Progress Report

Progress Report: Tegan And Sara

Name: Tegan and Sara
Progress Report: Sara Quin talks about Get Along, what’s next for the band, and the Tyler, The Creator controversy that won’t seem to ever go away.

Last month Tegan and Sara released Get Along — a career-spanning live album that also includes three short documentary films on the band. Not only is the album a potent reminder of just how much of a polished live act Tegan and Sara have become, it’s a nice feather in the cap for a band that has been recording and touring for well over a decade. I had the chance a couple of weeks ago to talk with Sara Quin about what happens next for the band as they prepare to head back into the studio. Having interviewed the band before, I was none too surprised that this interview turned out to be both super easy and super engaging … as well as incredibly long.

STEREOGUM: How’s it going?

SARA: It’s going good! I’m just a few blocks from my house. I was out running errands and it feels like spring. I don’t even have a jacket on.

STEREOGUM: Yes. It’s weirdly nice in Brooklyn right now, but I have a feeling that winter is about to show up and punch us in the face. Thanks for taking the time out to chat with me, by the way.

SARA: Oh God, no, thank you! It’s so — we weren’t sure if like the DVD/live album release warranted any new press, so I’m delighted that people even wanted to talk to us about it.

STEREOGUM: It’s a pretty ambitious project — a live album, a concert film, and two short documentaries. Did the same person put all three of them together?

SARA: No. We shot them at different times and we used different people for each one. Mostly because initially the project was even more ambitious, but then we were like, “Oh my God, too much!” We tend to be over-ambitious in a really delusional way. So this is like a pared-back version of the original concept. We wanted to work with three different people because we didn’t want someone to get too connected to us and for it to become too personal. We really wanted someone who can just sort of be outside of it, so we used three different people and shot it at three different times.

STEREOGUM: That’s interesting. The films feel pretty personal when you watch them. It also really nicely caps off the last decade of your career. Now that you can sit back and watch it, does it feel like you are somehow drawling a line in the sand? Like, this film kind of ties a nice bow around the last ten years or so and now you can move forward?

SARA: Yes, I do and it’s funny because Tegan and I have been talking about this a lot. You know, we’re not a traditional band. We really are two songwriters and two individuals in a project together and we are constantly changing. We obviously recognize that we have now spent thirteen years building up an audience, so we don’t want to completely alienate them by putting out an polka-electro record or something, but I do feel like with the last record, Tegan and I started talking about our limitations. We felt like there was this glass ceiling that we’d kind of run into.

We’re still grateful for the success of our band but there is something that came with it–It started in my late 20s and I definitely feel it now that I’m you know, happily into my 30s–like not as much hesitation about admitting that although we’ve always been ambitious and we’ve been grateful for the success we’ve had, that we definitely are still more ambitious and want more success. We’re so happy for the success we have experienced and we really love our audience and we feel like we have a rapport with the press and with our fans, but there is still something to be explored. We are always talking about what things are holding us back and what can we enhance and what can we change. At the same time we were putting together the concept of the live album and DVD, which really kind of nailed it.

We were talking about the films sort of being an emotional way to kind of cap off a period of our life and hopefully a period of our career that we’ll always look back on and feel good about. Emotionally — for me, anyways — it is like a way to let go and also not feel hesitations or nervousness about really pushing ourselves to do something bigger. I really did have like a sense of closure after we finished the DVD. Like, I just really felt good about it like “Okay, goodbye! Goodbye 2000s! Goodbye!”

STEREOGUM: It’s such a complicated thing. I would assume that certain kinds of questions — the typical what do we do next sort of things — can become even more loaded when your band mate is also your sibling. Do you have a sense of what you want to do now or is this now a good time to take a break and go live life for a while?

SARA: Over the last year and a half, having a liberal amount of time off and not time off to write a record, like….I didn’t write anything. I worked on a couple of collaborative things but I totally did not think about Tegan and Sara and I did not sit down and write one song. When I actually did start to sit down and write songs for the new record a couple of months ago, it was the first time I had actually written a song for Tegan and Sara in almost three years. It’s that funny thing with albums, like, where by the time the last one came out those songs were over a year old … and then now add two years on top of that. We basically took a year off to watch West Wing and drink wine…but I feel like it worked for me. Even though we were touring some during that time and trying to peddle our music to the teenagers of America, I also feel like I did have some healthy time off from the band.

