When Tegan and Sara Quin speak of devotion, they do not speak of its most traditional sense. Instead, the word conveys a sense of pressure, one to live up to romantic ideals instead of religious ones. This is a feeling they not only describe but demand in the first lines of their sixth studio release: “Would you take a straight and narrow, critical look at me? / Would you tell me tough-love style, put judicial weight on me?”
But Sainthood, out Oct. 27 through Vapor/Sire, is just one way that Tegan and Sara have explored the art of self-presentation this year. While their book trio, On In At, became an encapsulation of their musical evolution, their growing online presence is still an ever-changing depiction of their ongoing dedication. Paste caught up with Tegan to discuss all of the ways in which the two have opened up, thanks in part to Twitter, The Temptations and ink blots.
Paste: With the launch of the new website, Twitter account, and Vimeo account, the two of you have really boosted your online presence in recent months. Why did you guys decide to do such an overhaul?
Quin: We did the website before we went in to make our new record, and that was partly because we decided we weren’t going to hire a crew or document our record the way we had on The Con. So we sorta felt responsible to have some sort of protest, where we could update people about how the record was coming. Obviously that’s just the sort of age we’re in now, is that people want to know all the time where you are, and what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with, and how you feel about it. And so our compromise was the website. I had a personal Twitter account, just to follow friends and follow funny people and stuff, and then a musician friend of mine outed me and was like, “Tegan’s on Twitter!” All of a sudden I had all these requests, and I was like, “Shit,” so now I’m just sort of part of that world. But I kinda like it. I’ve never had a personal MySpace or Facebook or any of those things. I hate the idea of my personal life being on the Internet, even for people I know. But I really like the concept of Twitter for a more professional way of posting to people, and telling them that we’re putting up new tour dates or posting up a photo of us at a video shoot. I like the immediacy of it, for sure, and the simplicity of it. But yeah, it’s a lot, and I mean, the exposure comes hand-in-hand with putting a record out. You all of a sudden have the the record company, and your management, and press, and your own internal forces all sort of putting stuff out there to start promoting the record, and it feels a bit like media blitz diarrhea, kind of action.
Paste: I’ve also noticed that you do all of the video editing. It’s definitely more than I can do, and I can safely say I have more spare time. With everything else that you have going on, how did you verse yourself in that whole realm?
Quin: I just felt like, even before the Internet was a big part of every teenager’s lives, back in the day I’ve just always had an interest in documenting what we were doing, mainly for my own selfish, narcissistic needs. I just thought, “God, when this is all over, I want to remember all of this.” I like taking photos of course, but the videos are that much more relevant to me. Everybody in our group is so funny, and everybody’s so entertaining. It’s like, I put the camera on and everybody’s like, “Turn it off!” and then they tell you 10 jokes. I just thought it was so fun just to bring it home. When I get home, I show my friends, or my parents, or my girlfriend and be like, “Look at how funny this is!” Then the Internet sort of exploded with all these options for putting videos and photos and everything up. We just kind of automatically attached ourselves to it. We were like, “Yeah, that’s fun.”
So the editing just kind of came along the way. I have absolutely no interest in being the person that does it, but I just am because every time Sara tries to do it, she just ends up handing it to me. Sara’ll be like, “We’re going to do a video today. It’s no big deal though; it’ll take you two seconds to edit it.” And I’m like, “It doesn’t take two seconds, and I really don’t want to do the video.” Then she’s like, “Tegan, please! It’s something that I really want to do.” And I’m like, “But I end up doing it. It’s not really something you want to do. It’s something you want me to do.” So basically, it’s like my part-time job. But I appreciate that very much. Thank you for even noticing that I do it.
Paste: Well, I am a fellow geek, though not so much with video as I am with websites and blogs. So I tend to notice the credits even though other people may overlook them.
Quin: Well, thank you. That means a lot to me. You’ve inspired me to continue. Another year of videos ahead.
Paste: Speaking of hands-on efforts, personal accounts, and the Vimeo account as well, I saw that fans who managed to snag the premium bundle of your book trio also received handmade ink blots made by you guys. Then I noticed that ink blots were scattered through one of the books. What inspired the inclusion of these ink blots, both in the book and in the premium bundle?
