Interview: Tegan and Sara
The duo spoke to ATP! about being back in the UK, the new album 'Sainthood,' and translating it into a live setting, collaborating together for the first time in their career, Tegan and Sara online programming, re-releasing older material and more.
Alter The Press: How does it feel to be back in the UK?
Tegan Quin: It's actually really exciting to be back here. We really like touring in Europe but it's tough sometimes because it's so expensive for a Canadian/American band to come over, especially in the UK. It's definitely really different here, we have all these different theories of why it's so difficult for us to break (as in sell some records) and it's also hard because we actually don't care about record sales. We come here and are able to tour, which is the most immediate thing we need in our lives, needing to tour.
We love coming here because it's so different to anywhere else we tour and the audience is so excited and so rampant; like we played Edinburgh last night, and they were so fucking excited we were playing, some people were waiting 6-7 years for us to come there and were just mental. It makes our lives really easy because all we have to do is go up there and do our thing. There are moments where I feel like I want to spend more time here, find out what's happening and try to find out how to make things work, but we will get there.
ATP: How would you compare the UK audience to the US/Canadian audience?
Sara Quin: I think, like Tegan was saying, there is an enthusiasm because we don't tour here as much so when we come over, it's a much bigger deal. Whereas, we played 6 shows in New York City last year, they are still really enthusiastic but it's not as unhinged, they go crazy, but there is something about coming over here which is really special. It feels like we are a cult band over here, like there is sort of a possessiveness the audience has over us. We are like these characters they have been studying and here we are, live in the flesh, which is interesting. But, people are people, and we seem to draw in the same sort of characters whatever part of the world we're in. It's incredible how the audience can be visually like the same types of people, but with different accents and similar hair cuts.
ATP: How would you describe 'Sainthood' compared to 'The Con’?
Tegan: 'The Con' was an anti-studio record, so we wanted to not be in a studio. We recorded it in Chris Walla's (guitarist of Death Cab For Cutie/produced 'The Con' and 'Sainthood') basement. It was just the three of us and we added drums and bass in the last month. It was a very intimate, very intense, pretty heavy record. It's weighed down with a lot of vocals, keyboards, guitars; a very thick sounding record. When we approached 'Sainthood', we approached it from a completely different perspective. It was a band record, we recorded it in a studio, very traditional, we all stood in a room together and played for two months, and tried to get the take with all of us playing our own parts perfectly so we didn't have to overdub very much. With some songs like, 'The Cure', it has like drums, bass, two guitar tracks, organs, vocals; it's not that dense. In a weird way, it opened up the music to seem bigger; I think it's poppier because of that too. I think those are the main differences and, also, we were writing from different perspectives. I was sad, lonely and depressed on 'The Con' and on 'Sainthood,' I was a little bit lighter, writing more about the past and writing from this perspective of maybe a bit more confidence. So, when I listen to the records, I hear that too; I hear a different me.
ATP: Personal favorites on the record?
Tegan: Out of the album versions, for me, it’s the style of tracks like 'Red Belt,' and I really like the way 'The Cure' came out as well. Playing them live, I think 'The Cure' is great, 'On Directing', 'Alligator' and 'Paperback Head'. The crowd gets really stoked when 'Nightwatch' comes on. People haven't been coming up to me saying, 'I love Nightwatch!' but when we've been playing it live, like at the end, when Sara is doing her thing by herself, everybody starts screaming and cheering.
Sara: I think it's the first Tegan and Sara instrumental.
Tegan: That's maybe why they’re into it! Some of the songs are really working live which is cool because, in the past, we’ve loved songs but they haven’t worked live; it’s a disaster, like 'Are You Ten Years Ago?' total disaster. It's because we don't sing the backing tracks.
Sara: It would be interesting to try and re-attempt 'Are You Ten Years Ago?' I think part of it is when you’re trying too hard to re-create what's on an album, sometimes you don't give yourself enough of an opportunity to open up, develop, change and make concessions for the music. I think that's why, with so many artists, you'll see them play live and they sound really different and the audience, doesn’t know what exactly is going on. I think it's because you've had to shift something, like the tempo or the key, to fit it in a live environment.
Tegan: I think there are some old songs on the renovation list, like to re-attempt again. Definitely on this record, everyone one of those songs is playable live because we were actually playing it in the studio live.
ATP: Was it difficult to play 'Sainthood' in its whole entirety live; to try and capture the feel of the record in a live setting? Tracks like 'Arrow' and 'Don't Rush' are the two which seem the most difficult to capture.
