Q&A: Tegan And Sara Chart Their Evolution In 11 Songs, From “Superstar” To Superstars
Tegan And Sara changed my life, or at least that’s what I dramatically wrote when I did a deep dive into the group’s discography two years ago. While the Canadian duo scored their first mainstream hit only three years ago with “Closer,” they’ve been a formative influence throughout my entire life, shaping my identity and what I learned to value in music. While the sonic departure of Heartthrob may have come as a surprise to some, the truth is that Tegan And Sara have been flirting with inorganic sounds and conventional pop structures since their inception. Love You To Death continues this gradual transformation, marrying their fresh new bombastic ’80s pop sound with the emotional exactitude of their earlier work.
To celebrate their eighth album and reflect on their storied career, we sat down for a long, winding talk that charted their stylistic progression by looking at specific songs, from their early days through to their most recent album. Take it as a quasi-oral history of a band that has made it through two decades and is still putting out vital and constantly evolving music. Read below…
TEGAN QUIN: I wrote this song right after we graduated high school. I listened to it recently because I had talked about it with somebody and wanted to see if it was as bad as I remember it, and it wasn’t.
It’s not like I even think that I think it’s good or bad. We were so young for both those records — Under Feet Like Ours and This Business Of Art — that they feel more like demos, really. Good, higher-end demos because we actually did them with producers and proper engineers in a studio, but I think we were still discovering ourselves, and “Superstar” is a prime example of that. We’re exploring, even within the song, what kind of songwriters we are, what kind of singers we are, what we wanted to talk about. There’s so many left turns, so many weird elements. It’s so funny to me that it’s on two records — like, we re-recorded it because we thought, hey, we need to hear this another way. That just cracks me up.
I remember we had played this contest and got to go play a big industry festival out in Vancouver, and heard all these other female Canadian artists — I had been so inspired and excited. We had this crazy experience where we got home the day after the festival and every major label had called and left a voicemail asking us for more information. I wrote that song as almost an answer to that, because I was just 100% rejecting the idea of being some commercial band.
SARA QUIN: As if we had any idea what we were doing…
TEGAN: Exactly, that’s why it’s so funny when I listen back to it. I use the term “demos” in an affectionate way, but we’re literally trying things out. I don’t even know if I truly didn’t want to be commercial — I think I just needed to be able to explore that idea within a song. So yeah… It was painful to listen to in a weird way because we were so naïve and young. In terms of the actual song, it’s just so weird… We were weird songwriters.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel it’s ironic in a way that, being where you are today, you’ve kind of become… I don’t know if “superstars” is the proper term, but that after saying fuck you to this notion of commercialized music, you’ve found yourself in that world?
TEGAN: I think it’s interesting because at that point, we had played three gigs professionally and got offered a record deal. And didn’t take it. We didn’t take it not because we didn’t want to sell out or whatever — we didn’t have that vernacular yet, we wouldn’t have been thinking that way. It wasn’t that we were rejecting it — it’s that we were afraid. We were afraid because our mom was like, you can’t sign this deal until you’re 18 years old, and we had friends who were in the industry on major labels that told us that if we signed a record deal, we’d get dropped. Because we were too young, too unsure of our sound, they said that we weren’t able to be commercial.
SARA: We were also teenagers who were finally breaking free of the institution of education. We were not going to do post-secondary schooling. We were going to break free from our parents. For me, the institution of the record label was just a replacement for those authority figures. It was these grown-up men who wanted to sit down and take us out to dinner and tell us all of the things we’d have to do. It sounded like a job, it sounded like another thing where I wasn’t going to be in control. So it wasn’t even about artistic integrity or that we felt like we had to protect ourselves — I just wanted to be my own person for a while, and the idea of record labels and signing sounded like work. It sounded like school to me. I was just like, fuck off, we’re going to do it ourselves. Now I’m like, We need more help! Who wants to be my daddy?
TEGAN: If we could go back in a time machine right now and sit down with that Tegan and Sara, they’d be shocked to know where we ended up getting to and that we ended up being very successful, but I don’t think that we had an idea of what we wanted to be. I don’t think they would necessarily be in opposition of one another.
SARA: I think they would be like, Oh, so we can do this and not have to go to university? Great!
