Tegan and Sara | Practicing Being Good

Sara and I always joke that we have the best audience ever, but that’s because we train them: we tour a lot, and we talk a lot about what we want the audience to be like. We don’t want them to be drunk and belligerent and crazy, we don’t want them to come and expect a bar show.

Tegan and Sara | 04.02.10
w/ Steel Train and Holly Miranda
The Pageant, St. Louis
Few artists are lucky enough to improve on each of their first five records, but Tegan and Sara Quin are just that lucky. The Canadian twin sisters made a solid impression on their folky 2000 debut This Business of Art, but it was the emphasis on massively catchy power pop melodies on 2002’s If It Was You and 2004’s So Jealous (and singles like “Monday Monday Monday,” “Speak Slow,” and “Walking With a Ghost,” the latter covered by the White Stripes) that really turned heads. On 2007’s ambitious The Con, the pair expanded their sonic palette with the help of producer (and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist) Chris Walla, crafting dense, moody soundscapes. On their latest, last year’s Sainthood, the Quin sisters once again teamed with Walla and So Jealous producer Howard Redekopp to craft an album that strips back The Con’s layered production but maintains that album’s adventurous spirit. It’s a fantastic batch of quirky, addictive pop songs, with a heavy new wave influence that suits them just fine.
We caught up with Tegan Quin by phone from Milwaukee to talk touring, collaborative songwriting, and the pair’s newly revealed dancing skills. | Jason Green
(Photos by Pamela Littky)
You’ve been touring since mid-February. Have there been any highlights from this leg of the tour so far?
This whole record so far has been really awesome. We were over in Europe before Christmas, but we did three weeks across Canada in January and then went right down to the States. It’s all one big blur of happiness at this point.
There’s been a few bumps here and there, there always is at the beginning of the record—[you] take six, eight months off to make a record and when you come back on the road, there’s always a bit of growth. And we’ve got a lot of new people in the audience. Sara and I always joke that we have the best audience ever, but that’s because we train them: we tour a lot, and we talk a lot about what we want the audience to be like. We don’t want them to be drunk and belligerent and crazy, we don’t want them to come and expect a bar show. We really put on “an evening with Tegan and Sara,” where there’s a lot of stories and talking and interaction. There’s been a lot of really awesome audiences on this tour, just really great people. We have such a diverse audience right now and it just feels really good, it feels like…I don’t know where these fans are coming from but they’re just really, really great.
I understand that Sainthood is the first album where you and Sara fully collaborated on the songwriting. What made you decide to try that approach and how hard was it to adapt to a different work dynamic than you had been using all this time?
There’s three songs on Sainthood that I wrote with [AFI bassist] Hunter Burgan that Sara and I collaborated on, and then there was “Paperback Head” and “Sheets,” [the] two songs that we actually wrote together, and the rest of the stuff we wrote separately. And I really like that, I like that there were all sorts of different levels of collaboration and intensity.
I think that, in the future, it would be really cool to put out a record of all songs written by Sara and I in the same room, or at least during the same period of time. I think it would sound really different than what we normally do. I think we’re definitely going to probably approach a record like that at some point. But for Sainthood, it being the first time we’d ever done something like that, I think it went pretty good! You know, it was a little boring at times, watching each other play guitar for three hours trying to come up with a proper arrangement. I would sometimes get a little stir crazy.
Yeah, I bet.
You know what I mean? It was, like, a little insane. We did a lot more writing over the internet, sending songs back and forth, and that’s sort of our new thing. We’ve been doing a ton of collaborating that way. And it feels really good.
I think people always just assumed we wrote together. So for us, it’s a really big deal that we’re able to do that, a testament to our ability to get along, but also to the fact that we’ve been doing this for 15 years and it might be really neat to see what comes out of it. We’ve only done it once now but, in the future, I have a lot of hope that it’s going to turn out something really cool.
