When Stars new album The North came out earlier this fall, outspoken singer Torquil Campbell made any number of political pronouncements to the press, right up to warning about Canada's creeping fascism. So it was a little surprising to press play and hear none of those opinions made their way into the album's songs.
We asked why, and our subsequent conversation ranged from Woody Guthrie, Frank Ocean and Pussy Riot to Obama, culture wars and Canada's "evil" prime minster while ending on the inherent radicalism of pop music. Oh, and we also spoke about eggs.
So, uh, tell me about your new "political" record.
Our record is not political at all. (Laughs) No, we're too cowardly to be political overtly.
It's a very, very particular talent to write a song about the miner struggle or something and have it make people cry and become enraged and motivated. It's a particular talent that I don't think Stars possess, so we engage with politics morally. I don't think there is any difference between how you should act towards the person lying in bed next to you and the person in power. These things are linked in my world.
The personal is political.
Yeah, we urge people to be personally radical and I think that's the war. No one wants to deconstruct the Bank of Canada. I would like that, but none of the people from the NDP to the Conservatives want to change anything. The difference between them is cultural. It's a culture war and what that means is there are people who live in a state of fear and paranoia who judge everyone who isn't like them and want people to bow down to authority and follow rules -- that's what they feel inside their hearts. They like that, they get off on it. And then there are people who feel like people should pretty much accept each other for what they are and be compassionate. And the problem with the left is we don't draw this fucking battle. The right is hitting us and hitting us and hitting us with this culture war and we are pretending that it doesn't exist. It does exist.
But don't you think the culture war is a distraction from the economic war?
Whatever it is, it is now the war. It's how people vote. It's how people think about politics. They don't know anything about economics. All they know is they are the victims of corporate culture and no one is going to change that. The only thing that that is going to change that is something like the Occupy Wall Street movement becoming a mass movement, when people stop paying their taxes and stop going to the shopping mall and that's a huge fucking shift, a seismic shift, that I think is years away if it's ever going to happen.
What's happening that actually gets the votes one way or the other are things like gay rights, abortion, religion, race. Is it wrong to take away the health care rights of refugees or is it right? "They are lazy. They haven't done a goddamn thing in this country. Why should I pay for that?" If you're that kind of person, fuck you. I've got a problem with you, you mean, selfish little person. The left are just like, "let's not get focused on that because we'll get trapped in a culture war." We have to fight it with them.
Obama seems willing now to mix it up.
He's gotten way more aggressive about the way he feels about human rights and gay rights and just basic tolerance of other people's lifestyle. And he's winning the fight because he's morally correct. 'Cause it's a morally justified fucking argument and you win on morals, you don't win on policy because people don't understand policy and they are not interested in policy. They are interested in emotion. People are governed by their emotions.
But that's how Harper and the Republicans operate. Social conservatism is just a way to get poor people to vote against their interests and for these political parties whose main goal is making rich people richer.
So you have to go to those poor people and say a) you know, these people are supporting corporatism and you are from a policy standpoint getting fucked over by them, and b) grow up. Grow the fuck up. Don't expect me to support your civil rights when you won't support the rights of two men to be married. That is a morally hypocritical position and it's disgusting and you should grow up.
And the fact that Frank Ocean took that fight, that's a huge thing for a young man to do, is say to the hip-hop community. "Grow the fuck up. I'm the hottest thing in the music business and I'm not going to pretend that I haven't been in love with someone that I've been in love with. So it's your problem." And I think that was an incredibly important thing to do and I think that it needs to happen more.
Do you think it makes a bigger difference for Frank to have done that coming from the infamously homophobic Odd Future. Is that like a Nixon in China thing?
The thing about a band like Odd Future is that if you are in on the joke, then you are in on the joke and you know they don't mean it. But it's always tricky with bands like that, whether it's Eminem or Odd Future, suddenly they blow up and suddenly they're talking to an audience they never assumed they would talk to and people aren't getting the joke. Well, buddy, you should have thought about that because you're a pretty talented guy and you worked pretty hard and you wanted to get out there so you should have known that message was going to get cheap along the way. That's why that kind of shock tactic is fun amongst your friends but if you want to be a pop star it's generally advisable to speak out of love because that is the only defensible position to the world. I mean, Tyler the Creator doesn't hate gay people.
Of course not.
He's a middle class, very intelligent creative guy who probably has tons of gay friends and just, you know, it was just a little bullshit between him and his buddies, the way he felt cool or the way he felt funny, or it was ironic to the point of no longer existing for them, you know.
He describes it as trolling.
