Released in July 2007 on Vapor Records, Tegan And Sara’s fifth album, The Con, marks a noteworthy shift from pleasant pop to a level of sophistication and maturity that the duo has seemed to always possess. For the album’s production the Quins relocated to Portland and, with Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla, produced one of the year’s top albums, one worth owning and, when your fancy is tickled, well worth giving as a stocking stuffer.
Here Sara Quin and I discuss touring, songwriting and, as was appropriate, a Californian Halloween.
First off, I see you’ve been selling out a lot of shows lately. Congratulations on that.
We were just talking about that last night. We found out this morning that even our third show in Australia had sold out so far in advance. It’s such a relief because we’ve been touring for nine years and I can’t even think of a tour in nine years that we haven’t been on the phone all the time or on e-mail checking numbers to see what the ticket counts are because it’s so stressful.
You want to know that at least 70 percent of the tickets are sold out because that’s how you live…to make sure that you’re not losing money on the show. This is the first tour where, every day I’m like, ‘Ah! This one sold out, too!’ That’s something to really worry about, but it’s wonderful that we can just focus on the music for the show. And we’re playing these wonderful theaters which feels like such a luxury. We’re in Santa Barbara today and we showed up at the venue and I was like, ‘I cannot believe we play here now instead of yucky clubs that smell like pee.’ We’re playing these wonderful, old theaters. Today we walked in and there was this great old upright piano. When do you ever go into a club and say, ‘Can I use your upright piano?’ There’s just no such thing.
So you’re doing a Halloween show in California. Tell me, what does a Santa Barbara Halloween look like?
It’s extremely sunny and I’m sitting on a patio outside of the venue and I’m hoping to get a tan. It doesn’t feel at all like Halloween. Where we grew up Halloween meant snowsuits, and you had to get a costume a size bigger than your body because you would have to wear your snowsuit underneath to go trick or treating. It was usually about -10 or -15 and there was snow on the ground. You would kind of scamper from house to house.
So everyone was a ‘chubby ghost’ or a ‘chubby witch’?
Pretty much, and if you were really lazy you’d just put your winter coat over your costume and all you’d look like was a snowman. I’ve been in Montreal for the past couple of years over Halloween and it’s not as cold, but it’s pretty miserable. Halloween rules when it’s nice. It must be wonderful when you can just go out trick or treating and wear your costume and not worry about having to stay warm. I can remember my parents would keep the van running and they would follow us on the street. Sometimes when you’d get too cold you’d hop into the van and warm up a little bit, then get back out again.
The price you pay for candy.
Or you could just go down to the local grocery store, buy a bag and say, ‘There. Don’t even bother. Don’t go through the torture.’ [Laughs.]
Speaking of being a kid, I saw on your bio that you’ve been playing since you were 15. I’m wondering, since you’ve been writing songs for quite some time, is it more of a collaborative endeavor or is it more of ‘Tegan’s song’ and ‘Sara’s song’?
It’s pretty much a very independent process. I like to think of myself as more like a writer. You have to get comfortable in your space, and you bear down and spend eight or nine hours recording. It’s a very independent study program. There can’t be anyone around, whether it’s just people walking through the hallways of my apartment; I can get very distracted. I need to be quiet and focused in order to do what I need to do.
It’s never been collaborative for me. I think that aspect comes when we get into the studio or when I’m done recording a song at home. I’ll send Tegan the Mp3 and she’ll record guitar or vocals over top. That’s when the collaborative part starts for me, when the song is pretty much done and we’re just collaborating on what the actual musical landscape might look like. Especially with me—Tegan always tells me I’m much more difficult to collaborate with—I’ll generally spend so much time, and by the time I send her something there’ll be 30 tracks on it and she’ll say, ‘Great! It’s done.’
She’s better at sending me something with just a couple guitar tracks on it and a couple vocals and I’ll be able to affect what the actual song will develop into. But the actual songwriting process is a very independent thing.
