Date: March 2005
Author: Dave Montgomery
Headline: Interview with Tegan and Sara Quin
Not all that long ago it hit me that I was not the typical Tegan and Sara fan. Maybe it was the over 2000 miles and countless hours of driving I put in to see them on three separate occasions in Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle and Olympia, Washington in the space of three months. Maybe it was all the money I spent on merchandise for myself and my friends. Or maybe it was when I found myself, a 24-year-old male, at a meet and greet with them and three other fans, all of whom were somewhat giggly teenage girls.
I first became enamored with Tegan and Sara not long after their third album, If It Was You, found its way into my music rotation. While their previous material was mostly acoustic and something that could likely be heard at a conference for female empowerment, If It Was You offered songs with mass appeal, regardless of gender (even if I still love their previous material). These lovable twins from Calgary have made a steady musical progression starting from the when they signed on Neil Young's Vapor Records as a folk duo. They are now armed with the sound of a full band, complete with layered guitars, heart-felt vocals, thumping drums, and the occasional synth - all of which help fashion their own unique brand of indie-pop.
In mid-September I had the opportunity to meet Tegan and Sara in Vancouver on their birthdays (their 24th) - fresh off the release of their newest album, So Jealous. The other three fans at the meet and greet were juniors at local Vancouver high schools, so Tegan and Sara seemed quite impressed when I told them that I had driven nine hours from Pullman, Washington, where I was going to college, just to see their show. Not being a giggly teenage girl probably impressed them too.
After their show that night, featuring a break for several birthday cakes and balloons, Tegan and Sara stuck around to talk to and sign autographs for anyone who ventured over to the merchandise booth. After an hour of waiting for all the other fans to clear out, I walked over to the booth and asked them for an interview which, to my surprise, they enthusiastically said yes to. It was agreed that I would interview them in Seattle at an in-store show five days from then.
In Seattle they played an acoustic set to a packed record store where they again signed autographs, took pictures with, and talked to anyone who came up to them after the show. Due to their tight schedule that day, I was only able to interview Sara. After the last fan got their autograph, Sara and I wandered around the store like lost children in a crowded mall trying to find a suitable place for an interview. We eventually decided on their tour van parked out front. I crawled into the back while Sara curled up in the front passenger seat, leaning against the dash.
Dave Montgomery: What prompted the changes between This Business of Art, If It Was You, and So Jealous?
Sara Quin: You know like, when we were like 15, 16 and we could record and we had our own recording system at school, and all those little demos we made, and the first record, we were really just making music that was available to us. We had an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar so we were like "we're gonna play acoustic and electric guitar." We didn't have a drummer and a bass player so when we hired out people it was a very minimal approach when they would come in and lay down tracks and stuff like that. After Business of Art, me and Tegan toured for like 2 years acoustically and when that record was done we were just like "what are we going to do?" And it was the first time we were like "let's put together a band." That was really the big transition, instead of getting people to play on top of what we were doing to accompany it, we were actually looking for people who wanted to work at doing what we really heard and fleshing it out and thinking about it.
So when we started working on If It Was You, it was like we were in the rehearsal spot as if we were a real band with a drummer and a bass player saying "okay, I'm thinking like this," and working out parts we wanted to hear, and having somebody with an outside perspective give us not just "well, this is what I would do." I think that that is the transition is that when you start working with other people it's just natural that you expand.
I don't think Tegan and I will always make records that sound like this or like our other records. I think that at heart we're song writers and that's what we do; I think that our sound will always change. So I don't think anybody should expect to hear a record that sounds like our last record, unless we do it by accident. It's just that the better we get, the more we do things, the more natural that it becomes to change.
DM: Natural progression?
SQ: Yeah, totally, just like changing your hair cut, you know.
DM: How is the recording process different on this album as compared to the last ones?
SQ: It wasn't that different compared to the last one. Pre-production, playing with the band, rehearsing, going in (and) recording the record, done. It's a real short period of time, two months or something. The only thing that was different about this record was that pre-pre-production. When Tegan and I were actually demoing, we were living in separate cities, and so instead of actually working on the songs in the cities we were just kind of completing them and finalizing them alone. So it was way more independent of a record for each other.
DM: How do you two typically write your songs?
