Date: July 25, 2006
Headline: Tegan and Sara
Tegan Quin is downstairs, getting things in order for the upcoming show at the North Star Bar in Philadelphia. Sara Quin is upstairs with me, answering both silly and serious fan questions.
I came to the band completely clueless. I’d heard the name somewhere and took a chance emailing for a press kit based on the fact that they would be playing at the North Star in the near future. The CD, So Jealous, blew me away. It was catchy pop, in the best way possible. Not a hint of bubblegum. No pretensions. Just the sort of songs that you could listen to all day.
After quickly becoming addicted to the CD, I wanted this interview. It would be my first. I didn’t feel like I knew enough. I was terrified. The silly fan questions I’d brought that had made me giggle when I copied them down seemed terribly unprofessional. Reading through the press kit, I felt there wasn’t a question to ask that had already been asked. That’s why I’d turned to the fans in the first place. “Don’t ask them about being lesbians,” someone advised. “Do they drink milk straight from the carton?” another wondered.
Oh, yeah, I wasn’t ready.
But something about sitting on the upstairs couch in the empty North Star Bar—which looks less like a music venue and more like a rundown bar by daylight—calmed me down. Or maybe it was Sara herself, so focused, serious about serious questions, and half-serious about the silly ones. When she introduced herself to me, she said that the phone interview she’d just finished had been awful. Nowhere to go but up, right?
I found out a lot of things in a short period of time. The North Star show would be their first headlining show for the new album. They’d just been to Philadelphia with Melissa Ferrick and enjoyed it a lot. And yes, Sara told me, holding a straight face, they really were sisters.
Although Sara had moved across Canada without the rest of the band, she felt that the process of making So Jealous wasn’t much different from their previous CDs. They wrote their songs separately, and then brought it all together. Despite this, the album flows naturally. “We definitely wanted it to be cohesive...When you have the same people playing on your record, you have the same producers, and you're using the same instruments and you're recording and rehearsing and hanging out, it's easy to create a cohesive vibe.”
A fan question that came up early in the conversation was about the video for “Walking with a Ghost.” “I came up with [the treatment],” she tells me. “It was kinda just supposed to be a kind of metaphorical relationship-type thing, ya know? We also knew at the time that our record was going to have felt hearts on it, so we wanted to somehow to incorporate felt hearts into the video. So it sort of came off from there.”
But it was the song “So Jealous” that had its name next to the felt hearts on the CD cover. “We'd never done it before and, like I said, we were kind of kicking around the idea--we were kicking around artistic ideas, visual artistic ideas, and ‘So Jealous’--the record is a love record, you know?--and so we kind of wanted something that would speak about that, so we thought the hearts were good, and we also thought that ‘So Jealous’ was kind of like the emotional climax of the record--or maybe it was for us. When we were doing the record, we were constantly talking about other bands or talking about other situations, like, you know, being like ‘Oh, God, that man is so right..we're SO jealous’ of what they're doing or whatever and so that was kind of how it came about.”
Another fan question was whether the band enjoyed touring. “I mean, if we didn't enjoy it, we wouldn't do it--I know lots of people who DO NOT tour because they just hate it, you know? And some really great people too--like, I hardly ever see Cat Power touring. Yeah, it's crazy. I'm not speaking for her--I don't know whether she hates touring--but there are people who just seem clearly really not to enjoy it. We tour constantly, so I think if anything we just enjoy our time off just like anybody else. I mean, you can love your job but still be excited for the vacation part of it. And also, too, this is only half of what I do for a living. The other half is being home and writing and recording and so, after being on the road--we've basically been out for three months straight doing press and doing promos, and then doing tours and then doing MORE promo, and then doing tours. It's been like three months straight and I'm thrilled to just home and have a normal routine and record.”