And I wanted some time off from Tegan in a weird way. When she started sending music for this next coming record, I wanted to be ready for it. I wanted to be able to be in a place where I could go like, “Oh yeah, I totally love being in a band with you! I’m so excited that we’re here!” And I just didn’t want to have a bad attitude about it. I want to really–like I didn’t want to approach it like “Okay, here we go again (sigh)” or like “We’ve gotta create some momentum, let’s create another record”. I really wanted to take some time off to get excited again.

And it also allowed me to take some time to really look at things. Putting the DVD together was interesting because we talked a lot about our early years, and even now just thinking about how totally naïve and unprepared we were in the beginning, makes me feel a little nauseous. To say we were clueless is a huge fucking understatement. Looking at early footage of us–It’s just like listening to us both talk non-stop. It made me both hate us but also really feel like I just want to go back in time and give myself a hug. I was so consumed by wanting to be accepted and liked and acknowledged. Those early years were really characterized, at least for me, by a real loneliness. No one else really understood what we were going through except for each other. We didn’t have band members that were part of the group. We always had hired people to play with us and even though we sort of forged the family on the road, I always felt a little bit like an outsider. I think a lot of it was me and Tegan kind of isolating ourselves and feeling like we had to be on this road by ourselves.

It’s funny, as I was watching the DVD I was like, I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel so much happier than I did when I was younger. I feel like I maybe can stop being always so self-deprecating and relentlessly Canadian and stop with the “I’m so sorry that we’re getting popular. I’m so sorry that people like us. I’m so sorry that this record is bigger than the last one”….like, fuck, I just– I hate when I hear myself sounding like that. It’s like, just shut up already! You want to fucking write an anthem record, just write it! Just shut up about it. It’s like a weight off my chest, like now I just want to make the best record that we could make and I want it to be undeniable and if people love it then thank God, and if they don’t, we’ll, we’ll go back to the drawing board. And finishing the DVDs made me realize that maybe in some ways that glass ceiling and some of those limitations that we always thought of as limitations of the band…I mean maybe we need to take more responsibility for some of the things that are holding us back. So that’s kind of liberating.

STEREOGUM: Yeah. Being able to take a step away from anything is always healthy. It’s sort of that thing of “How can I miss you if you never leave?”

SARA: It’s weird. Some of the most successful artists I’ve ever met — like some of the biggest people, the most successful bands ever — they have to be the most self-hating and afraid and insecure. I understand where that comes from, but it’s so strange. When you’re doing it on your own and you don’t die and you don’t starve, and few more people come to the show every time, you start to think, “You know, we’re okay. We know what we’re doing. This is okay.” Yes, this person thinks you suck or this person thinks our records are shit or whatever, but you can’t only focus on those things — you start to realize where to assign appropriate values. Like, yes, this person’s opinion matters, but let’s not forget about that show you played last night where the people loved you and that your mom thinks you’re great. At the end of the day, maybe it’s not the coolest thing in the entire world — maybe it’s not the coolest guitar part you ever wrote, but fuck, everyone sang along! Yeah, you do realize that you’re not shit and it’ would be silly if you continue to think you are shit, you know.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good place to get to.

SARA: I’m sure there’s this valley on the other end of that feeling where I can go crawl back into the self-loathing forest….

STEREOGUM: Don’t worry. That will happen soon enough.

SARA: Yeah. As soon as I hang up the phone with you.

STEREOGUM: Was there anything controversial you asked to have removed from any of the documentary films for Get Along?

SARA: Well, you know I think that it’s healthy to have some self-criticism. I definitely don’t put the movies on and then just think, “You’re cute!” Mostly it’s cringing and fast-forwarding and thinking like, “God, people like us, why?” or “Really, that voice?” or “Wow, that’s incredibly out of tune.” It’s a lot of those kinds of criticisms that I had to come to terms with. I had to watch that fucking thing so many times and at the beginning I was like “It’s amazing!” And then by the end I was like, “I hate it!” And when we finally got it mastered and I got the copy in the mail, I didn’t watch it. It sat on my table and I lied and said I watched it and that I approved everything. Then one night I was having some wine and I put it on. I watched the first two documentaries and I found myself really enjoying it. Maybe it was the alcohol but I felt like we had accomplished something that at least people who like us would like, you know?

