Tegan and Sara Quin have had quite the career. Since hitting it big with 2004’s commercial success, So Jealous, indie pop’s coolest twin sisters have kept busy with headlining tours, collaborations with the likes of Theophilus London and Death Cab for Cutie, and two more albums. But their mass appeal goes beyond calculable achievements. For some fans, it’s the endless supply of self-deprecating Canadian witticisms that pepper their live performances. For others, it’s the way they manage to access our collective hopes, fears, and sexual yearnings. And today, Tegan & Sara are poised to win over a whole new audience with the release of Heartthrob. The duo’s seventh studio album marks their fearless foray into pop music’s big leagues, introducing a confident, keyboard-driven sound with no shortage of hooks. When we sat down with the delightful Tegan Quin, the self-professed “media whore” assured us that she was undaunted by a heavy schedule of interviews: “No, oh my God, I’m sorry, do you think that it’s possible to get bored of talking about yourself? No.” Which is fortunate, because we can’t seem to get enough of these two.
Heartthrob is a real departure from your previous work. Why did you decide to go so poppy?
You know, when we signed, we knew we wouldn’t be taken seriously as twin teenagers, so we chose to sign with an indie label, and to make more than one record with that model, and we eventually got upstreamed to Warner—it’s been a multi-step process to get where we’re at. With each of our records we’ve attempted to ensure that we aren’t repeating ourselves, and with Heartthrob, we were like, well, we have this kind of record and that kind of record, but we don’t have a record that’s more keyboard-leaning. So we weren’t thinking of it as pop, we were thinking of it as like, let’s make a record that doesn’t focus on guitars as much. It sounds way poppier, but I think the worst thing in the world at this point would be to make a record that sounds like one of our last records; I think it would be a sign that we were no longer fresh.
I heard a lot of kind of epic, John Hughes-esque ’80s vibes, like in “Drove Me Wild,” for example. Did you have any specific influences?
We grew up listening to that kind of music, from Genesis to The Police and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, and I think this record is sort of focused on that 80’s era that we loved. Again, that could just be a product of the instrumentation; it’s sort of how you dress it up. But we intentionally chose the producers we did because of the way that their records sound. They sound so sonically muscular, they just feel big and bombastic and layered. I think we got to a point, too, where I wanted our live show to get bigger—we’re playing big venues, and I was feeling a little bit bored.
You’ve been touring with the Killers, right? How is it to be playing for a different audience?
Good. Hard. In the UK we’re virtually unknown, so we really were stepping in front of an audience who’d never heard of us before. It’s really cool, because you’re getting in front of 10,000 people who’ve never heard of you, but it was also emotionally very traumatizing! I was initially like, ahh! No sound-check, 35 minutes, people don’t know who we are…but I think it was time for us to step down again and be the opener.
You’re pretty well known for your stage banter. How does that translate to the arena?
It’s hard for people to hear in an arena, and you don’t want to give anyone an opportunity to talk back to you. The banter has definitely taken on a life of its own, I feel like we disappoint people when we don’t do it. But when you get to a size venue when you have thousands of people, you don’t want to lose people’s attention, you know? But I also have no self-control, and I like having an audience of people listening to me tell stories. So it happens, inevitably.
Did that develop over time onstage, or have you just always been hilarious together?
We always did it, from show one. I think that was our natural way of dealing with stress and nervousness, it just came out in uncontrollable talking. And, I mean, we saw the response right away. It humanizes us. So many of us are used to going to a show and the band just being like, “HELLO!” and then that’s it, you know?
Do you fight a lot?
We don’t fight so much anymore, I think we kind of grew out of that. But it happens, and it happens with other people too—when you travel with the same 14 people for two years, you start to be like, you know what, I think you’re a fucking asshole! And you can’t call someone that’s working for you an asshole, so you find a creative way to make them understand that they’re being an asshole. Whereas with Sara and I, it looks like a fight because I’ll be like, you’re being an asshole! And she’ll be like, you’re being an asshole! But then it’s over. I think that I’ve learned, with old age, that I can’t punish Sara for something that’s not her fault, or be mad at her in a way that’s disrespectful. We’re very different people. We live on different coasts, we have different social lives, we have different ways of looking at business. Sara really wanted to make a pop record but doesn’t necessarily like doing press and radio and that kind of stuff, whereas I was content to make whatever kind of record we wanted, but I’m a total media whore. We’re ying and yang, for sure.
