On Heartthrob, Tegan And Sara Get “Closer” To The Spotlight
February 20, 2013
By Joey Odorisio
Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin continue their musical evolution on Heartthrob, the duo’s seventh studio album. While 2009’s Sainthood mixed sharp guitar riffs and keyboard hooks, Heartthrob is inspired by ‘80s Pop hits. Tegan Quin recently spoke to proQB about their influences on Heartthrob, writing more upbeat songs and which music industry honor justifies having parasites inside you.
How has the reaction been to the sonic shift on Heartthrob? Obviously, you’ve done dance music before, collaborating with electronic artists such as Tiesto, Morgan Page and David Guetta, so this isn’t completely out of left field.
I was just saying this today about [our new single] “Closer;” for the die-hard Tegan and Sara fans who have been with us over multiple records, or from the beginning, they’ve been along for the transition from record-to-record. We’re not only really influenced by what’s happening in popular music at the time, but also by musical influences that we’ve carried with us through our lives. I don’t think it’s that different in that sense; we were being influenced of course by what’s happening in mainstream culture, but also by Kate Bush and Talking Heads and Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. We were kids in the ‘80s and teenagers in the ‘90s, so everything from Pennywise to full blown dance music, and I really think that Heartthrob is the culmination of all of that. If you were to sort of break down our collaborative work over the years with Dance artists and Pop artists, I think it’s made us very brave and made us feel very confident that no matter what we try, our fans seem to really like it. I think the common denominator is that no matter who we collaborate with, there’s still a common theme about what we like to write about: relationships. But it’s also our voices and the melodic choices we make, and that is still consistent through Heartthrob.
Also, if you take any song on Heartthrob and strip it down to the demo where we started, it’s still quintessential Tegan and Sara. The lyrics, the melodies and the vibe; it’s still very much Tegan and Sara. It just sounds bigger and better than ever before, but that was a conscious choice: let’s work with different producers to take our band to the next level; let’s imagine ourselves being bigger; let’s imagine ourselves on the radio. It’s a product of being around for a really long time. Sara and I are more confident and we felt like it was time to step it up.
The new songs are certainly more in the Pop vein, but they’re also not far from what bands like Passion Pit or Metric have been doing lately. Yet I’ve seen comparisons online to Katy Perry, for example.
It’s so funny, when you listen to Sainthood and you listen to The Con, they are very keyboard-heavy records and we’ve had three keyboard positions on stage for years, so its not like all of the sudden, [we said] “Oh, keyboards?!” I don’t know if it’s just people just repeating the same thing they hear over and over again, like we’ve just been called Folk music so many times now. Even though we’ve never been Folk, people still hear “Closer” and say, “But they were a Folk band?”
These aren’t things we really think about. We’ve been playing music now with each other for 17 years and we change it up. We used to be a punk rock band, and we went through an acoustic phase and we went through an indie rock phase and a rock phase, and now we’re doing a lot more dance-keyboard stuff. Ultimately the songs are the songs and the option here is that we keep evolving and find new, exciting ways to entertain ourselves and entertain our audience or quit. We’re not in it for the money. so I’m not just gonna go press the button and say “OK, here’s another Con.” I’m not gonna do that [album] again. Also whatever people hear and whatever reference they come up with is so funny…somebody actually said “It’s like the Indigo Girls, but with a dance beat!” I just think it’s funny.
“Closer” is a fun track. We’ve never done something romantic and fun and upbeat. I really felt like embracing that, and also getting nostalgic for my late teen years and first crushes and loves, and [the feeling that] “the whole world’s in front of you and you can do anything!” A lot of Heartthrob is like that. “Drove Me Wild” is like that, and “Love They Say”…these are all songs that I wrote where I felt so happy and content and amazing about my life, but I am also able to draw the parallels to the time in my life where I felt anxious, and it’s nice to wrap those things up in a song.
“Love They Say” is another happier, romantic song on Heartthrob, but there are also a lot of darker, breakup songs surrounding it.
Yeah, but even the bridge to “Love They Say” says, “they’ll say we’re crazy.” I was trying to write about the concept that we still feel like our love is the most original, our love is the most interesting and no one has experienced love like our love. This idea that from the outside [of your relationship], no matter how much you love someone, or how slow or how fast you go, everyone around you is like “Oh my God, did you say Tegan? She’s going on and on and on about her relationship, blah blah blah blah blah…”
Even in our romantic songs, you can’t squeeze Tegan and Sara out of that mentality of finding the dark side anyway. But we really wanted to change it up with this record, trying some different stuff and it feels so nice to sing different kinds of songs. Also, we’ve never seen our audience jump up and down and fist-pump before, and the looks on the audience’s faces…we’re very thankful for their reactions.
