Tegan & Sara
Interview with Tegan & Sara
by Jeanne Fury
Throughout rock history, sisters have been doing it for themselves. Members of bands such as The Shangri-Las (Mary and Betty Weiss and twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser), Fanny (June and Jean Millington), Heart (Ann and Nancy Wilson), and the Breeders (twins Kim and Kelley Deal) have formidable rock roots on their family trees. Sisterly bands of late include CocoRosie (Sierra Rose and Bianca Leilani Casady), Meg & Dia (the Framptons), and Tegan and Sara (the Quin twins). Of the latter handful, Canadians Tegan and Sara have been in the public eye the longest. The Quins played backyard parties at age 15, won Garage Warz Battle of the Bands in 1998, and got signed to Neil Young's Vapor Records in 2000. They've shared the stage with everyone from The Pretenders to The Killers, and garnered accolades for 2004's kinetic folk-pop stunner So Jealous. Tegan and Sara's highly anticipated fifth album The Con (Sire) will be released this summer. The songs have a stirring, steely-eyed focus and are as captivating as they are ballsy. There's no fluff to distract a listener—every last note has been meticulously mulled over by the band. Apparently, Tegan and Sara enjoy this kind of exhaustive existence. They've recently embarked on a highly intimidating five-month tour, and are selling out venue after venue. Virgin Mobile called a Seattle hotel to talk with Sara after she had four hours of sleep. Grab a coffee and try to keep up.
Sara: I'm up and ready. We actually just got in at about 5 a.m. We were driving from Canada last night, so we all had to get up in the middle of the night in our pajamas to go through customs, and it's been one of those days-slash-two-days. We have radio to do as well this morning. Anyways, I feel very tired. (laughs)
VM: Press, fans, etc. have a fetish for you being twin lesbians from Canada. So before there was Tegan and Sara the twin, lesbian, Canadian band, what was your relationship like?
Sara: Ah, me and Tegan? Before we were making music? We were sisters! We started making music together when we were 15. We were normal kids, I guess. We didn't have other siblings, so we were really close. We both shared an intense passion for music. We listened to music endlessly all the time. We had a lot of music around the house; my parents loved music; my grandparents loved old country; we used to have bands play in our basement. We grew up around a lot of music. When we were 15 we started making music. We were kind of a punk band and yeah, so that was our relationship. I mean, our relationship is still pretty much the same. I mean, we're sisters.
VM: There have been significant efforts on your parts to let people know that Tegan and Sara are two separate individuals, not some Siamese entity.
VM: The press release for The Con tells us who wrote which song and in past interviews you've made it a point to differentiate you from your sister. So if and when you make solo records, what can a listener anticipate? What is Sara without Tegan and vice versa?
Sara: You know, when we first started out, there wasn't as much focus on, "Oh this is my song, this is your song." We were just trying to make something that felt cohesive. I think that the skills that we have now, we recognize that we definitely are different songwriters and we don't collaborate on the songwriting process very often. We sort of let each other do what comes most natural and then maybe try and take more of a production role or just sort of like an outsider perspective: "This is what I think of the arrangement, this is what I think of the melodies," that sort of thing. So I mean, I don't know, I think that the only real huge difference, making solo records or whatever, instead of using a lot of the same... it's amazing how you can make something very cohesive in the studio, you're working in the same studio, with the same producer, same band, all of a sudden, two very different songs in demo form can start to sound a lot more compatible. I don't even really know what the difference would be if we all of a sudden were like, "Okay, I'm gonna go make my record, and you go make your record, and you use a completely different group of people." It's so hard to say what those two things would sound like. I'm not exactly sure. I think that Tegan's material is more sort of traditional pop and rock songs and they definitely have the strong, strong hooks. A lot of her songs are the songs that stick in your head. When she hits on the hook she's not afraid to expose it, whereas I sometimes find that I spend too much time negotiating whether or not I want to accentuate a hook or whether I want to sort of spend more time working on different melodies or different hooks or different layers or whatever. Tegan's great because she'll be like, "Stop doing that! Let them hear the part that they're going to remember." We're a good balance for each other.
VM: You're so nice to talk about her in such a complimentary way. I'm not sure many siblings would be as nice to each other.
