Stars is a Montreal-based indie-pop band. Their latest album, the greatest hits collection Laguardia, is out December 6.
(Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)
The Canadian band Stars has been making sad, beautiful music for two decades, and 2019 finds them reaching two new milestones. One is Stars: Together, a play that stars the members of Stars, and tells their story, running in a Toronto theatre starting November 26. The other is the band’s first greatest-hits collection, a vinyl set called Laguardia that covers their entire career. In honor of both events, bassist Evan Cranley and drummer Pat McGee walked us through each song on the hits — “should’ve been hits,” they quip — collection.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
“Elevator Love Letter”
Evan Cranley: Most of that song was recorded in a bedroom on the third floor of an apartment building in Montreal, in the Plateau neighborhood, with our own gear, engineered by the band. And Patty unfortunately doesn’t play drums on that song, but a guy by the name of George DiNozzo does, from the band The Dears. And The Dears in the early 2000s in Montreal, at least for me personally, were just an amazing force. They made beautiful music and we were lucky to have George and he did it for a case of beer, which was unbelievable to me.
Pat McGee: That’s the Montreal union scale.
Evan: And that song has stayed with us. Every tour we play that song. It’s become a staple.
Pat: I don’t think we necessarily have hits, so to speak. I think we based this collection on the most popular songs, so some of them we haven’t played in a long time, but they have been rejuvenated for recent tours and shows. Not a lot of B-sides on this one.
“Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”
Evan: That was recorded at Victor Studios at the old RCA building in Saint-Henri in Montreal. And that was one of your favorite records to make, right?
Pat: I had a wonderful time making that record. It was arctic temperatures outside, but it was a very warm vibe in the studio. It’s a really iconic place that no longer exists. It’s gone. Sinatra recorded there. Oscar Peterson. It was just this beautiful, vibey room. We had a great time cooking, playing, making music.
Evan: Most of us cook in the band, and we have fabulous dinner breaks with the finest Bordeaux known to mankind and luxurious proteins. When you’re in a studio for 12 hours a day, it’s nice to pause and do something like that. We’ve done it pretty much on every record we’ve ever made. Picture a staff dinner at L’Express or something.
Pat: Filet of sole, maybe Evan?
Pat: With a wild rice pilaf. And what would be a green? What would accompany that?
Evan: Well, depending on the season, Patrick — I’m a sucker for a broccolini with a little lemon zest and garlic. Generally we like to make records in the winter so it’s stodgy, nourishing food.
Evan: This is really when Patty cemented himself in the band because this is the first record we really made with him outside of that first EP.
Pat: I was avoiding joining the band for the first few years I played with them. I was playing in some other bands at the time and I was dividing my time, and I was not fully convinced that I could keep up with these guys. But after a while I was beaten into submission. After this record, they were like, “Dude, you have to join the band now. You put in years of time and it’s time for you to sign on the line.”
Evan: The songs on Set Yourself On Fire were written in a little hamlet in the Eastern townships of Quebec called North Hatley, in a lake cabin, in a small village, and again in the middle of winter. And then we took all those demos and did them in the springtime at a studio on Saint-Laurent in Montreal.
Pat: It also has one of my favorite videos we’ve ever done, directed by Torquil Campbell. It’s in a high school gymnasium with funny clothes.
Evan: I got to wear a letter sweater and I’m holding an Irish setter by the leash.
Evan: Recorded at a Breakglass Studios again in the winter in Montreal, we seem to like that. That was a really interesting, difficult, very measured, very cold record. Torq was having a very difficult time in his personal life and…
Pat: I was having some personal trauma as well. Often, I will shed a tear when we play that song, to this day, and we play that song almost every show. I don’t know why. If you’ve ever watched Friday Night Lights, there was some sort of psychological chemistry that they put in there where I can’t help it, I cry at every episode. Same thing with “Dead Heart.” “They were kids that I once knew.” It’s just heartbreaking to me.
