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Amy Millan on touring, songwriting and politics

Stars: Amy Millan on touring, songwriting and politics

The finely tuned pop songs from Montreal's Stars have moments of simple ethereal bliss (something about breathy vocal harmonies, humming guitars and synth waves) that often make you stop and say to yourself, "Why don't they make songs like this anymore?" And then, of course, you realize that they do. The band's most recent album, In Our Bedroom after the War, is full of these moments. It was released on iTunes on July 10 and is scheduled to be released on CD on September 25 through Arts & Crafts. The band's guitarist and co-vocalist Amy Millan talks about band politics (good), real politics (bad), living in the newly hipster-approved city of Montreal (good), and Steely Dan (also good).

 

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You guys have got a pretty big tour coming up. Is that something you look forward to, something you generally enjoy?

I think so. I've been touring now for four years straight. I find it hinders me, because it's really the only time I can find routine, because when I'm at home I find that I don't really have to do anything. We'll go in and we'll rehearse and write, but there's no set routine where [for example] a bus will arrive in the morning and we'll have a couple things, time during the day, and then we have sound check and then we play. That kind of steady flow is actually helpful to me. I sort of start to lose everything as soon as I get home; I start to misplace all sorts of things. You know, I like it, I do.

 

The last Stars album was released in Canada in 2004, then recently you had the remix album, and now the new one is coming out this year. Does it feel strange to have these songs that maybe you've been working on for a while to come out now?

Well, no, we haven't really had them for a while. We wrote them between August and February, and then went right into the studio with them. We finished the record -- done, finished, completely mastered and mixed -- by May, and then it went directly to iTunes. And then we sort of spent the summer getting ready to bring them to the States. So they feel really fresh and new; they definitely don't feel old at this point. I feel like I'm just getting to know them. It's sort of like when you have a baby and you're like, "What are you going to turn into, you crazy thing you?" That's what it feels like at this moment. In a year from now, I think I'll really start to understand the effect they're gonna have on our lives and how they're gonna come across live.

 

The new album seems to talk about the connection between love and politics, kind of like the '60s maxim of "the personal is political."

I think of "politics" as such an ugly word. I don't like the word. I think the word in itself just means that you're a liar. So I try not to think we're including politics. But love definitely. What it is to love is such a difficult thing to have as a definition. I think different people have different definitions of love, and that's across the board of what a Hallmark card is and what a David Lynch film is. I do think that that's one of those things that we're faced with constantly of how to articulate that and what it means. But politics is not something that I favor.

 

More like world issues, things that are going on maybe?

I think that in comparison with our last record it's not as obvious or upfront as on this latest release. Because I think that something that needs to happen to art is to project an ending to this horror. You know that John Lennon poster "The War Is Over" and then that small print below it says "If You Want It?" I think that's our mantra. In our bedroom, after the war. It's after the war. I just feel like four years ago there was room for "He Lied About Death" and there was room for "Celebration Guns." But at this point I feel like we have to reframe the conversation. Just to say that George W. Bush is an asshole is just done and doesn't do anything. And I think we need to take the conversation to different places.

 

How does the songwriting process go. Does Torq write the songs and then --

No. He writes part of them. We're a band in the true form where each person has a role in it. Chris Seligmann, Evan Cranley and Patty McGee, who's the drummer, will write the music, and then either Torq or I will write the lyrics, depending on the song. And that's how it's been for the last three records. It's a band effort.

 

Okay, so they bring the music to you -- 

Yes and then we'll write the melody and the lyrics over top. And we'll write for each other. For example Torquil wrote the lyrics to "Personal," but I wrote the lyrics to "Midnight Coward."

 

Does everyone have the same taste in music? Is there any time when they bring you something you don't like?

I think we trust each other and we have confidence in one another and we can tell if something's not going somewhere. You know, on this record there were definitely times where people would have to argue their belief in something; it's a really democratic band, and we'll have discussions about it. And there were some songs that ended up as B-sides because there wasn't enough support going for that song; some people liked it, some people didn't. But generally we know that it's about making the best record possible, and so we're all in agreement of that. It's not about whose ego is represented best.