So it sounds like you approach it less like ‘Today I’m writing a song’ and more like ‘Today I’m writing a poem.’
Certainly from a lyrical aspect, absolutely. For me, when I’m coming up with a guitar riff or the actual core structure melodically or what a song’s chorus or verse should be like, it’s very much almost stream-of-consciousness. I find that if I’m with other people or if I’m working with other people I can’t get into that meditative state. I need to be able to function in a way that, from an outsider’s perspective, might seem awkward and strange.
My friends who are writers, I really relate to their process. Some people do it by getting into places that are very distracting because they’re able to sort of lose themselves in that situation and that noise and their brains just do what they do best. Most artists, I think, have a difficult time articulating what, exactly, happens but you know when the key is turned. You know when your artistic state is coming out, you know when you’re in the best functional space. That’s the same for writing music for me —when it clicks and it’s happening, it’s just so easy and so natural.
I saw, in the liner notes that portions of some of the songs were recorded in your closet. Is that true?
That is true, yes. Tegan and I recorded for six or seven months at home, in our respective apartments. We demoed really extensively and would record 20 or 30 tracks and would send those demos to Chris Walla [Death Cab For Cutie], who was co-producing the record. When we finally started doing a lot of pre-production, Chris said a lot of what we’d been recording was great the way it was and we didn’t need to duplicate everything. ‘I Was Married,’ for instance, the first song on the record, all the vocals were recorded at home. Not actually in my closet though. I wasn’t into the closet yet.
Part of the reason why I love this album so much is that I know, obviously, when I listen to it I remember exactly when I wrote a part. When I listen to our demos I’ve always loved them because that’s the first time, the first time those melodies came out, the first time I had sung those words. So in a weird way it’s the most honest. You’re not recreating anything; it’s very genuine. I love that this album has so much of that, that it feels so natural instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I had to recreate those vocals and they sound a little bit different.’
‘Back In Your Head’ is a great one because I still love the demo of that song so much. It’s in a completely different key [and] is very much a strange, kooky acoustic song and now it’s very much a pop song. I love the pop song version, but when I listen to the original I just really get choked up thinking about what I was thinking when I wrote the song. Listening to the pop version, it feels really different to me.
I love that there are so many points in the record where we were able to pull over those original sentiments and integrate them with the new, polished recording of the stuff we were doing with Chris Walla in Portland. I love that marriage of those two things. I always feel worried about our albums but there’s something about this album and the energy around the project right now that feels really exciting for us. It’s our fifth album so we’re pretty used to the cycle, and it’s so fun to be able to find every moment really exciting and original, almost like you’re experiencing it for the first time. We used to say it doesn’t matter if industry doesn’t get it or if critics get it, but it’s nice to know that people like the album for what it is. It’s really rewarding to know that people think it’s cool or dynamic.
I like the review you received in The New York Times that said The Con is one of the albums to obsess over this year.
Yeah, it feels great. You know, sometimes when bands get ridiculously good press…like I remember when Arcade Fire’s first record came out, I don’t think anybody said a critical word about them. I remember being slightly envious but at the same time thinking, ‘Damn! That would be so intimidating!’ How do you compete with that? With yourself really; you’re in your own league.
I’ve always enjoyed the critique of a journalist or another musician or a fan. This record feels great because there seems to be a bit of a balance. There are definitely positive things being said, but there’s also still the critical. We’re always just excited to keep going. I think that, for us, it’s always about growth and making music that feels like a challenge. I don’t know that I can ever say ‘I’m doing this because…” or it’s expected or I’m contractually obligated; I love writing music so if it keeps exciting people… Get excited.
Tegan And Sarah’s new album, The Con, is in stores now. Their Nov. 19 show at Webster Hall in NYC is sold out but you can catch them on Nov. 23 at the Commerce Bank Arts Center in Philadelphia, PA. For more, visit teganandsarah.com