Sara: There's definitely a unique intimacy that comes with being this close to anyone, you know, [including] the guys in our band. I don't just spend 10 hours a day awake, I mean, I literally spend 24 hours a day with nine other adults in a very small space traveling around the world. I don't even know if it's such a feat to spend that time with Tegan. I mean, it's actually sort of amazing that we don't all kill each other after two months. I think there's a higher tolerance for human interaction and that gives Tegan and I certainly... it's not as intense as one would imagine with a sibling. In a weird way, Tegan and I actually get along the best only because none of that subconscious, passive-aggressive sh!t has to happen between us. If I'm pissed off at her or she's doing something to drive me crazy, I'm like, "F-ing stop it." With the band, there's all this sort of wrestling with, "Well, I have to be polite because I employ you and I can't be mean to you."
VM: Let's talk about The Con. There's a lot of flourishes on this album, whether it's big bursts of cymbals or these curious little snippets here and there. It sounds more decorative and I don't mean in a quaint sort of house and home way. There's an audible sense that you're expanding your comfort zone.
Sara: I definitely think these songs have space to grow. In terms of the arrangements, generally, up until this point Tegan and I have always demoed ourselves and our songs have been pretty basic bare-bones and we'll go into our rehearsal spot for a month or so before we go into the studio and we'll work with a drummer and bass player and it was all very traditional, you know, step one, two, three, four, and then you have a record. We definitely thought to ourselves this time that that's not what comes most natural to us. Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie) who produced this record with us was like, "Well what do you guys like to do? You like to record your demos, so do that and this is my schedule so you have lots of time to do whatever you want to do." So instead of just having to write these songs and then say "Okay, now we go into the studio to work with a bass player and a drummer," we really... I mean like some of the songs in demo form had just as many tracks as the final product out of the studio. There were a few of my songs that had over 40 tracks recorded in demo form and from keyboard, to guitars, to bass, to drums. Tegan and I sort of went bananas and recorded everything we could think of that would be the idea starter. Instead of having other people influencing and giving as many ideas as they used to, it would really be a blueprint for everyone, not just for the vocals and guitars, but for literally everyone. And so I think that in the end some of the songs ended up a bit strange and I assumed that some of the arrangements would become a bit more traditional but Chris just loved the way the demos were. When Jason McGerr came in to do drums what was so cool was that we had already recorded them so instead of just playing to a click track, or playing live in the studio with us, Jason was literally playing to the song. He was playing to the keyboards, guitars, and vocals. He sort of had to play to us instead and really think about where his parts were going to fit in. I think it's just more interesting. It's not just the vocals or the harmonies that become dynamic and interesting, it's like all the parts we focused on and tried to make as interesting as possible.
VM: Which songs really put you through the wringer?
Sara: Um, like in the studio or writing in general?
VM: Writing in general.
Sara: Writing in general. Pretty much only one of my songs didn't make the album. I write and I think to myself, "I'm not even going to get invested in this if I don't think it's a good enough song." I really get passionate about all of the songs that I write that come out of me. I think they're all special and important, but I specifically remember loving "Back In Your Head." I remember it came out really easily and it was completely different as a demo. It was so slow. I thought it was going to end up being more like, not a ballad, but a sort of small quirky piece in the middle of the record. I remember sending it to Chris and just thinking, "This is just very general, standard, I don't even know if they're going to like it." I remember Chris being like, "You haven't written a song like this for the record yet, and I have ideas for this one." And I just remember being like, "Okay whatever," and getting into the studio four months later and him being like "We're gonna speed it up and it's gonna be a whole other thing." And it was great because it was a completely different thing. I have a really, really strong connection to that song.
VM: There's a recurring theme on new and old songs of people promising to be something to each other but then that plan sort of falls apart. So what makes something—a song or a relationship or whatever—feel complete to you?
Sara: You know, I'm a really instinctual person. Like I was saying before, I don't invest in things unless I think that they're serious. I'm a very serious relationship person, I'm a serious friend, I'm serious when it comes to our business. I know that I can be... I hate using the word "intense" because people automatically assume that means that you can't be objective or that you can't laugh at yourself. But I definitely feel that I'm, when I'm invested, I go 100 percent of the way. So I don't know what makes that happen. I'm not sure! (laughs) It's an intuitive feeling and I'm not exactly sure if there's more of a science to it than that. When I know, I will put 100 percent into it, so if it's a song, and I know that it's going to be a great song, I will just totally obsess and get crazy about it and I just know. I know that it's worth the effort.
VM: In many of the songs, say in "Burn Your Life Down," the music is wonderful and it's all abuzz and moving around, but almost as wonderful is a way a lot of these songs just end. They just stop. As you said earlier, you put a lot of obsessive thought into these songs, into working up every element, and the endings of them seem very definite and absolute and assured.
