The Montreal band Stars isn't waiting around for the buzz, the moment when all the good press and word of mouth turn them into the latest pop movement.
The moment may have already come. Their second album Heart has recently appeared on the influential New York record store Other Music's Web site, creating the kind of select exposure that last year helped to propel the similarly eighties-influenced, New York band Interpol into indie headliners.
Then the Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, which shares at least one member from Stars (often a number of them) and which won a Juno with its breakthrough LP You Forgot It in People, joined Stars on the site. It's been another small sign of a Toronto-Montreal movement gaining ever wider attention.
But it still hasn't entirely taken Stars from its bedroom beginnings. "When the buzz comes and the buzz goes, we'll still be in a bedroom making music," said band member Amy Millan, who says the music aims for anything that will make someone have sex or cry.
Stars' music fills the same heart-yearning gulf that New Order and the Smiths occupied 20 years ago, reflecting some of that era's fey moodiness with the band's jangling guitars, gentle synths and choruses about how "my office glows all night long/it's a nuclear show and the stars are gone."
But as with anything remotely channelling the 1980s, it's easy to overdo the comparisons. Stars rarely sticks to its New Order affinity and Montreal band the Dears often has the Smiths' sound better cornered. Stars' mix of prominent beats and knowing lyrics derive as much from contemporary bands like England's Saint Etienne, whose producer Ian Catt mixed three songs on the album. It's music that seems destined less for A-list attention getters, than for introspective, B-crowd cliques.
Indeed, the band is like a school clique that never separated. It formed in New York where Torquil Campbell, who was studying acting at Circle in the Square, appearing in stage productions and in brief spots on Law & Order and Sex and the City, started writing music with childhood friend Chris Seligman, who was playing French horn in Broadway pit orchestras. Both grew up in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood and knew each other since they were 8, playing in various bands over the years with other art-minded friends.
"It's just this loose connection of 20 or 30 people who have these interconnected lives and grew up at the same time in the same city and ended up all forming these permutations of what was essentially the same group," Campbell said.
As New York's garage-rock wave surged around them, they plugged into the scene a little, recording in a Williamsburg loft where some of their friends lived, including a member of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs before that band existed.
But like many who go to New York, they felt removed. "We were very aware that Williamsburg was a place that had a scene, but we felt totally alienated from it and not a part of it," Campbell said, with no hint of lament. The music coming out of New York "has a distinctly American style, and I love a lot of it. It's just that we weren't ever trying to make music like that."
With the addition of two musicians they knew from Toronto, Millan and Evan Cranley, they relocated to Montreal where they recorded Heart.
"When it seemed like we were going to make something of this band, it just made so much more sense to leave a place that was so expensive and so difficult to live in. It was hard to find time and feel able to record when you are struggling to live. So Montreal was a place that just made sense. It's so beautiful and so amenable to artists," Campbell said.
Yet the album was recorded in difficult times for the band, on the cusp of a larger record deal that never seemed to come. The album was made in Millan and Seligman's apartment in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, where the band kept their unusually accommodating artist neighbours up into the night. The singers had what they called a song sausage, a hanging duvet they wrapped around themselves to isolate their voices.
"Both with the Broken Social Scene record and our record, that summer, we had been hanging around together, and we were all going through really hard times," Millan said.
The band had broken from Detroit label Le Grand Magistery, partly due to Stars wanting to sign with a bigger label and move up the indie food chain. At least one major record company was interested but saw the band as too indie, while indie labels saw them as too mainstream. Then nascent Paper Bag Records in Toronto gave them a convenient break, having just released Broken Social Scene's breakthrough second album to wide praise.
"It's just really great music Canadians are putting out on the indie scene," said Paper Bag's label manager Trevor Larocque. "We've all seen it on a higher level with the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan. These are the people who get all the attention, and it's very rare that indie bands can break through that barrier. And I think with Broken Social Scene, that's totally happened, and it's only going to open the door for the rest of these bands."
But Broken Social Scene, which has even more of an eclectic sound associated with the Toronto-Montreal wave of bands including the Dears and Metric, has already left Paper Bag for the EMI-distributed Arts & Crafts label. Stars has a five-year licensing deal with Paper Bag to release Heart in Canada through indie distributor Outside Music, although the group is also branching out abroad, signing with Arts & Crafts for the album's release in the U.S. and Setanta in England.
The upside of this indie musical chairs is that Setanta recently released Heart to critical acclaim in Britain, with the Daily Mirror describing the album as "a boon for lovers of musical Valentines." It has only helped to spark the latest wave of interest back home.
"It's like 'Oh wow, they're on Setanta, and they've got this Paper Bag thing, and they're on Massive in Japan.' People are starting to care more," said Larocque at Paper Bag. When Heart was first released in Canada in February, "the interest was there, but not as much as there is now."
And so the buzz builds. But for Stars and other bands in their Toronto-Montreal set, buzz doesn't always pay the bills.
"What's happening in Canada is that it's actually one of the most exciting places in the world, if not the most exciting place for pop music right now," he said. "But I'm not sure that the people in the positions of power are fully exploiting that or fully taking it where it could go."
The music industry "needs to wake up and see that these bands -- Broken Social Scene, Stars, the Dears -- will be making records for 20 years. We can give them a back catalogue that the winners of Canadian Idol will not be capable of giving them."
Stars appear with Broken Social Scene tonight at Lee's Palace in Toronto.