This was our December 2007 cover story. Click here to download a copy of the original BLAST cover!
Sara Quin wouldn’t want to date herself. Or any other musician, for that matter.
The 27-year-old songstress — one twin sister half of indie pop darlings Tegan and Sara — drew inspiration from a struggling relationship for songs she contributed to the group’s latest release, The Con. Over quirky pop melodies, Sara’s lyrics candidly detail her self-described inadequate relationship skills in songs like “Relief Next to Me” (“I’m not proud that nothing will seem easy about me”) and first single “Back in Your Head” (“I’m not unfaithful, but I’ll stray”).
The latter half of the duo discussed her relationship insecurities during an interview on a break from a recent tour stop in Chicago. She touched on the band’s rabid international fan base, her love/hate relationship with their early albums and the link between their live shows and dental hygiene.
“You have to be a very patient, gentle kind person to date me,” Sara admits. “I could never date me. I could never date a musician. I just don’t feel like I could, ever. It seems so contradictory (but) I actually do feel really private and so it scares me to think that someone would have so much power to be able to create music and art from our relationship.”
“And yet, I do it all the time,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “I find that I’m not writing songs as the bad thing is happening or as the disconnect is happening, so a lot of times it’s really sort of like a retrospect thing. So I don’t feel like it’s as difficult on people as you would think just because it’s like, you’ve already gone through the rough period and then you’re writing the song. But I try to be very responsible and respectful of the things that I’m writing about. I don’t want the person that I’m writing about to feel like I’ve like exposed them.”
Even at just 27, Tegan and Sara are industry veterans. The Con is their fifth full-length album.
Since they were teenagers, the Quin twins have adopted a do-it-yourself approach that’s involved relentless touring, grassroots self-promotion and documenting their recording and touring processes for their fans through DVDs and online videos. Their persistence paid off when they were signed as teens to Neil Young’s label, Vapor Records.
Since the release of 2004’s So Jealous, which is widely viewed as the band’s breakthrough album, Tegan and Sara’s popularity has been on a steady incline. They landed a major label deal with Warner Brothers Records for The Con, which was released in July.
“Personally, I love making music, and I love the industry part of making music,” Sara says. “For me, the industry is not record labels and TV and money and MTV and whatever. It’s just the day to day of what we do and how we make this world work and how we have been able to build a career independently.”
That career started with demo tapes that evolved into 1999’s Under Feet Like Ours, the siblings’ first full-length album. That record, and the next year’s follow-up This Business of Art, are marked by gritty vocals (“We screamed a lot; we were angsty,” Sara explains) and folky guitar strumming, with influences like Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco clearly discernible. Eight years later, The Con is laden with keyboards, synthesizers and polished vocal layering courtesy of producer and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla.
Unschooled listeners probably wouldn’t realize that it’s the same girls performing.
“I definitely think there’s been a huge evolution … in terms of musical sound or style,” Sara says. “Now we’re more just a traditional rock band, pop band.”
Part of that evolution is thanks to a new recording process Tegan and Sara adopted for The Con, creating demos at their respective homes in Vancouver and Montreal and e-mailing them back and forth to each other. The approach allowed them to become stronger songwriters and better self-editors through experimentation with different instrumental and vocal techniques, Sara said.
“When we were putting out our first albums … I would just write a song and then I would go into the studio and by the time you had time to listen to it, it was done,” she explained. “When I think of the band changing into what I sort of see us being now, I think that the big difference was we started recording ourselves.”
Patience seems to have paid off.
“And to be able to finally record what I was writing, and go have dinner, and then come back and put my headphones on and listen, I was really able to sort of put myself in the shoes of the people who were going to be listening to the music. And I would really start to critique myself. I think it made me a stronger songwriter.”
The latest album, which was recorded in Walla’s Portland, Ore. studio, doesn’t stray too far from those original demos that Tegan and Sara put together, both have said. To round out their lineup for recording purposes, they recruited session musicians including AFI’s Hunter Bergan, The Rentals’ Matt Sharp on bass, and Walla’s Death Cab for Cutie bandmate Jason McGerr on drums. Longtime collaborator Ted Gowans also plays guitar on the record.
Walla’s production technique involved recording each vocal and instrumental part separately and laying down individual tracks on top of one another, sometimes using household items like staplers and sunflower seeds to create sound effects.
That layering proved difficult to translate into a live performance when the band was rehearsing for their tour, Sara said.