Somehow, this led into a conversation about the differences between Canada and America—specifically, Thanksgiving, the holiday that had just passed. “Certainly, American Thanksgiving is, like, what?--the second biggest holiday in the United States or something like that? And there's a lot more hoopla around it. Thanksgiving was never a really big one for us--just for my family particularly and when I got older, I kind of, for political reasons, tried to educate myself about what Thanksgiving really meant. I try not to sort of not play into the whole idea of what Thanksgiving is to the masses. Just like with Christmas, I'm not really religious, and so I just try to take what I've always had around those holidays--which is like, great family dinners. We've never been like a really big Christmas-giving-presents-craziness kind of family. Everyone hangs at my grandparents' house and we have a giant family and we eat dinners and make desserts and play games and whatever, and so Christmas and Thanksgiving and all those holidays are really just an excuse to get together with people. I try to focus on that because some of the political ideologies behind these holidays are just not ones that I see myself buying into.” From there we debate the merits of board games. At this point I’m wondering, Will all my interviews be this fun? Sara’s family is “a card-playing family,” but also a board game and “a make-up game kind of family. There are six of us cousins who are really close, and they used to come up to Canada for Christmas all the time, and on summer breaks, and we used to play Hotel. Somebody would be the hotel receptionist and we would rent out my grandparents’ room to each other, and then that game kind of evolved into the mysterious stranger who kidnaps other hotel guests, so then the game just became about kidnapping.”
I’m not going to tell you the other made-up game she explained to me, because seriously, there’s some marketing potential in that.
It’s around this time that sound check starts to drown out her words, so we quickly get back to the topic of music. She tells me about The Arcade Fire, The Gossip, Feist, The Organ, and the French Kicks, and how she’s been listening to a lot of Talking Heads lately. She says that she and Tegan never toured in Asia but would like to some day. I finally remember to ask my favorite fan question, which is whether she and Tegan have roles in the band, as sisters or musicians...well, I’m pretty sure I mangled the question, but she understood what I was asking. “That's probably the biggest downfall from being in a band with somebody, or being professional with anyone, is that you have to construct these very intense boundaries between business and pleasure, and so, no matter who you work with--if they're your friend, or if they're your partner, or if they're your sister or whatever--you have to be careful to make sure you know how to be one way with them and another way with them, while still having the same kind of respect for them that you would on a professional level than on a personal level. I think Tegan and I try hard to respect each other professionally and not have the sister boundaries with each other when we're working professionally. We try hard to do that. We definitely have different roles.”
As the tuning of guitars grows louder (and Sara gets up to tell them to hold off while we finish talking), I ask her about “This Business of Art”—not the CD, but the actually business aspect of being a musician. What would aspiring musicians not take into account while playing guitar in their bedrooms? “I guess that's the whole thing--that when you're playing music, no matter how artistic you want to keep it, or how true to yourself you want it to be a lot of the times, there really is a business side to it, whether you like it or not. You need to have a balance, especially when you're out on the road.” I bring up a conversation that the band and crew had been having downstairs while setting up the merchandise table, about changing T-shirt companies. “That's the thing is, it's a whole operation. It takes a whole lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of effort to have a touring operation and you can't just throw money around. It costs money to make T-shirts and you have to be sure...We think of it as more like being a mom-and-pop type company, but you have to know that when you're getting into the business that there are going to be things that are going to come up that have nothing to do with sitting around and jamming. And they're not necessarily bad things--I mean, they keep your brain alive. I thrive to problem-solve, and I like trying to figure new ways to get people into our shows, get better quality T-shirts, to get better equipment for cheaper--we like to problem solve, we enjoy that part of it. So that was the stuff that I didn't know when I was sixteen and seventeen and wanted to play live.” The guys are being loud again, so while she is kind enough to suggest that she tell them to quiet down again, instead I insist that I’ll just rattle off the last of the fan questions so she can get to work.
So in case you were dying to know, she doesn’t drink from the carton, as she’s lactose-intolerant. Her desired superpower is based off her own physical weakness, because she has asthma. “I would be strong. I would be like Mighty Sara.” And she doesn’t think that video killed the radio star. “It just actually encouraged it.”