The Future of Tegan & Sara
Digital age Intervention
By Sarah Marloff,
1:30PM, Tue. Sep. 13, 2016
Technology plays a large role in Tegan & Sara. From day one, fans found the Canadian siblings’ music digitally, and living in different cities and writing separately, the pair would have found collaborating on eighth studio album Love You to Death far more difficult without the internet. The queer icons appear in person Saturday at Stubb’s.
Austin Chronicle: Hi Sara, I’m Sarah as well. Congratulations on the new song, “Fade Out.” I just saw the video and now I’m even more excited to see the film, The Intervention.
Sara Quin: Yeah, it’s really cool. We’ve been working on the project for so long I’m really excited it’s finally going to be in theatres.
AC: You scored the film, right?
SQ: Yeah, it was my first time doing it. We wanted to do a Tegan & Sara song, but the score itself was additional. I was nervous because I’d never scored a film before, but it fell into the post-recording [of Love You to Death] time frame, so we figured it was worth trying. It was a very cool experience, but it also illuminated for me how few women are scoring films. I think it’s something like less than 2 percent of scores are done by women.
We went to Sundance with the film and I met with a lot of really wonderful filmmakers and female musicians who had worked on scores before, so now I’m really excited to look for opportunities to raise awareness about that. I think it’s a big issue, having 98 percent of films done by men. It just seems ridiculous.
We have too many excellent musicians out there, so it’s really helped open my mind up to a part of the music industry I wasn’t that familiar with and obviously a lot of people aren’t. The women who have done it are real trailblazers and have done fantastic work, but in my opinion we need more.
AC: Crazy about those numbers. As a queer lady I’m drawn to those types of statistics.
SQ: Yeah, it’s interesting. I was talking to this woman at Sundance who’s been scoring films for like 20 years. She was saying that when you’re seeing the lack of equity between men and women that it’s important to look at systemic issues. What’s preventing women from doing these positions?
We’ve been touring professionally for 17 years and this is our first album cycle where we have a full-female technical team. Our house sound, our electrical, lighting director, monitor tech onstage, our production manager, our tour manager, our bass player are all women. It’s the first time in our band’s history where the gender divide is actually more women than men on tour with us. It sounds so silly, but it took a ton of work to assemble that team and it’s so much work to recognize that and find people. I can understand why so many bands don’t have it or wouldn’t even notice or care.
Going back to the conversation at Sundance, she said we can look at all of those things and we can acknowledge them and try to change them, but we as women – especially queer women – we need to make ourselves known. We need to submit ourselves to things. I’ve never scored a film, but I’ve also never tried. I’ve never asked my label or agents to put me up for these things. I think it’s two-fold.
Tegan and I are very interested in looking at the equity of women and especially queer women, but we’re also advocating for ourselves.
AC: Seventeen years is a long time to be touring, and eight studio albums tallies an impressive discography for anyone in 2016. How have you and Tegan as a band evolved?
SQ: One thing that’s really interesting is the idea of longevity. What’s really unique about us is that we’re a band, but we’re also individual songwriters who have not been afraid to let our personal taste change and our appearances change. And the output there has changed. I think that’s been a part of what’s extended our careers longer than some bands.
For a lot of bands it can be challenging to want to grow together and explore different sounds. Few – Radiohead immediately jumps to mind – can do that. We just got really lucky in the sense that the thing that initially drew people to us wasn’t so much a sound as it was our voices, lyrics, our story – the personality of the band. That ultimately strengthened our confidence around taking chances and trying new things.
With So Jealous in 2004, there was a real push back from some of our core fans: Why go in that synth direction? But we felt like we could lead people into what we think is the music of the future. We want to be advancing what’s happening in music. You have to be invested in the process and there have been bumps along the way. But I think because our voices and our method, and the people we are and who we used to be are sort of the same, that seems to be the common link.
Tegan and I don’t look at this as a career with one trajectory. We make do. When record sales started to fall we were like, “Well, we never even used to sell records. Let’s put more emphasis on streaming and digital stuff. Let’s do more video content.” We’re always looking for ways to remain relevant in an industry that’s always changing.
AC: Sometimes there seems to be this disconnect for artists on how things are really going.
SQ: I don’t wanna be the grim reaper for albums, but I also refuse to be in denial. Tegan and I are pragmatic and we look at statistics. We were a band that was well ahead of the curve in terms of our fans were buying digitally in the 60 percent range when most bands were selling digitally in the 30 percent range. Our audience was already searching out music in a way that showed us the future will not be physical copies. It was a complete surprise to me that our record label even wanted to do physical albums for this record.