“Ship to Shore”
Evan: We put that out just as a single. It was not attached to any album release. That song went through many phases. It was almost this weird piano ballad. And I put a bunch of electronics on it and Patty put a bunch of his percussion and drums on it, and it turned into this really nice pop song about our friend John, who Amy and I were close with and a friend of the band, who passed away a year and a half ago, two years ago now. And it’s really in his memory.
Pat: It’s got a jaunty tropical feeling to it. And it’s sad subject matter, but I think John had a real joie de vivre and I think it represents that. The lyrics are sad, but the feeling overall is a good representation or a good ode to John.
Evan: That’s what the band is actually pretty good at doing, subverting what you’re hearing. You might have some very sad, touching lyric over maybe something dancey or happy sounding, but we like to subvert those two experiences.
Evan: That song we recorded pretty much exclusively at our space, right Patty? At Zoomer? What can we say about that? John came actually around and had a huge meal at our kitchen. We have our studio set up in this dirty apartment. It’s special, but it’s dirty and there is a bathroom and a kitchen, and it’s all connected into one open state. If you can just picture that, with all our own old band posters on the wall and gear everywhere, and a vacuum cleaner and a whole bunch of dirty dishes.
Pat: That’s where we recorded that. There’s a saxophone solo on it. I think I was pretty opposed to a saxophone solo. Just felt a little bit… What would you call it? I mean, not dated.
Evan: On the nose?
Pat: On the nose maybe. I mean, we do get accused of being quite referential of the ’80s and I have been listening to some ’80s music and it is true. There is a saxophone solo or a saxophone somewhere in virtually every single song of that era. It’s insane. It’s weird, but then something happened, the ’90s showed up and that was the end of that.
“Going, Going, Gone”
Evan: Let’s go back to New York City on that one. Which version is it?
Evan: There was a version before this on the Stars record called Night Songs and the vocalist is Emily Haines, that’s the original version of that song Stars did in New York City, in Brooklyn. And then we went ahead and redid it for an EP, and Patty added this awesome double time, digitally distorted drum beat and I hit the space synth and we just re-imagined it, and then of course got Amy to sing it. I think it’s just a really cool vibe.
“Your Ex-lover is Dead”
Pat: That’s our big hit. At one point it did hold the title as the longest running number one song on the CBC countdown.
Evan: That’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Pat: But yes, that was the one that put Stars on the map, I think. I think that’s the song that very… I mean, if you listen to that song, structurally and everything about it doesn’t scream hit, but it definitely resonated with a lot of people.
Evan: Everyone’s had a breakup, everyone’s felt some sort of animosity toward someone else that they’ve shared their life with.
Pat: The audience often does most of the heavy lifting on that and they tend to sing the whole thing. So it’s kind of a break for us.
Evan: The first single off of Five Ghosts.
Pat: And that one we played on one of our only late night appearances, on the Jimmy Fallon show, I believe. And I thought we did a great job. I’m patting ourselves on the back.
Evan: I can’t believe we weren’t asked back.
Pat: And just a little piece of quirky trivia here: We’ve done two late night appearances. One was Conan O’Brien, the other was Jimmy Fallon, and when we did Conan O’Brien, Ice-T was the guest, not the musical guest, but the guest. We were the musical guest, and then when we did Jimmy Fallon, Ice Cube was the guest. So strange, but true. Very nice guys, both of them.
“A Song Is A Weapon”
Evan: That gets a lot of shine on CHON-FM here in Montreal, or at least it did. We had the record and then we went back in, cut two more and we put that one on the record.
Pat: They’ve been very, very kind to us over the years. On CHON-FM, you’ll hear the Doobie Brothers into Rush into Stars into Half Moon Run into Yes into, what? Jimi Hendrix? I think the program director there is very, very enthusiastic about promoting local bands. I think it’s part of their mandate to really support local rock talent. Everybody who puts an effort in up here in Montreal, CHON we’ll take you under their wing and play you, and it’s great.