“And Darling” / “Love Type Thing”
STEREOGUM: When do you think you started to have an idea of what you wanted your sound to be? Do you think that happened with If It Was You?
SARA: I don’t want to sound super vague, but I don’t know if you ever really know. I think it speaks to the types of people that we are and the values we grew up with that, for me, I felt we started to establish ourselves when I was able to apply for a mortgage and was accepted and started to pay for an apartment that I bought in Montréal. I remember thinking, oh my god, this is my career. I’m having a career now. I have enough history with the bank that they would give me a loan based on what I do for a living. That’s what it really took for me to feel like what we were doing was legitimate. That was before we put out The Con. Up until that point, I was still thinking about whether I would go back to college or…
There was also something around that time — between So Jealous and The Con — where I started to feel like the pendulum was swinging the other way. I didn’t feel like we were super outsiders anymore. Like, oh my god, Chris Walla wants to work with us? The press wasn’t totally annihilating us all of the time. So I started to think that maybe all the signs were there that we were going to be able to make a living out of what we were doing. So I guess, in a weird way, that’s also when I thought, we have a sound, we’re a band now that sounds like how we want it to sound.
TEGAN: For me, I remember so clearly sitting with John [Collins] and Dave [Carswell] and playing them demos for If It Was You. We played them “Time Running” and “Not Tonight” and a couple of other songs. Before they heard any music and we were just sitting there with them, they were like, We don’t really understand. You guys want us to make your record? They thought it was kind of weird — not in a bad way, they were interested — but in a roundabout way, they said they didn’t want to make a record that sounded like our first two. But when we played them the demos, they were really excited and thought it was really cool. Obviously a lot of those demos had been influenced by their production because we loved the New Pornographers, so they were like, Oh, you guys are really weird and cool and write these little pop indie songs or whatever. And, for me, that’s when I had this burst of confidence where I felt like we were doing something really cool. Because we thought they were cool. That’s when I remember thinking we were moving in the right direction.
STEREOGUM: The next two songs I wanted to bring up are some of my personal favorites, “And Darling” and “Love Type Thing.” I didn’t really realize until recently that they have similar structures, which is why I think I like them so much. They’re both so economical with how they were conceived — they both hit on one idea and play around with it for two minutes before letting it go. I feel like that’s the basis of a good pop song. Do you remember how you approached those?
TEGAN: For If It Was You, Sara and I went and bought a computer and learned ProTools. So in addition to writing and getting ready to record an album, we were also learning that. Sara would call me and be like, I’m ready to record a song, and I’d go over there and press record for her. I can remember feeling really excited to be able to record our songs in that way and hear them and add production and record ideas. We’d done that very primitively with our high school demos on tape recorders and stuff, but we obviously weren’t able to overdub and that sort of thing.
I remember being quite pleased with myself for “And Darling” — not so much for the song or the structure or any of that, but I really liked my layering of electric guitars and the layering of the other instruments in my demo version of it. The only other thing I really remember about that song is being in the studio and arguing with everyone because I wanted there to be a full band and everyone was like, It’s so sweet as it is, it should just be you. So I begrudgingly went along with it, and when I hear it now, it is sweet how simple it is… It’s funny that you compare it to “Love Type Thing” because, to me, it’s just an early version of “Call It Off.” It’s just me playing with this very simple three chord back-and-forth — me in my most pathetic form.
SARA: I don’t remember anything about “Love Type Thing…”
TEGAN: I remember when you sent me the demo.
SARA: The only thing I can think of is… My brain is like a black hole for back then — and I feel like I may be making this up — but I think that I wrote it around the time that I saw Punch-Drunk Love. I have this vivid memory of Matt Sharp, who played on So Jealous, telling me it had a Hawaiian sound. Or I could be mixing all of those things up.
Around that time, I was discovering bands that I had missed in high school, the influencers of the bands that I liked. So I was listening to Guided By Voices for the first time, and they always have those little songlets that string together all the other songs, and I remember thinking, Oh, you can just write something that’s only one little idea, one little moment. They don’t even have to develop.
“Are You Ten Years Ago”
STEREOGUM: I feel like The Con is where you started to really experiment with your sound, drawing in more synths and keyboard parts. You also worked with Chris Walla on that one, so you had a bit more of an outside influence. “Are You Ten Years Ago” really feels like the first Tegan And Sara song where the guitar part wasn’t necessary, where it didn’t serve as the throughline for the song.
