Tegan and Sara: Tyler The Creator, Fat Mike and ‘Heartthrob’

Ahead of Groovin’ The Moo DAVID SWAN talks to Tegan Quin – the “cooler half” of Tegan and Sara – about the duo’s new found love of synths, battling Tyler The Creator and collaborating with Against Me!

Family bands are generally hit-or-miss affairs, the perpetual fractures in Oasis are proof of that. But it’s safe to say Canadian sister act Tegan and Sara have navigated the whole family-band thing with grace and civility, keeping songwriting duties separate and living in different cities while consistently producing heartfelt pop songs. The duo command a fervent fan base like few others in their field, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when they swapped guitars for synths on their new album Heartthrob – a stunning collection of brooding dance-pop songs.

The outspoken pair are headed our way for rural travelling festival Groovin the Moo which kicks off in Maitland this weekend. Ahead of their visit FL spoke to arguably the “cooler half” (her words) Tegan Quin, about girlfriends, homophobia and working with Against Me!

Congratulations on the new album, it’s fantastic. What made you want to pursue this particular direction with synths going over guitars?

In all honesty, starting with ‘So Jealous’, we had Matt Sharp from The Rentals come and play tons of keyboard and synths. And then on ‘The Con’ it’s a pretty even mix of synths and guitars, but I think that the guitars always stood out more and the synths were being used more for melodic features. So on songs like ‘The Con’ or ‘Nineteen’, there’s tons of synths but they were just being used to accent vocal melodies and things like that.

Starting with ‘Sainthood’ on our last record, songs like ‘Alligator’, ‘Paperback Head’, ‘Sentimental Tune’, ‘Night Watch’, we relied heavily on keyboard and piano – and I think it just really inspired us to be honest. I think after 13 years of making records that were more guitar driven we realised that dynamically, songs like ‘Alligator’ or ‘Sentimental Tune’, created such a relief in the set. So we kind of went into Heart Throb with this idea that instead of relying so heavily on guitar we might try to create some complementary tracks to those songs. That was our instinct initially and then I just got really into listening to ‘80s music and all the stuff we loved in the ‘90s. Everything from Kate Bush to Ace of Base, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, New Order. The songs just started coming out really dark, but upbeat.

So for us it felt pretty natural because we’ve been experimenting and writing with other people for so long now, it kind of felt natural. There was a moment of fear, and I was like “Oh no, I hope the production doesn’t overshadow the songs”. I mean ultimately I just think they’re great songs, I think it’s like quintessential Tegan and Sara: depressing, longing love songs with upbeat, melodic harmonies and back and forth in the vocals and stuff. Based on the response so far it seems overwhelming positive and I think the best part is it appeals to the old fan while bringing in a whole new Tegan and Sara fan.

Have you had any backlash from people labelling you a sell-out or anything, from your fan base or anything like that?

No, because I don’t think it’s cool to call people “sell-outs” anymore, because everyone has an iPhone or a Mac at home. It’s kind of like throwing rocks in your glass house at this point, because we’re all sell outs, we all live in a corporate world. I think the only real backlash has been that some of the die-hard Tegan and Sara fans, or some of the less invested fans, initially were like “Oh what’s this new sound?” But they’ve all come around. We’re very in touch with our audience and the majority of them have come around. The truth is that with every record we put out there’s always that portion of your audience that feels like they need to tell you that they wish you were still playing acoustic guitar and that it was 1999. And you know what, I wish it was 1999 too because then I would be 19 and not 32. But I’m 32, and we grew up and we’ve got to follow our path, you know.

Did you feel like you had to make any compromises in the studio working with such a famous producer [Greg Kurstin – Pink, The Shins]? Were the any compromises you had to make to get that sound?

Oh not really. The reason why I liked Greg when I met him was because he was making The Shins record and I was like, “If this dude can make The Shins’ record, then he’s going to be totally fine for Tegan and Sara.” I really had a hard time believing that a band like The Shins would go into the studio with someone who wasn’t genuinely talented and a really incredible musician. Greg’s roots are actually not in production – they’re in playing. He was Beck’s musical director and played with him for 10 years. His chops are really just insane to watch. Because we had written so heavily on piano and synth we thought he would be a really wonderful leader to help us navigate that world. So there really wasn’t much compromise honestly, at all. It all happened very naturally. It was a three month period and we had a lot of space from it.

