Q&A: Tegan and Sara on Sibling Rivalry, Leaving the Indie World Behind

Sisters were 'literally at blows with each other backstage'

Tegan and Sara
Rick Kern/WireImage
Tegan and Sara
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The first day Tegan and Sara entered the studio with producer Greg Kurstin, they knew that their new album, Heartthrob, would sound unlike anything they'd made in the past. "We were working on this song, 'Now I'm All Messed Up,'" Tegan Quin tells Rolling Stone. "It was originally a piano ballad and he just went crazy with all this bass-and-drum programming. I was like, 'Well, we can't really go back from this now. This is a power ballad.'" 

The duo have spent the last decade earning credibility on the indie circuit – but this time around, they want to sell records. "We did have to make a conscious effort to make our record sonically more smooth and pleasing," says Tegan. "We have a huge back catalog of guitar-driven music, and the idea of just making another guitar-driven record seemed boring."

Photos: A Stylish Weekend on Tour with Tegan and Sara

The result is the most commercial record of their career, and Tegan and Sara hope it'll introduce them to a new audience. Rolling Stone talked with the twins sisters about making the record, why they decided this was the time to broaden their sound and how they got over their vicious sibling rivalry.  They hate doing interviews together, since they tend to talk all over each other, so we spoke to them separately.

Sara Quin

It's been a few years since your last album. Is that something you planned, or was the break more organic?
I think it was more organic. As the time started to add up, we realized that we could take what we had written and go back into the studio and sort of bang another record out, but there was no need. We also didn't have that nervousness of, "Oh, jeez, we have all this momentum; we should really just sort of capitalize on it." We felt like we had put in a ton of work between The Con and Sainthood. We did those two albums back-to-back and toured back-to-back, and we thought people maybe needed a break, anyways.

The time off was really nice. We were able to do some collaboration stuff with other bands and we were able to do this DVD that we put out. And then, instead of just taking the first batch of songs we wrote and making a record out of them, we were able to have a few batches of writing that we were able to pull multiple songs from and eventually start to accumulate what we thought were the best songs we had written.

This was really the first time since I got out of high school in 1998 when I was like, "I'm just going to fucking chill for a minute and see what happens."

You really have a new sound on this album. How did you decide it was time to mix it up like that?
This was a deliberate choice. We didn't want to take a small step. We wanted to take a big step. We felt like we closed out our decade with Sainthood. We turned 30 at the end of that album and we had officially been in the industry making music professionally for a decade. This is the time to say, "What is Tegan and Sara now? What is the future gonna look like for this band?"

Some of the answers were really boring. We are very literal people. We went through numbers: "How much do we want to sell? What kind of venues do we want to play? What's our dream size of venue? What countries do we want to play that we haven't played before?" We took all that information and said to ourselves, "OK, we can't make another record that sounds like what people expect from Tegan and Sara. We can make a record that maybe marries what we've done with the band in the past and then work with a producer who is going to help us embellish and sort of amp up the sound a bit." 

I honestly didn't know what to expect from this process. Tegan and I work extensively, independently on our own, writing and creating full demos with bass drums, programming, the whole thing. We're used to keeping a little bit of that, and adding other musicians into it.

Within a day or two in the studio with Greg Kurstin, I was like, "Oh my God, this is amazing." It was very obvious he wasn't going to take gentle, slow steps towards something. He was just going to throw it out. If we didn't like it, he would throw it out, but he wasn't going to fool around.

Are you worried about how your fans are going to react to the poppier sound of the album?
We've learned to sort of put our fans into a couple of different categories.  There's sort of the general fan, and this is somebody who maybe would see us once out of every three times we come to a city; maybe they'll see us at a festival and run over to the stage and go, "I'm a huge fan!" But they didn't, like, buy our last two records, so like they're a general fan. Maybe they're into a couple of songs. That's a huge majority of people that listen to most bands. Most people are casual music listeners.

Then there's the really intense fan. That's the person who knows everything about your catalog, they have every B-side, they have all your DVDs, they're on the message boards, they are sort of like your bread and butter, they are always there with you, they buy the tickets first.  Those are the people that I worry won't like anything we do ever again because they are so committed and devoted to what you've already done. It's very challenging to ask them to like something new.

We have to trust that we are truly aware and know best. And if you lose some people, I think it's natural and I think it's also natural to gain other people.

Do you think any of these songs could work on mainstream Top 40 radio?
The emotional, normal, average person just listening to the radio, knowing what I know about the music industry kind of person, says no, I can't possibly imagine how this can work. Even the business part of me and the part of me who has the knowledge that we've been getting adds all over America for the last two months in places that we've never been played before, like KROQ in Los Angeles. In 13 years, they've never played us and now they're playing "Closer," so there's evidence to prove that I'm wrong. 

And yet there's still a huge part of me that finds it very difficult to imagine myself amongst those people on the radio. I don't see them as my peers. I see them at rock stars or pop stars. And I think we're always going to be marginalized into this indie-rock or underground or left-of-center kind of world. But then, I see myself on playlists with the biggest pop stars and rock bands in the world.

