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

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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?

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