Quin: We finished the first book after we toured the States. As we started to put it together, the first initial PDF that Emy, the designer, sent to us, we were so excited that we decided immediately that we were going to try doing more sessions like that. So we wrote together in New Orleans, and our photographer followed us around for that, and then we did the same in Australia. As we were putting the second book together, Sara and Emy were hanging out, talking about what the concepts of that book was going to be. We had all these funny, weird transcripts of us in the studio, working in New Orleans, and all these really crazy, weird Hitchcock-inspired photos, and these really random interviews with people that we did while we were there. The theme seemed to be that we were almost engaging in an experiment, because Sara and I never actually physically sat down together before. This was, in reality, very much an experiment: Would it work? Would it be a disaster? Would we actually write anything? Would we kill each other? Would we go to prison? I mean, there were so many variables that we just really didn’t know what the outcome was going to be.
We were discussing that, and Sara and Emy got further into the design. It just became clear that it was an experiment, and we just thought it’d be so funny to do the Rorschach testing. So there are all these Rorschach tests in there with all these funny questions that Sara and I filled out, multiple-choice, that we scanned and put in the books as well. And we took it that much further and did up handmade ink blots as well, and then tested ourselves using the Rorschach tests. Basically it just became this weird, big art project that will either excite and interest people, or it will be one of the books that they just kind of skip past. So I think it’s really interesting. As one of the people that was experimented on, I found it very interesting.
Then when it came time to do the pre-release, the company that we were using, they suggested that we might want to do a deluxe version. I thought, “Oh, it’d be fun to make ink blots,” and everybody was on the page for that. So we spent a day of our lives making a lot of ink blots, and then we signed them and bagged them up. They sold out the day we released them, which is really exciting because I didn’t think people would actually care that much about the books, but we’re kind of down to the very low numbers. I do think people are going to love it. I’m really excited for people who get it. It’s one of those items that, when the word spreads and kinda leaks on the Internet, people are going to get really excited [about]. It’s a pretty expansive, very extensive look at Tegan and Sara. I think it’s pretty fascinating because it’s from our perspective, but it’s also [producer] Chris Walla’s perspective and our mother’s perspective. I think it’ll be cool.
Paste: Yeah, absolutely. I was especially interested in In, where you discuss that trip to New Orleans where you guys made your first attempt to write songs together. Since you both had never done this before, what exactly did you guys learn of each other’s songwriting habits?
Quin: Well, I both think that we learned it was really boring, watching someone else write a song.
Paste: [laughs] Okay.
Quin: It’s not like you just magically pick up the guitar and go like, “I was walking with a ghost,” “Ooh, that’s a good one.” It’s hours of hacking out a guitar part, and then it’s the insecurity of writing a melody and words in front of them. It was kinda miserable, not because of each other. I just don’t have any interest in doing that with anyone. It was one of those experiences where it’s like, I’m really glad we did it and it was a worthwhile adventure, but it was also just hella boring. So like I said, I’m really glad we did it. It was really exciting—oh, my mom just arrived. Hi, Mom. So yeah, I think it was really good. I mean, ultimately, probably the most exciting thing is that we just survived it, and we wrote, we accomplished eight or nine songs. I think in general it was a success, and I think we just learned that we can do it if we have to. If there’s ever a point where someone challenges us to write a song together on a game show, we’ll be able to do it.
Paste: Excellent. Well, I’m glad you guys are armed with that, because you never know what type of game shows are going to come up these days.
Quin: True. Oh my god, you’d be surprised at some of the silly things people ask us to do in interviews too. So we’re set, we’re ready. We can handle anything now.
Paste: Good deal. Speaking of stuff you need to come up with on your own, you guys have talked before about where the title Sainthood comes from, that Leonard Cohen lyric [“I practiced all my sainthood / I gave to one and all / But rumors of my virtue / they moved her not at all”]. But where did the book titles come from?