You recorded Heartthrob with producer Greg Kurstin (The Shins) who is everywhere lately, as well as Mike Elizondo (Regina Spektor) and Beck’s long-time bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen on Heartthrob. What was it like working with multiple producers?
We worked with so many amazing people and there is so much great music out there. It’s overwhelming when you start picking producer names and you say, “Oh my God, we could do this record with anyone and it would be amazing.” We had a really strong batch of songs that were all leaning in the Pop world, so we definitely narrowed the field of producers to ones who had worked with female vocalists or worked in the Pop world, even if they had worked solidly in the indie world too. With JMJ and Mike and Greg, who had just finished doing The Shins’ record, we wanted people who knew the indie world and that we were not Kelly Clarkson or Ke$ha or Katy Perry, and that we don’t have that kind of vocal grasp, or that kind of money! So we wanted to find somebody who understands the Pop world and female vocalists, but we also wanted somebody who understands what its like to be a band and to have these very intense, heartfelt songs. The three of them all responded so positively and so differently to the demos, and it was just obvious that we needed to use more than one person to do the record.
When Greg specifically heard the demos for “I’m Not Your Hero” and “I Was A Fool,” both were acoustic demos that just had piano and guitar, but he heard pop songs. [He was saying about them], “This is like this song and that song,” and he was referencing “Roxanne” and all these amazing ‘80s songs, so we realized he got what we were trying to do here and helped us make a Tegan and Sara record that we’d never heard before.
Speaking of producers, I met Chris Walla (of Death Cab For Cutie, who co-produced Tegan and Sara’s last two albums) at SXSW last year and told him how much I loved his work with you, especially on Sainthood.
Chris is amazing. He just did the most insane remix of “Closer.” Chris was so important in the history of Tegan and Sara. Instead of hiring a bunch of musicians on The Con, he encouraged us to do what we felt and what came naturally and he really pushed us to be better performers. He told us, “Don’t write seven keyboard parts, write one [part] that’s amazing.” It really changed the way we thought about music and our band and writing, and he really took it to the next level with us.
While working on Heartthrob, you did a lot of documenting of the recording process: a series of photos for Rolling Stone and the “Carpool Confessional” videos. How did that impact the making of the record?
We’ve always documented things in a different way. We documented Sainthood similarly but it felt very different with this record, because the recording was broken up between three producers over three months and there were breaks in between. So the photos actually helped pull it all together since we had this consistent project, and we could look at who we were working with this week. It helped us keep everything straight and it really built the foundation for the record, and let people know that we did this record with three different people. It also kind of eased our fans in to this new way of making a record for us.
As for the Carpool Confessionals, honestly it was an idea that my girlfriend had about how to capture these moments and it was a fun project to do. For Sara and I, it kind of took the pressure off [of filming while in the studio]. Instead of having a camera in our face all day long, it was very nice to just shoot at the very beginning and end of every day. And again I think it really helped build the enthusiasm and excitement with our audience and ease them into what was happening. In the first or second episode we talk about how the record’s gonna be very different and we hope our fans are ready for it. We created all this excitement and kept them interested, and it was so funny. We started getting so much mail and so many tweets, telling us, “We’re here to let you know on behalf of all the Tegan and Sara fans online. We just want to let you know that we’re excited to hear the new stuff and we will fully support you no matter what and we want you to flourish and embrace your originality.” So it was awesome.
Congratulations on your first-ever Grammy nomination (for the live CD-DVD Get Along)! How did it feel? Thanks! It felt really great. Making records is hard, but there’s something particularly gratifying about making a record because you get to promote it: you have a record company, you tour and the fans sing along there in front of you night after night, and you are rewarded for having done all this hard work, you make royalties, whatever… DVDs are tough, because you want to do them but there’s something maybe slightly more self indulgent about them. We want our audience to see behind the scenes, but there’s not fanfare for a DVD. You put out a DVD and people are like, “cool, whatever.”
But Get Along was so expensive and we took a year off and spent four months of that working on this. For the live concert we played for five hours and told millions of stories. We went to India and we all had parasites and were still on antibiotics a year later. I could go on for an hour about how hard every detail of it was. Then it came out and it was really exciting, but it was also like, “OK cool, the DVD’s out, the live record’s out” and then it’s over. [Ed. Note: Get Along featured three different short films, one of which documents the band’s first tour of India.]
So when I got offstage and saw a tweet from our record company saying, “Congratulations on your nomination for Get Along,” I was like. “Alright!” And Sara said, “Well that makes getting a parasite worthwhile, doesn’t it?” So it’s pretty awesome. And to be perfectly honest, I had no idea we were even registered with the Grammys, I’m not sure how that works, but whoever did that, thanks a lot, we appreciate it.
[Editor’s Note: Mumford & Sons beat out Tegan & Sara’s Get Along for Best Long Form Music Video.]
This interview originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of pro.qb