SQ: Really independently. I know for all the songs that ended up on this record I was in Montreal and I have a little recording set up. And I'd come home usually and my general recording process is, or my writing process, is to record. I'll set up my computer and my microphones and stuff and I'll just start fiddling around and I'll usually come up with a guitar part and then I'll start layering guitars and figuring out little things like little guitar melodies and stuff. And then usually I'll start doing the same with the vocals. And that's pretty much what Tegan does.
I don't think that we really consulted each other on any songs except for… I think "You Wouldn't Like Me" was one of the first that I was like "um…" She sent me a recording and I liked the song but I hated how she recorded it and I told her "I think you should re-record it because I don't think anybody is going to hear the potential… and the vocals could be better." And she re-recorded the vocals and it was so much better and everybody loved it and was like "this totally has to be on the record."
DM: What does your record company or even Neil Young think of this record because it is obviously not anything close to Under Feet Like Our or This Business of Art?
SQ: We basically have a handful of people that we work with, like different record companies. Like in the US we work with Vapor and Neil Young but it's a 50-50 deal so we also have like… Vapor is like our mom and we also have Sanctuary which is kinda like our dad. They're equal, you know? And Sanctuary loves this record and I think they were happy to have what they see as being something that is going to be tour-able, accessible, appealing to mass people. And Vapor is a boutique kind of smaller label. I mean, they're Neil Young's managers and they were really into acoustic and I think that's what they thought we'd always do. But they've been so (good). I mean, they keep pumping money into the project. I don't think they were necessarily like "great, great idea! Definitely keep going in this direction!" I don't think that was what they were thinking but they've been very supportive, I mean, what else are they going to do? But this is our third record (with Vapor); they don't seem to want to stop so that's great for us.
DM: Since you just played it tonight, and I think you played it in Vancouver, how come "When I Get Up" didn't make the record or even other songs that I see demos floating around for?
SQ: In the context of recording, I think of those songs as being recorded, they just didn't make it this album. There's demos for every song that's on So Jealous and there's demos for all the songs for If It Was You on my computer and I love them. I don't even listen to So Jealous really, I listen to the demos for So Jealous because there is something about them that can only be appealing to fans and me and Tegan - because they are so rough around the edges. Especially with this record, we meant to do it with the last record but we got too busy, but definitely with this record when I have a bit of down time I'm going to remix some of them and we definitely we want to release the demos this time. Even if it's just downloads for fans and stuff like that because we love the demos. We think they're brilliant, I mean they sound like shit, but we think they're brilliant. We think they're so, not brilliant, but we think we're funny and we like our funny demos and um, um, I don't know what your question was. (Laughs)
DM: (Laughs) It was why didn't "When I Get Up" make it…
SQ: Oh yeah, right. So yeah, it's still out there. I don't think of it as not being out there, like, we still play it live, you can still download it, but I think we want to put the recorded version… Tegan's recorded version of it is really cute, it's really lo-fi, but it's really cute, I like it a lot.
Somebody was asking us about "Empty In Between" (a b-side from If It Was You) the other day and me and Tegan had to sit for 15 minutes to think about how to play it. There's so many songs that people are like "how come this isn't on an album and this one isn't on an album?" It's tough because "When I Get Up" specifically is a very simple song and I think it appeals live but I don't know if it would hold true on an album.
DM: There are a lot of songs that you performed in between If It Was You and This Business of Art that seemed like they fell by the wayside…
SQ: We went very carefully through and decided which songs should make the record. It's not that we think songs are better or worse. "Come On Kids" is one of our favorite songs, but [it] didn't make If It Was You - but we still played it the whole tour for If It Was You. But it's like in the context of the album, for cohesive reasons, a lot times we're like "does 'Come On Kids' really go with the rest of the record?" At the time we didn't think so, but when we started rehearsing and playing live we were like, "fuck, why didn't we put 'Come On Kids' on the record?"
[There are] a few songs right now on our record that really work well with the record, but when we start to play them live I'm like "ah shit, should we have put this other song because we love to play it live." So it's two different animals, you know? Playing live and making a record [that] people listen to - it is very different.
DM: At the Vancouver show, and other shows that I've seen set lists for, you've played "This Is Everything" and that is the only song you played from the first two records…
SQ: Yeah, it's the only one we can still stand.