I’m not trying to thumb my nose at local record shops or even big budget Targets and Walmarts, but I realistically see that the future of music is not going to look like the way I used to buy and consume music. I get excited about things changing. How can we make the experience better? How can we listen in a more fluid way? I think of it as a totally new stream of possibilities.
I would’ve cringed at 22 if I heard me now at 35, but I moved this year. When I was packing up, I put all my CDs into boxes, put them out on the street corner, and I tweeted where they were. They were gone in like five minutes. And I never thought about them again. If I want to listen to any of that, I just go on Spotify.
It’s not that I don’t want artists to be making money, but if the audience is telling us they don’t want to pay for it, we have to figure out other ways to monetize it. We just do, because it’s part of our jobs.
AC: Ignoring that would mean you lose fans.
SQ: Yeah, and I don’t like feeling discouraged, so why do I want to try and sell people something they’ve been systematically not buying? With every album we’ve seen our album sales drop even as our visibility as a band and ticket sales have increased. We’re not Beyoncé, we’re not Kayne, we’re not Taylor, or Katy. Those people, they’ll be the last ones who move units, but we know that we’re an internet band, a streaming band, a word-of-mouth band. Let’s have a hand in figuring out that future of music.
AC: You and Tegan used to write songs separately and bring them together in the studio. Do you still work like that or is it more cohesive?
SQ: I don’t know if the actual songwriting itself has changed. Our collaborative process has certainly changed, and part of that is technology. It used to be so cumbersome to send Tegan digital files of sessions, so we often wouldn’t end up collaborating until we got into the studio. Now I can work on a song, upload the files, and Tegan can download them and work on them at home.
That’s allowed us to have more of an impact on each other’s melodies. We have unique approaches to the way that we write and we started sharing that as much as we can with each other to have something more cohesive. I tend to go on a little longer and I’m fine with having a song be a bit of a sleeper. Then Tegan will come in and be like, “Chorus. Get to the chorus. What’s happening?”
AC: My favorite song on the new album is “BWU (Be With You).” How do you think being queer and being a woman has affected both your music and your career?
SQ: It certainly has impacted our career. There have been times where I felt if we were less like who we are then maybe we’d be more popular. But I feel really proud of who we are and proud that we’ve always done what we wanted to. Even when we made adjustments to sound more pop or wear more makeup, those things were on our terms.
When we were younger, I remember people asking, “Why aren’t you distinguishing about the fact that you’re not singing about a boy?” No one would ever ask a straight person that. No one would ever say, “Excuse me, Bono, it would be nice if you used ‘she’ so we know you’re not singing about a boy.” It was a political statement: I’m going to sing directly to this person. I’m going to say “you,” and I’m going to use the first person narrative because everyone else does.
I still think hearing a song like [Love You to Death lead single] “Boyfriend” on the radio would be pretty ... unique. I acknowledge that and I also acknowledge that maybe, in a weird way, it hurt us that the song was so queer, but I just didn’t care. We’re still making decisions like that. I could’ve taken the song and made it a little more ambiguous, but I felt strongly that I wanted to do something about gender and identity. And put it into the poppiest format I could to make it more contrasting.
Every day, every album we talk about where things are and how we can advance things, but also we’re just songwriters.
“Be With You” was such a personal reaction to the jubilation of the same-sex marriage Supreme Court ruling. As a Canadian, we’ve had same sex marriage for quite a while, but I really wanted to be a part of the movement and still feel very much rooted in the legal movements and protecting LGBT people. But I also wanted to show that just because you care and you’re gay and actively fighting for these rulings doesn’t mean you want it.
In fact, it might mean that you hate the institution and the only way we’ll ever be able to dismantle that institution is if we all have access to it. I wanted to show that it’s complex even for queer people.
AC: Music-wise, do you two ever miss doing folky/punky stuff?
SQ: I definitely don’t think about going backwards, but we’re in the middle of creating our tour sets for the fall and we’re adding more of our old songs, partially because we’re able to update them to what we sound like now. It goes beyond sound and whether we’re playing electric guitar or keyboard. We’ve gotten better. I’m not saying that we won’t make an organic record again. I think that we wanted to tinker with the pop world and do our version of it because that feels exciting, but I don’t know what we’ll sound like in five years.
I’ll tell you what, though. I hadn’t played guitar since 2008/2009 and I hadn’t written any songs on it since the very early stages of Sainthood. Now, these last few months, I’ve been playing guitar like crazy. I’d played guitar since 1994 and needed a break. We’ve even talked about going out at the end of this album cycle and doing a stripped-down, acoustic tour. We feel like we can be versatile and the audience will support that.
AC: What’s your favorite part about playing in Austin?
SQ: Oh man, my favorite part about playing in Austin – besides the best audiences, music-loving people – is the food, obviously. It’s so good! I love eating in Austin.