Date: June 28, 2005
Publication: To Hell With
Headline: Tegan and Sara Interview
tegan and sara are twin sisters who have been putting out music since their teens, initially on their own steam and, for the last few years on neil young’s vapor label. along the years they’ve supported the likes of young himself, ben folds, ryan adams, hot hot heat, the killers, and the night i interviewed them, weezer. they often get unfairly put alongside fellow canuck avril lavigne, partly because they deal in guitar-led pop songs, and partly for reasons they’ll make clear themselves later on. anyhow, the comparison’s a bit unfair. their music has its own strange depth to it - the songs contain no names and no introductions, and the full strength of the melodies is often buried until the third or fourth listen, making it compellingly claustrophobic. like wrapping yourself in a blanket when you're depressed. and they like the slits. read on.
to hell with: i saw you two last time you were in london, when you were supporting ari up at the barfly. were either of you two fans beforehand?
sara: yeah totally, i was totally a fan of the slits. i haven’t been in touch with what ari up’s really been doing for the last ten years but i was excited just to be able to do something like that.
thw: a lot of the crowd seemed to disappear after you’d finished.
s: well it definitely felt like two different audiences for sure, there were some pretty old-skool punk rock reggae types there (laughs). it was cool though, i really liked it.
thw: generally, how do you find supporting as opposed to headlining?
tegan: it’s always great to be the headlining band ‘cause you usually feel confident that the audience is there to see you. we’ve done a lot of support dates in our lives so we’re kind of used to it now but it definitely takes a lot more out of you ‘cause you prepare yourself way in advance for the emotional repercussions of someone yelling at you or the audience not really being into it. we’ve been very lucky, we’ve never had anything thrown at us, never had anything too horrible sent to us. we just did a month with the killers and every night we sold a hundred records, tons of t-shirts, the fans were really great. but other tours have just been, whatever. we always look at it as an opportunity to meet other people in our industry, our peers - but headlining is just kind of fun, you know.
thw: considering you’ve been doing this for 6, 7 years now is there anyone, like say weezer, where you’re still overawed?
s: we always get excited to play with people we really like and admire, and weezer’s a band that we liked since we were 14 so it’s cool to play with them, but yeah still, constantly. i met sleater-kinney the other day and just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. they haven’t had a lot of mainstream success and they just keep trudging it out. they’ve been working at it for ten years in the independent underground and have probably suffered some of the same setbacks we have.
thw: is mainstream success important to you?
s: i think that to survive, to make a living wage you have to have some sort of success in the mainstream. it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a mainstream band. at some point you have to be able to crossover into tv or radio, but i don’t have any interest in being on the cover of nme or any of those things. i don’t imagine that the people who are going to like our project are going to be the people who jerk off in the bathroom to the nme.
t: that’s kind of rude isn’t it? we’re happy to take whatever success that comes our way but we’re certainly not willing to do anything we wouldn’t want to in order to get that. we’re getting a lot of radio play in the states right now which is great, but were still doing the exact same things, we’re still being very much ourselves so it feels okay.
but being on tour with the killers, i looked into their lives and they’re having so much fun, and it’s really great to have a great tourbus and all these crew people, but it looks like a lot of work. our lives are a lot of work but in a different way. there’s a lot of posturing, presenting this package. we’re always changing and we always want different t-shirts and posters and images, and we’re just all over the place. i don’t know if we exist in that world. it’s nice being that band that not everyone knows, it’s nice having that anonymity, but at the same time we know a lot of bands, we don’t get terrible press, we put out good records, i think so we’re in this weird place where we can pay the bills and we’re like, do we want to get more popular? we’re not sure yet so we wanna see what happens.
someone in canada who we worked with before said that he felt we might be intentionally not getting big. we’re not, we’d like to make more money but we’re not sitting at home thinking, how can we blow up? we just want enough money to bring our band out on the road and tour. i want the house to be full, that’s all.
thw: more than most bands, you seem to get involved with the peripheral aspects as well as the music. does that come from starting at an early age, where a diy attitude was necessary?
s: partly because we were young and doing it ourselves for the most part, and also because we love it. i can’t imagine letting other people take control of the details. i wouldn’t let anyone write my songs so it makes sense that collaboration on the artwork, the business, the personal side is an absolute must for us. there’s a part of us that feels like people blur the line between what they see on tv and what really happens when you are in a van without air conditioning and sleeping in a burger king parking lot. and you do it all because you love your guitar and your songs, and you love it when people sing along to every song.
thw: do you see music as something you’ll be involved with for the rest of your lives? or can you see yourselves getting to a point where you think ‘i’ve done this, i fancy doing something else for a while?’