I think if you’re not getting your audience riled up, if you’re not getting them excited, then you’re just leading them to be bored I guess. Sara and I just feel like you have to ignite the passion in your audience and sometimes that means pushing their buttons.

“it’s very easy to get 20 million Twitter followers because you got into a fight with Chris Brown, but then what?”

Is this an album you wish you had made earlier? It seems like there’s a lot of potential with this sound for you guys, it seems to suit you really well.

I think we just feel like this is the natural progression that happened. Although for us it was very slow compared to a lot of bands, which was so necessary for us. I think because of being girls, and because we wanted to produce and wanted to be so hands on, we needed to build up a reputation for ourselves, we needed to have a bunch of records under our belt. The Con, got picked as one of Rolling Stone ’s “Top 50 Records of the Year”, and I remember everybody getting really excited and they were like “How are they going to follow up The Con, what happens next?” And we went in and we made Sainthood. We didn’t try to make a huge, big pop record or anything, we just went in and made an organic sounding five-piece rock band record. In the end the thing that’s most important to Sara and I are songs, and touring. The idea of being able to share the songs with people in a live format, that’s kind of our goal.

I read that you both have girlfriends currently, is this album largely influenced by your current state of relationships or is it influenced by a lot of other stuff?

I think we pick from lots of different areas in our life. I think we has the benefit of having had some really traumatising experiences in the romantic world early on. But I truly believe that if I never experience one more second of heartbreak, I probably could still write records until I die. I think that we’re very good at leaving something for a few years and then going back and reflecting on it with a different perspective.

I think Heart Throb’s a mixture of where we are currently, and where we’ve been. Certainly for the songs that are a little more upbeat like ‘Drove Me Wild’ and ‘Love They Say’ and ‘Closer’, there’s an air of nostalgia, but also an air of romance. And that’s probably reminiscent of where we’ve been, but also where we are. We are feeling very happy and upbeat. We try not to be too specific even with ourselves when we’re writing. I don’t go to Sarah and go “Oh my god tell me everything about ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’.” Because it changes, that’s how you stay excited about your music year after year. I’m just like everybody else, I just relate our songs to whatever I’m going through.

I was really intrigued by the open letter Sara wrote about racism and homophobia. Musicians are idolised by so many, why don’t more of them write about it?

Unfortunately I think apathy and the silence that comes so often on every topic, not just in music but in so many different areas of mainstream culture, is just probably a lack of education or a built in natural tolerance for ignorance. I think that we’ve gotten to a point where the line is firmly drawn, where it’s like “Oh those people over there are like that, and we’re educated, we know better over here.” Sara and I are very careful to not draw that line, I think it’s always important to have both sides communicating. I don’t want to sit in my treetop and point down at everybody and go “Well look at you guys, you don’t know better.”

I think our position is very important, I think Sara and I have a voice and we have a big audience and when we see things that are unfair or unjust it’s important that we stand up. Whether it’s about a homeless shelter that’s closing in our neighbourhood, or about an LGBQU Centre that was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, or about incredibly unfair homophobia that’s being rewarded by the mainstream – we just feel it’s very important to say what you mean. We are very clear also within our band that we aren’t a political band. I’m not going to get up on stage and preach. My job when I get up on stage is to play the songs that you paid to hear. We try to keep it balanced.

Tyler the Creator is not as big as he was a year or two ago, do you think that’s due to people getting over alleged homophobia that you both pointed out [in an open letter to Tyler, The Creator] – or just a natural flow of music?

I think it’s probably a bit of everything. I think that half the bands that are hyped up, they just never end up seeing another record cycle. I have no idea what Tyler’s up to. I’m kind of the nerd in the band, so I was pretty out of the loop when Sara wrote to me wanting to write that open letter [to Tyler]. I was very supportive, but I have to be honest that I didn’t really have much to do with that.

