Interview with Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara
We get it, they’re sisters. Identical twins, even, and both lesbians, to boot. That may have been intriguing ten years ago when the Quin’s first emerged in the Canadian Indie rock scene, but with the release of their sixth studio album, Sainthood, last October, they are making sure that your entire focus is still on their music. CityBeat recently spoke to Sara (above, right) about their current influx of fans, a severe lack of sibling rivalry, the winter Olympics, and why she always gets anxious before coming to San Diego.
I noticed is that you’re playing Copley Symphony Hall this time around. I know you’ve played Spreckels in the past, but a lot of your fans are accustomed to seeing you in smaller clubs and bars. What made you choose the symphony hall?
I personally love touring in clubs as opposed to these big halls, there’s always something terrific about that. It’s a good problem to have to have to move it to big theaters and symphony halls because we have more fans. The thing that I really, really love about theaters and symphony halls is usually the PA’s and the sound systems and the lighting are just super slick and pro. It makes your day go by so much nicer. So just from a completely selfish, behind-the-scenes personal place, I love playing in these venues. I almost feel like I have to wear a suit to work. After so many years of touring in a car and stepping into these horrible bars where it smells like somebody just peed all over the bar [laughs] and then poured beer on top of the pee, it’s kind of lovely to walk into a symphony hall.
People always feel classier when they have to sit down.
Totally! We try to make people to stand up, but we’re almost 30. Every once in awhile to play in clubs feels amazing, we tour pretty much only clubs in Europe, but you come back here and you’re playing theaters and places with chandeliers uptown and I like it.
Chandeliers–that’s how you know you’ve made it. You and Tegan are great at making your live shows feel like a conversation between you two and each person in the crowd. Is any of this intimacy lost in the venues you’ve been playing? I know you’re fans probably don’t think so, but do you ever feel disconnected?
You know, I don’t. I feel like it really depends from night to night. We’ve opened for people in venues that are like 15,000 people and felt extremely intimate, and then I’ve played radio performances for 20 contest winners and felt like there was in impenetrable wall between us. It really depends on the people and the energy. Without sounding all hippy-dippy, I really think that it’s on both parts. How Tegan and I are feeling, how the audience is feeling, the environment. You can make the biggest room seem small, and the smallest room seem big. We’re still trying to do what we do, trying to have a conversation with people, and for the most part I feel like that’s effective still. I hate the idea that fans, especially people who have been watching us grow all of these last 10 years from smaller venues to big venues, I hate to think that they don’t feel that there’s still that connection between us and the audience. I think the difference is that there were certain people who thought the connection was with them, personally, and to put them in like row 18, stage left, suddenly they feel like oh my God, it’s not a connection to me anymore. I think that sometimes is based on the individual. We really still do the same thing we’ve always done. It’s more about giving the—I hate to say the illusion, but, save for like a drunken fan who stands out, I very rarely feel like I’m connecting individually to one single person. I generally try to think of myself as gently patting the collective head of the entire audience. I’m trying to make sure that everyone feels like I’m attentive to their needs. But how could you ever be attentive to each individual concert goer’s needs, you know? It’s sort of like that strange balance of trying to give that illusion to people that they’re deeply connected to you in that moment [laughs].
One of the ways you do this is you like to share stories with the crowd. Tegan infamously likes to pick on you for your anecdotes, but they definitely are a large part of that “conversationy” feel we were just talking about. I promise I’ll try not to pick on you if you share one now. So, do you have any fond memories from here in San Diego? Or I guess not-so-fond memories will work, too.