Quin: We sorta started talking about the titles really late in the game… Sara and Emy actually came up with them. I’m not sure which of them came up with which one, but basically they just e-mailed and said, “We have this idea,” because I had sent explanations of what I saw the concepts being. The first book I thought of being centered around this idea that we’re travelers or explorers, and we’re out on the road, and that’s sort of like behind the scenes, and we have no home, and this and that, whatever. So they said back, “What about On Nomadism?” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s awesome.” So that’s how that went: I sent explanations, and they thought the abbreviations would be awesome. So the books are On Nomadism, In Experiment, and At the Longitude and Latitude of Australia. So they’re brilliant. Basically that was really smart. That’s how they came up with them.
Paste: Sara had talked before about how you guys used just five musicians and a few overdubs. Yet when I listen to the album, your sound seems to have gotten bigger than ever. How did this become the end result?
Quin: Well, I mean, the magic of sound recording.
Quin: I mean, with The Con or So Jealous, or any one of our old records really, we just had such a different approach. It was sorta like, record the drums, bass, and then overdub everything, so it kinda gives it a more thorough, and cluttered and kinda crazy sound. With Sainthood it was more like, we all stood in a room together, dreaming up our parts and playing them for months. And so I think in a weird way, even though there was less tracks and less overdubbing, the parts that we came up with just made more sense. They took up more space. We took more time with the actual sounds, getting the right guitar sound rather than just getting a guitar sound and overdubbing like three multiples of it or something like that. We actually painstakingly would spend hours perfecting these sounds of the keyboard and guitars so that it filled up the space that it was going to end up taking.
When we started rehearsing this record to go out on the tour—we just finished today, but we have been rehearsing for months—it was so easy. I think it was Sara that said she thought we were doing something wrong, because it really, really is easy when you do it that way. You get everything all figured out and once it comes time to perform it live, you just do what you did in the studio, like everyone just kinda does their part.
But yeah, the result was that everything kinda had its own place, and it just made the record feel more full. It sounds bigger and feels bigger, I think, because there’s not anything taking away from the sound. I think each song really just has exactly what it needs.
Paste recently posted a review of Sainthood, calling its sound a combination of pop-punk, new wave, and Euro techno elements, mixed with Cyndi Lauper. When I listened to it, I thought of all those things, plus a little bit of newer Against Me!. I was interested in finding out how you guys come to include these sound elements, because they are different from what you present in So Jealous and The Con.
Quin: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think So Jealous was very poppy and then we went rock, indie rock with The Con. But we started to experiment with a lot of these things. “Nineteen” was definitely one of the heavier tracks on The Con, and so “Northshore” and elements of “The Ocean” was directly formed. “Are You Ten Years Ago” off The Con was live drums but mixed with electronic elements. So when I first heard “Arrow…” Sara, basically just, she records these weird things. She’ll take bean cans and weird clocks in our house and record them … puts distortion over top and makes these electronic backgrounds, and then Jason [McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie] just drummed over top of them. So we went even further than what we did in “Are You Ten Years Ago”, because we implemented a lot of those kinds of weird background collaborations on “Paperback Head,” and “Red Belt” and “Arrow.” And I think both of us ejected, we just tried to employ as many different ideas as we possibly can.
We listen to a wide variety of music, and we’ve been making records with each other technically for like 14 years, even though we didn’t start professionally til ‘99. I mean, we started recording ourselves when we were teenagers, or as my mom likes to say, when she bought us our first Fisher Price tape recorder when we were four. Oh, when we were two—she just corrected me. And she said that we loved it. We would sing songs and tell stories, and we loved listening back to ourselves. Sara would say we were little narcissists.
But I think that with just every record it’s like, okay, we’re going to have to go and play this for two years. This is like our final record here, or on our record here, so we want to make sure that we’re interested in playing it. I think, definitely, this record covers so much ground. Sara was listening to The Supremes, and all of a sudden you have “Alligator,”, this weird throwback to real soul but also pop and R&B. I was listening to a ton of electronic music. We were writing the collaboration with Tiësto, and I sent to her eight samplers all playing weird, random rhythms, and she turned that into “Paperback Head.” We’re always going from whatever we’re inspired by, like you hear something on the radio and then become instantly excited to go home and write something. With “The Ocean,” when I originally wrote that, everybody loved it and was like, “Let’s make it like [The Con’s] ‘Call It Off.’ It’ll be acoustic, and quiet, and sweet.” And I bought everyone a copy of The Gaslight Anthem’s ‘59 Sound and was like, “No. I want to be a different kind of band this time. I don’t want to play acoustically. I want to fuckin’ rock out and feel it, and it’s gotta be loud for me.” So there was a lot of different shit going on.
