Though indie pop sisters Tegan and Sara Quin are known for their witty back-and-forth stage banter, it might be fair to say that during their last U.S. tour, in support of 2007’s "The Con," some of their concert humor may have been a little, well â€¦ forced.
"With â€˜The Con,’ everybody knew it was a breakup record â€¦ and it was so intense to play live," according to Tegan, who recently spoke to Blast about her and Sara’s latest offering, "Sainthood." "It would dredge up all of my feelings again. â€¦ Sometimes after (the shows) I would just like, come backstage and â€¦ feel like slitting my wrists."
But this time around, as the Canadian crooners prepare to kick off their U.S. tour behind "Sainthood" with shows in Northampton on Thursday and Boston on Friday, things are looking up.
Even as they began pre-production for "Sainthood," which was released in October, both sisters were "in happier places" than they were on the previous record â€” Tegan finally won over the girl about whom much of "The Con" was written; the two are still dating â€” and that had an impact on their songwriting, she said. Even now, nearly four months after the record was released, the songs have less baggage attached, according to Tegan.
"The Con’ was such an emotional record," she said. "I thought â€˜Sainthood’ was going to become more like that, and it’s not. â€¦ I feel like â€˜Sainthood’ is different in that sense, and people are relating to it differently."
There are technical distinctions between the two as well. Though Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla was enlisted to produce both albums, for "The Con," Tegan and Sara recruited session musicians to flesh out the songs, including AFI’s Hunter Burgan and Weezer’s Matt Sharp splitting bass duties, and Walla’s Death Cab bandmate Jason McGerr on drums. With "Sainthood," the same core five band members played on each song â€” Tegan and Sara, plus Ted Gowans (guitar/keyboards), McGerr (drums) and Walla on bass.
"I think the major difference (between the two records) was just the consistency," Tegan explained. "With â€˜The Con,’ it was kind of like two different bands. â€¦ I think it gave â€˜Sainthood’ a really consistent sound, and it also, I think, sounds more like our band live."
Likewise, with "The Con," Sara and Tegan famously tracked drums, bass and keyboards in addition to their guitar and vocal parts before handing the demos off to Walla â€” resulting in near-complete versions of each song. On "Sainthood," the songwriting and recording was more of a collective process, Tegan said.
"We approached writing on â€˜Sainthood’ a little differently. We didn’t do as much recording beforehand," she said. "We really tried to approach this record more like a band record, standing in a room, the five of us, playing together, seeing what came out of that. â€¦ We would (play) a song â€¦ you know, 40 times, and then took our favorite tracks."
The more straightforward approach yielded a fuller band sound (at the suggestion of Walla) and was another change of pace from "The Con," whose overdub-heavy tracks proved challenging to translate on stage.
"When (Walla) recorded â€˜The Con’ with us, he’d never even seen us live," Quin explained. "(After we subsequently toured together) he was like, â€˜You guys are a great live band. We should try to make a record that sounds like that.’ â€¦ Getting this record ready to play live was pretty easy because we’d already played the songs a hundred times."
Also the result of taking into account their live performances is one of the first things longtime fans may notice about "Sainthood" â€” the absence of any acoustic ballads, which figure prominently in previous Tegan & Sara recordings. But, though Tegan described "Sainthood" as their "full-throttle affair," she was quick to point out that’s not indicative of a change in their approach to songwriting.
"I wrote tons of acoustic songs and ballads for this record," she said. "(But) songs like â€˜On Directing’ and â€˜Alligator’ and â€˜Hell’ and â€˜Don’t Rush’ and â€˜The Cure’ â€¦ kind of stood out right away. And, as we were all gravitating towards those songs, I realized that this was going to be a much more aggressive record than our past records had been. â€¦ Our audiences are getting really big. We’re playing a lot of big theaters and big clubs, and the acoustic kind of quiet stuff isn’t as easy to do live. So we just kind of moved in that direction."
"But," she added, "having moved in that direction now for two records, I have to say that â€¦ I don’t know if we’ll make an acoustic record again completely, but I’m definitely getting that itch."
That "itch" resulted in a recently-announced show in Brooklyn on Feb. 15, which has been dubbed "A Very Special Evening With Tegan & Sara" and promises an intimate, stripped-down performance for less than 400 fans. The setting will likely be reminiscent of some of the twins’ first shows together more than a decade ago.
As the 29-year-olds approach their 12-year anniversary of making music together professionally, they’re eager to impart lessons they’ve learned along the way, and have recently taken on behind-the-scenes supporting roles in other musicians’ careers.
In between "The Con" and "Sainthood," Tegan produced Vancouver singer CHAR2D2’s debut EP, while Sara did A&R work for Australian duo (and frequent Tegan & Sara touring partners) An Horse, and is currently overseeing production of the first solo offering from Northern State’s Hesta Prynn.
"For the last 10 years, (we’ve) been really highly involved in the business of our band," Tegan pointed out. "And that basic day-to-day stuff has really helped us when we started to work with other bands, for sure. I mean, projects like CHAR2D2 or An Horse, I’m sure that (they) would have gotten off the ground without our help, but I think having us there pushing them on the sidelines, you know, giving them feedback, helping them connect the dots â€¦ helps move (them) forward faster."
"I think both of us are really interested in helping artists, especially female artists in our business, because especially in indie rock and the alternative scene, there’s less support for women," she added. "There’s more than there was 10 years ago, but I think it’s still kind of a pet project for Sara and I."
They’ll also team up with a slew of female artists this summer, having signed on to appear on some dates of the much-hyped reincarnation of the Lilith Fair.