I mean at the end of the day — it sounds so stupid — but you’re not making the DVD for people who don’t like you. You’re making the DVD for people who do like you and if along the way other people decided they want to see it and like it, great. So there’s a lot less pressure than like putting out a record, for example. As much confidence as I feel about what we’re currently writing and what I hope will be the best record we ever make — sorry, my therapist told me to just to talk out loud about the things that I actually want to happen — anyways, I do feel like if we are truly making the best record of our lives then there’s immediately that terrifying, like “Oh my God, but who will like it? Oh my God, what if they hate it? What if we alienate our fans and we never make another new one?” Like all those fears come in but with the DVD I don’t feel that, like I’m just like “Whoa, worst case scenario only to people who really love our band are going to see this and think we’ve made something cool. I think we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve, which is that if you do like our band I do think that you will enjoy this. I don’t think you’ll hate it.

That should be the sticker. I need to get that to the record label immediately. “I don’t think you’ll hate it!”

STEREOGUM: “If you like us you probably won’t hate this.” That’s funny. Well, this particular column at the Stereogum is called Progress Report, so I’m usually always talking to people about that thing that they just finished or the thing they’re just starting. But do you have a sense of what the next year will be like for you guys? Will you just continue to work from here in New York?

SARA: Yes, I feel — well, I was really nervous because, like I said earlier, I hadn’t written anything till about two months ago. So, I sat down and really got to work and I was terrified that it would happen slowly and that all of it would be garbage and that I would have to have a lobotomy or just go get a job or whatever. That being said, it’s probably been the easiest material I’ve ever written … and by “easy”, I don’t mean truly easy, I just mean I haven’t labored the way that I did with the last couple of records. I really was pressured and spent a ridiculous amount of time fine tuning things and obsessing over things last time, and this record doesn’t feel so complicated.

Also, working with various DJs and electronic music people over the past couple of years has really influenced me as well. They have a totally different approach to producing and to writing records and melodies and that sort of thing. I mean, I love Chris Walla so much but he also loves us and so there’s a lot of sensitivity around criticism. It’s kind of like, “Oh well, I love this song but what if you did this instead but that’s totally okay if you don’t to do it. You don’t have to do it again, let’s just hug. Let’s hug instead.” I wanted to get folks around that would be ruthless with us. So, when get criticism you can’t go to the bathroom and cry, like you’ve just have to fucking suck it up and go write a better melody.

I also am now allowing myself to do things I wouldn’t have before. In the past, I’ve generally gone in the opposite direction if I thought something was too obvious or if it wasn’t obvious enough or whatever, like I just started to do the opposite of whatever I think is right. And it’s amazing how quickly the songs come when you stop fighting with yourself and stop trying too hard to think about what you’re actually doing. I always run from the acoustic guitar because I felt like from the beginning of career, everybody made it seem like we were running around in Birkenstocks and gently strumming our guitars … and that idea made me want to kill myself. Instead of running from that, I sat down with my favorite acoustic guitar and I’ve been writing a lot of songs that way. I find that you can’t hide with an acoustic guitar. If the songs there, it’s there. If it’s not there, it is very obvious that it’s not there.

So, it’s been really productive, which is a long winded way of saying that I think we’ll probably going to end up making a record a lot sooner than we thought and it’ll probably happen early in the New Year, and we’re hoping to get it out in 2012.

STEREOGUM: That’s very exciting.

SARA: I think so. I think it’s exciting. I feel really excited. It’s still in the early stages but the momentum with which the songs came made me feel like it must be the right time. I don’t know. Who even know with these things?

STEREOGUM: Yeah, but when it comes to creative endeavors, things usually feel good for a reason. You know I was thinking about when I interviewed you guys the first time — which has been a couple of years ago now — for a story for The Advocate. So much of that story was about me talking to you about how you first started and the slow upward trajectory of your career. It was more a story about your perseverance as two women in the music industry than it was a story about your being gay artists. That being said, even then we talked a little bit about the ramifications of being politically outspoken. You’ve always wanted the focus to be on your music, not necessarily your politics. Still, your outspokenness about Tyler, The Creator has certainly garnered a lot of attention — both good and bad. Were you guys surprised by the response?

SARA: The interesting about that statement — and I really appreciate what you said and I do think that Tegan and I are, first and foremost, pop musicians. We are performers. That’s what people pay us to do and I’ve always been very, very aware and careful of not walking too political of a line because we’re not a political band, but we are political people. We have been very, very careful about what we choose to speak out about and when we choose to speak out about things. And one of the things that we are probably overly sensitive about and the thing that we really, really hate doing — and generally don’t do at all — is talk about other people.

