Interview: Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara)

on November 22, 2011, 4:45pm

Tegan and Sara are that rare musical beast: an indie rock outfit that is able to be political without distancing its fans. Their music has dealt with everything from traditional romance to gay rights, and the recently released live album, Get Along, plays almost like a best-of collection. The record cherry-picks the finest from the identical twins’ catalog, making for the perfect introduction for any new fans looking to further explore their work. Sara called CoS from New York’s Upper West Side, chatting exuberantly as she strolled through the city about political responsibility, why Justin Bieber rules, and why she and Tegan are nothing alike.

Was Get Along recorded all from one concert or was it over several different nights?

You know, we filmed it over a six-month period. There are three films. One show was filmed over the course of the summer when we were on tour supporting Paramore. We took a little bit of time off; then we went on to do a trip-slash-tour to India where we brought another filmmaker with us.  And then we also filmed in Vancouver with a different filmmaker and did like more of a concert in hopes that we would be able to also really make like a sit-down kind of live record. So yeah, it was over the course of about six months. It took about another year to wrap it up and do edits and put all of the bits together. The whole project start to finish was about a year and a half. It was a big one [laughs].

Was there any rationale behind the setlist, knowing that it was going to get released as a live album? Or did you just do the songs you would normally do?

You know, it was kind of a combination of both. We ended up recording…I think we ended up doing a setlist of about 30 songs. [children start screaming in the background] I’m not killing children, I’m just walking by a school. [laughs] We recorded a lot of material and then sort of whittled it down to what we felt was both the strongest, but also the songs that we thought fans would want to hear, you know? Obviously we hope to always reach new audiences, but the real goal for a show within an album is to make something for fans. We’re not necessarily trying to break new ground or go out and make new fans, but we definitely wanted to entertain the ones that we already have. We tried to pick material that they would enjoy.

Yeah, you guys have always seemed to be cool about playing a good mix of new and old songs, whereas a lot of bands get prickly about playing their old stuff when they have a new album out.  Do you think that’s a trend with most live acts?

Yeah. You know, we’re sort of lucky. I feel like the songs that are most popular, for the most part…the songs that are most popular with our fans are usually the songs we really like from each album. Although, we generally also like to play new stuff. Having to go back and revisit some of the old classic records, it’s not as gruesome as it could be. [laughs] There are certain songs that if we never had to play them again, I’d be thrilled. But songs like “Call It Off” and “Back In Your Head”…you know, “Walking With A Ghost”…these songs that are sort of more well known throughout the fan-base, I have no problem playing them. I can still stand behind the material. I still find ways to connect with it. And the good thing about our band is that although it’s me and Tegan, we sort of have a revolving cast of characters who back us up. Playing with new people always injects something different into the music. We went up this summer with two guys we’ve never played with and it made me feel like I wasn’t even playing my own songs. It’s exciting and I felt nervous and it’s a really fun part about being in the kind of band we’re in. We don’t get stuck playing with the same people. We always have new people around.

On your earlier albums, you would write one song and Tegan would write one.  Do you guys find that nowadays you pretty much write everything together or is it still split down the middle?

No, no, we still are sticking kind of to our traditional methods of writing independently. We’re highly involved in the editing process. If I write something and record it, she’ll be the first person I send it to, and she’ll give me suggestions about arrangements or melodies, so we’re all certainly involved in the process. But from the beginning stage to about the 70% stage, it’s really us writing stuff by ourselves, individually. And that really seems to work for us. But we are getting more collaborative. I think in the beginning there was a little bit of reluctance sometimes, always sort of assuming that the other person was wrong. I’d be like, “Okay, thanks for your feedback, but no.” But as you get older and work with other people, you do a lot more collaborative stuff; you know, “I produced your record and I’ve written with other people and I’ve guested on things.” As you work with other people, it gets easier to take suggestions and criticisms and critiques and not act like that.

Being identical twins, have you started to see any differences or similarities between your songwriting styles? Can you recognize the Tegan songs from the Sara songs? 

Well it’s really tough to answer that because yes, I do, and probably in a magnified way because I’m me. So I hear some of the microscopic stuff in things. I always use the example that, for some people, the fact that we’re twins…you know, we look the same and they’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t tell you apart.” And I think that’s so absurd because I look at Tegan and I don’t see myself at all.  I don’t see a face that resembles mine at all. In the same way, when I hear music of Tegan’s, I don’t think to myself “Wow, that’s so similar. Like I hear only the finest differences.” So it makes it hard because I think we sound completely different. And yeah, I realize that our natural genetics and whatever make us sound similar.