One of the things that always struck me was that even though you always wrote separately before that, on your albums, you always had shared writing credits and shared performance credits. Was that a purposeful move to have them seen as your songs together instead of people assuming “Oh, this is a Tegan song…”?
When we started working on songs, we were 15 years old, and…we needed each other. I couldn’t record myself by myself, I needed Sara to press record. And it was cool because we just had a tape recorder, so in order to have backing vocals or to have other guitar parts I’d have to show Sara my backing vocals and guitar parts for one of my songs. So I needed her from the beginning.
I think Sara and I always understood that collaboration between the two of us: it didn’t matter that Sara hadn’t written the song, she was still collaborating with me and that partnership was integral to the success of our organization and our band and our projects. It just was never a question, it was always 50-50. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful, is because everything is equal. It’s, y’know, socialism.
This is your second record working with [Death Cab for Cutie guitarist] Chris Walla. What do you like about his production style?
I always describe Chris as, he’s the kind of guy that made our record—and we finished that in July—and then he’s made five more records, and he gives himself his own haircuts, and he listens to NPR on the way to the studio, and he writes weird songs and records them on his computer in the middle of the night. He’s mostly strange. He’s strange, and he’s passionate, and he’s obsessed with music in a way that I’m not even obsessed with it.
You need someone like that on your side when you’re making a record because you need someone who is going to sleep, eat, dream, live, puke music, at all times. And that’s Chris: he completely and totally submerges himself in the records, and that’s super-important to us. Which is also why we hired Howard Redekopp, because Howard goes to the skatepark on Sundays and gets up in the morning and has a meal and he [has to go to] an actual hairdresser to get his haircut, and so he’s balanced Chris out a little bit which is good to.
And you had worked with him before, right?
We worked with Howard on So Jealous, and then we decided we needed a second producer/engineer-type so that Chris didn’t have to do everything himself on this record, and he actually suggested Howard.
And I thought that was awesome because when we put out The Con, there were a lot of fans that were so in love with So Jealous that they couldn’t even imagine letting go of it. And I just knew, I was like, “You’re going to fall in love with The Con, it will grow on you, it will embed itself inside of you,” and it worked. I like the idea of combining those two records’ production teams because I think Sainthood is a really, really intense, emotional record but it’s going to take time for it to get to people, and it takes the proper production team to make sure that happens.
What struck me was how drastically different the sound was on Sainthood versus The ConThe Con just seemed to me like a very dark sounding record. Why was there such a drastic change in tone between the two?
Well, we weren’t as depressed, that’s for one. [both laugh] The theme on Sainthood is this idea of practicing at being good in a relationship. When you start dating someone, or even just start thinking about the idea of getting back into a relationship, you sort of do that “breakover” thing, you improve on yourself. You read more, and take more time for you, and you start thinking about, “Well, maybe I should go to the gym…” And then there’s the mental part of it, the, like, “I’m not going to act crazy this time,” or “I’m not going to move in with somebody after three months, that was a bad idea.”
Sara and I have sort of been violently obsessed with being good our whole lives. My mother said when we were kids that even if we accidentally hurt somebody or broke something, she would have to bribe us to leave our room. We were just very, very obsessed with being good and making sure that people were always pleased with us. I think both of us were exploring that chronic behavior in relationships on this record. So there’s a little more hopefulness on Sainthood than there was on The Con.
Also, The Con was really tough to play live initially because it was such a dense record, there was so much going on. I would track ten different guitars for a song like “Nineteen,” and oh, I have four different keyboard parts as well, and eighteen backing vocals! Chris really pushed us to do something different on this record. He was like, “The record doesn’t need to be so dense, it doesn’t need to be overdubbed to shit. Let’s just all stand in a room together for two months and play. If you can’t play it on one take, then it’s not necessary. You’re a live band, and you need to be able to transfer this record onto the stage effortlessly.” We had never done that before, it had always been a headache to [play] our records live, and with Sainthood, we were playing it live in the studio so it was really easy to transfer it. I think those are the big sonic differences.
