“Closer,” the first single from Tegan and Sara’s forthcoming album, Heartthrob, is something of a departure for the group: for a duo who rose to prominence playing indie folk, it’s a busy, dance-y make-out club track. And while Tegan Quin says that it’s “the most extreme version” of the pop sensibilities she and her twin sister have embraced on the record, it’s also a good indication of where their music is headed. Prior to their set at the Austin City Limits Festival this past weekend, Hive caught up with Tegan and Sara to talk about the new record, touring with the Black Keys, and how they “went crazy with the hooks” while they were in the studio for Heartthrob.
How has touring with the Black Keys been?
Sara: It’s amazing.
Tegan: It was really great, actually. We weren’t 100% sure what it would be like, which is why we took the tour. We thought, “This is great, it’ll put us in front of a whole new audience!” It was a whole new audience — a lot of dudes, and definitely an older crowd than we’re used to playing to.
“‘Oh, this sounds like Katy Perry.’ Why? Who cares? If we can do that, holy shit!”
But the thing that made it work is that those people are there because they love good music. And the Black Keys are so awesome. So they were a music-loving audience. And there was actually a lot of recognition, like when we played “Back In Your Head” or “Walking With A Ghost,” people cheered and freaked out. We sold tons of merch. It was actually a really fun set of dates.
Sara: Totally fun crowd, just big music lovers.
Tegan: There was a fight during “Call It Off” one night! Which, we were like, “Really?” It was like a serious bro-down fight during the most mellow part of the set. I was like, “You’re not interrupting our Staples Center moment. Are you really?” It ended up working to our advantage, though, because it was really funny.
Is “Closer” an example of where you guys are going musically right now?
Tegan: I think it’s the most extreme version. If there’s a spectrum on Hearththrob, “Closer” is literally on one end of the spectrum. There’s a couple other tracks that sit close to that. But, you know, there are a couple tracks on the record that are acoustic-driven. Still very keyboard heavy and stuff, but acoustic-driven. Every song has organic drums on it, so it still feels very much like a Tegan and Sara record, but I’d say if we were “indie rock” in the last six years, we’re now “indie pop.” We’re solidly putting our feet down in the pop world. But anyone who’s claiming to feel confused about that should definitely look at the last six years. Obviously Sainthood, we started to go that direction with “Alligator” and “Paperback Head.” All our collaborations have been with dance artists and pop artists. We’re eighties kids! We’re like, “Hey, we’re Cyndi Lauper!” When you say “pop” these days, everybody thinks Katy Perry. We mean pop in the very eighties sense: hooks, keyboards, lots of vocals.
Sara: Although, I would jump in and say that I don’t think that Katy Perry is so far off. A lot of the production that I was really interested in – things like Robyn, Madonna, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry – a lot of the artists who Greg Kurstin, who produced the record has worked on, like Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue, and Pink, I was really impressed by this idea that you could take this big pop production. It’s hip hop, almost, with drums and bass and really interesting beats, and all of these spazzy, crazy keyboard melodies. I was really interested in that, and I didn’t want to be afraid to go there, and have people say, “Oh, this sounds like Katy Perry.” Why? Who cares? Great! Sounds good! Those are hard tracks to write, and very expensive to produce. If we can do that, holy shit! Let’s try! So we’re coming at it like — I like to think that we’re really fun-loving, and intelligent, and pop-oriented type people. But I think we’re always going to have a quirk to us that’s a little different from any of the pop stars. So we always know that’s going to bring us back down to earth a little bit.
Pop music’s gotten a lot smarter over the past few years, too.
Sara: Oh, god, yeah! I have to say, I think pop artists are smart, but the people involved in making something massive, on that level – the artists I’ve mentioned, or people like Kanye, or Alicia Keys, or whatever – there are so many amazing, intellectual people thinking about production and sounds, and how to sound amazing and new. We wanted to take our try with that. Why not?
How does working with a producer like Mike Elizondo on this record help that?
Tegan: Mike was really great. I think both bonus tracks on the record are his. It’s a very different style than Greg Gurstin. Definitely less is more with Mike, but he comes from that hip hop world where he basically was like, “If it ain’t a hook, it’s not going on the song.” There’s no excess. His tracks – it’s funny, they sound huge, but they have this really streamlined feel to them. Very clean. Another amazing player, amazing writer, just, I think, really excited about working with us because of what we’ve done, but never looked back. Just forward-thinking. “Don’t care what you did in the past. That’s cool, that’s why I like you, but moving forward, you guys write hooks.” He had this funny move in the studio that Sara and I made fun of, but every keyboard hook that we would write, he would be like, “Boom!” [moves her hand] I just loved it. It was pretty rad. JMJ [Justin Meldal-Johnson] had his funny move, too, where he blew off a shotgun.
Sara: Fake shotgun.
Tegan: Yeah, he’d be like [mimes shooting a shotgun straight in the air, makes shotgun noise]. I was like, yeah, this record is full of a lot of those moments. And that’s cool! That’s our roots. We were classically trained in music, in keyboard and piano and stuff. We went crazy with the hooks this record.
You’re working with people who really understand how to bring that out of an artist.
Tegan: Yeah. There’s no messing around at that level. There wasn’t a lot of gabbing. Just, like, get down to work. Which is cool. We needed that.
What’s your favorite song from this record?
Sara: Oh, man, that’s hard for me. It changes. When the record was first finished, there’s a song called “I Was A Fool,” and for whatever reason – I think that it surprised me so much, it was a beautifully-written song of Tegan’s, but something in production and mixing really, to me, sounded like a super-classic song. Almost like I couldn’t believe that it was our song. It’s hard – we’re in that really awkward stage right now where we’ve just come from oversaturation with the record, and now we’re playing it live. So I’d say my favorite songs are the ones we’re playing live. So “Closer,” a song called “Now I’m All Messed Up,” “I Was A Fool,” and a song called “I’m Not Your Hero.” I think those songs feel so great because I’m like, “Oh, my god, they translate!” We can get them from this record, and they’re working.
Tegan: We’re very in the present right now. Heartthrob feels like this, weird, disjointed future thing, because it doesn’t come out for months. So the stuff that we’re currently playing live from the record, we’re like, “Uhh!” Last night, I was with a band who worked with a producer that we worked with on the record, and played them a few other songs from the record, and I was like, “Oh, my god!” It was really exciting – we get to play these songs!
How is playing these songs live now?
Tegan: Hard! But the response has been amazing. Even the first week that “Closer” came out, we weren’t really sure how it was going to translate live, and even the festivals we did, and the Black Keys shows, there was a visceral response to the song. Sara used the word “muscular,” sonically – it’s pretty big. It’s fun, and it’s great, because it’s like a make-out song, but there’s also this really dark side to it. The bridge that I wrote is actually about the idea that you’re haunted by this amazing make-out that never happened. Well, that’s depressing! How fucking depressing is that? So it sounds, like, positive and poppy, but there’s also that “echhh” feeling, too. But the response has been great. There’s a track on the record called “Now I’m All Messed Up” that Sara has been playing, and she’s just really, really belting it out. This record we wrote a lot at the top of our range, so it’s terrifying to play it live. There’s not a lot of room for error. Every time we do have an error, it feels like literally someone blew a shotgun off onstage. It’s like, “Everyone, look! We did not sing that right!” But it’s good! After 15 years, you want to feel challenged. If Sara and I were just getting up there and doing what we do really well, if we were just strumming two acoustic guitars and singing, it’d be really boring.
Heartthrob will be out January 2013.