DM: I was wondering if it was a conscious effort to either move away from those or…
SQ: No, it's just like, say from Under Feet Like Ours and Business of Art the last record we toured we used to play "Frozen," and we played "Hype" for a while, and "This Is Everything," and "Divided." Those are the four we can still play. We're only playing "This Is Everything" right now because we are making a conscious effort to play material off our last two albums. But I love to play some of those old songs. I think "This Is Everything" is great and I love playing it; it's fun.
DM: I just saw this the other day, John Dolan, a writer for Spin, recently said that you two were once a "wiccan-folk nightmare." What the hell is he talking about?
SQ: (laughs) We read about it and we were like, uh, we've been waiting years to be in Spin. And they were like "yeah, so you're in Spin and we're doing this and doing that" and they loved the record, but that was the coverage we got. It's annoying you know, like, whatever, I don't know what to say. We always felt like… I mean, I can't tell you how many times we've heard from people that have heard the record and they've written us off and then they see us live and then "oh I get it. It's a whole package." I think sometimes with big media outlets like Spin, they hear so many records that if it doesn't appeal to them, it doesn't appeal to them, you know? I thought that was just rude but whatever. I mean, hey, apparently we're cool enough to get this.
DM: Yeah, I couldn't believe it when I saw that…
SQ: He also said this record was "indie-pop bliss," so he likes it. And we went out to dinner with all the writers for Spin and they all were like "we love your record" and they all were like "we loved your last record" but it's political. We're not a big band and we don't buy ads in their magazine and we're not the favorite at the magazine and we're not the favorite of the editor so you don't get (in) the magazine, that's the way it is.
DM: If you loved the last record so much how come you didn't talk about it…
SQ: I don't know, because it's so short; it's just political.
DM: You called this album the most challenging record you two have made; why is that?
SQ: It gets harder, the better you get the harder it gets. When I finished this record I remember it was the first time I didn't listen to it obsessively. I was almost actually nauseous to listen to it. I went out with this friend and I told her that and she's going to med school and she said to me the more that you learn the more critical you can become of yourself because you know more about what you are doing wrong and not just what you are doing right. When you start and people applaud you're like "god, we're great" but you don't really know anything and the more that we're in this business the more that we can critique ourselves and critique our music and it does become more difficult. So this record was just hard because I wasn't hearing just what was going right, I was hearing all the things I wasn't happy with and I was hearing all the things that didn't turn out the way I wanted them to and it was tough. It was a tough record.
DM: Do you think So Jealous will be appealing to a much wider audience than the past albums?
SQ: We always hope so. Right now we're already seeing, definitely in the media, it's appealing to a wider audience and we're already getting more radio than we ever got. It moves up slowly. I hope so. I don't think that just the hundred people that show up at an in-store like us or could like us. I imagine that that if there was enough visibility that more people would like us than like us right now. That's all I can say. I don't know how many that is. I don't know if it's a hundred or if it's a million. There was like five people that came today that heard us for the first time this morning. They were like "we heard you this morning and we came out to your show" so we must kind of appeal to more people than we appearing to.
Tegan opens the door to load some gear.
DM: Why don't you tell us about your band?
SQ: Rob Chursinoff plays drums and he's been with us for about three years. He's Russian and he's very stubborn but we love him. Chris Carlson plays bass and he's very smart, very quiet and he's very tall and we love him as well. Ted (Gowans) is new in the band and we're breaking him in hard this month though and he's doing all the in-stores and all the stuff the band usually doesn't do with us and he looks tired and every time I look at him and we're not doing something he's sleeping. I think we're really making him tired.
DM: There are a large amount of videos on the Tegan and Sara website; will these videos such as "Speak Slow" ever make MTV/VH1?
SQ: It's up to each territory's discretion so America was happy with really pushing the "Walking With a Ghost" video and Canada they did the some. But in Japan I think they're going to push "Speak Slow." Each territory decides. The "Speak Slow" video is great, we were happy with it.
DM: Will there ever be a DVD at all?
SQ: That's what we talk about constantly. If it becomes feasible, if we get a grant or something like that we would love to put everything we have on video. Tegan obsessively makes little movies that nobody ever sees and I'm sure she would love to put them all out on DVD.
DM: How did you first come into contact with Matt Sharp?