Paste: You talking about all the different inspirations behind Sainthood reminded me to ask about “Feel It In My Bones.” What exactly about Tiësto’s track inspired the lyrics that you proceeded to write?
Quin: We met Tiësto because we performed with him, and he mentioned to me that he was going to send us this track. Then I forgot about it, and then he sent it, and I went away. When I got home, I checked in with Sara and said, “Have you started this yet?” She goes like, “Yes, I have all these really great ideas.” It was right around the time where she had been working on that kind of music, like “Arrow,” and “Night Watch,” and some of the more weird stuff. So when she sent me the song initially, I was like, “I don’t know. I mean, have you heard Tiësto? It’s dance music, Sara. It’s not like weird, alternative music.” So we started straightening out our ideas, but we probably committed or submitted five or six different chorus ideas. We basically recorded a crapload of vocals, and ideas, and harmonies, and parts, and then sent it them. They would send back the track with which part they liked, and then we’d fill in the holes. So it was probably about a three-month process. The lyrics themselves, the chorus part came from me, but Sara wrote all the lyrics for the verses, the pre-choruses, and the bridge, and then sent it to me. So I was just influenced by her lyrics. So I can’t speak for Sara, but I can say, I can hypothesize that it was about a relationship that probably wasn’t going well.
Quin: And she thought it was sad, and that it was like writing a song to somebody and hoping that they hear it, but they probably will never hear it. Probably what she always writes about.
Paste: I was about to say, that’s an recurring theme in your music anyway. I guess it’s not too much of a stretch.
Quin: Don’t say that to me. What do other people write about? I mean, I hear records and all I hear is relationships. And people are like, you guys really like to write about relationships, and I’m like, “Who doesn’t? What else is there to talk about?” I go get coffee with people and they’re like, “Yeah, work sucks. Anyway, let’s talk about my boyfriend.” And I’m like, “Yes.” That’s all that’s really relevant. We’re terrible. We’re narcissists. All we care about is ourselves.
Paste: [laughs] You’re right, in that it’s a really common conversation topic. Even some of the songs you said that you wrote about your neighborhood back home, if you were to broaden them out a little bit, they could have been like, “Oh, this relationship sucks.”
Quin: Oh no, it was. You see right through me, because it was. They were just metaphors for my bad relationship. I was just trying to find parallels to my neighborhood so that people thought I was broader and more well-rounded than I really am. But really, I was just writing about me.
Paste: With that said, with Sainthood you guys are continuing to explore the art of relationships—this time, as you guys say, becoming “anything for someone else,” or “martyrs for the cause.” With these observations that you’ve been making over your lives and continue to write about, do you guys consider yourselves any better versed at the dating game?
Quin: I think so. I think we’re exaggerators and we can be very dramatic, but I think so. I think that we definitely are learning. I think that it’s really hard to be in a relationship when you travel all the time. I think that it’s difficult. You’re always away, and you’re always busy, and I think that’s ultimately why artists have these weird, tumultuous lives. We’re always writing about heartbreak because we’re always touring, and so we’re kind of always heartbroken, and sad, and missing someone, and doing the wrong thing. I think also Sara and I probably don’t have any worse a track record than anyone else, but we both are so obsessed with analyzing ourselves, and analyzing our relationships, and analyzing our condition in the world. There’s been like three records where I was basically talking about the same relationship. I was just going over it again, and again, and again. I’m not sure if we’re that bad at it or we’re just kinda obsessed with it.
Paste: I think any person could safely say they’ve overanalyzed relationships before, so that doesn’t make you two stranger than anyone else.
Quin: [laughs] Oh, we’re no different at all. We just happen to be the ones with the microphone.