Oh my God. I have a really important—I mean important part of my life happened in San Diego because right when we were finishing If it was You, I guess it was about 2003, I was about to move from Vancouver to Montreal. It was a big move for me, I was breaking up with my girlfriend of 4 years and I was going to move across the country, it was almost 3000 miles and I didn’t know anybody in Montreal. I was really nervous. It was all going to happen after this one US tour we were doing, and the last show of that tour was in San Diego. In San Diego, we played this terrifically terrible show. Everything about the show bummed us out. Just—it was terrible. It was not a tour-ender, you know? It was sort of like the horrible moment of oh God, we’re failures and there was hardly anyone at the show, and we didn’t make enough money to even get a hotel so we slept in our van that night, and I only realized in the morning that my wallet was gone and had been stolen out of the backstage area. And in my wallet was a blank check because I had been in Montreal before the tour started to put a deposit down on the apartment, and I hadn’t used the check. So when I woke up in the morning, I mean beyond cancelling all my credit cards, I was also having a panic attack thinking that somebody could write this blank check for any amount of money they wanted. So I was panicked and on the phone before my flight trying to cancel everything and was in tears. I flew home to Vancouver and, no joke, when I arrived in Vancouver my bag felt really light and my computer had been stolen. I sort of landed in Vancouver and felt despondent. Like, what did I do to deserve all this chaos? And within a few days I was moving to Montreal and had no computer. I had no contacts. I had to close my bank account [laughs], all this crazy shit. Anyways, that is what I think of when I think of San Diego. And I’ve played there a billion times since, I have lots of wonderful memories, but I always feel this sort of like anxiety when I think of San Diego because of this one experience I had [laughs]. So traumatizing.
Wow… I’m sorry to hear that. Awkward. We’ll have a parade this time or something. A big, citywide group hug.
Yeah! Or maybe someone there has my wallet still. And maybe they want to give it back. It’s an artifact I would just like to see. It’s been 7 years.
Search party’s on it.
I’ve read you and Tegan write mostly separately from one another. Does this method ever become competitive, or have there been any songs you were like DAMN I wish I came up with that one!
[Laughs.] I don’t feel like I’ve ever been jealous. It’s funny, I’ve always been afraid of using the word competitive because I’ve never felt like that was an accurate description. But I think that it’s always really obvious to me and to Tegan which songs are the best songs. And not just the best songs because I think there’ve been songs that have been really terrific that haven’t ended up on our albums, but they didn’t necessarily work in the whole piece whether it was sequentially or schematically or whatever. For whatever reason, I’m not even just saying this to be diplomatic and Canadian, but we have experienced very, very little conflict with which songs were best and which songs were meant to be on the album. Very little. Often, the conversation or discussion or whatever usually is about the other person’s songs. I’ll be arguing about which of Tegan’s songs should be on the record. I’ll feel strongly about one song and she’ll hate that song or something. So in some strange way we’ve become the biggest fans of each other. So sometimes it become that relationship of like—I’ll be like, “This is the best one”. And she’ll be like, “You can’t see clearly, and you don’t know which is the best one.” And I’m like, “Yes I do! I know all of your work!” [Laughs.] That’s the only time I can think of when we really, truly have a conflict. When we’re almost, sort of deciding what of the other person’s is best.
That’s good to hear. You guys evolve drastically from album to album without losing that signature “Tegan and Sara” style. If you write the songs separately, though, do you have to work hard to make sure the songs are cohesive, or does your growth as songwriters tend to flow in a similar direction?
You know, I think about this a lot because I definitely think we’ve both grown in different directions, and yet there certainly is a focus to still make the record cohesive. If Tegan were to go off and make an album of all her own material and potentially not involve me, I do think that the albums would sound so completely different. I think it’s part of working together and singing on each other’s songs and making comments about instrumentation or arrangements or whatever. I think those things help pull the songs closer to the middle and make us sound more like a band that isn’t being written by—a band who’s writing music together and not necessarily so independently. What was interesting was when we did write together for this album, the songs, I felt, didn’t sound like us, in some strange way. I think that was because to have the individual songwriting and the individual song styles, the way that we sing, all of those things really, really closely contrasted next to each other like that. It just all of a sudden made me realize wow, we don’t even—we sound like a different band. So I think that’s exciting too. I’d really like to continue to work with her because I feel like maybe there’s something in the future that—you know, like that is the way of the future for our band. To continue to expand our sound by working more like Tegan and Sara—together.
Speaking of different directions, I know Tegan has been working on a side project with hunter from AFI, and another outlet for you as of late had been the role of Producer, both on Fences and Hesta Prynn albums. What’s your favorite part about working on other people’s music?