"We’re really excited about it," Tegan said. "As a rock band, an alternative rock band that’s been playing for 10 years, you know, 99 percent of the time when we play festivals, we are one of three female acts. And that’s sometimes with, like, 30 bands. So, to have a whole festival designed to appeal to women â€¦ I think it’s really amazing."
But while the Quins may be staunch feminists and outspoken advocates for LGBT equality, Tegan said she doesn’t feel that political subjects have a place in their music.
"My God, if we put out a political record, people would be running from us, and I know that," Tegan noted. "I don’t feel inspired to write about politics or religion or sexuality or gender. I feel inspired to talk about those things, and I feel inspired to fundraise for those things, and I feel inspired to educate myself about those things. But I’ve never felt like sitting down and writing a song about it â€¦ because I’m not sure that I’ll be reaching anyone new. I’ll just be preaching to the converted, you know?"
That (and the fact that she and Sara are Canadian) didn’t stop them from publicly supporting Barack Obama and speaking out against (ultimately successful) Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage in California during their U.S. tour last fall.
"We try to infuse politics into our Web site, into our fundraising campaigns, and into our live show, in a way that’s subtle and not offensive," she said. "But I don’t know that I need to write a song about it. â€¦ Maybe that’ll come with age. I know every musician goes through that phase where they write their political record. So maybe I will. I just feel like when I’m singing, I need to sing about love."
And sing about love she does â€” as well as all the heartbreaks that come with it. While "Sainthood" is not as much of an emotional bulldozer as "The Con," it’s still ripe with the lovesick "torch songs" the Quins are known for.
"Sara and I both really, really got into pop music â€¦ last year," Tegan said. "You saw a lot of men in music last year, especially in hip-hop, talking about their failures. Like, it (had) less machismo. â€¦ Where songs like (Sara’s) â€˜Sentimental Tune’ and â€˜Alligator’ came from was the sentimental kind of vibe that was behind pop music last year."
"My songs on this record, it was really easy to pick out which ones were going to make it," she explained. "Like, I wrote â€˜Someday’ and â€˜The Ocean’ and â€˜Northshore’ when I was feeling really depressed, and that’s why those three songs made it on the record. Pretty much every other song I wrote (that didn’t make) this record, I was really happy. And â€˜Hell’ and â€˜Don’t Rush’ and â€˜The Cure’ I wrote during the â€˜Con’ time, so I was really depressed then, too."
Sensing a pattern? You’re not alone.
"When I’m depressed, I write so much more, and my songs are better. I admit it, too," Tegan acknowledged matter-of-factly. "If I’m not feeling introspective and sad, it’s hard for me to write. â€¦ Which isn’t to say that I have to be in a bad place to write. It just means I have to be able to tap into that. And right now, I don’t feel able to tap into that at all. So, I haven’t written a song in â€¦ it’s been a long time. And I feel bad about that."
"Maybe I’ll start writing songs about how sad I feel about not being sad," she quipped.
But although she’s grateful that onstage performances no longer leave her feeling like a wreck, Tegan â€” who was in good spirits but perceptibly exhausted when we spoke in mid-January during the band’s Canadian tour â€” admitted that the physical and technical challenges of playing "Sainthood" live compensate for the lesser heartache.
"Emotionally, there’s only a few songs on the record that get me really riled up. â€¦ which is a relief, because we’re still playing nine songs off â€˜The Con’ live, and I still feel sad when I play those songs," she said, laughing. "(But â€˜Sainthood’) is very difficult artistically for me. Like, the parts that I wrote, and the harmonies, and the pacing and just the intensity of it, it’s challenging me as a musician. â€¦ I feel exhausted. It’s just such an extensive, intense, fast record. And I think it’s making us a really good band."
"We’re playing two hours every night and my throat is hoarse and I’m tired and my stomach feels sore every night from singing back-to-back songs," she went on. "But yeah, a few months out, I’m really happy with â€˜Sainthood.’ I love how it sounds live. I love playing the songs live. â€¦ I don’t feel like slitting my wrists when I get off stage. â€¦ Instead of feeling depressed and sad, I start to feel really inspired and empowered."
Tegan & Sara U.S. Tour Dates:
Feb. 12 Northampton “Calvin Theatre*
Feb. 13 Boston “The Orpheum*
Feb. 15 Brooklyn “Music Hall of Williamsburg
Feb. 16 Upper Darby, PA Tower Theatre*
Feb. 17 Washington, D.C. Warner Theatre*
Feb. 18 Richmond, VA The National*
Feb. 20 Tampa, FL Tampa Theatre*
Feb. 21 Boca Raton, FL Sunset Cove*
Feb. 23 Atlanta, GA Variety Playhouse*
Feb. 24 New Orleans, LA Tipitina’s*
Feb. 25 Dallas, TX Palladium*
Feb. 26 Austin, TX Bass Concert Hall*
Feb. 27 Houston, TX The Warehouse*
March 2 Las Vegas, NV House of Blues*
March 3 San Diego, CA Copley Symphony Hall*
March 5 Oakland, CA Fox Theatre*
March 24 Minneapolis, MN The Orpheum*
March 25 Milwaukee, WI The Riverside*
March 26 Chicago, IL The Aragon*
March 27 Detroit, MI Royal Oak Theater*
March 28 Cleveland, OH Lakewood Civic*
March 30 Columbus, OH Promo West Pavilion*
March 31 Nashville, TN Ryman Auditorium*
April 2 St. Louis, MO The Pageant*
April 3 Kansas City, MO Uptown Theatre*
April 4 Denver, CO The Ogden*
April 6 Salt Lake City, UT In the Venue*
April 8 Portland, OR Keller Auditorium*
* w/ Steel Train and Holly Miranda
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