“We definitely struggle with trying to recreate things a lot,” she said. “I think there’s a tendency to want to make it sound just like the album. When it came down to rehearsing the record live, there was this sort of like, ‘oh my God, there’s like five keyboard parts and three guitar parts, and there’s nine vocals that we have to recreate.’ I mean, it was just ridiculous.”
“There’s this moment where you’re kind of like, I love all of the parts and I want them all to be there, but you just start mixing and matching and … you just kind of start picking out the little things that you like. It was like, ‘OK, We have to let go.'”
She pauses, struggling to come up with an analogy.
“It’s like a wall of toothpaste,” she says with a laugh. “You really only have to pick one, but you just have to decide which one is the best one.”
As a result, it was helpful for her and Tegan to have their original demos in mind when they were trying to dissect the album’s tracks in preparation for touring, Sara said.
“I had a moment where I was like, these songs were all born as simple guitar or keyboard and vocal songs and ultimately at the heart of that song is just a vocal and some sort of guitar or keyboard melody,” she said. “It’s easy to recreate live once you start from a very simple place.”
For Sara, the demos also provided a new sense of pride in every aspect of the record, something she says she hadn’t experienced with their earlier albums.
“I feel so much more attached to the music we’re making now because I’m kind of responsible for making so much more of it than we used to,” she explained. “Now, if I listen back to a song and I don’t like the instrumentation, generally it’s me that did it, and so there’s still some attachment to it. There are keyboard and vocal, background or guitar parts that I like almost as much as anything else in the song because I wrote them, and I feel like they’re just almost as important as the vocals. There’s parts of me that like some of the things that we did musically even better than what we did with vocals or even melodically.”
Sara compared listening to their earlier music to looking back on a diary or journal, and says she doesn’t view the experience fondly.
“I’m mortified when I listen to it,” she said without hesitation. “I hate our vocals on our first couple records … and some of the instrumentation. It drives me insane.”
But she and Tegan were just 14 when they began recording songs, Sara’s quick to add, and were still in high school when they wrote their first album.
“I try not to go back and trash (the older music) too much, because I like to think of things that did work,” she said. “I think for 17, 18, 19 year old people, we were writing really strong songs. I don’t necessarily like the songs, and I think we’ve gotten better, but when I think about it now I’m like, you know, there’s strong melodies in almost every song we ever wrote for those albums, and I feel proud of that. I think we had a natural talent for writing music, so I try to sort of focus on the good parts and I try not to cringe at some of the (bad).”
And at the same time, she and Tegan realize that some of their earlier recordings are fan favorites.
“You really have to sort of embrace that stuff because it’s so important to other people,” she said. “I meet kids every day who tell me, oh, This Business of Art is our favorite album and they’ve loved it for like 10 years and I’m like ‘Why? Why, God, why?'”
Sara acknowledges she sometimes feels like a broken record when doing interviews that touch on “generic” fare like the girls’ divergent songwriting processes (Sara’s more idiosyncratic songs are the result of painstaking tweaking, while Tegan churns out catchy pop/rock hooks like it’s going out of style) and the pigeonholes critics can’t seem to get over. (Canadians! Twins! Lesbians!)
“I always remember feeling a bit angsty about press and interviews because there is such a focus on certain things and they just sort of get repeated over and over again,” Sara says. “If these people really wanted to know those answers, they’re out there, a thousand times over. … I would have these moments where I was like, ‘Why do they all want to know the same boring questions and answers? Who cares? Why don’t people have other interesting questions to ask us? Aren’t we interesting? Don’t they want to know about something else?’
“As I get older, I realize that I don’t care as much about that,” she added. “So I feel like I’ve reconciled something about doing press because I’ve like learned that it’s not as important what I think is interesting.”
“I don’t think that the questions are that uninteresting,” she clarified. “I just think that a lot of times the answers are presented in a way that aren’t interesting. And I think that Tegan and I are really interesting because we’re sisters and because we’re twins and we do have very different writing dynamics and those types of things. But a lot of times it’s like, you give a really generic answer because you find the question to be very generic and so then you’ll all end up looking really generic.”
After touring all over the world in support of The Con for the past several months, Sara said she and Tegan notice a “profound” difference among fans in different countries, particularly in reaction to their unique stage shows. Their live performances are characterized by off-the-cuff banter in between songs as the twins recount humorous anecdotes and stories from childhood and occasionally bicker. Their chatter between songs often lasts longer than the tunes themselves.