 

As far as you and Torq singing: If you write the lyrics, do you sing it?

Generally if Torq's singing the lead on it, he wrote the lyrics for it; if I'm singing the lead on it, I wrote the lyrics. There are some special occasions, like in "Calendar Girl"; I sing the lead but that was a Torquil-penned song. But mostly on this newest record, will be a hint as to who wrote what. And it gets really confusing when we're doing the back-and-forth to know who wrote what.

 

You just had a solo record come out, Honey from the Tombs. How did the rest of the band take that?

I mean they found me in bars singing that kind of music; that's why they asked me to join their band. The reason that record came out is because of them, because of them sort of being over my shoulder and harassing me about when I was gonna put out those songs. If it was like two in the morning and the guitar would get broken out and I would sing "Ruby," they'd sort of shake their heads and go, "Millan, get to it. Get down to work and get that stupid record out; it's been enough time already." Again, it's that ego thing; we're not afraid of each other running away. And everyone was like, "Oh, I can't believe it. It's a country record. How is this?" But it's like, if I was going to make a pop record I'd make it with Stars. It's just a completely different approach to songwriting for me. When we write, we write together. Chris and Evan write the music and they bring it to me, and I have this great gift of being able to write lyrics over something that I probably would never have been able to come up with. Whereas with me and my own stuff, it's just me in a room with a guitar.

 

A lot of Canadian bands -- especially Montreal bands -- are getting press these days. When you're in Montreal, do you notice it?

No, that's the best thing about Montreal. Nobody could give a shit. There's such a hugely strong French culture. The indie-rock scene isn't something that makes them swoon, and that's one of the best things about living there.

 

You said just now that if you were to do a pop record, you'd do it with Stars. It seems like the band has kind of evolved into perfecting its indie-pop songs. Is there any intention in the future of branching out into a radically different style?

I think so. We did go to the top of that mountain of what we've been doing, and I think for sure the next step is to kind of turn our faces a little bit to the shade. And I know we've been talking about it a little bit right now, even though it's a so premature, because I know once you put out a record you're geared up to see where that's gonna go and where it's gonna take you in the live show and through the next year and getting to relive the songs every night and getting to make them better each time you play them. One of the things that's been thrown around is that we're really interested in working with the Junior Boys. They did a remix of a song on the remix album, and it's one of my favorites. I just think that their soft-lite un-gravity bouncing -- when I think of them they're bouncing in space; it's a soft bounce. They could bring a lot to our music, and I think we'd all be interested in taking a different route like that.

 

Definitely, I think the "soft bounce" reminds me of "The Ghost of Genova Heights," one of my favorite songs on the new record. I think has that bounce. It sounds a little different for you guys.

It's very much I think a nod to Steely Dan. It's a big love. There's definitely our influences sort of hovering like a magic carpet, to be totally cheesy.

 

Speaking of Steely Dan, have you heard the Kanye West album? He samples [Steely Dan's] "Kid Charlemagne" pretty prominently.

That's right; I heard that. That's fantastic.

 

A song of yours was on The O.C. a while back. Is there any kind of film or TV show that you would like to work on or be featured in?

I would love Big Love. I love the show, and David Byrne does all the music and I love the soundtrack of it. I'm always aware of what's going on in the background and how David Byrne is always composing the music to the scene. I just think it's such a weird show, and I'm a big Chloe Sevigny fan. So I wouldn't mind that.

 

Are there any current bands that you guys really admire and like to see live?

I have these strange boys from Toronto that aren't nearly ambitious enough to get their record released, but they're called the Silt. They make instruments out of old telephones and play entire sets of Willie Nelson songs, but they also write their own music that I've been really enjoying. And we're gonna take Miracle Fortress across Canada with us. They're a beautiful new band from Montreal, and we're really looking forward to touring with them.

 

***

Band: http://www.arts-crafts.ca/stars/

Label: http://www.arts-crafts.ca/

Audio: http://www.myspace.com/stars

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