TEGAN: Even though there were keyboards on If It Was You and So Jealous, they were keyboards that were played by somebody else or melody lines that were conceived on the guitar and then moved to the keyboard. The Con was the first time in our lives where we spent equal time demoing out all of the guitar ideas and then adding keyboards to almost every single demo from that era.
With “Are You Ten Years Ago,” I wrote it very late in the process. I had written “The Con” and “Call It Off” and “Nineteen” already, so I was trying to do something really different. I had been doing some cowriting with my friend Hunter Burgan from AFI, and he had come up to Vancouver for a show and I was asking him all these questions about something on the computer. I wanted to know more about sampling and finding drum sounds and doing those sorts of things, and he was showing me all of it but he was like, You’re going to have to buy all of these sounds. ProTools isn’t like Logic — it doesn’t have all these built-in sounds. A few months later, I learned Logic, but at the time he just suggested I use GarageBand. I was like, Ew, no, GarageBand is a toy! and he was like, Sure, but it’s got all the sounds built in and you can learn how to experiment.
So I tried it out, and the first thing I found in the GarageBand beats was the one that ended up on this song, and we just recreated it on real drums for the record. So I built the song around that and a synth, and only added guitar at the end because I was like, Oh god, it just sounds like I’m rapping. I need to add guitars or something so it seems like it’s a real song.
Honestly, I probably would have abandoned it if it weren’t for my roommate at the time, who came upstairs after she had been painting all afternoon. She never did this again in all the time we lived together, but she came upstairs and busted in and was like, I’m so afraid that you’re not going to let anyone hear this song. You’ve been working on it for so long and I just want to let you know that I’ve been sitting downstairs quietly waiting for you to finish it and I love it.
It really embarrassed me. I was really nervous to send it out because Sara always made fun of me for being really wordy, and I was terrified that she would think I was trying to sound like hip-hop or something. I feel like the guitar parts… I’m glad the guitar is there and it makes sense on the record, but if I wrote a song like that now I would never think I’d need to layer five electric guitars all doing the thumping part. But we were still merging the organic with the electronic at that point.
“Like O, Like H”
SARA: I had just moved into the apartment I had bought [in Montréal] and I was really uncomfortable because it was this vast, empty cement loft. It was really echo-y and I felt really on blast in the building, so I started barricading myself in the closet in the bedroom area. I used to go so far as to pull the mattress from my bed in front of the closet andclose the doors. I had blankets I would hang to insulate everything. I didn’t do that for very long… That probably lasted for two months before I was like, fuck it, I don’t care who hears me. I never got any complaints.
I generally don’t start with lyrics, I always start with an instrumental. With The Con especially, I spent a lot of time building instrumentals. That’s when I had become incredibly comfortable with recording, and I felt really strongly that I wanted to try and capture as many ideas as possible myself. I knew we were going to work with other musicians, but I felt like if I heard a rhythm… even if it was embarrassing, I was gonna try to make it. I was using chopsticks on bean cans and homemade shakers — it was sort of childish stuff. I didn’t know how to program drums yet and I wasn’t using loops, but I was building rhythms because I was hearing them for the first time. I was still doing a lot on guitars, but I was removing rhythm guitar. I guess that was the beginning of wanting to make the guitar sound less like a guitar, or use the guitar in a way that was more angular. I was starting to think about those things around the time I was writing that song.
STEREOGUM: One of the reasons I brought up “Like O, Like H” in particular was that I feel like it’s interesting how the verses are so vivid and intimate and then the chorus drops out and it’s all visceral. There’s not even any real meaning there — it’s more about the sounds. I feel like the work that you’re are doing now is so much more about manifesting ideas of anxiety and nervousness into sonics more so than simply relying on the words.
