Q + A: Stars Keyboardist Chris Seligman on Band Personalities, His Pre-Show Rituals, and the Biggest Lesson He’s Learned in the Industry
Before blowing on his first french horn in a 7th-grade music class in Toronto, Chris Seligman–keyboardist and french horn player for the Canadian Indie Pop group Stars–had no interest in music. But his natural gift for the instrument was noticed by his aging and eccentric teacher, who recruited him to join four other students in a brass quintet.
By his twenties, Chris’s skills had expanded to the keyboards, and in 1999 in Brooklyn, NYC he began working on the first Stars record with childhood friend and vocalist Torquil Campbell. Since then, the five-member group (singer-guitarist Amy Millan, bassist Evan Cranley, and drummer Pat McGee, with Campbell and Seligman) has recorded six albums and been nominated for two Juno Awards and two Polaris Music Prizes. Their newest work The North was released in September 2012, and if you haven’t heard it yet, you should find it now because it’s beautiful.
I met Chris on a Wednesday night early last November, in the band room of Portland’s Aladdin Theatre, where Stars had just finished performing for a packed room full of fans. In the midst of sipping whiskey and chatting about life on the road, I asked if he’d be open to doing an interview with me. And here we are! Chris spoke to me on the phone from Montreal earlier this month.
1. Do you have a specific early memory of really feeling a connection to music, to the french horn–not just enjoying playing it, but getting a sense that it was quite significant for you?
That’s what was weird about it, is I had never even thought about music, and then grade 7 happened, and you just go to school and go to music class and pick an instrument, you know? I probably wanted to play trumpet, and everyone else wanted to play trumpet, so I ended up with the french horn. My parents thought it was funny, because all of a sudden I’d be playing this french horn like all the time. I just got really into it. I practiced a lot, and annoyed my brother, and the neighbourhood. Looking back on it, I think it’s a form of meditation or something. It’s another realm almost. If you’ve never played music before and you go into that world, I think it sets something off inside of you. So even if I wasn’t conscious of it, I think subconsciously I was attracted to that. And eventually it went in so many different directions. I often think what if I had never went to that school . . . there’s kind of a fatalistic thing about it, where it was just meant to be or something.
2. How did playing the keyboards come about?
I decided to go to university to play french horn. So I studied classically from being a teenager and then going to university, and slowly–you hang out with your best friends, and you listen to records a lot, you know? Once we hit our twenties, me and my best friends . . . we’d just hang out and listen to music and dream–those were the beginnings of dreaming about being in a band. So you had to evolve out of this classical world, and I slowly did that. I used to want to do both. I got a couple gigs playing french horn on Broadway, but eventually it just became too much to have to be, like a world class french horn player. It took too much. So eventually I was like, I’m going to fully focus on the band. Keyboards was a way that I could write. I wanted to write and arrange and produce songs, so I would buy a small little home studio. Back in the day, obviously, that’s what changed music so much, is that people could make records in their house.
3. You were childhood friends with some of your band members. In what ways do you think sharing that history impacts the way you guys communicate with each other?
In a weird way–clearly we’re old people now–but you never leave the schoolyard, in a way. Just the slang you used growing up, that no one else in the world would be able to figure out, you just know it, it’s part of your soul. I think Torq and I really had to work on that, because it was too easy to fall into old habits, or being mean. You have to work on creating limits with each other. Obviously when you’re really close to someone, even like a brother or a sister, you’ll get everything. You’ll get all the good stuff and all the bad stuff. And for a working relationship sometimes that’s not good. You need to respect people’s–their uniqueness.
4. How does the typical songwriting process take place for you? Do you create on your own, and then bring ideas to the other band members?