“Over in Europe (the crowd) changes from country to country,” she said. “The UK, it’s like people are just bananas. They just — they go crazy. They’re totally obnoxious and they’re kind of almost hysterical. And it’s super fun, but you couldn’t do it for much more than like a couple weeks before you’d get probably worn out by it. It’s pretty intense. But then you go to Germany (and Japan) and everyone’s very polite and they’re very quiet and they really absorb what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”
Audiences in their native Canada, for instance, are obviously enthusiastic during performances, but attentive in between songs.
Not true for fans in the United States, according to Sara.
“You come down to the States and, especially in the South I find, people are chatty,” she said. “They’ll just start babbling to you in front of like 1,500 people. They’re not shy at all. They’ll start asking you questions, yelling at you and stuff. That’s not as common in Canada. … (Canadian audiences) are a lot quieter in between songs. I don’t want to say they’re politer, I just think that it’s like, they’re a bit shy.”
The response of more zealous fans is often overwhelming, Sara said. When she and Tegan find themselves struggling to make themselves heard over screaming fans, she explained, it creates an uncomfortable situation for the band as well as other concert-goers.
“I sort of have an empathy for the audience member that spastically calls out for things or yells at us or whatever,” she said. “But then on the other hand, I just feel miserable because it’s impossible to have a conversation with the audience if people are screaming at you. And me and Tegan really love to be able to speak with the audience directly, and so sometimes it seems like a dictatorship to be like, ‘OK, everyone must be silent while we’re talking.’ But if they’re not silent, then it just ends up being kind of irritating, I think, for everyone, and usually that means that we won’t talk as often … Or there’s a natural tendency to want to call those people out and kind of tease them and then it seems like you’re a totally evil person. So sometimes we just avoid the whole thing and just don’t talk anymore.”
Even as a music fan herself, Sara says she finds it difficult to relate to fans who interrupt a show to shout at her and Tegan.
“The thing that bothers me is that I know it bugs the people in the audience,” she said. “Sometimes it’s like it’s less irritating for me, but I can tell it’s irritating the people in the crowd.”
“In a strange way, I almost feel protective of the people who do that, because I’m like, there’s got to be something wrong with you,” she went on. “Like, why would you do this? Especially when people (in the crowd) start to tell them to shut up and stuff, I’m like trying to imagine what it would be like to be that person. I would never be that person. I would never, ever yell at my favorite band. I don’t even like to stand close to the stage. I’m so scared that they’re going to like notice me doing something like yawning or, I don’t know, shifting, looking bored, whatever.”
During a recent concert at New York’s Webster Hall, Sara addressed a fan who was screaming from the balcony as “Attention-Seeker.”
Larger, more vocal, crowds are an indication of Tegan and Sara’s flirtation with mainstream success. The White Stripes’ famous cover of So Jealous’s “Walking With a Ghost,” and the fact that their songs are staples on television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” have caused Tegan and Sara’s fanbase to swell. The vast majority of club dates on their current tour have sold out, which still bewilders the ever humble and gracious twins.
“It does surprise me,” Sara said. “I’m always really happy and relieved when shows sell out,” she said. “I feel like that will never stop, when you just sort of walk out on stage and you go, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re all here. I’m glad you decided to come.’ I think I feel a little bit less stressed than I used to about it, but I definitely love it. I think that it’s really cool.”
Sara says she feels she and Tegan will probably never grow complacent about their fans’ adoration, which she acknowledges could be fleeting.
“I never take it for granted because people’s opinions change and their musical tastes change, and so there’s a tendency to think … maybe they’re going to be fickle like how I am,” she mused. “I lose of track of what a band that I like is doing, and then I’ll think, oh shit, I haven’t revisited that band in a long time. What are they doing? I worry sometimes that that’s going to be our fate.”
For now, the Quins are content that a decade of paying their dues is finally paying off.
“It’s a long time coming because for so many years doing a tour in the US meant opening for somebody, doing a tour in Australia meant opening for somebody, doing a tour in Europe meant spending a bazillion dollars out of our own pocket and opening for somebody,” she said. “From So Jealous on, things sort of started to shift. And for us to now be able to go out and be the headliner is still kind of a new thing for us. I’m just getting used to the idea that we can actually go out and sell 1,500 tickets or whatever. That’s exciting to me.”
Tegan and Sara wrap up the current leg of their tour Dec. 15 in Australia, and will hit the road again in Europe next February. Sara said they expect to return to the States in spring 2008.