SARA: I was actually thinking about this a lot recently because I hadn’t played piano in a long time… I mean, I still write songs out on the keyboard, but I never really go back and replay our old songs on the piano. But I recently did a quick catch-up on my music theory from high school and I tried to play “Like O, Like H,” and… One of the things that I really struggle with when I go back and try to replay songs is that there’s no payoff for me in terms of the arrangements. The melodic ideas and some of the textures that are on the album — specifically The Con and probably Sainthood too — aren’t particularly satisfying to me when I sit and play them stripped down. There’s a hypnotic repetitiveness to those songs that I think works on record, but that we struggled to translate live. And I think there’s also a bit of a flatline for me on some of them — “Like O, Like H” has no bridge, it has no chorus payoff…
TEGAN: A lot of the hooks from those earlier records were in the instrumentation. We were able to transition to more clean and simple pop drums and arrangements, which is really awesome and fun and created a whole new era for us, but back then what we were doing was not just vocal and melodic hooks, but instrumental hooks. When you take it and strip it down to an acoustic guitar, “Like O, Like H” is kind of weird.
SARA: I almost wish I could go back and write another part to that song. Like, it needs a reprieve or something. But it’s really interesting because… Well, I have a certain number of equations. When I think of a song, I almost think of it like a shape. All of our songs have certain shapes, and certain songs I can see where there’s crossover. Like Tegan said earlier with “Call It Off” and “And Darling” — for me, “Like O, Like H” is the same shape as “White Knuckles” off the new record. They’re not the same kinds of songs, but they follow a certain pattern. There’s just something about them. Like, I think “White Knuckles” is a better version of “Like O, Like H.” It’s got a better structure. It’s sort of hard to articulate that — I know it as a feeling and a visual, but it’s almost as if you’re writing the same kinds of songs and making them better. Just rewriting them over and over and over again.
“One Second” / “I Take All The Blame”
STEREOGUM: The songs on the I’ll Take The Blame EP are pretty early examples of you experimenting with more inorganic sounds.
TEGAN: They’re very experimental…
SARA: We tried to play “One Second” a few times live and it never really worked out…
TEGAN: When people are like, so you started playing keyboards on the last record … I’m at a point where I’m either really enthusiastic about encouraging people to see and understand or I’m just too exhausted to point out to people that we’ve had keyboards in our music since our second record, actually. We have so many fucking records and songs. But what we’re known for, our most popular songs up until Heartthrob, were “Back In Your Head,” “Walking With A Ghost,” and “Where Does The Good Go.” They are all acoustic-based songs, so I understand where the misconception that we’ve been an acoustic band comes from — I don’t care, I’m completely fine and comfortable with that — but it’s hilarious to me, since we’ve had songs with Tiësto and David Guetta. Arguably, up until “Closer,” our biggest song in Canada was “Body Work,” our collaboration with Morgan Page. Songs like “One Second” and “I Take All The Blame” … they’re deep cuts, but they showcase exactly what we were thinking and what we were feeling.
SARA: My iTunes and hard drives are
TEGAN: I write 30 songs every time we make a record, and I get five songs on the album. For me, songs like “One Second” are where I was learning how to experiment with new things. After we finished writing The Con, I didn’t want to keep writing stuff like that, so I did a wicked turn all of a sudden. When I wrote “One Second,” I was still collaborating a lot with Hunter Burgan, and everything we were doing was really strange. It was all electronic — for him, it was really Prince-influenced, and for me there were a lot of dance elements that felt sort of video game-y. “One Second” was me listening to his production and all of the things he was trying and forcing myself to try new things and get weird.
I think that the stuff we write — whether it’s for Tegan And Sara or not — influences where Tegan And Sara goes. Because Tegan And Sara as a band has a trajectory. We make wild turns within that lane, sure, but all the other stuff we write influences how that lane feels. I think sometimes that’s where we really strike out, but it’s also where we end up finding out what will be the next thing that helps us anchor our sound.
“Feel It In My Bones”
STEREOGUM: This is the first time you really did a straight-up dance song and collaborated with someone. What was that process like, and what did you enjoy about it that you felt a desire to keep going down that path?
SARA: We got a bunch of different tracks from Tiësto and honed in on something that we liked. What we gravitated towards ended up becoming “Feel It In My Bones.” It was interesting because there were quite a number of versions of the song before we really arrived at a place that Tiësto liked.
TEGAN: It was a cool thing because when we submitted a few ideas for it, he wrote additional music based on our ideas. So the song kept evolving, which was something we had never really done. We were the type of people who were like, there’s my song, it’s done, and if I ever dared to say that maybe something should be quicker or that we should change the key or something, it would be like, no.