I want to be on the radio.  I think it's a fun accomplishment after seven albums to have a song played on the radio. And it's sort of thrilling and exciting in all the cliché ways to hear your song on the radio and you think, "Holy shit, I'm on the radio." It's awesome. 

Do you worry that a big hit might change things? Devo built up years and years of credibility before "Whip It," but as soon as that song hit big, they were pretty much through.
If you had told us at the beginning of our career that it would take this long to achieve this much success, I don't know if I would have been willing to go through it all. It is a lot. We've been working hard for 13 years. There was a lot of ups and downs. Even if you sort of look at it on paper, there was an upwards trajectory, [but] it didn't always feel that way. 

We really built a thick skin and built our own audience and learned everything we possibly could about the business. And I feel like if there's a time to weather a big pop single, it certainly wasn't before now.  If we're meant to have the kind of success that a big pop single would bring, then I think that we're probably the most capable and the most qualified we've ever been at dealing with it. 

Are you willing to put your music in commercials and TV shows and all the things it takes to get a hit these days?
I'm not afraid of placements and being co-branded with cars or computers and all those things. I think that the part of me that has a problem with it is also the part of me that thinks that cellphones and the Internet suck and that I really miss the Nineties. I think the times have changed and to take a hard line about not being in a commercial feels incredibly contradictory to what I mostly spend my life doing, which is essentially walking around as a brand. I use a certain phone, a certain computer; I make my albums using certain programs. 

I feel like marketing and advertising has become complicated for bands and if you can't rely on MTV anymore to play your video and if you're not getting pop radio play then yeah, you start looking for certain alternatives.

The history of siblings working together in bands isn't great. I could name you 10 examples where it ended in absolute disaster. It seems like you're proving that rule wrong through. Am I wrong?
We hit a breaking point in 2006 when we were touring The Con. I was able to step back and look at what we had already accomplished, and I thought, "Here we are, literally at blows with each other backstage. We are verbally abusing each other to no end. This is unhealthy." On the other hand, I realized we'd never killed each other and we do have the same goals. I started to think of our relationship as being successful instead of being difficult.

This is getting a bit deep, but around age 10 or 11, our relationship became challenged. We got competitive. We were fighting. We chose different social circles and different friends. Since that age, I associated shame with my relationship with Tegan. We just couldn't get it together. We were being mean to each other. We physically beat each other up after school. I felt embarrassed at that conflict.

Now, I think it's the easiest time in our relationship since we were kids. We're really good at being in this band. We're really good at getting through conflict. We are actually quite accomplished at negotiating and compromising and not holding it against each other.  And the more I started to think of our relationship as a success and less as a dysfunctional fuck-fest, I was basically like. "Yeah, sometimes I do want to punch Tegan, but 99.9 times out of 100, I don't."

I suppose it's a pretty complex relationship when you need to make business decisions and artistic decisions with your twin sister.
Weirdly, I'm not sure that I could do this with another person who wasn't my sibling. There's an unconditional sort of primal connection that I have to Tegan. It's sort of schizophrenic; sometimes I feel like I'm in a band with me twice. Like, I feel like Tegan is another external me and I'm in a band with her and I trust her implicitly and I feel like she couldn't hurt me or take from me in the way that any normal person probably could. 

People are always baffled by our relationship. They see two people seem so indignant and hateful and then an hour later, we're laughing and eating chips and watching TV. I always say to people that if the band was my vision or the band was Tegan's vision, they would be entirely different bands. It truly is the compromise between us that creates this band.   

Look, a lot of the songs we've had the most success with – "Walking With a Ghost," "Back in Your Head" or "Alligator" – they've been my songs. People always ask if we compete with each other. Our band has always been a 100 percent 50-50 split. We split everything; even if I go out and write a song with somebody for their project, Tegan and I still split everything 50-50.  And I never wanted Tegan to not get what I was gonna get.  It's something that goes very, very much back to a very deep childhood place. She was the most important person to me, and probably at some point developmentally, I couldn't even detach she was something separate from me.

Tegan

Was your goal from the get-go to get a real Top 40 radio hit? That is starting to happen in some markets.
True, it is happening! In Vancouver, I hear us on the radio all the time. I think on this new record, sonically, we do fit next to other acts on Top 40 radio. Pop music has changed a lot over the past few years. You had Florence and the Machine and Fun. and Gotye and all this stuff infiltrating pop music. It changed the way it looks. So I think we fit because of that, but I don't think we would have if we made another record that sounded like The Con or Sainthood.

But our goal wasn't a big radio hit. Our goal is to sell more records. Even taking into consideration that people sell less and less records, I still feel like we plateaued in terms of record sales because we haven't had anything projecting us to a new audience. It's our same audience coming back, and you naturally lose people anyways.

Video: Tegan and Sara Want to Get 'Closer' on Letterman

We sell 10 times as many tickets as we did in the mid-2000s, but we literally have not had a song on radio since then. You have some options. You can become controversial and sell records that way.  You can have a video that gets a bazillion spins and everyone buys your record. You can have a huge placement on a soundtrack.