Sara: When Tegan and I do demos, a lot of times, I know that for myself, I'll be writing a song and the ending will be the ending and I'll be like, "I'll fix that later" or "We'll resolve that in the studio." And the thing that I loved about Chris Walla was that months and months in advance he was like, "Let's sequence this, let's pick the 14 that we know are going to be on the album, let's put them in order, and stick to it, and that's how we're going to record. We're going to record in order." There were a few endings that Chris highlighted, I think "Dark Come Soon" was one of them. There was an arrangement suggestion for two, three other songs and the rest of the songs we were like, "Let's keep them exactly how they are on the demo" because we got so used to the sequence, the listening in order, that it just sort of seemed like a book, like beginning to end. And some of the jarring "Okay we're done with that one, let's move on to the next one" moments just felt so natural. We'd listened to it a bazillion times. So in a case like this, there was certainly something conceptual about it, maybe not when we were writing the songs but when we were recording and like I said, thinking to resolving them in the studio sort of became, "Well let's not resolve them; let's leave them how they are." I think that the only time it might seem strange is out of sequence. Which I guess, a lot of people consume music out of sequence these days, it's not so much about the full album, but what single you like or whatever. But I hope for the majority of people, they will hear the album in sequence. We've been playing, like right now, live, we're playing the album in its entirety, in sequence, but backwards. We're starting with "Call It Off" and ending with "I Was Married." I love the way the album flows backwards and forwards. They sort of complete each other without that having been our thought initially when we were writing the songs. It's really become very clear to us, I keep thinking of it like they're all standing in a line together with their arms wrapped around each others' shoulders. It just feels like these songs, on the own, not that they're not strong, but they just seem much stronger and make more sense when they're sandwiched in between two other songs.
VM: Do you get the feeling that all eyes and ears are on you now after all the raves that you got from So Jealous? And not just because you sing, "All eyes are on me now" in "Floorplan"?
Sara: I think that we certainly noticed a different level of interest. Starting about six months into So Jealous, we were like, "Okay, we're selling more records, and people know who we are and we're able to get certain things and we're selling a certain amount of tickets at certain types of venues." There definitely was an idea that this album was going to be more highly anticipated than our last three records, four records, whatever. But it feels natural. I don't feel worried or thinking "Oh my god, this is too fast." We've been doing this for nine years, and I always felt like we were moving in an upward fashion. This definitely feels like a natural progression for us. We've played four shows so far on this tour and I really like the audience that we've developed. This is definitely a special cross-section of fans because these were shows we sold just by announcing them on myspace so I know that it's very specific part of our audience. The shows have been so great. Our audience is attentive and supporting and really into it and excited. It gives us a lot of pride and confidence to do what we're doing and keep doing what we're doing and certainly the response from, we're just starting a new relationship with a record label (Sire) after being with Vapor for eight years. We've brought in a new partnership. It's us, and Vapor, and Sire and that's been really cool, to see them excited about a project like ours. There's probably not, I don't like to think of it like a ceiling, but I certainly don't think that we're like their next Linkin Park or My Chemical Romance and yet you can see that they're excited about us. Overall, in general, I definitely feel like all eyes are on me now, but not in a bad way.
VM: How in the hell are you going to tour from now until the middle of December and not implode? I looked at your tour schedule and it literally made me nauseous.
Sara: Yeah, me too. You get through it. I have this whole thing, it may seem a little hippie-dippy, but I don't want to be doing anything in my life anymore that makes me feel like, "Okay, I have to get through this. I have to get through today, I have to get through tomorrow, I have to get through to December and then I have a month off." If I'm so miserable that I'm thinking "Oh my God I wish that four months of my life would just fly by," I don't know, I don't want to be in that place anymore. There was a huge part of my life where, especially right out of high school, I was thinking, "Well this next tour is going to be really hard and I just want to be at home, and I just have to get through it." I've had a really wonderful experience touring So Jealous, and I feel like I'm ready to tour this album and commit to that and even though the schedule can seem very daunting and busy. I really feel like if this becomes a job, I mean it's a job, I mean if it becomes miserable and I'm checking out everyday because I can't wait to get to the end of it, I don't think I would approve the kind of schedule that we've created for ourselves. I want to be present and I want to have fun, and I want to feel challenged musically and mentally. Right now, I don't know if it's psychosomatic or whatever, but I feel good, and I feel like, even though I just got four-and-a-half hours of sleep and I really don't want to go do radio right now, but I feel like, "Okay, well, I'll get a coffee, and I'll be fine. I just need to do this."