SARA: To me, that was the big learning point. I don’t remember a ton about writing the song so much as I remember the process of him writing us and saying, No, I don’t like that, or Can you try a different chorus? And we were like… I guess we have to. It’s Tiësto — we couldn’t just say fuck you.
In the past, there was no one above us in terms of editorial. Even when we were hiring people to produce us, often they were just making choices about microphones or guitar sounds. We were using them as guides through some of the equipment that we didn’t have as much knowledge about. Chris Walla would have never said, Could you pick different words for the chorus? I think it would flow better if you said this word instead of that one… I very specifically remember Tiësto asking us to sing things in a certain way or let things soar. He was directing us and using these descriptions…
TEGAN: He was songwriting with us, which we had never done.
SARA: Yeah. And now, that would be so normal in our current configuration. If Greg Kurstin wanted something different, it would be very easy to have that conversation. That’s super normal now, but the first time that had ever really happened was with Tiësto.
STEREOGUM: How much ownership do you feel over that song? Because you were so early in the process of receiving all of this input, do you feel like it’s yours in that sense?
SARA: That’s what was so amazing about the experience — it felt like any other sort of collaboration we had done. I didn’t feel a lack of ownership. Instead of just me and Tegan collaborating, we were one entity collaborating with another. I think it was the beginning of us being aware that we have a ton of skills when it comes to collaboration. We’ve been collaborating with each other for so long that we’re actually really good at collaborating with other people.
TEGAN: We also learned it almost immediately on acoustic guitar and started playing it live because it was doing really well. So it took on a different shape in our minds. It was a song, and it was a song that we were known for, and we were excited about that. I also realized around then that a song is a song, no matter how you dress it up and no matter what the production is — if you can sit down and play it on guitar from start to finish and people connect with it, that’s pretty awesome.
SARA: Tiësto had also done a remix of “Back In Your Head,” which was how we met him and started working together. I remember him saying in the press — not to us directly — something like, I actually think their voices are better suited to electronic music. Initially, I was like, oh, what does that mean? That sort of hurts my feelings. But then I was like, Maybe that doesn’t hurt my feelings, maybe he’s right.
That was such a significant marker, too, because we were a little nervous before the song came out that people would not like it. It was in the early days of [artists collaborating with EDM musicians], and we didn’t know how “Feel It In My Bones” would get viewed. I actually want to say that Stereogum premiered it [Ed. Note: We did.], and people really liked it. And we were like, Woah, people like this? This is great.
STEREOGUM: At least for now, Sainthood is your last “rock record.” Do you feel good about that being the rock note you go out on?
TEGAN: It’s a funny record because I think it showcases how different Sara and I had become. A few months ago, Sara said it was like we had really become two bands, and that was pretty obvious on Sainthood. If you look at the history of famous bands that have multiple songwriters in it, that tends to be when the bands break up or their records become all over the place. And I think Sainthood is our all-over-the-place record, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. It’s still cohesive because we recorded it off-the-floor with one producer and the same band — we did that intentionally. We had been touring with the same musicians for like five years, and it felt like we should go into the studio and record an album that way.
When I listen back to it, it sounds great and I’m proud of the record but, as more time passes, I can see why it’s the album that we play the least amount of songs from, besides the first two. It feels a little bit like our early records in that I don’t really recognize that band.
During the So Jealous era, we felt so alienated from the indie-rock community that we were sort of aligned with or associated with, but not really. Then during The Con, that’s when we felt insanely alienated from all communities. We were being embraced by so many weird people, but not necessarily by the community that we were apart of. But then The Con had this amazing trajectory and ended up being such a fan-favorite and successful record that, when we went into Sainthood, it felt like we had finally been allowed into this special club. It was a really good record cycle in some strange way — we were successful and it was reviewed well and our shows went well, but I have the least amount of emotion about it. I feel the least connected to that time period, and the record feels like two bands.
SARA: A lot of my songs on that record — “Alligator,” “Night Watch,” “Paperback Head” — were not written with a guitar. What’s funny to me is that I was already not wanting to make a rock record, and Tegan had made a rock record. The only song that I really felt excited about when we recorded the album was “Alligator.” I got to play on the piano on that, and something felt exciting about it. I hadn’t been writing on the guitar, and any time I did pick up the guitar, I was trying to make it sound as much like a keyboard as possible. I hadn’t exactly found what I wanted [my half of] the album to sound like, and all of a sudden we were in the studio making it.
