“Why bands are coming out all over the place around here, I can’t say. Maybe people around the world just like that Canadian sound,” begins Pat McGee, drummer for Stars, and you just can’t help but think he could be onto something.
Canada does give off the impression of quietly and consistently developing a high quality indie-rock output over the last ten years. The creative “melting pot” that is Montreal, where Stars cut their teeth along with the likes of Arcade Fire, was certainly conducive to this musical evolution.
According to McGee, the Quebecois metropolis “managed to maintain its culture and vibrancy and fun,” despite years of economic depression and fiscal neglect. For this reason, Montreal “drew a lot of people to it who were artistic and didn’t feel like working too hard, but felt like making a lot of music.”
Indeed, Stars spent their early days in good company, sharing stages with the likes of Leslie Feist, Emily Haines of Metric fame, and other members of the Broken Social Scene collective. He refers to them all as “just a group of friends from high school.”
The resultant Canadian indie sound, however, was different to that of its guitar-wielding skinny-jeaned UK and US counterparts; more romantic, symphonic and distinctly Francophile. It was perhaps the release of Arcade Fire’s stunningly salient Funeral in 2004 that marked Montreal’s emergence from anonymity and established it firmly on the musical map.
Meanwhile, on the crest of this wave, Stars were discovering their own emotion-wrought melodic niche. Their music has always been nostalgic, confessional and somewhat self-indulgently laden with sweeping string sections. McGee rather verbosely describes them as “a warm digital romantic dance band.” With their third album, this sound first resonated with the masses. Opening with the obscure epigram: ‘When there’s nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire’, 2004’s Set Yourself on Fire is a masterful musical catharsis.
Although they have a loyal and devout following, with McGee commenting that it’s almost “cultish”, Stars are the first to admit they haven’t always been the darlings of media critics: “The cool kids have never really liked us that much”. Set Yourself on Fire, which first catapulted them into the indie stratosphere, has been their only critically lauded album to date, and as McGee puts it, “our most successful venture into the critic’s hearts.”
Do they look back on this time as the peak of their career as song-writers? It would appear not. McGee admits that he no longer pays much attention to critics and their reviews: “It’s a strange narcissistic process. I mean, if they like you then you kind of pump up your feathers, and on the next page you read someone shits all over your record and then you hate yourself. Neither one of those feelings is all that rewarding for me.”
Indeed, the all-knowing, all-powerful music critics of this world are by no means concerned with hurting their subjects’ feelings. It is a cut-throat industry out there. That said, McGee maintains that the greatest thing a band can have is a dedicated fan base. “The people who love this band, still love this band. It’s a lot more rewarding for me to just go out in the world without knowing what people think, and then when people show up to your concert it doesn’t matter if there’s like 50 people there or 1,500 people there.”
In the wake of two under-achieving albums, Stars’ most recent effort, The North has been comparatively well received. McGee puts it down to a new approach to music making. Where they used to be “totally anal architects of synthetic music,” they have now reverted to the traditional band model. “This is new. It’s what we’ve grown into. We’re sort of going backwards, discovering our roots that we never had, it’s great.” The resultant sound is less nostalgic and more hopeful. Tracks such as ‘‘The Theory of Relativity’, fizz with new energy and aspirations with lines such as “Don’t be scared, there will be things we never dared” making it ever more apparent.
For The North, the five members of Stars abandoned their fragmented layer by layer approach to song writing and instead got together, wrote and recorded “as one cohesive unit.” Their reversion to this format is perhaps a rebellion against the current music industry trend. Nowadays any average Joe can write a symphony from the comfort of his own computer and DIY musicians are finding fame all over YouTube. Meanwhile, looking to satisfy their increasingly short attention spans, the youth of today trawl through the cacophony of the internet for sonic stimulation. This makes one wonder if there is a future for the traditional band model.
Having emerged only a decade ago with a fresh and nuanced sound, are Stars already getting left behind? Have they have been relegated to indie has-beens of the CD rack indie in favour of David Guetta’s latest free mp3 download? If so, they don’t seem to care. “At least we can put on a good performance for people, you know. People are jumping around and having a good time and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we’re here to do, you know.”
Ahead of a European tour this winter, Stars seem re-energised and reinvigorated. Rest assured their supernova shows no signs of burning out.
Stars play The Academy, Dublin on November 30th and Róisín Dubh, Galway on December 1st . The North is out now.