Date: October 23, 2009
Author: Tom Breihan
Publication: Pitchfork
Headline: 5-10-15-20: Tegan & Sara's Sara Quin

Talking about Sinead O'Connor, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Replacements. 5-10-15-20: Tegan & Sara's Sara Quin

Welcome to 5-10-15-20, in which we talk to artists about the music they loved at five-year interval points in their lives. Maybe we'll get a detailed roadmap of how their tastes and passions helped make them who they are. Maybe we'll just learn that they really liked hearing the "Mummies Alive" theme song over and over when they were kids. Either way, it'll be fun.

For this edition, we spoke with Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin, 29.

The Juicy Fruits: "Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye"

I know this from my mom and my dad telling me: Tegan and I were absolutely 100% addicted to this record that my parents had, the soundtrack to the film called Phantom of the Paradise. For shits and giggles, it's actually worth checking out on the internet. It was done in the 1970s, and it was in the same vein as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The soundtrack was all done by the songwriter Paul Williams, who also starred in the film as this character Swan. It's a rock opera, and he's the devil. So there are ridiculous songs. It's out of hand.

Apparently, our favorite was this song called "Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye", which sort of starts the film. There's this band called the Juicy Fruits, and they're at the height of their fame. They sing the song, and it's all about a famous rock star who gets into heroin and dies. We never actually saw the film until… not really that much older, but not at five years old. Our parents were not that reckless with our lives, but they did let us dance to the record in our basement, and we apparently loved it.

It's still, to this day, in a very strange way, one of my favorite films. There's so much nostalgia associated with it when I watch it. Tegan and I still listen to that soundtrack and watch that film, and we feel like it's our childhood memories all wrapped up in a weird, creepy rock opera. Actually, this is another really geeky thing that I know about Phantom of the Paradise: It was a Brian De Palma film, and it was not critically accepted or liked or anything. It became a cult classic, and apparently the soundtrack sold the most copies in Winnipeg. There's a fan club. I know this because we talked about the Phantom of the Paradise so much and we actually did a video where we paid homage to it and ripped off this scene from Phantom of the Paradise. The Phantom of the Paradise fan club picked up on it, and they made us members and gave us T-shirts.

Sinead O'Connor: "Three Babies"

My dad and my mom were divorced at this point, but they both really loved Sinead O'Connor. My dad would pick us up on the weekends, and we would go to his house and listen to full albums. Like, we would just sit in his apartment, and he would put on an album and play the whole thing. He specifically really loved "Three Babies". I can remember-- I mean, it's like it just happened-- sitting in his apartment and him playing this album. It was super intense, and my father had a really intense history with his family. His mother was British, and there was a lot of struggle in his life growing up. I don't remember exactly what he shared of his personal life with us, but I definitely would correlate and connect Sinead O'Connor and anything to do with British people with my dad, and also this kind of intensity of sadness. It made a huge impression on us.

We were absolutely surrounded by music. Our parents were young, and they were huge music fans. Sinead O'Connor was something that both my mom and my dad listened to, so if we weren't playing it ourselves, it was being played around both houses. I remember on a family trip, "Troy" being on a mixtape. I was begging my mom and my stepdad to rewind it and play it over and over and over again. And I remember stealing the tape from my mom's stereo cassette player and playing it in my room. Our favorite thing was our parents making mixtapes for us for our own private listening satisfaction in our rooms.

Violent Femmes: "Add It Up"

This was the hardest age for me. I still listened to what my parents listened to, but I also became 100% autonomous and started picking what I wanted to listen to, going to gigs and music stores and trying to find something new to listen to that wasn't my parents' music. Probably the most relevant discovery around that time was the Violent Femmes. Their debut record was particularly popular for Tegan and I. I memorized the lyrics to "Add It Up".

It was so popular at gigs and concerts to do the circle moshpit. Girls would do it because you would just walk. It was sort of a way to participate in the moshpit, but if you were five feet tall like I was, you didn't necessarily want to be all elbows and punching. I used to do that in my bedroom and sing the lyrics to "Add It Up" so loud. Like, no shame, either. I can't even begin to imagine what it would sound like from outside of my bedroom. Or probably even more embarrassingly, I had windows fully opened in my bedroom even through the winter; I loved it really cool in my room. I just think of what it sounded like on the street, me hollering hysterically to the song. I loved that song so much.

Nobody I knew was listening to the Violent Femmes. We grew up in a neighborhood where everybody was listening to hip-hop. The most alternative music would have been electronic music for raves and stuff. We were the only kids listening to punk rock and alternative music, so this was a big discovery. Pre-internet, these things weren't easy to find. I honestly don't remember how I came upon the Violent Femmes. I had no idea that it had been released when I was like three. I thought it was new. As far as I was concerned, the Violent Femmes were punk music. I had heard punk music, and I loved punk music and the traditional stereotype of what punk music was. As far as I was concerned, this was just as punk as anything I was listening to. In a way, it felt more punk because there wasn't this obscuring of the vocals. You could hear everything so clearly, and something really resonated about that.