s: probably, because i don’t think it would be challenging to spend the next sixty years just doing music. people who are interested in writing or painting or whatever it is you like to do, if you’re really and truly interested in it, it can change from being your career to your hobby quite easily. even if our labels dropped us i would still make music, but i’m interested in so many other things that it would be more challenging, more enlightening to focus our energies somewhere else too at some point. so many other artists seem to have other projects on the go, and that’s totally something we would do.
thw: getting on to the new album, how would you say you’ve progressed since the last album (2002’s ‘if it was you’)?
t: we just had a lot more time. we were writing in different cities so i think it gave us the confidence to write stuff, send it and not have to sit there and watch the person listen to what you’ve been doing. we were able to develop these songs more fully at home [before we brought them to the studio]. also we finally had all the basics down in the studio and we had space from one another so we weren’t at each other’s throats, we were in a position to really collaborate in the studio and help each other with our music. it was the second time we’d used those producers, and the second time with the same drummer so i felt comfortable with the people we were in the studio with. there’s been times when we’ve done stuff where i haven’t felt comfortable with people so i feel like i hold back. but we did not hold back on this record, that’s for sure. it’s a complete thought compared to our first record back when we were 17. it was like a paragraph full of fragmented sentences. in a sense this is our first full paragraph that kind of makes sense.
thw: considering you do write separately, how democratic is the end process? do you feel uncomfortable criticizing each other’s songs, considering they’re often personal?
t: we always make tweaks, but we spend so much time with songs before we bring them to the group that once you get there you’ve almost given up a little, as in ‘this is what i can do, now it’s open to suggestion’. once we get to the studio it’s very much a democratic process. there was a song, ‘i won’t be left’, that we just toiled over and we were divided. to this day i wish it wasn’t even on the record, and it’s often the song people talk to me about. i’m like, glad it’s there but…i argued my point, and then i let it be. it was democratic in the sense i got to speak my opinion but it didn’t really matter ‘cause sara wanted it on so it was on. there’s no point fighting, it’s just music.
thw: practically the first line on the album is ‘do i write cause new heartbreak to write another broken song?’. do you feel as if you have to live something in order to write about it?
s: our music especially is always about relationships, and life experiences that we have had personally. i feel like it would be a challenge to step out of that box [because] i have always felt nervous about speaking on behalf of people. my perceptions of their experiences or their suffering is not as [precise] as the words i have to describe my own. personally, i look forward to exploring new turf but i wouldn’t want to do it if it wasn’t natural.
thw: is it true that your record company asked you to write about something other than relationships? was it a serious request?
s: not that serious, although there were discussions about exploring ‘political’ ideas. our label knows we are outspoken about sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. to outsiders, i can understand why it’s frustrating that we don’t always address our politics in our music but i wouldn’t want to do it if it wasn’t natural.
thw: you seem quite hard to pigeonhole, or at least people tend to pigeonhole you into very different boxes. what do you think about that?
t: i just think it’s funny, it’s interesting to hear what people think we are. i don’t think it’s easy to pigeonhole us so much as people just do it and i don’t think we sound like the people they set…if there was some way you could just listen to our record and compare it to someone else’s without stating all the things we are i think we would be more popular, we would be less ‘this band’.
s: this is the thing though, this (leafing through file of press excerpts on the desk) is my favourite article in here, let’s find it. let’s see here: “they’re quite lovely, even if they do hate cock”. that’s what the nme said. now to me it’s like…
t: we never said we hated cock.
s: well i love penises actually, i just don’t want one attached to a man. seriously. that’s the damn truth.
t: but when have we ever said that?
s: that’s what it is, we get pigeonholed as what the male-dominated rock world’s idea of lesbians is. and they’re sexist. here’s the sexist, homophobic nme - they talk about us being lesbians, our hairstyles…oh there’s one half sentence that talks about the music and then there’s the thing about, the comment about us hating cock. i mean there, that’s pigeonholing.
press officer: but the irony is that they liked the single, it was in the recommended singles of the week.
s: yeah, except it’s a dis.
t: what it comes down to is that musically, we never sound like who they pigeonhole us as, but we do get pigeonholed as people. think of the straight people we all hate: those jock guys, total misogynists who wear backward baseball caps, get drunk and punch each other out. no guy i know relates to that. and then there’s those hoochie girls who are just brainless. they sleaze up against everybody and their aspirations in this world are just to have good hair and nails. those are the stereotypes of straight people, just like with the fat, shaven-headed dyke who hates men or the big, faggy pansy. what about the millions of people who fall outside of those stereotypes?
s: and what does that even have to do with our music?
t: yeah, that’s what i feel like. when we get stereotyped as like, ‘they don’t like cock, they’re lesbians, ooh, they have this kind of haircut’; they’re grasping, because we don’t fit into that stereotype. i just wish they’d write about our music. when they write: ‘didn’t like this record, it’s like this lesbian 14 year old girl writing in her diary’, i’m like, jesus, lay off. you’d have much more impact if you just said you hated it.
