The last time we spoke to Montreal’s Stars, they were shining bright on their first visit to Australia on the back of their fourth record, In Your Bedroom After the War. Skip forward two and a half years later and the band have released their fifth LP onto the world The Five Ghosts. Whereas In Your Bedroom… was all epic melodrama and bombast The Five Ghosts, under the helm of producer Tom McFall — who has worked with Jacknife Lee, Editors, Coldplay and soon Weezer — is a more focused and streamlined record that in some ways harks back to their synth-pop roots of their first album Nightsongs albeit darker in tone and theme.
While Stars’ diminutive front-man with a larger than life personality Torquil Campbell, and its glamorous front-woman with a nice sideline in alt.country records Amy Millan, may get the most of the star light we recently had words with the quiet achiever of the band, Evan Cranley. Ostensibly the band’s bassist he also plays guitar, trombone and recently synthesiser who, along with keyboardist Chris Segliman, is the main composer of the music for the band. Evan reveals to us details about the process and direction that the new album took, the decision behind the Séance EP, his jack of all trades role in the band, the novel approach to touring the new songs and how to create a fantastic remix.
You said in a recent interview that Tom McFall was such an integral part of making the album he was like a sixth member, and the The Five Ghosts “making of” videos certainly bears that out. Was his method of producing the new album different to the approach he used on Set Yourself on Fire?
Yeah it was. I think we gave Tom McFall carte blanche this time and he acted as this amazing musical filter. For a group like ours which lives together, fights together and makes all these records together it’s important to have that kind of perspective and that was kind of missing on our last record. He was great not just as an engineer but as someone who could take all of the ideas and make them one. He’s a really great musician, and not just a “producer”, and that was the strength to these sessions, he had the ability to say no or yes at the end of the day, and we were all fine with that. It’s important to let go a little bit at our stage. If we make another record he’ll be involved, we’re addicted to him now.
You recorded the album at Breakglass studios in Montreal whose client list boasts a lot of indie talent (Holy Fuck, Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Young Galaxy)? How was that experience, especially recording in the open plan “Live Room” as a unit?
The guy who runs it is Jace Lasek who’s in the band Besnard Lakes who we’re all huge fans of. He’s created this amazing studio that is really tactile and a not a daunting place to work. To lay down these bare tracks off the floor was new to us. It’s a completely different feel to the puzzle-piece records we’ve done before and to have Tom sitting in the chair as we’re doing rough takes and sometimes keeper takes was a lot like being in a scene in a film and having the director yell “cut” or “roll”. It was really great to have all the energies in one room.
The album is very focused on electronic instrumentation such as synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines. Whose idea was that — yours or Tom’s or both?
Well we told Tom we wanted to push the synthesis, knowing it’s one of his strong points — he was in a band with his brother called Serial P.O.P. who did a lot of synth work. We had all these rough demo tunes and we knew we wanted to push the synths and we were mailing him demos and when we got to the studio we would rent and buy this gear we were unfamiliar with. He helped us to really flesh out, sonically, the best of those vintage synth tones and drum machines.
Was the move towards synths a reaction to the epic scope of your last album?
I know I wanted to leave that last record behind on every level. It was great for the time but it was a record that had to get made for the band – the band had to make it, the band had to produce it. Whereas this record we just wanted to make the best record possible with an outside prospectus. I think it’s a natural process that your sound slightly changes and you challenge yourself in different ways that you hadn’t before. Especially as a band on your fifth record it’s important to get your sound into unfamiliar territory and there can be limitations with that but that can inspire you to try things you haven’t done before.
That very much applies to the bass on the new album. Your bass lines on In Your Bedroom… were very prominent but on the new disc at least half of the songs feature bass synthesizer.
To make the drums and bass very synth heavy was totally conscious. I wanted to play an instrument that I was totally unfamiliar with and to have a different sonic palette.
What do you get out of playing bass synth as opposed to electric bass?