Tegan: Those were the two, after we played the shows in Los Angeles and New York recently, that we felt the least, not comfortable…I can't think of the word. A lot of people love the version of ‘Arrow’ live, but I think we are trying to cut a couple of songs to keep the set shorter. I think once people are familiar with the record, I think it's going to change. You can see the same Tegan and Sara show six times and it's never going to be the same, every night will be different. Right now, there’s a lot of new music for people, 'Don't Rush' and 'Arrow' are going to be those cult favorites, especially 'Arrow' because it has this vibe to it like dancey and people are going to get into it. We are a pop-rock band and sometimes, when stepping out and playing tracks like 'Don't Rush', it's pretty heavy. We have to ease the audience into it, and I want to ease ourselves into it too, like when i'm playing 'Don't Rush', I'm only playing a counter rhythm to the main song, there's nothing driving the song melodically that way, so we have to get comfortable.
It's awesome as a band. After 11 years of touring and playing live, it's so exciting to have challenges on stage. We just played a set a few hours ago in a basement playing acoustically and people were saying, 'That sounded amazing!' it's really easy to just play a song. We build our stuff up from a song. When you’re standing on stage, and there is so much going on with the people, the lights, the instruments, it’s a challenge. You have to make it work for everybody; it’s exciting.
ATP: Why was ‘Hell’ the choice for the first single?
Sara: That, we left to the label for the first time, usually we’ll be more aggressive about making a suggestion. For the most part, on our last records, we knew that there wasn’t a traditional single approach but we resisted taking control over that part of it, mostly because it’s actually something we don’t have a lot of control over as we don’t talk to radio stations. We really do let the labels handle that stuff, so it was really dictated by the label, which we were happy about, as we thought it was a cool song.
It’s more applicable for us in the US and Canada, where there are more alternative radio stations, so the rock radio thing is easy for us to tackle. Internationally, it excites me when people choose what they want to play, like in Australia, it’s less of a single and more of them picking a couple of tracks and playing them consistently on the station, so you’ll hear more. I think they pick four on rotation, so it’s awesome because you’re not just hearing the same song, you’re getting to hear a good little chunk of the album most of the time. I think satellite radio has really influenced the way that certain stations play music because they are not strict that it has to be a certain song, an eight-week thing, and then dropping it for the next single. There’s not as much pressure to do that anymore, which I really like.
ATP: Any plans for the next single?
Tegan: We all agreed on that but were torn at first because it was either ‘Hell’ or ‘Alligator.’ I’m glad we went for ‘Hell’ first, as Sara was saying, college/alternative radio is really good for us in North America and it did well there. We are getting remixes of ‘Alligator’ now and it’s such a fun song to play live, it seems like an album favorite for people. I like it better when Sara’s songs are the singles anyway.
ATP: Touching on that, this is the second Tegan written song to be played on radio. How does it feel?
Tegan: Pretty good. It’s the biggest Tegan single to be put on the radio. ‘Call It Off’ was a single in the US, and so was ‘The Con,’ and it did well, but not like the way ‘Walking With A Ghost’ or ‘Back In Your Head’ has done (Sara written tracks).
It’s something about the way Sara writes, like rock radio is for men. It’s aimed at men; men listening, male DJ, male humor. It’s all male. When I write, we’ll try to go to rock radio with it but they’re like, ‘You have a vagina, no. Not interested. It’s pussy music’. We are trying to battle that. We’re like, ‘We’re a rock band’, and so I feel like I get pushed out in front, like they’re saying, ‘No Tegan, you go. You play at rock radio’, and I’m like, ‘No! No!’ whereas, Sara gets to go to all the fun stations, with blow up alligators and gets to jump in ballrooms with teenagers, something like that.
Sara: That has not happened by the way.
Tegan: That’s what I imagined. It’s been really exciting with ‘Hell.’ People love that song, I love that song; I love the record. It’s so much fun to play, so whatever single they pick, I don’t really care.
ATP: You collaborated for the first time in your career to write two tracks, ‘Paperback Head’ and ‘Sheets’. Why did this take so long to happen?
Sara: It wasn’t like we did it on purpose or anything, we’ve both taken a lot of time to develop as songwriters and we both generally spend three quarters of our year in a van, touring or with other people, being collaborative. There’s something special about going home and writing music by yourself, not having to explain it, filter it, share it, just getting it all out. Obviously, when you go into the studio, that’s when you seem to open up to the process a little bit, and we’ll collaborate on vocals/guitars or whatever. I think it was definitely a combination of us both already having written a lot of material, and also, not fearing that we’d bung things up if we didn’t approach the record the same way we did with our previous albums. There were already dozens of great songs, and I thought it would be fun to see what would come out of working together.