Also, I just have to say; I don’t think anyone should necessarily care what I think about anyone. If on a personal level you want to know what records I listen to or who I think should be the next president, maybe that is fine, but at the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. There are people far more professional and articulate who can provide a more informed discourse and whose commentary is far better than mine. But when I see that we can do a service and we can do some good in the world, I try to speak out about things and I try to do it in a way that isn’t going to reduce another person or another person’s art. And in this case, I didn’t feel like speaking out to the media about Tyler, the Creator was reducing his art, because it was already, as far as I was concerned, hateful and awful. I was just increasingly frustrated by the lack of discourse and the lack of criticism and I just felt compelled to say something.

That letter we posted was never written to Tyler, it was written to you. It was written to Goldenvoice and Billboard and MTV and the bookers on Letterman and every person I have had to shake hands with and grip and grin and talk to and beg for jobs and beg for gigs. You know, the people involved with all the things that I’ve had to do to further my career, which involves behaving a certain way and engaging in a certain level of professionalism. I just think there should be accountability and I think there should be consequences when you’re hateful and awful, and I saw this situation as a terrible, terrible series of double standards and I felt like I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t say something. And I knew that it would garner a tremendous amount of press. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think that. I was going to post it knowing that it was going to get reposted everywhere and I was grateful for the repostings. I was grateful that there were trillions of comments on everybody’s sites and although some of it was hateful and horrible, I didn’t care because I still think I was right and I know I’m right. And I know it’s not right for people to say hateful, hateful, horrible things and not see any repercussions.

I think we should live in a world in which there are consequences for saying hateful, disgusting things. And I don’t care if it’s a joke. It doesn’t sound funny to me. It doesn’t sound funny to people who are gay and fighting for their rights. It’s not funny. It’s just like it wouldn’t be funny if somebody were out profiting off of joking about racism or anti-Semitism. It’s not funny. My position has not changed. I hope that in just placing that statement out there and then not responding to anyone, not saying anything further, I hoped that it would just keep it a very succinct message. And again, it was really meant for those in the media, those who I see are my colleagues and the people I work with and the people who I question regarding their choices in supporting and profiting off of something like this.

And Tyler is not the first and he won’t be the last and I totally get that. You know the second I posted that letter I probably could have written 20,000 more about everything else that drives me crazy in the world, but I realize that it’s not necessarily my position in life to call out every injustice. My position in life is to write pop songs and try to make people feel happy and give them a good show, that’s really when I see my purpose in life being fulfilled. Still, I hope that in the long run it had some impact on people and I hope that we can continue to just be pop musicians and every once in awhile when we need to use our status as public figures to speak out about something, I hope that people continue to respect that because we really do it with great respect. We don’t want to manipulate or abuse that position.

STEREOGUM: I do respect that. As a human being, you are free to express the way you feel…and people can react to it in any way they see fit. As a journalist and as a person who writes about music that also happens to be a gay, I appreciated your statement. It was a tricky thing for me to comment on, since I am obviously so close to the issue, but I thought it was great because it encouraged a dialogue. I don’t think of myself as being particularly hypersensitive and I certainly don’t think of myself as being the political correctness police, but it is interesting that often whenever the topic of homophobia comes up — particularly in regards to Odd Future — I was surprised by how often I would get this really weird response. Even from people that I don’t think of as being the least bit homophobic. If I would say that, you know, maybe casually talking about gay people — and women, for that matter — in this really violent, negative way — even if it’s a joke–is kind of fucked up, I’d sense this sort of casual eye-rolling from other people. The message being that I need to just get over it or that I should just lighten the fuck up.

SARA: Yeah.

STEREOGUM: And that’s all fine and good, I can certainly take a joke. And if this is music being made by a bunch of kids that is clearly meant to provoke, am I missing the point by getting all bent out of shape about it? I do know that, for those of us who grew up in small towns in the Midwest — in what you might call a very Boys Don’t Cry kind of scenario — those kinds of casual comments about gay people are still pretty serious. And hard to take.

SARA: As they should be. I think this is not even really about Tyler, the Creator at this point. There are so many people who I think are offensive and awful and whatever, and there’s lots of people who are so fucking boring they should be punished. I have opinions about everything. I don’t think it’s a super, super simple issue, but I will say that as someone who is gay and a woman, I’m in a minority. I am in an underrepresented group and I don’t have the same rights. I get to travel around the world and see firsthand that things are not peachy for everybody, particularly gay folks. I don’t think that … you know, not putting Tyler the Creator on the bill at Coachella is going to change that. But talking about it starts a movement. There are lots of people in hateful disgusting bands who say horrible disgusting things and if people run from them and don’t want to be associated with them because of the fallout, that means something.