It’s colder. You’re almost removed from it a little bit more. You can tweak parameters like oscillation and synthesis. It’s funny because when we were writing the music I’d write a lot on synth and I felt like I influenced the way other people approached the tunes, almost unconsciously I play a lot of synth live, to reproduce the record, which is fun. I go between keyboard, guitar and bass, which brings a different character to the live show.
You’ve always been multi-skilled instrument wise you’ve never been just the “bass guy”?
No! I’m the primary guitar player on all the records and I like to write on guitar. Trombone’s my first instrument and I play it with other bands and do session work with that. The band gives me freedom to play whatever I want and that keeps me interested. I can’t just stay behind one instrument and write a whole record or tour a whole record — I just don’t have the attention span.
Although there’s not a lot of trombone on the new album is there?
No that was pretty conscious. There are only strings on two tunes and brass at the ending of one other. I didn’t want to make an ornamental record; I wanted to make it colder, closer and darker this time.
Obviously you’re more involved with the music and Amy and Torq write the lyrics but do you have an idea about the lyrical themes of the album?
Absolutely. Even though I don’t write the lyrics I try to juxtapose them with interesting music and compliment them with interesting arrangements. Without giving too much away there were some people in the band that lost some loved ones and there was a lot of spiritual growth that happened. There were a lot of personal experiences which related to the lyrical content.
I really like the Séance EP (available with certain versions of the album) which goes down the electronic path to a greater degree still. How did you decide that these four tracks would form their own separate entity?
It was a pretty interesting decision, because these were all b-sides that we wrote for the record but were a little uninteresting in certain ways. We thought we could use them as an EP or throw them away, or have them completely re-interpreted, which is what we did. We gave each of these b-sides to an artist we really liked — Tom McFall, The Album Leaf, of Montreal and Montag – who completely re-curated them. It was really exciting to hear the mixes come back and get a different take on them.
Will we ever hear the original versions?
I don’t know. They still need to be mixed from the actual sessions. I think perhaps down the road, it’s always something we could release…
…on that Stars box set perhaps?
Who buys box sets anymore? Jeez! But that would be cool. The thing about putting a record out nowadays is you have to be so creative and package them with b-sides, remixes and artwork. I love it because it’s another creative avenue but you can’t just put out a ten song record because with all the records out there you need to make yours as special as possible. It’s a little frustrating because the mystery gets taken out of it. You can watch people in the studio; you can hear every cut they’ve ever done.
Everything’s bootlegged and on YouTube half an hour after the show.
It’s crazy man. You’ve got to be conscious of what type of pants you’re wearing all the time!
You’ve got a full slate for the rest of the year playing North America and Europe and you’ve started this tour off with a novel concept: playing the new album in its entirety, then fan selected tracks for the encores. How has this been working out for both you and your audiences?
I know I can speak for everyone when I say it’s the most fulfilling Stars tour that the band’s ever done. It was great to see people’s reaction in the first two months because we were playing an album people hadn’t heard. We were essentially leaking it live on stage to fans who had bought tickets with the record. Both of you are walking on this weird platform where you don’t know what this is exactly and they don’t know how to react to it. For the second set we’d have this online poll, depending on the city, where people could vote on which songs they wished to hear that night. So the shows were almost curated by the fans in that town. It’s something I would love to do in Australia when we come over. And to preempt your next question we’re aiming for March 2011!
REMIXING 101 – A HOW TO BY EVAN CRANLEY
Stars are offering fans a chance to remix forthcoming single “We Don’t Want Your Body” via MXP4. I asked Evan what he considered would make a good remix.
I think to make it as obtuse and difficult as possible while still trying to keep the integrity and balance of the song, like any good remix. I know with the stems you’re not given that much to work with but you can add whatever you want. You could sample a bunch of orchestration or sample a five piece jazz combo and put it together with some of our tracks. I’d be really excited to hear something like that, like take some tabla and maybe just tabla and voice. Put it on top of its head but the same time still make it a good song.