We had already collaborated for a song we did for Tiesto and Tegan had done some work with Against Me! We had both been producing other albums, for other bands, on our time off, so we were both in a collaborative place anyway. It was pretty easy to sit down, write some songs for a week, and see what came out.
ATP: Why did ‘Sheets’ not make it to ‘Sainthood’?
Tegan: Honestly, it came down to; we had ‘Sheets’, ‘It Was Midnight’, ‘Wrists’ and ‘Light Up’. We love all four songs, and ‘Wrists’ we nearly released as a b-side on the last record, but we didn’t. They are all great songs, but the label asked us to pick 13. We could have fought for it, but it’s stuff to give to the die-hard fans.
I really like ‘Sheets’ but when we were trying to find a place for it in the sequence, it was strange. We weren’t finding it easy enough and, instinctually, if I can’t find something, I’ll struggle. I’ll be like, ‘Lets move it off the list and see what happens’.
ATP: You put out the demos for ‘The Con’ and sold it exclusively on tour. Do you have plans to do the same with ‘Sainthood’?
Sara: I would like to, yeah. It won’t be the same as doing ‘The Con’ demos because we were so explicitly following the blue print of ‘The Con’ demos when writing the album. It was really cool to reveal that. These are stylistically, from song to song, extremely different, like there are some real big changes such as tempos, keys. Some of the demos, I have no desire to share with anyone.
Tegan: I think it’ll be neat, what we have been speaking about, is releasing all the songs we wrote together. We did a trip to New Orleans, and spoke about putting an EP out of just those songs, which are really rough, but we’d put them out as their original form. That would tap into more of what we did with ‘The Con’ demos. The demos we did for ‘Sainthood’, they don’t fit. We pulled from so many places, so many times, and different styles of recording; it will sound like a fucking mess.
ATP: Forest Phone, Trailer Talk, Backstage Bilingual. Any more plans for Tegan and Sara online programming?
Sara: We do. I don’t know if we are going to do it in Europe at the moment. We have the camera, and the next TV show idea, so we are ready to go. I’m not sure that we’ll do it over here, so we’re going to attempt it and if it does, it’ll come in the future. I cannot reveal the title but it is hilarious and it’s going to be very funny, or it’ll be terrible. I don’t know.
ATP: Any plans to re-release ‘If It Was You’ and ‘The Business Of Art’ on vinyl?
Tegan: Yes. Once this record is done, we are planning to do all of our past records in one box set. We’re starting to change the artwork and stuff. So many people haven’t heard ‘If It Was You’ or even ‘So Jealous’; they know ‘The Con’ and ‘Sainthood’, that’s it. I really want to package them all together, I think that’ll be really neat.
ATP: Six albums under your belt, was it hard to determine what songs to incorporate to the live show?
Sara: It’s not as hard as we thought it was going to be. The set list at the moment feels like we are touching on a lot of fan favorites, band favorites, but I’m sure we could add a few more old ones in there. We get asked a lot for certain songs that maybe aren’t our favorites to play but probably, for the new year, we’ll try and bring them into the set. It’s a long set; now we are playing nearly two hours. We don’t want to play too much music, as most people don’t want to stand for two hours at a show, so right now, 90 minutes feels pretty good.
We are playing some double shows in the new year so I’m sure we’ll make some adjustments, that’s another incentive to pick play another four/five different songs each night. For the repeat show, you don’t want to give people the same thing twice.
Tegan: I think I might vote to play, of Sara’s, in the new year, ‘Monday Monday Monday’ and ‘So Jealous’. Both those songs are great.
ATP: At every show, you’ll hear at least one person shout out for ‘Superstar’, ‘My Number’ etc. Would you say those past songs have been put to rest?
Tegan: I don’t think they are put to rest forever. We did a tour last year with Dallas Green (City and Colour) and we played ‘The First’ together. I would do something like that again, like include the support act and have them come out and play ‘My Number’ or something like that. We did do a small, very shortened version of ‘Superstar’ on the last tour for a little bit but it’s so hard; I cannot relate to those songs. They are so old and I don’t get that excited by them. I can see why people like them, because I remember loving them, but now, when we can only pick 20 songs, it’s hard to put those ones in when you’re like, ‘Eh.’
ATP: When are you coming back to the UK?
Tegan: We are hoping to come back in June or August. Those are the two windows for festivals and some other dates. We didn’t get to Ireland this time, and we only did one show in Scotland. Sara and I are definitely putting special attention into the UK for this record. We really do want to do well here, and play more shows. It’d be really nice if we could do a proper tour and play the UK the way it should be played.
'Sainthood' is out now on Sire/Vapor Records.
- Jon Ableson