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Stars Set Themselves on Fire - June 14, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Stars Set Themselves on Fire

Stars. Photo by Shervin Lainez

As we all know, adolescence is the fucking worst.

For whatever reason, the empathy gene just isn’t found in most youngsters, so any individual who’s the least bit strange or nonconformist is relegated to years of bullying and ostracism.

These strangers on the margin are often talented in ways that are difficult for youth to understand — they don’t play sports or see the benefits of hanging with the cool kids. As a result, they look for solace in the form of music, desperately seeking connection from someone who feels their angst and isolation. And the music that enamors them most is, above all else, sad. They are drawn to tales of loneliness, heartbreak, and defeat.

But there’s a funny thing about this kind of music. When young kids hear such tunes, they feel a sense of community, of belonging and understanding. They realize they’re not alone in this world, that they are not the only ones feeling a sense of incompleteness. And in turn, these sad songs make them happy.

Making that sad-equals-happy equation work has been the lifelong work of Stars, a Canadian synth-pop sextet that revels in emotive songwriting and plaintive, desperate lyricism — genuine tales of loss that could only come from lived experiences.

“When I was a kid and fell in love with music, I was a lonely person and music was a very private experience for me,” says Torquil Campbell, vocalist for Stars, who play the Fillmore on Saturday, June 16, with Shamir. “So I listened to music to hear someone talk about my loneliness. That’s the kind of band we are — we are a private band. We are there when you feel like you need someone to talk to, and there is no one else around. That’s the realm we occupy.

“It must be fun to be a party band like Maroon 5,” he adds, “but that’s just not what we do.”

Even now, nearly 20 years into their career, Stars continues to carry out its mission of providing that light in the dark for its listeners — there is no irony, cynicism, or jaded commentary. Stars remain utterly committed to providing a community for outsiders, a feeling of mutual understanding that is once again evident on their latest album, There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light.

That release, like all other Stars albums, bares its emotional core through the vocal interplay of Campbell and Amy Millan. Unlike other groups with two primary songwriters and singers, Campbell and Millan don’t trade off lead vocals on a track-by-track basis. Instead, many of their songs contain both their voices, with their confessional exchanges providing depth and profundity to the music.

“I think when there are two vocalists, the song inevitably turns into a conversation,” Campbell says. “And so the songs end up being about a moment in somebody’s life when they decide to break something, or move past or transgress on. And that requires openness and honesty.”

Campbell says he considers every Stars album to be “a breakup album,” but There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light has a particularly strong sense of separation. Songs like “Losing to You,” “Alone,” and “We Called It Love” brutally examine dissolving relationships, with Campbell and Millan summoning a special reservoir of self-examination and self-effacement.

Propping up those tales of woe is a collection of flawless musical arrangements, with fuzzy synth lines and dream-pop guitar riffs offering the vocalists a warm canvas to work with. The songs feel punch drunk and woozy, with the narrators sounding like they’re reeling from falling in and out of love repeatedly.

Campbell said the group didn’t originally plan on the album being filled solely with love and breakup songs. The group has never been afraid to espouse political viewpoints, and their landmark 2004 album, Set Yourself on Fire, offered scathing indictments of the Bush administration. With an even bigger asshole in the Oval Office now, the group was tempted to make a pointed political statement on There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light, but they decided to resist that urge, thanks in part to the advice of the album’s producer, Peter Katis.

“Peter told us that he loved us most when we wrote love songs and sad songs, and that was a big move for us, because it took us back to what we do best,” says Campbell. “The world rages on, and I’m a huge admirer and fan of political music and I support people who do it. I think it’s very brave, but it’s a tough gig and our specialty lies elsewhere. And really, what else is there to say other than that Donald Trump is the biggest piece of shit who’s ever lived?”

At this juncture in the band’s career, it would probably make little sense to write a bitter album railing against the system. Stars are really at their finest when documenting both their heartaches and triumphs. Their fans turn to them for guidance, in large part because they recognize the love and affection that the band members share for each other. That gives the group a special kind of credence — these songs were clearly crafted from genuine love. Like their close cohorts and associates in Broken Social Scene, the members of Stars have known each other for most of their lives, and the emotional support they offer one another comes from a place of deep trust and tenderness.

“I don’t mean to toot our own horn, but I think what I’m most proud about with my friends is their generosity, and their genuine commitment to democracy and to lack of rock ’n’ roll bullshit,” Campbell says. “People just don’t get away with that in our crew, and that’s been a huge part in our longevity. We really are a family.”

That last line should really resonate with every young fan who has turned to Stars over the years. Those feeling alone and afraid and full of doubt should remember that Stars are a family — and they’re always accepting new members to the clan.

Stars with Shamir, Saturday, June 16, at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd. $25; thefillmore.com/