It’s funny, too, because The Con is a really sad record, but there’s a hopefulness to it in a way, while Sainthood is a very sad record to me. I was very sad and heartbroken, and when I think about that record, it’s a difficult thing. What did come from it was that we decided that we had to pick a lane — we could not be a rock band and have someone in it who wanted to be a pop person. We needed to decide what the band was going to sound like and how we were going to perform going forward.
It’s not that I don’t think “Northshore” is a good song, I just didn’t want to be the band that performed “Northshore” anymore. It was exhausting, I could never remember all the lyrics. I didn’t want to play electric guitar anymore. My body was sore from carrying a guitar. That sounds so wussy, but I was always hurting myself. I just didn’t want to play guitar anymore.
TEGAN: I feel like we’ll look back on Sainthood as a very weird, random record. Because literally the entire time we’ve been talking about it, I’ve been trying to figure out what else is on it. I forgot “Paperback Head” even existed.
SARA: Your songs were a little peculiar. You had “Don’t Rush…”
TEGAN: That, “The Cure,” and “Hell” — those were all co-writes with Hunter. At that time, I was looking for a collaborator and Sara didn’t want anything to do with the guitar. The one song we did collaborate on, “Paperback Head,” is very strange. But in terms of shapes and where songs belong, it’s kind of an “Are You Ten Years Ago.” Anyway, it’s a weird a record, it’s a transitional record.
SARA: I really like the lyrics on that record.
TEGAN: We got so much amazing praise for that record for being a well-written record. Looking at the songs, it’s where there started to be a much more structured “Tegan And Sara sound.” But, in a way, I do feel like it was the end of Tegan And Sara. Thankfully, something happened where the idea of it being over wasn’t interesting to us, but that Tegan And Sara had to go.
STEREOGUM: How do you feel about the romanticization of Tegan And Sara pre-Heartthrob?
TEGAN: I think that that’s good. That should exist. It’s like how people talk about their twenties when they’re in their forties. That’s great — you should romanticize it, it’s wonderful to be young in some ways. But we all know that when you hit your thirties, you look back at your twenties and you’re like, blech, thank god I’m not in my twenties anymore.
I’m not glad to be rid of old Tegan And Sara — that’s part of who we are. We could not be the band we are today if we didn’t make all those records and tour all those countries playing the way we did. If we hadn’t learned every single instrument… By the time we got to Sainthood, we hit a point where we were doing everything ourselves. Heartthrob is the record where we let each other in, where we started to let other music that we were listening to in. It’s where we started to say, I don’t want to play every instrument on stage. I wrote these songs. I don’t need to do everything myself. It’s when we grew up and got confident. But we couldn’t have done it without all of those other records.
I’m glad people romanticize that time. So do we. Just like how you romanticize your twenties or your teens or your first love, you still don’t go back there. You know better. I think we knew better. If we had started to try and chase some of the success or quick rise that records like So Jealous or The Con had, we knew we would fail. We’d be that band who was just trying to recapture the excitement of past records.
SARA: One thing that’s not always interesting for people to hear, but that’s interesting for me as an artist that’s trying to evolve is that… We had hit a bit of a plateau in terms of how we played and how we performed. The infrastructure around us was really solid, but because we made Heartthrob, it forced us to dismantle everything and re-approach our whole business. It made us a much more modern band — I mean that in the way that we tour, the gear that we tour with, all of the behind-the-scenes stuff. We had to rebuild everything, and that renovation has made us a much stronger band.
Even after having to go out and perform Heartthrob and tour for three years on that album cycle, I feel strong. A lot of times on our older records, I didn’t feel strong. I don’t feel bad saying that I don’t romanticize the old version of ourselves. Because I was depressed and insecure and struggling. I used to get so nervous about playing festivals. I didn’t feel confident. Heartthrob made me confident.
