Date: July 16, 2009
Author: Chris Tinkham
Headline: Tegan and Sara: In the Studio - Tegan discusses new album Sainthood

Tegan and Sara plan to master their sixth studio album, Sainthood, at the beginning of August and release it at the end of October. Tegan Quin spoke with Under the Radar this morning to update us with some of the basic details and offer her impressions of the new music.

Hi Tegan, I was told I was going to talk to Sara, so I guess they pulled a switcheroo on me.

Tegan Quin: Yeah, I thought you were going to talk to Sara too, but you know what? I really like Under the Radar, so I'm happy to talk to you

That's great! I only mention it because I had some Sara-specific questions, but I will adjust right now.

[Laughs] I can do my best to pretend I'm Sara.

No, no, please. We want your best Tegan. Do you have an album title?

We do. We kind of decided it a couple weeks ago, when we were just finishing up in the studio. Until further notice, we're going to call the record Sainthood.

Who are the producers and primary musicians on the album?

We did the record with Chris Walla and another gentleman named Howard Redekopp, who co-produced So Jealous, our record before The Con. So, the two of them produced. Chris Walla played bass. Jason McGerr from Death Cab played drums. And our guitar player from our regular touring outfit, Ted Gowans, was there with Sara and me. So we all shared guitar and keyboard duties.

When and where did the recording take place?

We started in May. We were at Sound City in Van Nuys. A lot of great records were made there, like all the Tom Petty records and all the Fleetwood Mac records. And then it had a resurgence in popularity in the '90s. Nevermind was made there and Pinkerton was made there. So, it was a pretty classic studio. It was strange to go there every day and walk past those bands' records and be like, "Don't let them down!" So we set up there for three weeks, the five of us in one room and kind of played the record live. We played songs 30 or 40 times in a row. We sort of played as a band, which was the first time we'd done that. And then we had a few days to travel up to Seattle. We spent about four weeks at Two Sticks Audio, which is Jason McGerr's studio outside of Seattle, and we finished up there.

Do any guest musicians appear on the album?

No. There's one person who came down and played violin. It think it's gonna get in, but I haven't heard the final mix of that song yet. So I won't announce her name, just in case she doesn't make it on the record. [Laughs] The five of us were able to sort of cover everything. Sara and I, again, had very extensive demos, similar to how we did The Con. We spent a lot of time recording at home first. We always have an excess of music to put down. We started out with 51 songs. It was a very streamlined process by the time we got recording. There wasn't a lot of sitting around going, "Let's see. Who can we get to come and play?"

Have you had violin on your records before?

Our first record had a lot of cello on it, and we've definitely had the instrumentation that sounded like string instruments, but we never brought someone in to actually play any string instruments of late.

Are there any new, funky instruments that you've added for the record?

No, I think we kind of went back to very traditional- I think there are still a lot of keyboards and there are still sonic elements similar to The Con, but this is definitely our attempt to go back a little bit into more of the rock band area of our experience. On If It Was You and So Jealous, it felt like we were a rock band. And, I think, on The Con, because Sara and I recorded most of it by ourselves, and then with Chris, and then brought in a drummer, it felt very staggered. It was very different, it was put together like a jigsaw puzzle. And this is very much a traditional five-piece band just playing. So we got very nerdy. Pretty much every keyboard on the record is run through 85 different amps and 25 different pedals, and I'm already getting anxiety thinking about how we're going to make that happen live. But, other than being nerdy, we still were playing pretty traditionally.

When I talked to Sara during pre-production for The Con, she said you two wanted to take six to eight months off to write that record. It seems like you didn't need such a break for this album.