And I think that we have to fight. We have to — even if it seems like we’re being the political correctness police, we have to say, “Guys, come on, really, this? This is what you think as a visionary? This is what you think is amazing? Really, you don’t feel awkward standing in the sea of white men chanting, ‘Suck my dick?’ That’s where are we at here in 2011?” God! I mean, maybe we are all just animals, I don’t know. There’s a part of me sometimes that think that I just entered the wrong business. I should be like — I don’t know, like braiding dove feathers — I have no idea. Maybe I’m too sensitive.

STEREOGUM: Well, it’s funny, I mean you know I grew up in a very conservative place but now I live in New York City, which means I live in a constant bubble of generalized liberalness. It does make you complacent sometimes.

SARA: What’s really remarkable to me is that when you are living in a bit of a liberal bubble and then when you burst the bubble for people, it really ticks them off. It’s a no brainer that if somebody like Tyler, the Creator was running for office, we wouldn’t vote for him. But it’s okay to listen to his music, and I get that. I get that. I get that movies like Saw and other shit that drives me crazy are popular. I get it. I really, really, really do but I think that it’s important — and this is why the statement from me was really aimed at the media — we have a responsibility to handle that kind of material in a way that sends a message. And I didn’t like the message that was being sent by the media about the music and about that kind of topic in music because he’s not the only one who uses that kind of language. And it’s also not just music itself, either. Some of the most homophobic fucking people I know are in our business, in our indie-rock circles.

Tegan said something recently that really hit home with me. She said something about how we can make change and inspire people and do it without being hateful. I know that that sounds so like “mean people suck,” 1990s Woodstock mumbo jumbo, but it’s fucking true. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and die thinking that I was a piece of shit. I want to get to the end of my life and think like, “God, I may fade into the background and people make fun over me in 10 years, 50 years, 20 years, maybe they won’t remember me in the next generation but now, I want my legacy to be about goodness … and I want those things that we do an daily basis to be good and positive. And I just feel like that’s what we need more of and I don’t think in order to be inspiring or to be a visionary you have to be an asshole.

STEREOGUM: Yeah. I think we also need to remind ourselves that those of us in the media tend to view things like Odd Future through a veil of irony, or from a kind of informed perspective. I don’t find myself particularly bothered by it because I don’t take it super seriously. But I’m not a teenager living somewhere in the Midwest. We might not be interpreting the music literally, but that doesn’t mean some kid downloading it in his bedroom in the middle of Kansas isn’t.

SARA: Fuck yeah. I realize that most people often have a very complicated idea of what it means to be good or what it means to be offensive or whatever and that idea is not always gonna be the same as mine. I mean, most people are just wacky and you just have to sort of walk through life biting your tongue a lot. If I were to kick over every fucking mailbox I saw because I was frustrated, I would be on a perpetual rampage. So, to speak your mind and then be hit with a “Fuck you with your fucking politics and your feelings” it made me so sad because this is not a joke to me. It’s something that I care so deeply about. I’m guessing you’re sort of I the same bracket as me so maybe you’ll relate, but when I was growing up in the ’90s I didn’t know what my future was going to look like. I had no way to visualize it. I had no gay icon heroes. I had no way to visualize what my life would look like with a partner. I had no rights. My family was liberal but I just … I couldn’t imagine my future. I grew up in a time — in the early ’90s without Internet and without gay people being on TV or being out or being proud or being cool or being representative of me and my lifestyle. When I think of the way I felt when I was 17, 16 years old, imagining nothing, no future, don’t have any idea of how to imagine the future because I’ve never seen one. I think that I’m a leper and I’m going to have to live my life like lying or being in secrecy or whatever, that’s really that’s how I felt. And it’s like unbelievable to have the life that I lead now and that I have the opportunity to try to show people that it’s going to be OK. I can tell kids that it’s still not a perfect situation but like we can stand up and fight for ourselves and we should. I actually had a very interesting conversation with Kathleen Hannah after the whole Tyler thing happened that was totally fascinating.

STEREOGUM: Really? She had a pretty specific take on it, right? Wasn’t she quoted as saying that people should just ignore it? That it was boring.

SARA: She called me. She said that her comment was taken somewhat out of context, that at the time she hadn’t yet read my letter but that she actually loved it. She was really encouraging. I told her that people like her are the reason why I felt compelled to speak out. I had a really insightful conversation with her, much of which was just about how — if you have the good fortune to have people’s attention, then don’t be afraid to use it for something good. It was a really insightful conversation I had with her. She was great.


Get Along trailer:

Get Along is out now on Warner Bros and available at eMusic.