Now, I like playing our older songs. I used to not want to play our older stuff, but now we have this really good band and musical director that’s really able to help us translate that music into the best that it’s ever been played. I’m a perfectionist. Back then, I was tortured over not having it sound the way that I wanted. Now, we can control how we want it to sound and those songs can truly be heard the way they should be heard. A song like “Back In Your Head” — it feels completely new to me. To stand on stage and play that song… That’s what I’m excited about. That version of our band.
STEREOGUM: “Closer” was a big deal in a way that you had never really experienced before. Looking back, how does it feel?
TEGAN: It feels great. One of the big changes that happened between Sainthood and Heartthrob was that there had started to be a buildup of resentment and exhaustion. Probably more exhaustion than anything, but there was still some residual teen/early twenties anger in our music and edginess in us. Like Sara said, the infrastructure needed to shake up, we needed to shake up, our songs needed to shake up.
I talked openly about the fact that I met with 17 producers and almost every single one was like, You guys are really great. There’s something unique and amazing about you. You’ve done great things, and you could continue to do it as you’ve been doing it. But by changing this now, you could be even better. There were things missing from our songs. Some of it was silly stuff — like, you need bridges. Some of it was people saying, You guys write these really rhythmic hooks, but they’re too short. Why don’t you try writing a longer hook to make it more memorable?
It was like we were going back to school, and I think “Closer” represents that evolution of us shaking off that old resentment and anger. It represents the new infrastructure and the challenge we felt. We rewrote that song seven times. When I look back on “Closer” and the Heartthrob era, I’m so proud of it because it was really hard. I had to relearn how to sing. I switched to in-ears after 17 years of singing on monitors. We had to face our audience and ask them to trust us and do it with confidence, but also be humbled by how much they supported us. We asked them to continue to support us even though they might not like the way it sounded. It was a lot of work. I felt like we were training for the Olympics or something. When I sing any song from Heartthrob, I still feel that pulse inside of me of we have to keep going, we have to keep fighting.
It reinvigorated Tegan And Sara. We can do anything we want now. Love You To Death is completely different from Heartthrob in so many ways, and I feel like Sara and I could go out next week and announce that we’re doing a giant acoustic tour, and I think people would be overjoyed. We’ve crossed over into a territory… Not where we’re pop stars, not where we’re “superstars,” not where everything is easy… But we’ve crossed over into a new territory where it’s exciting to continue to find out what we’ll write for Tegan And Sara. We’re not trapped, we’re not angry anymore, we don’t feel alienated. We’re part of this new time where you can listen to any kind of music you want. The internet has allowed us to be whoever we want, and I feel like Sara and I have thankfully made the transition to where we can be what we want.
STEREOGUM: Addressing your own interpersonal relationship is something you didn’t do for a very long time in your music. Growing up, I read so many interviews and watched The Con documentaries and, in some ways, you were very open with your fans through these extracurriculars. I knew there were fights, but never realized the extent of it. But “100x” is one of the first songs that really touches on that aspect of your relationship.
SARA: I don’t think there was an absence of proof of how bad things were. It’s just that the internet was different. There’s plenty of footage of me and Tegan fighting and being aggravated with each other, but it couldn’t spread in the way it would now.
I was also deeply, deeply ashamed and embarrassed by the fighting. It was so suffocating at times for us. Partly, it was the product of being in a van with 10 stinky, musky guys in our band and crew. Tegan and I were in the van for eight hours a day, then we’d get on stage and play an hour-long set, and then we’d have to go to a hotel where we’d stay in the same room. Tegan and I shared a hotel room until 2007. I felt like I was in an insane asylum. I felt insane all the time. I wanted to be an adult, I wanted space. It doesn’t have to do with Tegan as a person. I was just so suffocated by the people around me, and I had no way to express that I’m kind of a lone wolf sometimes.
TEGAN: We would get off stage where we had a hilarious moment bantering back and forth, and people would come up to us after the show and be like, Ooh, I thought you guys were going to fight!
SARA: I think we were embarrassed about the fighting because people did assume we hated each other. People would come up to us and say, If I was on tour with my sibling, I’d kill them!, and we would be like, no, no, we get along great! It’s your instinct to stand apart from what people think of you.
TEGAN: We were constantly getting asked about fighting: Do you fight? What do you fight about? Clothes? We were 17 when we started the band, and it was frustrating because like… no, we don’t fight about clothes. We were fighting about the existential crisis we feel when we’re trapped with each other for 198 days out of the year.