Yeah, I mean, we had a great schedule last year. Sara and I have been touring since we were 17, and we sat down with our management prior to The Con and said that we didn't want to go out and burn ourselves out. Sara and I are very interested in being successful. We want our music to be successful and we want to grow every record, but not at the expense of our sanity or our health, so we had a lot of time off for The Con, more than people-even our friends and family-realized. When we'd go out and do five weeks, we'd come home and take off a month and a half. So we did write quite a bit. When we actually finished touring The Con, it was only about four months before we started recording the new record, but that felt like a lot, because we had taken two months off and toured for three weeks, and then to have another four months off, we were kinda getting edgy and feeling lazy. We got the time off and we got it more staggered than we thought we were going to. That felt pretty nice. I think, as a musician, sometimes you want these big periods of time off, but there's just nothing to do. [Laughs] And we did find things to do. We both produced other records, I've been working and creating a book series. We both always find things to do, but ultimately Tegan and Sara are the thing that takes up all our time, so four months is a good enough break for us.

So when did writing for this album begin in earnest? Was it during The Con tour?

We did that big American tour last fall, and I say it started around there. We didn't tour a ton in the summer, so for me, that's when I started to write for The Con - I'm sorry, for this new record. So the first few songs kinda came out before that tour, and then the rest came around Christmas and then into the spring. We started pre-production in March, so most of the stuff that I wrote was during that time. Sara and I flew to New Orleans in November, and we wrote together, which is when we wrote the song "Sainthood," which is what inspired this record. It's not actually on the record, but it's the song that sort of inspired us to get working on a new record. We've never written together. In 14 years, we've never sat down in a room together, until we decided that now was the time. So we went and wrote seven songs together, which was really weird. The title track "Sainthood" was really great, but the rest of it was just really strange. I think Sara and I need to be alone to balance ourselves [laughs], like we came up with really weird music. I'm sure it will see the light of day at some point. With the way the music biz is now, you always have to have B-sides and extras.
Anyway, it was a really fascinating experience and, when we release the record, we're releasing books with the record, I mean, at the same time, and one of the books is about our trip there. We brought a photographer and we taped everything that we did, and it sort of looks at the experience of sitting down together for the first time and writing. It was really exciting. Sara had been getting into Tom Petty and had watched the documentary that came out about him last year [Peter Bogdanovich's Runnin' Down a Dream], and Sara was like, "Everybody writes together! Everybody from that era wrote together. We should write together." And I was like, "We are not Tom Petty!" But it was great. It was a really cool experience. And again, that's sort of when we really started to get inspired and write a lot of music.

So how many of those seven songs are on the album?

Zero. [Laughs] But one of them, "Sainthood," I think we'll play it live. It used some Leonard Cohen lyrics, and they didn't approve it. It's sort of like this weird world where, if you want to play that song and record it, you can have it, but you can't pillage from a song. We were like, "OK." We're still going to play it live and it will be a part of the folklore of this record. Literally, we had 51 songs, so it just got whittled down and the best songs won. There are two songs on the record that we wrote together, but not in New Orleans, which will be the first time we've ever written anything together and it got on a record. So that's really exciting, and they're weird songs, which is great. [Laughs]

Do you have titles for those songs?

I do, but I'm not going to announce them yet, 'cause we haven't mastered and there's always the possibility that one of them will get shoved into a corner or get banished. We're going to announce them at some point. I think we master on August 4, so I'm trying to be good and not say what they are. But they're good, 'cause they're really weird. Sara's so strange. It's so weird to write with her. She has such a strange brain.

Paul McCartney likes to tell the story about how when he was writing "Getting Better" for Sgt. Pepper, John Lennon chimed in with the line "It can't get no worse." Did you have any moments like that writing together?

We had some tough moments when we were writing together in New Orleans, but the other two songs we wrote together, we wrote from our own homes, and when I sent Sara the music for one of the songs, a couple hours later — I didn't know if she would like it. It was pretty crazy. It was my first time writing in Reason [software], so it was like 18 different sequencers all going at the same time, and then I played keyboards and all this crazy stuff-she texted me, "Oh my God, this is so good! Doing vocal tracks right now. I'm fucking Madonna." And I was like, "What?!" It turned out really cool. It was very inspired. And she even threw a Material Girl reference in there. So I think that song for sure is gonna be on the record. It's pretty freaking awesome. But when we were writing together in New Orleans, it was pretty painful, which is kind of why we did the book, 'cause we knew it would be, and it's a pretty hilarious read because it gives a clear overview of how [it went], which was kind of a disaster but kind of awesome too. I mean, we didn't kill each other, there was no physical violence. And we still are a band, so I guess it wasn't that bad.