There's lots of ways to become more visible or for people to know who you are. I think I would prefer being almost like Mumford & Sons, where everyone all of a sudden loves you and buys your record. But I think we're a completely different kind of band, so I think we do need radio and I am comfortable with that because of how the radio changed. I think if radio was the same as it was four years ago, we wouldn't even have this conversation.

Four years ago, Top 40 started to almost feel like its own genre, and it was a very narrow one.
Yup, and now it's broad! It's hip-hop and R&B and dance music, and it's fun and completely different, so there's more variety. When we released So Jealous in 2004, "Walking With a Ghost" cracked the Top 10 on Alternative. That's when you had Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand and all these alternative bands that became really popular, so there was room for us. Then it changed, and went back to being either pop or urban or whatever. I think the time has just changed.

When choosing producers, did you want somebody that had more of a pop touch?
Definitely. I wanted a pop touch, but I wanted credible. I met with a few producers and I was like, "No. . . " But Greg Kurstin just finished the Shins record. He was Beck's musical director for 10 years. He's pissing credibility, and he understands pop music in a way that I've never experienced. Everything he does is magic. He would take an idea like "Closer" where I had piano hooks and just build it into this monster.

I feel like some indie bands are scared of success.
Totally, and we were, too. You don't live in our skin for 13 years in this industry and think that this is going to be easy. The first six years we were signed, everyone just thought we were a gimmick. We were just twin girls from Canada. That's why we signed with an indie and aligned ourselves with Neil Young. We wanted to be seen as credible musicians and writers. Then, through the mid-2000s until now, we embraced what was put on us, which was that we were indie-rock or indie-pop depending on who was writing about us, and that gave us credibility. And all of the sudden, I was taking these meetings with people like Rob Cavallo and Greg Kurstin. They were like, "What more credibility do you think you're gonna get? You're credible! You write your songs, you've had bona fide hits, you're fucking good, stop worrying about being credible and fucking make music!"

That's great. I get frustrated at bands that just want to stay in their box.
It's so boring, but that's why the longevity of a project is usually curbed at 10 years. They get to a point where they are recycling the same ideas, so they get bored and break up. Sara and I started writing when were 15. I'm 32 now. I'm not gonna be interested if Sara came to me and was like, "Let's make a record; it's gonna sound like The Con." I'd be like, "Well, we already have The Con."

Sara is on the same page as me. She was like, "With this record, don't write a bunch of self-deprecating and self-loathing songs. You did it. You wrote those songs and they're perfect. Kids are going to ask to hear them until the end of time. You're gonna play "Nineteen," "The Con" and "Call It Off" every night for the rest of your life. Something else!"

I was like, "I still want to write about love and relationships, but you know what I've never written? A love song. An infatuation song. A sexual song." I started to think, "Okay, let's write a song about the day before you get your heart broken, when you were infatuated with someone and just being close to them, rubbing up against them in the backseat of your friend's car as you're all piling in to go to some party." I realized I could write about that for a couple of years. I have to keep it fresh. It's not just the instrumentation, but the mindset.

I've talked to a bunch of artists who told me they can only write songs when they're sad.
Sara and I always say we've written some of our best music, no doubt, when we're sad. But I'm more productive when I'm happy. When I was sad and writing The Con, pretty much everything I wrote made it on the record. I was like, "I'm devastated, here's my devastation in musical form." Now I'm pretty happy and content but I'm ambitious, and I'm hungry, and I'm aggressive and I'm confident. I'm going to give you something completely different, but it's going to come from the same place.

We were happy and content when we wrote Heatthrob, but I think it's our saddest record yet. I mean, when you really listen to the lyrics and look at the songs, we're still writing about the loss of youth and devastation around having to move on. It's about getting to the point where you're so empowered that you're the one who ends it; you're the one that says, "Fucking leave then!" That's way sadder than being left. At least when you get left, you get to be the victim and you get to be sad, and you get everyone to take care of you and you get to carry that with you. Now we're that aware of how love and relationships work, we're the ones that are most confident, and there is something sad about that.

Tell me your goals for the future. Where do you want the group to be in five years?
I think that, depending on how Heartthrob goes, our future could be very different than how I imagine it now. If Heartthrob goes the way I want it to, which [is that it] will be our biggest and our best record, then I see us continuing to make records. And they are going to sound different than Heartthrob and all of our other records. I think we will continue to evolve.

Our goal with this record is definitely to see growth. If this record didn't increase growth in certain areas, I think that I would maybe try to alter the way I think about how our career should go. I don't want to slag it out on the road and tour 200 days a year if it's not going to sustain a healthy lifestyle on the road and comfort and we can't pay people properly. I'm not so addicted to this lifestyle. If people are still coming and excited, then we'll still be here. So our goal is really to increase the size of the project; we're really interested in putting on a big show. I want to see our music go to new places. I don't want the same stuff, you know?