SARA: At the beginning of our career, we had a combative relationship with the press. Everyone was so suspicious: Why did Neil Young sign you? Why do you have a career? Why did the Killers pick you to go out on tour with? I’m not making that up — that’s how people talked to us. We were these dumb kids, and I wasn’t about to be like, Let me tell you about my sister and our relationship. Now that we’re peers with the people that are talking to us, it’s much easier. I feel like I’m very in control of it. Back then, we caused not just damage to each other, but so much collateral and emotional damage to our friends, girlfriends, mother, therapists…
TEGAN: Even to the people who worked for us. Our poor managers… At the beginning of the last record cycle, we had been getting along really great, but we spent so much time together and had the added pressure of you’ve gotta go here, you’ve gotta do this thing or that thing, that we’d have these massive, explosive fights. Imagine the two of us sitting here and it’s all piling on top of us, and the only way to get out is to beat the shit out of each other emotionally. We just needed mediation. We were making hundreds of decisions a day while feeling at odds with one another.
Every time our managers said, Here’s this big, shitty decision — I’ll leave the two of you to talk this out, they were throwing us into an MMA ring. It wasn’t fair. It’s our career, but we needed support. Again, I think this represents the shift that happened with Heartthrob — we were ready to share the burden. With each other, with our team. We couldn’t do it alone. It wasn’t worth it anymore. We didn’t want to alienate each other, each other’s partners, our family, our friends, people who worked with us. It was like, let’s all get in the ring together.
SARA: There was also a switch in my mind at some point… It had never really occurred to me that I might be exploiting some of the situations I was in without taking into consideration how those other people thought. It’s so easy to just write a song about someone. But they never have the opportunity to defend themselves. In our culture, there’s this idea that it must be so cool to be the muse of an artist, but the truth is that it’s not. People that I love deeply, like Emy [Storey], my ex-girlfriend who is our art director… It sometimes put her whole life and privacy into question. In my late twenties, I started to realize that I needed to be more careful about how I treated people and what I said about them and what was off-limits.
In a way, I didn’t have to learn that about Tegan — I knew not to exploit her or our relationship. Now, when I talk about it or sing about it [like on “100x”], it’s with tremendous care and distance and respect. Because I’m controlling it — it’s my part of the story — I don’t feel as freaked out. When we were younger and people were asking us about our relationship, it felt like it was more about, Tell us and we’re going to write a story about how much you hate each other. And I was like: I’m not going to let you fuck with us. We will fuck with each other, but we will not let you fuck with us. I feel differently now… It’s way easier.
There’s this idea that people have because of social media and because we’re writing songs that they have the whole story and that we’re so transparent. But there’s so much that goes on in our lives that we don’t share with people. We’ve gotten more insular as we’ve gotten older. Not just because of becoming more successful, but because we realize that there’s a responsibility. I feel a personal responsibility to leave some things off the table.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that the more stable infrastructure you created because of Heartthrob, where you’re making business decisions more healthily and collaboratively, transferred over into your songwriting process for your last two albums? When you were coming up, there was this dichotomy where there were Sara songs and Tegan songs. There seems to be less of a divide there now
TEGAN: There’s no real clear it happened because of this, but starting with the Tiësto collaboration, we gradually became more open to writing together. Sara ended up writing the bridge on most of my songs on Heartthrob, and we started to realize that this partnership is a successful thing.
SARA: We still take authorship over songs, because I feel like the lyrics are often ours…
TEGAN: But we learned not to take suggestions personally, and that we are truly invested in helping one another. Especially because of our shift in sound, we understood that we needed each other. We had grown into a certain band where we were both doing what we wanted — like, you run the left side and I run the right — but we realized with Heartthrob that it made more sense for both of us to be part of the whole process.
By not drawing a line, it no longer felt like your song or my song. It shouldn’t feel like your side of the record and mine, or your single and mine. I have to be there too, I’m backing you up. We’re one in the same. I think that’s partially why we feel like we can talk about our past a bit more, or why we feel comfortable playing with our image or why we have the most similar look we’ve ever had. It’s because we’re confident that we are individual people, and yet we understand and respect that we are strongest together.
Love You To Death is out now via Warner Bros.