I grew up in Calgary, and there was a huge punk rock scene, bands like NOFX and SNFU. There were all ages gigs on the weekend. The bands mattered less; it was more about the community. The gigs were usually done by Food Not Bombs. We'd be taking cans of mushroom soup, and my mom would be like, "Sure! Just give it out to the whole world!" And we'd be like, "But we need it to get in! That's admission! It's less than money!"

I remember feeling really like outsiders in that world. We weren't super punk rock in our dress. My mom had grown up in the 1970s and was really alternative, so she let us go to the army surplus store and buy big army military coats and boots. That was as close to punk rock as we got. We didn't have our clothes safety pinned or covered in Sex Pistols patches. The punk kids seemed so passionate and so intense, and I really liked their style, but I was nowhere near brave enough to ask my mom if I could have a mohawk-- although I had my own bad styles of haircuts back then that were worse than a mohawk. But I just remember loving the scene, the violence of those shows. Our mom would pick us up from the train station, and we would just be wrecked. Like, absolutely damaged, covered in bruises. Half of my clothes would be ripped off. We had a great time. [laughs] My mom must have thought we were crazy.

Death Cab for Cutie: "For What Reason"

At that point, I had not made the connection that there was an indie music scene. It sounds absurd now, but I was a Canadian kid who didn't go to university, so I didn't ever really fit into a college music/indie rock scene-- which would probably explain some of the difficulty Tegan and I have had as a band. We really do identify with that world and that scene, and yet we never really fit into it because we never really experienced it. We broke right out of high school and started touring, and it was around 2000 that I discovered Death Cab for Cutie and Pedro the Lion and college radio music. I realized that that was a world of music that I really wanted to explore and figure out.

This kid that I had grown up with had always been fairly advanced in his music knowledge because he had a way older brother. In elementary school, he talked about R.E.M., and then got really into hip-hop and scratching. After high school, we didn't speak for about a year or so, and then I ran into him and started talking about music. He had completely left behind this world of scratching, and he had discovered-- that's how he described it, that he had "discovered"-- this other type of music. He made me a mixtape, and it had like 50 songs on it; it was crazy. It was short little snippets of things, and he was really going to teach me or whatever. "For What Reason" was on that mixtape, and it was definitely one of the highlights for me. It became a mixtape staple for me for years. I would just put that song on like every mixtape.

It wasn't as tough as alternative music in the 1990s. It was less about production; it felt like a lo-fi production. It had something that wasn't as aggressive. Once I had graduated from high school and I was playing my own music and writing my own music, I was sort of leaving behind this angsty mentality. I wasn't listening to as much of the punk rock that I had been listening to in high school, and I was looking for something was maybe a little more mature and reserved. There was something about the kind of melancholy, the adult male melancholy, that really appealed to me.

Christopher Walla produced our last two records, and Jason McGerr played drums on them as well. And we've toured with them, so I know them pretty well. I think when I started hanging around with Chris a bit, I was like, "Oh my god, I'm such a big Death Cab fan" and kind of geeked out. But it's strange. I think this happens a lot when you start to make friends with people who make music or art. You almost start to think of them as two people. Like, I still think of Death Cab as a band I don't know. Like, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I love Death Cab for Cutie!" And then I'm like, "Have you met my friends Death Cab for Cutie?" There's no way I could connect those two things.

The Replacements: "Unsatisfied"

I sort of wore that song out. I almost can't even listen to Let It Be or that song anymore because I just listened to it so much. I would randomly discover these bands and not know when they had released their records. For whatever reason, I had completely missed the Replacements. But we did a tour with Ryan Adams in 2002, and we were geeking out talking about music one night. He started talking about the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and Minor Threat, all these bands, and I was like, "jeez, I don't know. It's a black hole, a space. I never really got into any of that." And the next day, he showed up with these stacks-- basically, the discographies of all of those bands for me and Tegan. Like, "Thanks Ryan!" He got us [Michael Azerrad's book] Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the underground independent scene in the 1980s.

So that was huge. That took up a couple of years for me. It wasn't just like one band; it was all of those bands, and I wanted to be able to know. I felt again like I was discovering something as it had just happened because I had missed it. I thought it was just so raw and so intense, super-tough for music that isn't that tough. I love that "Unsatisfied" was on an acoustic guitar, and I love how wild it was, that it didn't even feel like there was a tempo. I just loved it.