloc Party on their debut album tour. The 2007 follow-up album In Our Bedroom After The War however was an important soundtrack for Andreas as he finished school. Besides that obvious nostalgic notion there’s one important aspect – Stars remained. Not only in the business but also in our hearts (including a few minor breaks). Decades into their career, the group around charismatic bandleaders Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell is still here – and still relevant to the authors of this article as well as to a dedicated global fanbase. Reflecting on our personal musical evolution one cannot help but wonder why it’s this slightly inconspicuous group that managed to remain.

Throughout the past 23 years since their formation, Stars released an extensive catalogue of truly beautiful pop songs with clever and smart lyrics, honest stories and a certain level of sophistication in the tradition of groups like The Smiths, Prefab Sprout or Belle & Sebastian. Many of these songs also happen to be pretty catchy as well. Sadly, Stars started their career in a world where profound songwriting and commercial appeal aren’t exactly going hand in hand anymore.

They were never “too cool for school”, the nice misfits from the art club. But compared to many leather-jacket-wearing rock sensations from their generation they are still here.

“We share all the publishing. That’s the only way that happens”, answers Millan the first question why they are still together. She does that with a big tongue-in-cheek laugh of an artist that doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. But, of course, there’s more than meets the eye and she quickly gets serious: “We went to therapy as a band. We almost broke up and we were in a very bad place.” That was in 2016 and we were curious to know more about how a band therapy actually looks like. Amy describes it as an extended form of couples therapy. “It’s like trying to get down to the breakdown of communication, right? And kind of learning to communicate with each other better. We did a play, which was wild. Yeah, we wrote a play together with Zack Russell and Chris Abraham about our lives. And that was also a really extremely interesting experience where we talked about going to therapy and everything.”

“We just go out and we put our rubles together and we put one foot in front of the other. I mean, you know, there was a pandemic and that was hard, but we could do other things, but we’ve chosen to do this.  So that’s what we’re doing. And we’re having a really good time doing it.”

Carried By A Community

Luckily for the future of Stars that moment really helped the band and reassured each other’s unconditional love for the other members. “It’s great to realize that as annoying as everyone can be, you’re just as annoying”, she sums it up, appreciating the ego check. The pressure of a mid-sized indie group that never managed to become as huge to make a comfortable living out of it, is something one clearly underestimates. Stars and especially Torquil are quite verbal when it comes to these things and it’s that honesty the fans do appreciate. And that’s why starting an account on crowdfunding-platform Patreon really was a game changer for them a few years ago. For Amy Millan it’s been an incredible and beautiful experience.

“Patreon is the most beautiful place on the internet to me. It’s this community of people. Everyone’s made friends with each other. People meet up in cities and talk DJs once a week. I post lyrics that I’ve written out from, like, old lyrics. And Paddy tells funny stories and posts old, like, radio sessions and stuff. It’s just a beautiful place. And it’s not much. It’s like three euros. We don’t have different tiers, we’re socialists. I don’t believe that if you have more money, you get more access. It’s just not fundamentally the value that I have in my life.”

The financial (and moral) support from Patreon definitely got Stars through the pandemic. “It has definitely eased some of the stress,” Amy confirms. Still, they remain as humble as you know them. They don’t ask for much and they still have to split everything between six people so for them it’s basically a possibility to pay half the rent but that’s way more than other artists get. And that’s simply because Stars weren’t afraid to honestly ask and step out of the machinery to a certain degree. But the story of Stars is also one of just stubbornly walking on against all obstacles.

“I’m Gen X… we just kind of get to it. Get up, get going. Let’s do it. On we go.”

Later during our exchange Amy talks about the moment in the past where she was close to giving up life as a musician and applied for a “real” job. And then I got the job. And then they were like, when can you start? And I was like ‘Oh, I’m good actually.’ Am I right? I think I’m just in a band.” The moment this alternative opportunity came up was also the moment she intuitively made a decision to remain a musician, as part of Stars and also Broken Social Scene. It takes guts to do this.

Robbers And Thieves

Now, while Stars are looking back on a two-decade-spanning career, able to rely on the bonds of the band, younger musicians rarely have these opportunities. What bands on the threshold to a new digital era of consuming music, like Stars, experience and have experienced as a deep cut in terms of record sales and revenue shares, is the only chance for up and coming artists to get recognised at all. So when it comes to speaking out the truth about the inherent flaws of the industry, Amy knows what she’s talking about: The whole streaming thing has really screwed us, you know?”, she emits. You know, if we were still able to sell records, that would be more relaxing. Because that is an entire revenue stream that has been taken away from us, which hopefully will be somehow, through the courts eventually, somehow fixed. But at this point, it’s not.”

“I think they’re robbers and they’re robbing me and they’re thieves and they’re stealing my money. All of them though. It’s not just Spotify. They’re all thieves. Billionaire thieves that consider it content.”

When Stars started out at the beginning of this century with their first style-forming records Nightsongs (2001), Heart (2003) and Set Yourself On Fire (2005), the musical world was still one before the wake of the streaming era, and although techniques of exploitation might be just as old as pop culture itself, the rise of Spotify and its competitors have changed the rules of the industry for good, and with that, chances of semi-famous indie acts like Stars have always been. There’s no way of denying that.

“It’s the invisible people that are in the middle of the, you know, Silicon Valley that are like making billion dollars profits from advertising.”

It is a topic to get easily enraged about and as Amy is not short to point the finger towards those to hold accountable, she is open about that artists like her just do not have the resources to bundle up the energy to rally against companies like Spotify: “We’ve never been good at that as artists”, she says, although being clear about what has to happen for a fair system: “I think that it just has to go to court and they have to change the revenue, like what you make per stream.”