SQ: Matt Sharp has the same publicist as us in the U.S., we both work with a guy named Brandon Burke out of New York City and he gave Matt a copy of If It Was You and Matt contacted me and asked if I could explain to him how to play "Not Tonight" because he wanted to cover it with his band and, so, we became friends. We just started e-mailing each other and talking on the phone and when we went to L.A. and played he came to a couple of our shows and one of the shows we asked him if he wanted to play with us and he said yes so he came out and played with us. He was putting out a record and touring so we asked him if he would be interested in coming out and touring with us and opening for us and playing with us or whatever and it just went from there. When we were doing the record we knew we were going to need keys and moog and stuff like that and we asked him if he'd come up and do it; "sure, no problem." So, yeah, he's a great guy.
Tegan comes in and sits down.
DM: In a recent letter to his fans, he called you guys his "personal heroes."
SQ: Oh yeah? That's sweet.
DM: How do you guys feel about that?
Tegan Quin: God, I hate him!
SQ: Laughs. Matt Sharp, just as a person, is a very, very nice person and he is very genuine and he has been nothing but generous with me and Tegan. I think he is a fantastic human being, I think he's a great artist, I think he's so talented. What he contributed to our album was incredible. He was in Weezer and that was my favorite band in junior high and high school, it's great, it's really cool.
DM: Since Tegan is even here, what is your favorite "Sara song" on the record?
TQ: Hmm, I think right now it's a toss up between "So Jealous" and "So Move" (formally titled "I Can't Take It"). There's a few songs on the record, like mine included, that I really like and when I hear them on the record I think those songs would be good if we can get them together on the road when we're playing live. But "So Jealous" and "So Move," I really like the dynamics of those songs and I like the intensity of them and I like the simplicity of them. And my songs are anything but simple; they're wordy and there's eight different parts and I like how simple sometimes Sara gets across something very passionate but simply put. Nicely put.
SQ: What you said was not simple.
TQ: No, I know.
DM: What's your favorite Tegan song?
SQ: I like "I Know I Know I Know" on the record. I like the way that song turned out. I like the demo of it and I fought for it to remain kind of lo-fi sounding and I like Matt's contribution, Matt did the keyboards at the end, the (sings the keyboard part) and I really like that part.
DM: My friend and I were talking about the other day and we said "this has to be Matt!"
SQ: Yeah, it's totally him, it's his sound. It's great.
DM: Alright, last question. What's next for Tegan and Sara?
SQ: We're touring, going to tour all over the U.S. The record's coming out internationally. Christmas: Got to buy some Christmas presents. I might buy an I-Pod.
Nick Blasko (Tegan and Sara's Manager): We're releasing a line of dolls and a sports energy drink.
SQ: Straight from Nick's mouth. I'm hopefully going to get over to that 7-11 down the street and get a Slurpee and we're going back to Vancouver and I'm flying home to Montreal tomorrow morning. That's it.
DM: One other little thing, I'm going to try to get an interview with Matt
SQ: Tell Matt that we always think he has the hottest shoes and that we can't wait to meet up on the road with him and that we love him.
TQ: And that we stole all of his t-shirts and replaced them with NAFTA disapproved t-shirts and he'll probably be arrested.
SQ: He better watch out.
NB: And Nick says to drive slower, he's a maniac.
SQ: Well, there you go.
DM: Thank you so much
SQ: Thank you, nice to meet you!
A month and a half after the interview, my friend and I made the cross-state trek to see Tegan and Sara. They were playing on a tiny stage in an Olympia bar, an off date from a tour of much larger venues with Melissa Ferrick. My friend and I were talking after the first of three opening acts when she spotted Sara with guitarist Ted. We continued talking until I noticed a pint sized figure out of the corner of my eye. When I turned, there was a Sara bundled in a pea coat and wearing a smile from ear to ear. We talked about my home town of Olympia, the food, the people, and the opening bands. As the second act took the stage I wished her luck on the show and continued watching the show.
After the show Sara again found me. I officially welcomed her to Olympia after she and Tegan had been pestered all show by a highly intoxicated, over zealous, and possibly rabid fan in the front row of the crowd. She was clearly disappointed but we laughed it off. I noticed a huge crowd of people around us waiting to talk to Sara, so I told her I should let her go so she could mingle with the masses. She shook my friend's hand and right as I was reaching out mine, she gave me a hug. Apparently sharing 20 minutes in a van makes you best friends.