It’s funny, I dream music, and if I could wake up in the morning and remember that stuff I think it would actually be pretty good. I don’t usually have an idea beforehand. When Torq and I just started on our own I would do more. I would write the beat, I would arrange the song, constructing the progressions and adding melodies. I’d write a lot with synth keyboard strings. That’s what I really wanted to do, I wanted to sound like Bjork. I was really attracted to that kind of idea–the super synthetic sampled drums. And then because I grew up playing all this classical music, I loved the idea of strings happening–the juxtaposition of those two things is what really interested me. But the band has progressed so much. A lot of The North was written just in the moment, you’ll play something, and someone else will play something, and you’ll say, well let’s do this, let’s go here, does that work? Die Together, for instance, is a live-off-the-floor, kind of rockin’ tune, but then you have a tune like Relativity, the first track, and it’s much more electronic–it took much longer to make. One is super organic and you’re just playing all together in a room, and the other one is much more . . . processed in a way. That’s what’s fun about it at this point, is to be able to do both.
5. There must be so much compromise that goes on. How do you personally choose when to give in and when to stand your ground when the band is making decisions about songs?
I mean–you’re gonna fight. There’s gonna be fights. It depends on what’s really important to you. There’s certain things that are really important to me, and other things I can let go more. You really have to learn how to communicate and express yourself well–enough so that you’re saying what you want to say but you’re not doing it in an aggressive or a negative way. There’s lots of different personalities in a band. There’s dramatic. Or manipulative, or emotional. So sometimes you need to almost ride something out. If you really want something, you’re in for the long haul, and you hope that someone will relinquish their opinion.
6. The North is Stars’ 6th album. I imagine there’s been some evolution along the way in terms of you guys going through this process. How do you think you’ve evolved as a decision maker in the band?
It’s funny because there’s a part of me that’s super lazy in a way, like I don’t want to deal with decisions. I’m more like, just focus on the music, just put everything in the music. If you put all your effort into working as hard as you can, that’s going to take care of so much. I think people trust me in the band. I might be quiet a lot of the time but if I do say something, people know it’s for a reason. For instance, we hired a producer to make The Five Ghosts, and I didn’t want a producer for The North. I thought the band needed to work harder and take more on their own. We bought some gear, and that was kind of on me in a way, to put into process some of these things that I wanted. But I wanted to do it. In that way, I think you know you have it in you, and you just have to be strong and push yourself, and let your instincts guide you through that process.
7. You’ve performed in the US, Canada, and Europe the last few months, and are heading to Australia next. What part of touring do you find the most challenging these days?
The length of touring can get challenging. Just staying positive, staying in the moment and enjoying what you’re doing can be a challenge at times. It’s a job. It’s a great job, but [on their last tour] we were on the road for three months. Generally I felt really good, but you have to do things to make yourself happy. I like to go running and stretch. And I brought a guitar. I never played a lot of guitar [in the past] but I’ve wanted to push myself to get better and even write songs on my own. I like doing it in nature, so I would do that a lot. That would give myself another world, almost, to escape to. That was huge for me on this tour, because I want to keep working. A lot of the time you’ll go on tour and you’ll just be playing the shows, but you won’t be working on writing or other stuff. That was really important for me, to just be feeling like I was moving forward.
8. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Well, you definitely have a drink, you know. It’s funny because you’re on the bus, right? Depending on how small the dressing room is, you might be on the bus before the show, or you’ll be in the dressing room, but you know, you’re living. Maybe Delphine [daughter of vocalist Any — and bassists Evan —] was just put to bed, maybe you’re having a nap, maybe you want to get a little food in you. You need to get into some cool-looking attire. Depending how intense the show is, I like to just be quiet and stretch. Sometimes you’re really nervous before a show, sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re super hungover.
9. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about the music industry in the last decade?
For me right now, it’s just enjoying it. Not taking things for granted. That sounds pretty cliche, but time goes by so fast. I contemplate a lot about just getting older, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s definitely something that everyone has to go through, but in that there’s a maturity. There’s just so much crap in the music industry, so you really need to find what’s good in it, and focus on that, and not all the other things. It’s tough, especially if you want to make a living from it. It’s constantly a balance. Because ultimately music is just music. You almost feel guilty wanting to make money from it. It comes at a cost. Things get more complicated.
~This interview has been condensed and edited.