“And there’s also like something sketchy going on with the record labels because there’s like, the record labels are making record profits. And so they’re making money off the streaming. We just have to get to the nitty gritty.”

It feels like in the post-Covid world, there is a slightly raised common understanding (in the artist world, that is), that things have to change and that the system has to be smashed and be built up again. The US-based Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers organisation (we talked with one member in depth last year) is one of these hubs where change is underway, by taking the matter to the political level, which Amy agrees is the right way of handling the issue.

“Yeah, people have to rally together, but it’s hard to fight, you know, like if you’re on tour all the time and you have two kids, but that’s what it is. There’s a lot of people in Canada that are working on it”, she goes on about the dilemma at hand which is true for her as it is for anyone trying to make it in the music industry. At this point (the room backstage is a vivid space with bandmates and others swirling around), fellow Montreal artist and supporting act of the night Murray A. Lightburn enters our conversation, bringing our analysis to a  sort of close:

“The thing is, I mean, if I may… the problem is that the top artists are saying nothing. And they’re the ones that actually have to say something. But they’re all enjoying the fruits of the one percent of the artists.” (Murray A. Lightburn)

Agreed, no question about that. But what can be expected of top artists, if they are getting their bellies full from the gold pot – and how should that support look like? Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke, or Phoebe Bridgers warning to take down their catalogues from Spotify? The thing is, it would need the “younger” generation to take matters into their hands, because the “old guard” wouldn’t have any significant influence, or could last year’s Spotify exit of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others be about anything more than a well-prepared PR stunt?

For Amy, such companion support is not anything she is hoping for and it’s something we sort of agree on, although that cannot be the end of that discussion:

“It’s like the people that run these fucking things that are stealing from us. And I’m not like, I don’t have Taylor Swift to do the thing. She’s running her business the way she wants to run it. And it’s not Taylor Swift’s fault that Spotify are stealing from us.”

“Reflective Of A Twenty-Year Span Career”

As we approach the record which has actually brought them on to tour again throughout Europe, Amy is steering towards a sentimental note, which seems right when discussing From Capelton Hill. “We were all really scared about how long the pandemic was going to last. It was a very terrifying time”, she states and adds: “I think we just wanted to make music for each other. We were really making music for one another.”

Built around the actual place up in Québec, From Capelton Hill revolves around the notion of loss, getting older and recapturing the things to hold dear, surveying their lives and confronting their dreams if they have stood the test of time. “It’s that idea that we’re always afraid of loss. It’s inevitable and aging and it’s what happened”, Amy recounts, as she still dwells in the making of the record: “It’s a very special album. I love it very much.”

“It was kind of the only thing that got us through the pandemic was just making music together. It was what we had to do in order to survive and bring us hope, that we could write these songs still together.”

However, From Capelton Hill is far from being a self-absorbed reflection of sorts but brings together musings about age, missed chances and fresh starts, wrapped in a warm and pop-infused sentimentality that does not glorify what’s happened, but explores and reframes lived lives in the light of what holds the beings being Stars together: Making music together, telling the stories they hold dear. Their spirit surely is a whole different one, looking back at the early 2000’s, which we attempt to do towards the end of our talk. Was it the blasting beat and upheaval spirit of Take Me To The Riot in 2007’s seminal In Our Bedroom After The War, their recent output on From Capelton Hill is more of a sentimental study of a lived pop career, carrying almost prophetic gloom from time to time:

“Nothing I say can ever make it the same again /
And no song I sing will bring it back to that day again /
Nothing I say can ever make it the same again /
And no song I sing will bring it back to that day again” (Back To The End)

“Live through this, and you won’t look back”, Stars sang back on their 2005 Set Yourself On Fire, but things have changed to make that look and to switch the perspective from your story… your love affair … your ex-lover” towards a more subjective point of view, telling their own story for the first time really”.

As for the present, things couldn’t look much brighter, as Amy assures us: “​​We haven’t sounded better, we haven’t been better, we haven’t had everything dialed the way we do”, she proudly sums up and makes it look like their journey is off to a fresh start altogether which would be a wonderful and promising outlook, especially after the hard years that lie behind the band.

“The pandemic really took away a huge part of [Torquil’s] identity and his life, and that was a big struggle. So I think that’s where a lot of those sentimental values came because we didn’t know when we would be able to come back to the night. And that’s been so wonderful being here. He says it on stage every night.”

A propos stage: What Stars pulled off just minutes later on stage was an experience that channelled all the euphoria and nostalgia that is already inscribed in their songs, all the way through this still young century. In between the furious celebration of their remarkable artistry, powering through well-aging hits such as Elevator Love Letter, Ageless Beauty, The Night Starts Here and many more, there is a wistful gloom hanging all over the halls of the Lido Club in Berlin Kreuzberg, with Torquil almost moved to tears on several occasions, expressing his gratitude to everyone who came back to celebrate their band, music, singing these songs together until the very end. And in the end, it is that very phrase off From Capelton Hill which keeps repeating, summing up the journey of this night with Stars and the journey of the band for all these years:

“I told you we were here to fight / 
I told you we were here to sing / 
I told you we were here to keep each other company”

To make one feel all these things is a stunning accomplishment, and for a band to return out of the shadows after all these years is one that deserves nothing but admiration.

Stars’ From Capelton Hill is available everywhere via Last Gang Records, as is a deluxe edition of the record on April 21. Follow them on Patreon here.