(Photo: Sarah Fobes)
Tegan And Sara have changed things up for their seventh studio album. For starters, they’re switching between three producers—Greg Kurstin (Foster The People, Mike Posner, Kelly Clarkson), Mike Elizondo (Regina Spektor, Eminem) and Justin Meldal-Johnsen (M83, Beck)—and using three different L.A. studios to record it. Long-time collaborator/AFI bassist Hunter Burgan is again hanging around the proceedings; so is expert drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, Elliott Smith). On top of that, Tegan And Sara co-wrote a song with André Anjos from the RAC production/remix collective (Tokyo Police Club, Ra Ra Riot) and another tune with the dance duo Sultan + Ned Shepard.
“I think people are going to be really excited,” Tegan Quin says of the still-untitled album. “I think we have a really good batch of songs. I know on the last record [2009’s Sainthood] we were experimenting a lot—like on “Paperback Head” and “Arrow.” Not all the songs landed, but certain tracks really did, and I think with this one, this is going to be more in the vein the way people got attached to So Jealous and The Con. They’re all really good songs—really good stories, really good intentions.”
When the album will see the light of day is another story. “Our hope is to mix in May and part of April as well, so hopefully we’ll have a finished record by June,” Quin says. “And it really all just depends on the label. If the label is really excited and doesn’t want us to put it out right away, then we’re actually pretty committed to that. We’ve seen a lot of different bands who held their record. Adele’s record was complete for almost six months before they put it out.
“I want to say the record will be out by the end of the year,” she adds. “But there is a possibility that the record will actually come out in 2013. Who knows?”
Interview: Annie Zaleski
You guys have a whole cast of characters in the studio with you, including AFI bassist Hunter Burgan and drummer Joey Waronker. What is it like working with the latter?
Tegan Quin: When we started figuring out how we were going to do this record, it became clear that not only did Sara and I have more than one favorite to do the record, but also the universe threw us lots of curveballs, so everyone we were interested in was not able to take three months of their life to make a record with us. All of a sudden, we were like, “Okay, well, maybe we’re going to kind of change things up for the first time and make a record with a bunch of different people.”
I got really excited by that right away, because almost immediately all three different producers were like, “Oh, I want to use this person for bass and I want to use this person for drums.” I was like, “Oh my god, this is like Christmas Day for us, because we get to use all these musicians that we’ve been hearing and reading about for years who we’ve never been able to use.” Just when we’re starting to first maybe feel exhausted by certain songs or certain people, we get to go to a different studio with a different producer for a couple weeks, so it’s been wonderful for perspective—something I don’t know if we necessarily always have. It’s nice to have forced ourselves into a situation where we’re going to be constantly readjusting.
That’s good. I think a lot of people might find that exhausting or really hard to deal with changing gears.
Honestly, after making six records…the experience of going to the same place for two months every day with the same people and the same list of songs, it actually can feel a little monotonous. Especially on the last record [Sainthood], afterwards, I was like, “I don’t want that feeling,” because I look forward to writing and recording so much—and I look forward to making records so much—and sometimes I just feel exhausted while we’re doing it.
This process is already—at least it seems at this point very early on—it’s actually cutting all that monotony and boredom and repetition out of the process. Every two weeks we switch back and forth between these producers, and we switch studios and our drive changes every day. One guy likes to work 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the other guys likes to work 1 p.m. until 10 p.m. We’re used to the road, where every day is different. There’s monotony there, too, and repetition, but every city’s different, and you’ve got different people and different audiences and different venues. I’m not used to going to the same job every day, so making records can be psychologically very difficult.
What’s it like working with Greg Kurstin? Whenever I hear a song and I’m like, “Oh, I really like this,” it tends to be that he has produced it.
[Laughs.] I kind of feel the same way, actually. So far, it’s been awesome. He likes to work really normal, very human hours. We’re working 10 ’til 6 every day, so I come to work every day very happy and well-slept and I don’t feel stressed out. He moves very quickly, and he’s very efficient and just a wildly talented musician. A lot of his production for us so far has been arranging and editing what we’ve already recorded at home and then just piling on a bazillion great ideas on top of it. The songs are forming really quickly. He has a wicked dry sense of humor, which also helps when you’re in the studio.
We wanted to work with Greg—he was our number one pick—because he’s done things like the Shins, but then he’s also worked with Kelly Clarkson and Ke$ha and all that stuff. [On this record] Sara and I are really interested in pushing ourselves to places we haven’t been before. We’re certainly not making a Ke$ha record, but I don’t think we need to shy away from the part of us that grew up listening to pop music and still likes pop music. We also listen to hip-hop and acoustic music and we listen to a lot of electronic music. I think for the last couple of years, we’ve been experimenting in the dance world so much that I wanted to make sure we didn’t hire a producer who’s only worked in one genre. And Greg, he’s the guy if you want to do pretty much anything—he can do it. The sounds are crazy. We finished vocals on a song and he spends 20 minutes remixing everything and doing this and throwing on this and doing that. All of a sudden he’s playing it and I’m like, “Oh my God, the record is done.” [Laughs.]
When I talked to you guys last year for the most anticipated issue, it was kind of like, “We’re not sure where things are going to go yet or how things are going to shake out.” And now it’s here! What songs are making it on the record?
Well, Greg picked six tracks to work on and I’d say that probably we wrote 45 songs in total. I’d say the six he picked are definitely more in the pop world in terms of structure and stuff—[they’re] more up-tempo, [they have] lots of really big hooks and soaring choruses and that kind of stuff. For Sara and I both musically on this record, we haven’t done as much guitar stuff. We’ve both wrote a lot on piano and keyboard this time. The guitars we added were more for texture. The songs have definitely a different tone to them. Even the way we’re singing feels really different. It’s definitely reminding me of some of our earlier work, like If It Was You and So Jealous—in terms of [how] we were way more poppy on those records and then we kind of went in a more rock, kind of indie-rock direction for our last two.