Evan: We did a lot of that at the apartment on Mount Royal, 939 Mount Royal East and we tracked it, and we got this guy to mix it. What was his name?
Pat: I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I was still avoiding being in the band at that point.
Evan: That’s a cool song. It took a totally different direction after the mix. It took me personally a long time to get used to, but that’s a song that I like playing, but I don’t think we’ve ever figured out a really great live version of it. I really liked the image that Torq, when he sings “lying on the kitchen floor,” like he’s just kind of had enough. He’s lying on the kitchen floor, like completely vulnerable. I like that line. And then the Amy chorus is sweet too.
Evan: We did this down in Bridgeport, Connecticut, didn’t we?
Pat: Yes, we did. Peter Katis at the helm. And I guess, that’s the title track of our most recent record, which is what? Two, three years old now? We got to get to work.
Evan: Yes, Peter Katis has a residential studio in a huge Victorian mansion. And the third floor is all just gear and the live room and the mixing desk and stuff. And then the floor downstairs are all the bedrooms. And the first floor is the kitchen. Of course we had some epic meals there, didn’t we? And we had a lot of epic pizza parties. Bridgeport has amazing pizza. We played a lot of Mario Kart, which was awesome. Peter really held our hand through that whole record. We wrote the tunes, but he soundscaped everything and mixed everything as he went, which is really cool. So you’re getting just a clear complexion of what the song was every time he touched it until the final act. He made it sound, what? FM, is that what you call it, Patty?
Pat: I think it sounds FM.
Evan: It should be played on the radio more.
Pat: There should be hits on that record. I think it’s a really good record. Even Pitchfork liked it and Pitchfork hasn’t liked us in years. But you know what? It’s tough to stick out in this thick, thick forest of indie rock that’s out there right now. But I’m proud of that record. I had a really fun time making it. I think it sounds beautiful. I think the songs are great and the lyrics are great, blah blah blah.
“No One is Lost”
Evan: There was a version of that that we did and we got our boy Tony Hoffer to mix it and it came back, and it just felt like the song structure wasn’t there. So on a whim, we got Jimmy Shaw from Metric, our longtime, longtime friend to mix it. And what came back was this almost remix, and it’s one of my favorite songs on the record. On a record that has a lot of great songs, but they don’t really fit together. And this is a song that we end our set with every night now. It’s a total anthem. Everyone sings it, everyone jumps and puts their hands in the air. It’s become a really big song for us live.
Pat: It’s fun sending people off into the night with that energy.
Evan: It’s cool to have that sentiment to the lyric, what I was talking about before, to this dance music. That everyone’s going to die eventually, you may as well jump up and down while we can.
“Take Me To The Riot” and “My Favorite Book”
Pat: Oh, double whammy. Off our In Our Bedroom After The War record, “Riot” did quite well actually. That record was very dense—a long, big, fat, dense record. And I’m happy “Riot” stuck out a little bit because it was a song… I remember when we were writing it and it became a mashup of two songs we were writing at the time. I remember Evan and I just beating Torq into submission because Torq gets very attached to certain things and we’re pulling two parts from two songs and squishing them together into one song. I feel like it took us a week to convince Torq that that was what we should do.
Evan: “Favorite Book” gets requested all the time at shows. When we do it now, it’s usually just Chris McCarron on guitar and Amy singing usually as part of the encore. We get requests a lot from people on the internet asking if we will play their wedding, or telling us this song was played at their wedding. It means a lot to a lot of people. I wrote the string arrangement and the bridge. We recorded this at the warehouse studios in Vancouver, Canada, owned by Bryan Adams, right Patty? In Gastown, beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. We don’t play that version on the record ever live.
Pat: Generally, we like there to be a dose of darkness inside the songs, and Amy was just feeling deep, joyful love. And we made this silky, slinky music around it. I think it’s so much more palatable when Amy plays it just with Chris McCarron on guitar. The silky slinkiness of the music that we put on this joyful, happy ode to love was a little too much. But the way it goes now, I mean, people love it. People don’t care what we think.