Right now I love working on other people’s projects. The Fences one probably being the one I focused the most on just because I feel like I forced him to let me make his record. It was sort of a labor of love because there was no funding, waited to work on it because I wanted to be able to help and to offer my services and just basically do it with my resources or money and whatever. He was just so generous to let me be so aggressive about it. I really loved it. He is a beautiful, beautiful songwriter and has a great voice, and loves his songs. It was a great experience. I love working with my friends. I loved Hesta Prynn. I feel like they’re very generous when they talk about my contributions to that project because I felt like I mostly just sat on the couch eating Whole Foods and crying the whole time. What is so nice about working with other people is that it’s not my project. It doesn’t feel like the world will end with every decision. So because this is so all-encompassing, like my life is Tegan and Sara, it’s so refreshing to walk outside of that life and just be involved in something that doesn’t have to be everything. I don’t have to think about, you know, what Chris from Fences is going to wear/sing/tour with and what—I don’t have to think about any details except for like what I’m working on, the actual album of it. Once the album was done it was like oh my God I’m just a fan again. It’s really cleansing for me because it doesn’t have to be so crazy all the time. It allows me to have a creative output without it having to be ev-ry-thing, you know?
As of late, the media here has noticed a shift in Canadian attitude lately about national pride, and some comments your President made in reference to it at the Olympics just getting all riled up and saying FUCK YEAH CANADA, let’s do it! (Not a direct quote.) I mean, Canada’s already known for a lot of camaraderie, especially in the music scene, but have you noticed any exuberant nationalism as of late? Or have you done anything to express yours?
[Laughs.] I don’t think I’ve been in the US during a winter Olympics before and I noticed that’s something that the American press has been talking about and we’ve been talking about if it really is even true—if Canadians have actually become more patriotic, or if it’s just a strange way of American press being competitive with Canadians. I think in a way Americans get this bad rep for being too patriotic, so maybe now that the Olympics are in Canada, since it’s been so long since we hosted a winter Olympics, I wonder if it’s a way of being like “See? See? Canadians are competitive, too. They’re patriotic, they love the flag!” But I don’t know, because I’m not in Canada! And when I’m in Canada, I don’t go to any, like, pro-Canada rallies. [Laughs.] Most people love Ca—people who live in Canada like it. We appreciate what we’ve got, but we’re just like any country. We have lots of—I mean our government is totally freaking out right now, they’re always fighting with each other and we have a very similar sort of left and right wing tug-of-war all the time. I think there’s a lot of similarities between Canada and America. But yeah, I have no idea. I haven’t been watching a ton of coverage, but Tegan—and her girlfriend is American—they have been watching it and Tegan says it’s a whole different world watching the Olympics with an American.
Cool, we’re on the same page then. See, I didn’t think there were people all of a sudden walking around with “I fuckin’ love Canada” t-shirts.
[Laughs.] No way! You know what I will say about American and Canadian audiences though? We just did a whole tour of Canada and the audiences are amazing, and we’re doing a tour of the states and the audiences are amazing, but the other night in Philadelphia, during the encore we were playing—you know, we do a couple of acoustic songs—and in the middle of one of the songs a guy started chanting U-S-A, U-S-A, over and over. Those are the kind of moments when I’m like, I just—I’ve been all around the world. I’ve been in every country. And I’ve been in every kind of situation. You know, like our own shows, opening for people. I’ve been in crazy time, drunk, festival crowds—all sorts of things. People do lots of wacky shit. But I just was dumbstruck by this guy. I mean he had gone two hours—our show is over two hours—two hours of listening to us play, and for whatever reason he just felt he needed to chant “U-S-A” during the quietest moment of the encore. It’s moments like that where I’m like—I’ve dated an American for like 5 years, most of my dear friends are American, I spend most of my life in America, my family is American, I have nothing negative to say about American patriotism, I think it’s a beautiful, wonderful country with millions of amazing people—but in moments like that, I’m like, you fucking a-hole. You make everyone here want to sacrifice their life and kill you and go to prison. You are just a gigantic dick. And in that moment it wasn’t me thinking like what an asshole American, it was like what an asshole. I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy! I just really can’t imagine anybody chanting “Can-a-da!” [Laughs.]
I’m going to do that, March 3. I’m going to be in Copley shouting “CAN-A-DA” repeatedly.
[Laughs.] Do it! Please do, that would be amazing. That’s how I’ll know it was you.
Photo above by Pamela Littky.