I definitely feel like there’s way more poppy vocals—way more interplay between Sara and I. We finished a song yesterday that has Sara singing the bridge that she wrote and me doing the verses and the choruses. For die-hard Tegan and Sara fans who wish we sang more together, it’s going to happen. [Laughs.] There’s definitely going to be lots more back and forth between us, which has been really nice and refreshing. I think Sara and I have really different tones to our voice and have brought a more intense story to each song, because we’ve been contributing with each other. [There are] a lot of co-writes on this record.
I’m trying to think of how to describe the direction we’ve taken, but I think it’s hard to say because right now everything is so—it’s kind of like moving day when you get to your new apartment and all your stuff is still in boxes, but you’ve ripped open a few boxes to get a colander or a shower curtain and a towel. You have a guest over and they’re like, “Yeah, the place looks great,” but really, they can’t tell. That’s sort of how I feel right now. I feel like everything needs to be put in its special place and it's not quite there, but it’ll be there soon, I promise. The apartment is going to be great.
Lyrically, what’s the tone of the record right now?
We’re both in very happy, pleasant places in our life, but I find we’re the opposite of a lot of people: When we’re really happy, we find it easier to write. I feel like I can look back at my most miserable times and reflect on it better. When I’m really sad, I just watch television. I don’t write music. I’m not like, “I’m having a cripplingly depressing day. I’m going to write a song.” I’m like, “I’m going to eat pizza and lay on the floor and watch Netflix.”
This record, lyrically…it’s hard for me sometimes to feel my own songs, but certainly the three tracks that we’re working on of Sara’s are like… It’s crazy, because they’re so poppy and upbeat in some ways, but as soon as you start listening to it, it feels like she’s just hitting you with a fucking brick in your face. It’s so intense and deep and sad. I think we’re both reflecting on some failure in our past. We’ve kind of gotten to that age where we feel like it’s time to start taking responsibility for things. And I definitely feel like lyric-wise, we tried not to be too depressing, but definitely there’s a darkness and sullenness to this record in terms of lyrics.
Ultimately, we are in a happier place [on this record], which has made us more productive. But it’s also made it much easier to reflect on the parts of our lives that we haven’t yet dealt with, and maybe there’s some responsibility that we need to take. At least for me, a lot of my songs are sort of from the perspective of, “Okay, maybe it wasn’t so bad—or maybe it was really bad.” You know, just like perspective—lots of lamenting about the past, but from that whole new perspective.
I was listening to a ton of ’80s music while I was writing this record and a couple of the songs have a playfulness to it, but just kind of trying to be romantic, too. Pining and wanting something you no longer have can actually be really awesome and secretly romantic, even if you’re never going to be with that person or something. It’s kind of like drinking from a fountain of youth: It’ll never change because it’s always in your head. I feel like there’s some of the songs there’s a sort of masochism to the reasons I’m pulling from the past in this way that’s very pleasurable.
I think ’80s music is very nostalgic in general. I’m not sure why that is, but definitely the new wave songs I like are very wistful.
I spent a lot of time listening and looking through those kinds of lyrics. There was a simplicity to the way those songs were written, which I’ve always sort of erred on the side of being more literal and being simpler in my music—which sometimes dumbs down my songs or it can make them feel a little bit linear. I definitely tried not to make my songs feel linear or dumbed down, but I definitely wanted to keep the message simple. I feel like I’m at a place in my life where I wanted to find the best way to say something, not like 25 different ways.
Structurally, our music has really evolved. We spent a lot of time talking to other writers, musicians, producers. We’ve gone into the studio with a few people over the last year and for the first time ever in my career, I wasn’t just accepting the pats on the back. I was like, “Well, what would you do if you were us? How would you change it? How would you make that better? What are we not doing? As writers, why aren’t we nominated for writer of the year or whatever?” We’ve always been critically acclaimed and we have a great fan base, but we’re not necessarily always respected for being the best songwriters—why?
It was like, “No, you write great songs. Your lyrics are great. Maybe you just need to write stronger bridges or change your perspective—not so much ‘I, I, I.’ What about you and them and we?” and I’m like, “Right, okay.” I am friends with a lot of writers who write novels and short stories and those kinds of things, but television too. I got a pile of books and really felt like I went back to school. I learned how to write from a different perspective, so I hope it’s reflected in my writing on this record. I really tried a lot harder. The [record] label was like, “Tegan, you need to add more depth to your music and Sara, don’t be afraid to just give it all in your first line.” I think sometimes Sara holds it back. She creates these really beautiful, incredible landscapes, but she saves her hooks for two minutes in. I’m the kind of person like, “Here I am! It’s been five seconds. I just gave you everything!” We definitely really dove into our writing on this one.
That’s really cool. Not many people take such an academic approach to their lyrics.
Yeah, and I didn’t want to bore anybody. My girlfriend will tell you—I can repeat the same thing a thousand times. Especially if interrupted. I’ll just keep going back to it over and over and over again. I heard this wonderful
—I always blank on who said it—that [says,] “Art is never finished; it’s just abandoned.” It’s true. I literally could just rehash the same thing over and over and over again, but at some point you just decide, “Okay, it’s done” and you put it out. But when we start writing again and making a record, I just kind of pick up where I left off. This time I really wanted to—I still wanted to conjure up and pull from the emotional data base that I have going on inside of me, but I wanted to make sure I had updated where I’m coming from as a human and as a writer. alt