Evan: And we are available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, anything. If the price is right, we will come to your event.
“Theory of Relativity”
Evan: Oh, Patty, you help shape this one. A lot of drum machine work on this. You should take the lead on this.
Pat: I think what happened was we were messing around with the MTC 1000. Some of my favorite experiences in the studio are going in and I’ll have these grandiose ideas of what I want to happen and I don’t know how to do it. I feel like we’re just going to go in and I’m going to work on things and things are going to come out. And the people who are there, who are probably a lot more money-minded than I am and time conscious, come in and just sort of say, “Well, why don’t we do what we can do right now?” I remember getting a loop going and just noodling around. And at the end of the song, Graham Lessard, who was producing, was like, “Yep, there it is. Done.” I was like, “Wait, I haven’t had time to impose my brilliance upon this yet.” He was like, “Nope, that’s done.”
Evan: I remember we played on this tour, we played the Fillmore, and we had all these mirror balls. We were hitting the light with all these mirror balls, all this fragmented light was everywhere. This was like a sold-out Fillmore show. It’s fucking magical. Do remember someone passed around a spliff on stage.
Pat: Oh, yes.
Evan: And I never play high and I get into the song, and I have a lot of synthesizer cues and I’m pretty blasted, and I’m looking at 1100 people at the Fillmore saying, “What have I done? I guess I’ve made it.”
Evan: This song is featured in our play, Together. Which we’re doing a three week run of at the Crow’s Theater in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. And this is off the EP Sad Robots, right Patty?
Pat: That is right. One of my favorite Stars songs of all time. A difficult period for me personally, but I love that song. I think it’s very beautiful and I’m really happy to be playing it in the show. And it does come up occasionally live, but we haven’t really played it in a long time. I like that little EP. I liked the vibe. I liked making that song. I like that song.
Evan: This is another bread and butter track for us. This also is featured in the play, Together. Stars Together, which we’re doing a three week run at the Crow’s Theater in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in the beautiful Leslieville neighborhood. Well, this is for all the beautiful women out there, this song. No matter how young or old you are.
Pat: Beautiful forever and yes, we play that every night. Never leave that one out. And it’s also, I’d say, again, maybe the closest thing we had to a hit ever, and it’s still fun to play. A weird song that is really easy on the ears. I think it’s not something you’d notice listening to it, but playing it is bizarre. There’s some weird little twists and turns in there. I got the opportunity to play in a cover band for a while, they did a lot of ’80s cover songs and played a lot of actual hits. And what I realized playing actual hits by people through the ages is that songs you don’t think there’s anything to them, you get into them and start learning how to play them. And they’re tough, they’re tricky.
Corey Hart puts weird little tricky things in his songs and you’re not going to think about that when you listen to the song, you’re just enjoying it. When you have to learn it, it’s like “God, I am dropping beats left, right, and center, and all this weird little seven bar bridges and shit.” I don’t know. You don’t notice it, but it’s clever.
“From the Night”
Evan: That’s also featured in the play. It’s the first song that we play in our play. I remember doing the video for this. We were just running around Montreal drinking wine. I had a bunny mask on.
Pat: There’s a lot of Old Fashioneds and Jaeger Bombs going off during the recording of that record. So if my memories are a little bit blurry, there’s the admission.
Evan: Yes, this track has a deep hold on our fans. I’ve seen a lot of people get emotional in the crowd when we play this live. We abandoned this song for a couple of years and then recently we started playing it in our set again.
Pat: Again, it’s very sad but ultimately uplifting, and I think that’s what people look for when they come and see us. Like you see people out there and there’s tears, and tears of sadness and joy and everything. I think “Calendar Girl” really embodies the spirit of Stars, where there’s catharsis in music and togetherness and joy and sadness and the experience of being alive.
(Photo Credit: left, Shervin Lainez)