You guys have talked a lot in the past about how, as songwriters, you have a sense of morality about yourselves and that you should be promoting a certain message with your music. Is that still the case?

It’s funny. After a couple of years, you think that your perspectives on things would change a tremendous amount, and yet they probably don’t.  Our approach to our band and our lives have remained pretty similar. At the end of the day, I want to be in a band that writes great songs, and I want to have as many fans as we can possibly find. We love to perform, and I’m a political person, so I love the fact that we have a voice and have a message, and that we’re promoting good and doing inspiring things. It sounds so boring, but it’s like that’s still my approach to the whole thing.

I think you guys do it in a pretty subversive way. You write things that have a message, but at the same time you don’t alienate the listener by being overly political. Is that something you’re conscious of when you write songs that are a little more message driven?

The big thing for me always was that I wanted to be able to talk about the things that I cared about or was inspired by or whatever, but I wanted to do it within reason. When I love a band and I think that someone’s fantastic, and I find out that they also share some of the same thoughts or concerns or whatever, it’s very exciting. But it is a fine line, because you can also like a band and find out they’re a bunch of dicks. I don’t want to abuse the power that comes from having a voice and having an audience. And I do know that we have an impressionable audience. So I choose very carefully what I talk about offstage or what I pursue or promote. Because at the end of the day, I didn’t want to necessarily be in a political band. I didn’t want to use music as a vehicle to talk about those things.

photo credit lindsey byrnes extralarge 1318518175534 Interview: Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara)

Well, you’re always going to write about what you’re feeling.


Do you think rock stars have a certain responsibility for how their content affects their fans, or do you also enjoy artists who write stuff that’s just fun?

You know what, I think there’s a place for all of it. I think there are people who I always…I think of U2 as a great example and I guess Arcade Fire comes to mind; bands that are sort of big and popular, exciting bands that also have political views and occasionally take the time to sort of step up and speak about the things they don’t talk about in their songs. But I also appreciate political acts, people like Billy Bragg. For me anyways, I listen to a spectrum of pop music. I think that if you feel compelled to do it, you should do it. There was definitely a time in my life when I thought that Tegan and I would grow into a political band but still have the vehicle of pop music, which I love.

Who would you say is the trashiest, most non-political, fun band you listen to?

[laughs] I don’t know if I would say trashy, but I mean I love pop music. I try to think about the records I bought in the last year…it’s so varied. I listen to a lot of old country and I listen to a lot of old hipster electronic music, and also a lot of really lo-fi shit. And I like love Rhianna. I envy and admire those who are able to write and produce those massive hits. It’s not easy and it’s not a fluke. I can really admire a big public machine like Justin Bieber. That record is just chock full of melodies and hooks and whatever. I love pop music so much. It’s what I grew up on. You know, my parents loved Zeppelin and Springsteen and U2 and The Pretenders and The Police and all that kind of stuff. We were indiscriminate. Anything that had a good strong melody, we loved it. So I still feel that way today. I can be the biggest snob, but when it gets down to it, I can get into a Tom Petty record.

I agree. In a sense, I almost don’t believe in guilty pleasures. There’s stuff you like and stuff you don’t like. Are you someone who mostly buys records or CDs, or do you go for digital music?

I definitely do digital music, but I’m definitely still an old-fashioned person in the sense that I buy a ridiculous amount of books and magazines. I love the sort of tactile experience of touching things and owning things. But I have to admit that with music, I can’t deny that being able to download it straight from the internet onto your computer or your iPod is just… sadly, I’ve moved away from the physical. I even thought of selling all my CDs, which is just…I’m having a hard time letting go, but I’m definitely considering it.

I have a friend who used to work at Apple, and she told me that they might be getting rid of the classic iPod. That worries me because I have a lot of music and wouldn’t be able to fit it on just a phone or iPod Nano.  How big is your record collection, and would that be something that would worry you?

Fairly big. It’s fairly big, and I definitely worry…even when I get a new computer and have to move my iTunes. There’s still something big about having to like carry that around with you, if it’s more in the internet, technical side of things, if it’s not in the physical side of things. The actual physical music that I listen to and listen to over and over again, and have listened to for years…I feel like I’ll always have that music anyway. Some of the other stuff is mostly impulsive.

Photography by Lindsey Byrnes.

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