Now my absolute favorite track on the new record is “The Cure,” and I was wondering if you had any specific memories about either the writing or recording of that song.
The recording of it was really interesting, because I wrote that song originally with Hunter Burgan from AFI and we had been writing together for about five years, just compiling all these songs and talking about “one day, we’re going to put a record out.” And Sara was always like, “Oh, yeah! The songs are good, they’re cool!” But when we started putting together songs for this record, she called me and was like, “I just watched this Tom Petty documentary, and there’s footage of him writing with Roy Orbison and the Eurythmics and Stevie Nicks, and I just think that we should do that, I think we should write together, and we should put some of yours and Hunter’s songs on the record. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, collaborations are cool.” And I was like “Yeah, totally, that’s rad.” So I [asked], “Well, which songs did you like?” and one of the songs that Sara picked of Hunter and I’s was “The Cure.” And I was like “ULL!” because the version that we had done was half the speed and it was all piano. And I was like “I don’t want to put, like, a ballad, some geeky ballad, on our record.” And she’s like “No no, I have lots of ideas, don’t worry about it.”
We never ended up working on [“The Cure”] in pre-production and then when we got to Sound City, we were sitting there in this classic, amazing recording studio where all the Fleetwood Mac records were made, where all the Tom Petty records were made, and Sara just sat down and started strumming and [asked] “You think we should play it like this?” She sped it right up and kind of turned into…more of like a Cure song. [laughs] It turned out really well. I love it.
Another thing I love is the video you guys just put out for the song “Alligator.” You definitely don’t see too many bands like yours doing synchronized dance moves. [laughs]
[laughs] Wait ‘til you see the remix version! We’re putting out this remix record and we picked the Passion Pit remix to be the single, so we cut another video from that footage to go with the Passion Pit [version]. It’s, like…it’s crazy—it’s like we’re a dance band! It’s so funny.
[laughs] Can’t wait! [both laugh] The title of the new album comes from a Leonard Cohen song. Did you get a chance to see him when he was touring over the last couple years?
Yeah, I did. I saw him play in Vancouver, it was amazing. He’s a huge influence and obviously we’re massive fans, and even though we weren’t able to get the rights to release the lyrics for one of the songs we had written called “Sainthood,” we still felt like the song itself and the lyrics really summed up the themes on our record.
It’s kind of like when we came up with the title for The Con or So Jealous. There’s just those “a-ha” moments when you just know you’ve written the title for the record. It just comes sputtering out of you and everyone just lights up and you’re like, “That’s what we’re calling the record.” And that’s what happened with Sainthood.
You’re both very talkative onstage. Have you ever told a story where afterwards, you wish you hadn’t?
Yes, every night. [laughs]
[laughs] Every night?
Generally, it’s not the story that I’m sad that I told. It’s usually just if I don’t get to work up to it right, like if the punchline maybe doesn’t land, or I get a little lost, or Sara gets impatient and cuts me off or vice versa, like if she’s rambling on and I know where she’s going but it’s taking too long, I’ll cut her off. Those nights, I’ve just been like “Oh, we shouldn’t talk.” But some nights, you know, you’ll just get it right and nail story after story and you’ll feel like a genius, and [think] “We should just do a talking tour!”
Both you and Sara turn 30 in September. Any big plans?
[laughs] We’re going to be playing in California with Paramore the night I turn 30. I’m hoping that nobody comes on the stage and does anything embarrassing, because that’s pretty much my worst nightmare. I don’t know…I’m not scared about turning 30, I feel pretty good about it. I’ve accomplished a lot in the first 10 years of being an adult and I feel really good about it, and I’m in a really great relationship, and I own a home, and I’m active and eat well and… I try to tell myself, “It’s all good, it’s okay. 30! No biggie.”


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