we sit in our bedrooms, we write our music, go to the studio and record it and we get a great kick out of it. then you read these reviews and you’re like, holy shit! you just want to call each of them and say, come on!
sara and me aren’t selling our personality, well we are in a sense because we get up on stage and talk and whatever, but when we send our record to a journalist we just want them to listen to it. if you don’t like it, write that or just ignore us, but we’ve had guys say that they love the record, and then they go on about how they want to fuck us, we’re like their dream, blah blah blah. one particular writer loved the record, wrote all this great stuff, made good comparisons as to who we sounded like, and then started writing about how he’d like to fuck our brains out after a lengthy discussion about politics and world affairs because we’re intelligent too. and this was supposed to be a compliment; it just went on and on. sara wrote a letter to him, just horrified, like ‘you obviously like us, why on earth would you do this? do you have a sister or a mother? can you imagine reading on the internet about your mom, about some guy wanting to fuck her brains out?’ he wrote back saying ‘i thought i was doing you a favour if i talked about how hot you were.’ i wish they’d send a copy of their articles to us so we could edit out the comments about sexuality, because it’s one thing if you’re doing a personality piece but if you’re writing about the record, write about the freakin’ record!
thw: while we’re on the subject, there does seem to be a gender divide in the way people listen to music in that a lot of guys don’t generally listen to female artists so much whereas girls seem to listen more to both. i’m sure i read recently that someone’s just published a study saying that about authors. anyway, do you notice that much with regard to your audience?
s: it’s sexism, you know. i can listen to u2 and i don’t have to have any kind of attraction to him or any kind of justification as to why i like what he does. but i think it’s difficult for men, gay and straight, and women even to justify liking other women. the most common thing i heard supporting the killers, from guys and girls equally, was that they didn’t like ‘girl music’, and that they were surprised that they were coming over to the table to buy our cd. well, why? it’s not random that this one person says this - it’s within our system. we learn how to listen to women by listening to women who are easy to look at or who we want to sleep with. they’re used to britney spears, kylie minogue, and they expect female artists to fit into that category but…i refuse, i think it’s lazy. i listen to guy music, why can’t guys listen to girl music without having to justify it?
t: it is happening in some way, we’re getting a lot of alternative radio play.
s: in america our audience has become 50/50, like overnight and it’s cool. it’s really neat seeing all these guys back there and there’s no shame, they’re totally into it. but it’s a long time coming.
t: like you said, we’ve been putting out records a while and with each year that passes we see a change. a male band can put their first record out and get credibility but i think sometimes with women it takes longer. that is something we accept, but we’ve enjoyed our run so far and i don’t feel like we’ve faced a backlash or necessarily outright sexism or homophobia or anything like that. it just takes longer. sometimes they hear music written by a woman differently. but we’re doing all we can, we’re not compromising ourselves or wearing belly tops or letting someone write our songs for us.
thw: but i think part of it is the music itself. although the production of the songs is very radio-friendly, the structure and the lyrics are very different to what gets played - in a way it’s too indirect.
s: i don’t think we had any intention with this record of it being more accessible than the others, that’s a projection by the record company and radio. when we finished it, i actually thought it was the least radio-friendly record we’d ever made but i don’t care, because i don’t care about that sort of thing. then we started getting radio play in the states and i was like (slaps thigh in mock shock), but then so was franz ferdinand, modest mouse, interpol. maybe they want to hear something a little more indirect. but i hate the radio.
t: i like that when we come on, like we have a video tv show in canada and when our video comes on i’m disturbingly aware of how awkward it seems because we are really different to what’s going on out there. not different like, ‘woah, that’s different!’ - we just aren’t spending $300,000 on videos, we aren’t spending half a million dollars on records, that’s just not what we’re doing. the best place to see us is live because that clarifies for people who we are, they get to see our personalities and it kicks home who we are.
thw: but do you see yourselves as pop music?
s: i love pop music: the cars, bruce springsteen, violent femmes, justin timberlake, even neil young. to me, pop music is something that has strong melody, and makes you want to clutch your imaginary microphone, shake your shoulders and dance in front of your bedroom mirror. we make indie pop. we’ve never been a radio band, partly because we’re too pop for indie and too indie for pop. we like to think we fit in somewhere.
i think, though that people are suspicious of music that is catchy because they think it was written intentionally to appeal to the masses. i love listening to music that makes the hair stand up on my arms, that’s all i am trying to do. i love sugar pop that makes your stomach hurt and i love music that makes people cover their ears because they find it unlistenable. we try to find a middle ground.