I will say that I think – especially in this 24-7 news world where everything’s up on the internet and the media constantly has to come up with a new story and a new headline -that acts propagandising these sorts of topics get a lot of attention and then they disappear. Because the media’s not actually invested in them. I think as an artist what you should strive for is longevity and a relationship with your audience and not just getting headlines. I think it’s a dangerous time in history because it’s very easy to all of a sudden get 20 million [Twiiter] followers because you got into a fight with Chris Brown. Then it’s like, then what?

I interviewed Fat Mike couple of months ago. Have you guys hung out with him at all since that whole song saga [Fat Mike wrote a song based on a meeting with Tegan and Sara called ‘Creeping Out Sara’]?

I have not, we haven’t.

Were you put off by that?

No! I think that’s partly who they are. Again that was something that I think got really blown out of proportion by the media. He was really sad about it, he was like ‘I love you guys! The song was meant to be about how I creep you guys out because I’m gross and weird.” And we were like, “Yeah, I think people know that.” I kind of have a soft spot in my recollection of that time for him. I feel bad that he got raked over the coals a little bit for doing that. You know, I think it’s just people that didn’t really know the history of NOFX and didn’t know what he sung about. I’m just glad that there’s space between us and that time.

You’re coming out for Groovin The Moo. Was part of that decision being able to visit rural places around Australia, places you haven’t been before?

Yes. That’s exactly why we love that festival. We’ve played it before and I don’t know why, Sara and I just have this incredible fascination with Australia. We have friends who are Australian who say we’ve seen much more of the country than they ever have. I’m obsessed, I’ve read like five books on Australia. We put out a book about Australia. I don’t know why, I just love it. I have family there, maybe that’s why. It’s just so far away, it’s such a beautiful but strange place. I find it very fascinating, so any opportunity to go and play festivals outside the major cities is much more interesting to me than playing the major cities. Well in addition to the major cities. Maybe it’s because that’s how we are in Canada. Sara and I play all of the rural places as well because to me that’s where the best shows are.

“The most stressful collaboration we’ve ever done for me personally was with Against Me!”

Have seen the lineup yet? Is there anyone you’re excited to play with?

Yeah! Oh my god, when they told me the lineup I was so relieved. I feel so thrilled that we ended up getting a year with so many bands that we really like. We just met Matt and Kim the other day, so I’m really quite excited for the opportunity to get to share a stage with them. We obviously really love The Kooks and The Temper Trap. And I haven’t seen They Might Be Giants live but I always really loved them as well. I feel like there’s lots of really cool stuff, and it’s just a great opportunity for us to experience tons of Australian bands as well.

Last question, favourite collaboration that you’ve done and worst collaboration, or one that you regret?

Man, that’s hard [laughs]. I mean the best one that we’ve done, in terms of exposure, has definitely by far been Tiesto ‘Feel It In My Bones’. That song just brought in such a different audience and also opened up the whole EDM world, and now we have collaborations with Morgan Page and David Guetta.

I wouldn’t say that there has been a worst collaboration at all. I will say that probably the most stressful collaboration we’ve ever done for me personally was with Against Me! Because I was such a huge fan, I am still such a huge fan. I was so nervous, I didn’t sleep for like five days before we got there [to record with them]. It was partly because of them and also because Butch Vig was doing the record, and I was so enamored with him. I seriously don’t think that there has been a worse week of my life, leading up to that day. Then I got to the studio and they were all so nice and I did my performance in such a short period of time and then I left. I don’t know why I was so worried about it. It was the most stressful collaboration, so it kind of taught me that I should probably never, ever, ever, ever collaborate with a band that I really love again, or I’ll just die of nervousness.

Related: Watch Tegan and Sara live tonight from the Sydney Opera House

FL presents Groovin’ The Moo 2013:

Saturday, April 27 – Showgrounds, Maitland – SOLD OUT

Sunday, April 28 – University, Canberra

Saturday, May 4 – Prince of Wales Showground, Bendigo – SOULD OUT

Sunday, May 5 – Murray Sports Complex – Cricket Grounds, Townsville

Saturday, May 11 – Hay Park, Bunbury – SOLD OUT

Tegan and Sara 2013 Australian Tour:

Friday, April 26 – Sydney Opera House, Sydney

Tuesday, April 30 – Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane

Thursday, May 2 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Tuesday, May 7 – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide

Thursday, May 9 – Metro City, Perth