Tegan & Sara do the write thing
Even casual Canadian music fans know the basic equation of one of Alberta’s most successful exports: twin sisters X gay + indie-rock = Tegan and Sara. What most of them probably don’t know is that after 14 years of playing music together, the 29-year-old duo, as famous for their onstage banter/bickering as for their numerous variations on the fashionably punked-out mullet, has marched into previously uncharted territory: co-writing songs together. The Quin sisters’ sixth studio album, Sainthood, is also a stylistic departure, with many of the songs straying from their tried-and-true folk and rock influences to flirt with electro-pop.
WE spoke with Tegan as she was enjoying a few days back home in Vancouver before heading out on a four-month North American tour.
Sainthood marks the first time you and Sara have co-written songs. How was the collaborative experience?
Tegan Quin: We were really proud of ourselves when we were able to accomplish writing music together, because we’d never done it before and there was this part of us that felt like maybe it would go badly and we’d fight or something. [Laughs] It was actually really fun and enlightening to learn how Sara writes, and we definitely learned a lot from one another. We ended up sending songs back and forth to one another and continued to collaborate... It was cool; it kind of opened a door after 14 years of being a band. We’ve collaborated a lot, but we’ve never written. It kind of made me realize that there’s this whole other part of what we do that we’ve never explored. We were really inspired by the idea that in the ’70s and ’80s bands wrote for each other all the time... I was like, “Fuck, we should be doing more of this!” We should write for other bands and with each other. Sainthood’s by far the most collaborative record we’ve ever done, and that’s really exciting.
Do you have a wish list of future collaborators?
I really like leaving that door open, and every time someone comes to it, I’m like, “Cool, yeah!” Like, we’re writing a song for Margaret Cho right now; she’s putting out a comedy album, but she’s making it with indie-rock artists, and I love that. We just did a Christmas song with Fucked Up, and that was kinda neat. But I just love leaving the door open, because the weirdest people come to it and I’m like, “Yes, we’d love to work with you!”
Do people feel left out of the collaborative process working with sisters, since you obviously have a bit of a shorthand together?
It’s interesting, ’cause Chris Walla [Sainthood producer and Death Cab for Cutie member] was quoted recently as saying we were, like, “hyper-democratic.” We always say that that’s our band: Everyone gets an opinion, always, but that doesn’t mean we’re not running it like a dictatorship. We are creating the illusion that everyone has an opinion. I think that Sara and I have learned over the years how to make each other feel that way. Ultimately, if I want something, I’m going to fight for it. And if Sara gives me at least a little bit of her time to hear me out, and then comes back to me with her thoughts, even if it doesn’t go my way, I’ll go for it because at least she heard me out. And that’s huge for us, because when we first started out, we were teenagers, you know? It was like, “NOOOOO! I want it this way!” We are hyper-democratic, and I think working with us is — well, we try not to make people have to go to therapy afterwards. We try to be respectful and responsible with others.
Neil Young was a really vocal advocate of you two from the beginning, and you’ve had some pretty influential mentors. What’s been the best bit of advice?
The best advice was on our first tour with Neil Young and the Pretenders. One night I was complaining about the press, and Chrissie Hynde was sitting at the end of the table, and she slid over at one point and told this really funny story about seeing Steve Buscemi at a press conference. Every question was stupid, apparently — just really terrible questions — and he kept giving really great answers anyway. And she was like, “Oh, my God. They print the stupid answers, not the stupid questions! I want to go back in time 25 years and do every interview over again.” And I thought, you know, it’s totally true. They print stupid answers, so it was really important to me, you know, with being a twin, being gay, being a woman in indie-rock — we have fucking taken a lot of fuckin’ shit over the years. Like, we have put up with... idiotic questions and ridiculous comments, and I’ve just taken it all in stride. But everyone’s still just doing their job, and if they’re asking stupid questions and you’re bored with it, there’s still a way to get through it without acting like a jack-off, you know?