Indie rockers Tegan and Sara Quin feared they were going to become boring. So they ditched their guitars to produce a pop album of songs that deserve to be blasted from open windows all summer. By David Smyth
IF THIS is what a midlife crisis sounds like, we should all have one. At 32, with six albums of tuneful, understated indie rock behind them, Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin have made a seventh that is the musical equivalent of buying a huge motorbike and roaring off to the beach. When they play the ABC in Glasgow in a few days, guitars are out, fizzy synths are in, and all that will be missing are a confetti cannon, eight costume changes and a dance troupe to fully represent this belated pop explosion.
“We’d started to get freaked out that we were going to become boring. I was afraid we’d become very comfortable,” says Sara of a long career at the weightier end of cult status that has included support slots with Neil Young and The Killers, Juno and Polaris nominations (Canada’s versions of the Brits and the Mercury) and a White Stripes-recorded cover of their song Walking with a Ghost — but never a true crossover hit until Closer. Their recent single might be the greatest song Kylie never recorded.
“What’s exciting is that everyone’s talking about the music this time. There’s no need to tread too heavily on what’s been talked about in the past,” says Tegan, although she insists that she now feels less awkward about discussing the most unusual aspect of their group’s biography – the fact that these identical twins are both gay. Both are in settled relationships, Tegan splitting her life between homes in LA and Vancouver, Sara in New York and Montreal.
“For a long time we said, ‘it’s not about us being twins and being gay.’ But that has been our course. We’re not some regular boring old band. We have an interesting story. I’m proud of it now in a way I couldn’t be when I was 19.”
This confidence has finally come through in the music. Heartthrob is the most glorious pop album I’ve heard all year, bursting with sparkling keyboard motifs and exuberant harmonies from the siblings. Ordinarily they both sing and play guitar but this time they’re both on synthesizers. It feels modern but nostalgic, with lyrics that embody that teenage thrill of first love and the world coming alive. “I was thinking about first relationships, trying to capture that spark when you meet someone,” says Tegan. The songs deserve to blast from open windows all summer.
To achieve such a U-turn, they had to go back to first principles. “We wanted to start from scratch and not worry about what people imagined our band to be. That allowed us a tremendous amount of freedom,” says Sara. “I could write whatever I wanted and not worry that it’s not going to sound like us.” It helped to involve producers they’d never tried, mainly Greg Kurstin, best known for his work with Lily Allen and Kelly Clarkson. It sounds like he let them cut loose. “We’re so controlling. We need to be in control of all the little details,” says Sara. “Greg had such cool ideas. It was like having a fun wizard in the room.” He also has a credit as a co-writer on Closer, “because initially we didn’t feel like the chorus [we had] was enough of a home run.” Together, they bashed it out of the stadium.
And although stadiums might not be where these songs will end up, there’s a new hunger for the sisters to reach a big audience. “We would tour with other bands and wonder, what would it be like to be The Killers or Paramore? Selling out arenas,” says Sara. “If our early stuff was only interesting to a small group of people, I want these songs to connect with a mom, and a two-year-old, and a queer teenager from Kansas City, and a hipster who ironically rolls their eyes but actually loves it.”
Most bands are treading water or fading if they get to make seven albums. Tegan and Sara have been making music together since they were 15. But they admit that they may not have been ambitious enough. Is there something inherently underachieving about indie rock? “I think there’s a hangover from the 1990s that it’s not cool if you’re popular but that’s going away. There are a lot of bands adapting their sounds and that includes us,” Tegan says.
Sara is defensive about any idea that a poppier sound could be less artistically valuable. “It’s unfortunate and snobby that people think unless you’re in a basement working with someone nobody has ever heard of, that’s not creative. People don’t understand how much creativity and brain power goes into making this kind of music.”
They’re obviously both fiercely proud of their new sound, undermining the popularly held idea that bands only reach the mainstream by selling their ideas short. And whatever direction they’re going in, they’re going together. Although they live far apart, their working relationship is as close as you’d imagine with twins, and Sara says the new material demands a new level of professionalism: “We had to relearn what it means to be a modern band. I’m used to playing guitar and everything goes a little out of tune by the end of the song, which can be fun. Now I feel like a robot who has to sing over the top of this really perfect music. It’s like going from hitting a tennis ball against the back of your garage to playing at Wimbledon.”
It’s a huge shift, and the die-hard fans are understandably wary. “This one had a more vocal response from them,” says Tegan, euphemistically. “But I still see them out there when we play. We have fans who swear our best work was our first album that came out in 1999. I don’t think that’s possible.”
She’s right, because Tegan and Sara’s best work is happening right now. I don’t think they’ll be heading backwards after this triumphant transformation. Catch them as they peak.
• Tegan and Sara play the ABC, Glasgow, on 9 June. Their new single, I Was a Fool, is released on 10 June by Vapor/Warner Bros.