You write a lot about love and relationships. Do you feel more inspired by heartbreak or happiness?
Well, on this record, Sara begged me to write any more more self-deprecating, self-loathing songs. So “Closer” and “Love They Say” and “Drove Me Wild” were sort of my first attempts at writing love songs. I tried to remember those first few times where you have such a crazy, out of control crush. “Closer” was about someone that I never even told that I liked, it’s just that moment where this thing is going to happen and you know it’s going to happen…and then it doesn’t happen. But you were so young and naïve that just being pushed up against them in a car was enough. So I really explored that, and I ended up finding that almost as inspiring as writing about heartbreak, for sure. Certainly for the place I’m in now, where I feel like I’ve really covered a lot of my trauma and dysfunction, it was really exciting and refreshing. But I know for Sara on this record, she was writing a lot of these songs thinking that we would shop them to other people, and she used this as a technique to allow herself to write without boundaries. Sara’s been a lot more contained, because I think she was afraid of just coming right out and saying it, but I think on this record she did really well—just straight up saying, “Go if you want, I can’t stop you,” rather than, like, “there’s a pile of books between us on a bed,” or whatever.
Do you feel a responsibility to be outspoken on behalf of the LGBT community?
Yeah, but I feel like I have a responsibility to myself to be that person. If all of the sudden I decided to just disappear, I wouldn’t feel guilty, I don’t feel like I owe anyone anything. But I absolutely feel a responsibility to be out and be confident, which we’ve always been. And I know that the majority of our audience respects us and looks up to us because of what we believe in. Whether they’re gay or straight is irrelevant; they just like our confidence in saying who we are and what we are. I have no doubt that there are people in our audience who don’t share our beliefs; I have friends who don’t have the same beliefs as me. But I think the only way to change the world is to get out there and be a part of the conversation.
Tell me something embarrassing about you and Sara.
This is great. Well, something we laugh about all the time is that when we were kids, in terms of fashion, we were very wild. We wore hammer pants…not like store-bought hammer pants, either, my mom would take us to the fabric store and we’d pick out fabric and she’d make them for us. Literally, I could go on for days. It’s embarrassing shit. We were geeks.
It actually just sounds like you were awesome. But I think a lot of your fans self-identify in a similar way—as not so mainstream, not necessarily the coolest kid in school.
Yeah, I think a Tegan and Sara audience for the most part is a really random group of people who all have something in common. They’re there for the music, and something about that means that they all kind of relate to one another—for the most part, I mean, there are always dicks and drunk people and whatever. But they all sort of come together and share this story that they have, about their lives and love and rejection and sexuality. That’s why we make records at this point, we just want to have a connection with the audience and put on a great show. The stage isn’t for me, it’s for you. It’s for the person paying to come and see us play, and we will always build a show out of everyone’s favorite songs. We’re never going to be like, “And here’s this experimental set of only deep cuts from records you don’t like.”
I keep reading about you and Sara giving relationship advice. Where do you think that came from? Do you feel like you’ve become wiser with old age?
You know what, you’re right! People are asking us for advice a lot more. When we signed our record deal we were nineteen years old, and we looked twelve. People didn’t take us that seriously. I can remember signing a record deal, and the guy who signed us was like, “What do you know about love? Or life? You’re fucking nineteen years old. You think you know everything!” Which is what makes young people so fascinating, is that you do think you know everything, and you don’t know anything at all. If I knew what I know now, I would never have done any of the things I did when I was young. And that makes the music we made back then really interesting to me now. But I also think we’re more valuable now, because we have had that experience. And Elliot, the president of our label, said, “Go out, live, experience things, get broken up with, move, experience new cities, tour, hack it out there for ten years. Then you’re going to write great records when you’re thirty.” And, you know, this is our first record in our thirties, and I think it’s a really good record.