Exactly, he's just being a dick. But you know that's the little trap you fall into and I guarantee you that the man is smart enough that in five years time he will have made enough work that has nothing to do with that. People will stop discussing whether or not he's a homophobe.Interview continues after slideshow
Though Rage Against the Machine's album The Battle of Los Angeles came out in the tail end of '99, "Testify" was released as a single during the subsequent summer where it became embroiled in the U.S. election. The Michael Moore-directed music video hammered home the similarities between Bush and Gore while ending on a Ralph Nader quote: "If you're not turned on to politics, politics will turn on you." But it's the song's lyrics about Baghdad burning, legless boys and "Mass graves for the pump" that prove most disquieting considering the then-coming Iraq War. "Testify," Zach de la Rocha presciently chanted, "It's right outside your door."
In the wake of 9/11, many songs were released that fed on the country's wounded patriotism, but few expected one to come from the same well as "Ohio" and "Rockin' in the Free World." Neil Young's ode to the doomed heroes of Flight 93, and titled after passenger Todd Beamer's final words, was considered by some to be a rallying cry for the retaliatory War on Terror. Young has denied that interpretation and if his intentions were fuzzy then, they were clarified by 2006 when he released the subtle song, "Let's Impeach the President."
As the Iraq War got underway, anyone who criticized it, like, say, the Dixie Chicks, was quickly taken to task -- and though the indie rock scene certainly offered a more open-mind than the closed-ranks around Nashville, few bands sang about the situation at first. But after fleeing their lower Manhattan loft when the towers fell and returning Toronto, Metric used the Terror Era to infuse their electro-pop with weight. "Let's Drink to the military," snarked singer Emily Haines, though most of her ire was directed at the apathetic masses who simply "talk, sit, switch screens/As the homeland plans enemies."
The least likely candidate to follow in Public Enemy's fight-the-power footsteps did exactly that in the final run-up to the 2004 election. Eminem unleashed the strongest anti-Iraq War song by any major artist, even taking up the "no more blood for oil" mantra. Calling Bush "this monster, this coward/that we have empowered," he then suggest we "strap him with an Ak-47, let him go, fight his own war/Let him impress daddy that way." The video proved equally powerful as an animated Eminem gathered up an army, leading them to the ballot box "to disarm this Weapon of Mass Destruction that we call our President."
Before becoming a bloodless Broadway musical, the title track of the '90s pop-punk trio Green Day's comeback album was a proper rallying cry for young people around the world who felt frightened and disenfranchised by the excesses of the Terror Era. Rather decrying the war, or even the president directly, Billie Joe Armstrong pushed back against the post-9/11 government- and media-fuelled hysteria and paranoia that tried to shutter dissent while uniting everyone who didn't want to be "part of the redneck agenda." Plus, unlike Eminem's entry, you could actually mosh to this.
This song allegedly got Maya Arulpragasm, the British-Tamil refugee daughter of a "freedom-fighting dad," banned from America. It definitely got the video banned from MTV thanks to her refusal to remove the "Like PLO, I don't surrend-o" line. Though less famous (and, yes, a little less catchy) than "Paper Planes," M.I.A.'s tribal beat-based "Sunshowers" has far more political punch as her rhymes touch everything from terrorism and gun culture to Islamaphobia and sweatshops.
In this lead off track to the Portland punk's best-of-the-2000s concept album The Body, the Blood, the Machine, The Thermals take the Bush administration to its theological conclusion. The album imagines a near-future America turned into a fundamentalist dystopia and as this song attests, amidst much biblical (and Nazi) imagery, it doesn't imagine it ending well: "God said here's your future/It's going to rain."
The most celebratory song on this list comes courtesy of New York rapper Young Jeezy whose uber-capitalist aesthetic generally embodies conservative core values (except for the whole drug-dealing thing). Even here he takes time to boast that as well as his president being black, his Lamborghini is blue. Obama's victory is a triumph, even for trap-rappers, but Jeezy and Nas, his partner-in-rhyme here, do remind us that one big battle doesn't win the war as they also rhyme about issues like poverty, crime and broken homes that will continue impacting the black community despite Barack's new job.
We hear a lot about Somalia -- the violence, the protests, the pirates -- but it's almost always from the point-of-view of outsiders gobsmacked at the country's seemingly never-ending chaos. Which is why this anthem by Somali-Canadian rapper K'Naan, who escaped to Toronto as a refugee, hits so hard. Simply by describing the daily horrors which he grew up amongst, and juxtaposing it against the supposedly hardcore upbringings that mainstream MCs rap about, K'Naan not only takes us behind the news reports, but puts hip-hop and Somalia itself into perspective.
No song on this list is an anthemic as this monster track from Muse, which builds tension to spectacular explosion and calls for us to "rise up and take the power back, it's time that/The fat cats had a heart attack, you know that/Their time is coming to an end/We have to unify and watch our flag ascend." The lyrics are vague enough that everyone from the Tea Party to Occupy can claim it as their own. Muse singer Matt Bellamy recently described himself as "a left-leaning libertarian -- more in the realm of Noam Chomsky," rejecting "crazy right-wingers" like Glenn Beck. He's also appeared on Alex Jones' conspiracy-laden talk radio show and, at the time, shared the host's politically paranoid worldview. Last month, however, Bellamy retracted his infamous statement that 9/11 was an "inside job," though their new album still lashes out against the "corporatocracy."
