Stars heart making music, and Stars heart Canada. Those are the first two things that you need to know. The band — multi-instrumentalists Evan Cranley and Chris Seligman, vocalist/guitarist Amy Millan, singer Torquil Campbell and drummer Pat McGee — grew up together in Toronto as part of that city's tight-knit music community, embarked on the requisite move to New York City, and then returned to the Canadian fold by relocating to Montreal. The band that moves together creates music together, and in Stars' case, it's a balanced team effort.
“It's all started by Evan and Chris,” Millan explains. “They do the bulk of the music writing. Torq and I come in later, to guide the songs a bit and add the lyrics and vocals.”
Preproduction is a crucial element of Stars' recording process. “We've always demoed out our songs first,” Millan says. When it got to the “real” recording phase, Seligman was at the engineering helm for every record, save their latest; previous Stars discs were recorded simply, on a Mac with Pro Tools, the first in Seligman's bedroom. “There was a bus that would go by with squeaky brakes,” Millan remembers, “so we took a duvet and hung it up with hairclips to make this buffered sound-booth thing. You'd stand in the duvet tube to sing. It was miserable when it was hot, but it worked.”
The band has moved on quite a bit since their duvet days. Their latest, prettily crafted album, In Our Bedroom After the War, was demoed at Breakglass Studios in Montreal, on the studio's Ward-Beck console. Seligman did even more pre-pro with the string arrangements. “I wrote them at home in Apple Logic, taking them into the studio later,” he says. “We decided to go with either one or two violins playing at a time; it's not ideal, but we can't afford a real orchestra, so we made-do nicely by overdubbing one player three or four times with the same part, changing up the mic position on the third overdub to give it a different timbre.”
By the time they got to their album sessions at the Vancouver's Warehouse Studio, Seligman had purchased five vintage keyboards (“I really wanted to explore analog synths,” he says) — the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS and Prophet 600, Arp Solina String Ensemble, Elka String Machine and a Roland Juno-60. “My favorite was recording the Solina through a Leslie, which gave it a lush, deep warmth,” he says. Meanwhile, Millan had a special guitar put together for her by Fender (“I have small hands,” she explains), Cranley relied on his trusty Fender P-Bass and Campbell favored Neumann mics for his and Millan's voices, “I guess 'cause we're Euro and old-school,” he says.
Another highlight of working at Warehouse was recording on one of only three vintage Neve boards that were designed by Sir George Martin for Air Studios (the other two are at Air Lyndhurst in London and New York's Allaire Studios), the Neve A 6630. “We even took photos!” Millan says with glee. And the so-called “haunted” feel of Warehouse — the gorgeous studio rebuilt out of the formerly decrepit city hall building by a low-key Bryan Adams, which, in the old days, served as an, er, body-storage facility after one of the city's plagues — even infused some of the songs, especially the ghostly, Steely Dan—influenced funk of “The Ghost of Genova Heights.”
“Torq's obsessed with ghost stories,” Millan laughs. “Well, I like ‘Genova Heights’ 'cause I want to be Donald Fagen, and I'm not,” Campbell responds. “The Night Starts Here” and “Midnight Coward” are also standouts, especially the latter with its tinkly bell-like sounds. “Those were from the MicroKorg,” Seligman says, “I tweaked an arpeggiator pretty hard to find that high, treble-y pastiche.” “I love ‘Midnight Coward,’ chimes in Campbell, “ ‘cause it sounds like The Buggles!”
After the album was mixed by Joe Chiccarelli (White Stripes, Shins, Morrissey) at Phase One in Toronto and mastered at The Lodge in New York, it was time to unleash it on the world, to kick off their current yearlong world tour and to fulfill Stars' band philosophy. “No matter how grim your life is,” says Campbell, “it's our responsibility to try and make it beautiful for three-and-a-half minutes.”