I heard there are 15 songs on the album, but I guess that's not official yet.

Yeah, basically the day that we master, then it will be official, but right now, it's between 13 and 15. I love all 15 songs. They're like babies at this point. We've been working on them for four months, so I don't want to let any of them go, but unlike our past record, we didn't sequence the record [beforehand], so I don't know if everything will fit, in terms of an emotional trip [laughs]. We're getting nitpicky about it, but there's the potential that something won't fit in terms of where to go from song to song. There's always that chance. We have rough mixes of everything, but as things are being mixed, things are sounding so amazing, it makes you question certain songs. I know we're crazy right now and have no context, so it could be anywhere from 13 to 15 songs. I'm really holding out for all 15 though. But even though, it's only 42 minutes long. It's not really a long record [laughs].

I was going to ask about that. With The Con, I think the 14 songs totaled about 37 minutes, so I was curious if there would be any epics on this one.

No. In general, I think everything feels maybe 20 seconds longer. [Laughs] There are definitely more songs on this record that have more of a traditional outline for some reason. I think because we were in band mode, we were jamming it out as a band, so things started to feel really good, and it would be like, "Let's add an extra chorus" or "Let's have an instrumental break here." So I think that's the one thing that people are going to hear when they hear this record, is definitely more of a band, which is really exciting because The Con was really Sara's and my answer to hating having the band in the studio. We were so frustrated with that process that when we went in to do The Con, we were sort of isolating ourselves, whereas with Sainthood, we love our live band, and the opportunity to play with basically the rhythm section from Death Cab for Cutie for two months was really amazing. I feel, as an artist and a musician, it really challenged us big time, so I think this sounds like a rock record, it sounds like a band record. It still sounds like Tegan and Sara, but it sounds like, I think, a really, really, really mature Tegan and Sara, because literally in pre-production, we would play songs 30 times a day, and then, when we got to recording, because we were recording tape, we would only do a song a day, and we would play it. There were a couple songs on the record we played over 50 times, so I felt like I was getting better as a musician just sitting there, which was kind of insane and sounds really cliché, but I've really never practiced before, and to play the same guitar part a hundred times in two months, I was feeling myself getting and growing more confident as a musician. So I think the record does reflect a much more mature and much more confident-sounding Tegan and Sara.

How would you describe the tone of the album?

I think it's pretty dark. It's very poppy sounding still, but it's a pretty dark record. There are a few songs that were influenced by mid-'90s punk rock fascination, so there's definitely some dark, fast, kind of heavy stuff on the record, but there's some pretty poppy stuff as well. Sara's got a couple tracks that, I don't even know how to explain, really weird but very poppy. I always joke that Sara brings the credibility to our records. You know, songs like "Relief Next to Me" and "Floorplan," they're so hard to digest on that first listen, it feels like genius or like, "Wow, this is amazing." Whereas you hear a song like "Hop a Plane" or "Speak Slow," and you're just like, "It's pop! It's easy!" You're singing the chorus along by the end. I think Sara moved more in that direction on this record, which is really exciting for me. To hear like seven or eight "Back in Your Head"s was really exciting, like not quite so poppy on every song, but she definitely pushed herself on this record, I think, even more than I did. She wrote more than I did, which is the first time in 14 years that she'd done that. So I think it's still a really poppy record, it's still Tegan and Sara, but there are definitely some happy moments, and I think musically there's stuff on there that we've never even attempted to do, and it came pretty natural, so I'm still getting used to it. There are songs where I'm definitely like, "Ooh, this is weird." But I think it will be cool.