Perhaps in another era, this hard-luck tale might not make this list, but the Great Recession has erased the line between economics and politics. Even more powerful for not attacking any particular party, Aloe Blacc's throwback track about a man who got laid off and is desperately "looking for somebody come and help me carry this load" does much to humanize the people who make up what Mitt Romney now dismisses as the 47 percent. But "Dollar" reminds us that the unemployed aren't there by choice -- as Blacc sings, "bad times are comin' and I reap what I don't sow."
The Boss may be an ironic nickname, considering Bruce Springsteen's current great recessionary subject matter, but this lead single from Wrecking Ball is an Obama anthem for a reason. Though as potentially easily misunderstood as "Born in the USA" -- thanks to that "wherever this flag's flown" and the titular chorus -- it's not calling for a jingoistic circling of wagons, but declaring that all Americans need to support each other, be their percentages 1, 99, 53 or 47. Other songs on the album go after "the fat cats on banker's hill," but this simple plea for unity and selflessness is perhaps its most revolutionary.
As someone who coined the term "Soft Revolution" and used political imagery with the Set Yourself on Fire cover, does it frustrate you to not be able to get your political opinions into your songs?
Yeah, it does it frustrates me. I wish I could do it better but I try to stay away from things that I'm crap at. In fact, I avoid them like the plague, which means I only do like two things in life: play records and make records. (Laughs) Those are pretty much the only two things I ever had any talent in, you know. And eggs. I'm good at making eggs. I make a lot of eggs.
But, yeah, I wish I could do all kinds of things. I wish I could make Feist records. I wish I could make Frank Ocean records. I wish I could make Def Leppard records. But I can't, so I make Stars records.
I once saw Pulp when they were blowing up with "Common People." I really worship Jarvis Cocker you know because he somehow inexplicably became huge doing this unbelievably effete, bookish, weird act.
I don't know why you'd be into him.
(Laughs) Yeah, there's not a relationship at all! I saw him walking by after the show and I was like, "Jarvis, I love you so much, right. You guys are so fucking great." He looks at me and he goes, "We do what we can." I thought it was a glib remark when he said it to me because I was a fanboy and I'd never played a show. But he really meant that. So you can't spend a lot of time wishing you could do other things or you won't get done what you can do.
Since you're obviously very upset with [Prime Minister] Harper..
Yeah, yeah. He's an evil person. He's a bad person.
Have you thought about trying to use your influence, not just in interviews promoting stuff, but actually go out there and...
What am I going to do? I sign the fucking petitions. I go on the marches.
But anyone can sign a petition.
Who gives a shit about me? I'm not big enough, man. I go on the CBC and say this shit every week and nobody cares. I have a little CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] file. As a citizen, I participate to the degree that I can send my money where I think it's needed. When I get particularly excited about things I go on a march, I write letters to people, and I support causes. I support people who have made their lives about working for these things. Um, could I do more? Of course, I can do more. Every citizen could do more to make their community better.
And I'm not just talking about it to promote my record. I'm talking about it because I'm being given the opportunity to talk. Not many people get the chance.
I wasn't making a dig...
No, no. Not at all, man, I totally see your point. If you're not Woody Guthrie, are you anything at all? If you're Bruce Springsteen I would still argue that presenting political ideas in the context of something quite silly and quite ephemeral like pop music is a) exciting, simply from a visceral, emotional point of view, and b) it's what pop music is here to do.
Once punk came along, the idea that you would take your music in to your own hands, make it yourself, release it virtually yourself was a way of saying to people listen to it. You can do this. And whatever indie is, I think it's greatest asset is that it does that. It suggests to people that were you to buy a laptop and sit in your bedroom, you could make a chillwave record and it would be a beautiful piece of art. And that is a radical thing to say, given what has gone before for the past 100 years.
Being in a band itself, as Pussy Riot has shown, is a political act and it's not a political act in a way that is going to change how people vote, it's a personally political act. It's going to change your community. It's going to change the way your neighbors view you. To me that is the politics of what I'm doing. I'm suggesting to people that they are capable of being someone like me, who virtually plays no instruments and really doesn't have very much musical ability but I have been listening to a lot of records and I fucking care about it and pop music is a dumb enough, simple enough art form to let even people like me have a voice.
And that's why it's my favorite art form. To be a painter you've got to work hours and hours, to write novels, these things are very, very technically difficult. But any kid who thinks they are fucking cool has the potential to make the next great pop song.
Over the next three nights Stars will join Metric playing in Quebec City, Kingston and Toronto. After which they'll head out on a European tour. Go here to see their full tour itinerary.