A duo driven by fear

With best friend and bandmate Chris Dumont, Stars’ lead singer Torquil Campbell whistles a decidedly different tune

Chris Dumont (left) and Torquil Campbell recorded their third record nomadically, contrasting their Vancouver-themed 2006 effort.
Chris Dumont (left) and Torquil Campbell recorded their third record nomadically, contrasting their Vancouver-themed 2006 effort.

Torquil Campbell may be known for his role fronting Stars, but don’t call it his main gig. When Campbell and his compadre Chris Dumont started making their memories into music, Memphis was born. Ten years later, the duo is still going strong with the release of their third record, Here Comes a City.

“Chris does the vast majority of the work really,” Campbell said over the phone. “Much like all my bands, I really am more of a kind of reference library and a hype man. I set the context for things, that’s what I do. I’m a music journalist without a job … Chris makes the music … I understand what he’s doing, so I play along.”

His reference to journalism wasn’t surprising coming from someone in the game so long. Campbell said he has a streamlined opinion on critiquing the arts.

“This culture has become addicted to the thumbs up and down dichotomy,” he said. “Criticism or journalism about art should be about getting people interested in going and consuming art … even if you don’t personally like the thing, you should make me interested in it.”

After waxing poetic on philosophies of critique, our conversation turned to metrics of measuring success. In many ways for the guys of Memphis, both accomplished and established musicians, they’re starting over.

“It takes me back to a different kind of way of making music,” he said. “You forget very quickly when things change. With Stars there were five or six years of not really making money from it, not really having anybody care about it, going and playing shows and having nobody show up for it … we played The Grad Club to 20 people at least three times. And that’s where we’re at with Memphis.”

Commercial success doesn’t drive the band though, rather their passion for one another and keeping a close bond does. Campbell said it’s their mutual belief in the Memphis project and their desire to spend time together that’s kept them together and creating over the years.

“The band is an excuse for us to hang out with each other and have a present. As you get older and you have friends for a long period of time, a lot of your friendship turns into the past,” he said. “To talking about the past, or remembering the past together, or trying to recapture a feeling of the past that was in your friendship. And I think being in a band with people is a great way of kind of continuing a friendship and continuing a present in each other’s lives.”

The press release accompanying Memphis’ third full-length sums up their doctrine frankly: “We have a gang; there are two members of it; the gang is called Memphis. It’s kind of stupid for two grown men to have a gang based around bicycles and pop music and weed and friendship, but we do, so fuck it.”

The two-man-band’s admiration for The Go-Betweens is clear in their record title Here Comes a City, inspired by a track from the Australian band’s final record Oceans Apart. The Go-Betweens’ strong sentiment of friendship as the glue keeping bands together is a value Memphis shares. Whimsical as their ideology may seem, their carefree attitude is only reflected sonically to a point. Some might be surprised by the darkly deep nature of Campbell’s lyrics.

“Memory and death, I’ve always been into that,” he said. “I’ve been into that feeling that pop music can evoke, of something you remember that never really happened. A feeling that you remember having but you know perfectly well you’ve never captured and that’s the as close as you get to it, the memory of it … it’s in that moment between waking and sleeping, that’s where great pop songs are.”

A dreamlike state is the best way to experience the layered, melodic and slightly pastoral Memphis album. Cascading refrains, patterned rhythms and melting strings come across effortlessly—Campbell’s references to reliving stoned reveries glide into place.

Heading out on tour April 6 and passing through Kingston next Friday, Campbell said he and Dumont are bringing some pals along for the ride.

“This tour will be an interesting crew, it’s a group we haven’t played with. It’s Dave Hamlin of The Stills playing drums, Allen Snoddy who plays in Stars playing guitar, Matt Barber who’s played with all kinds of people including the Hot Hot Heat from out west playing bass, it’s always a new adventure.” For a man with so many adventures on the go, I couldn’t help but ask where Campbell finds the energy.

“I’m terrified of ever stopping,” he said. “Because if I stop, maybe I’ll never start again. It’s some way of proving I exist.”

Memphis play The Grad Club April 8 at 9 p.m.

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