Tegan Quin on the Legacy of 'The Con' and How Tegan and Sara Almost Broke Up While Touring It

Nicholas Parco
New York Daily News (TNS)

Tegan explains how personal loss and the experience of being talked out of breaking up the band gave her and Sara the confidence to become the stars they are today.

Tegan and Sara were encircled and nearly taken down by "The Con."

The album, which Tegan Quin told the New York Daily News "established" the mainstream indie rock sound of that era for the band, turned 10 years old in July. To celebrate, the Canadian sisters are trekking across North America playing "The Con" in its entirety.

However, the highs that the band experienced in the wake of the career-changing record also came with serious lows. One deep listen to the lyrics on the record makes that quite obvious.

In the following conversation, Tegan explains to the Daily News how personal loss and the experience of being talked out of breaking up the band gave her and Sara the confidence to become the stars they are today.

How did "The Con" change Tegan and Sara's career?

Tegan Quin: It came on the heels of "So Jealous" which still to this day is the record that sold the most physical copies for us. So we went from being this obscure indie rock band to actually selling tickets and selling records. We went into the studio to make "The Con" and I think any other sane band would've tried to make a slick record and try and capitalize on what we'd accomplished with "So Jealous." Instead we made an anti-establishment, messy, unconventional, dramatic, long, complicated, anxious, depressing record.

It solidified us with our fanbase forever. The longer we toured it and throughout the last 10 years (playing the songs live) it has proven to be this bedrock that we built everything on. It was a very big left turn from what I think other people would have done but for Sara and I it was the moment we established who we are. We're never gonna follow the rules. You're either going to get it or you're not — and people got it. It changed our confidence level.

Was the "the big left turn" you just described something you and Sara deliberately planned or is that just how the songs worked themselves out?

We'd always felt we were being raw, emotional and real. But this was the most direct we'd ever been. We'd both experienced a lot of loss. We'd both had ended relationships that were really significant. We were having our first divorces, if you will. We also lost a really important grandparent who had been like a parent to us. It was that first tremendous loss for us.

At that point, if you can believe it, we would record at home on ProTools, burn it to CD and then mail it overnight to each other because I lived in Vancouver and she lived in Montreal. And we were sending back and forth these incredibly sad, intense, really emotional songs.

When we had both decided we wanted to work with (former Death Cab For Cutie guitarist and songwriter) Chris Walla and heard he wasn't available in the timeframe we had, we had to wait so we just kept writing and writing, We took almost a year off. Really late in the game we wrote songs like "Nineteen" and "Back In Your Head," it was actually a real blessing Chris wasn't available when we were first looking to record.

So we went to Portland and made this record. It was unseasonably cold year in Portland so there was snow and were all kind of sunken in. Chris was like a therapist. It was our fifth record and we were tired of people telling us "it has to be done this way!" We thought our demos should be the blueprint for the record. So we said we wanted to record all of our guitars, all of our keyboards, all of our vocals, every idea we have and then drums. We want our ideas to inform what everyone else does. And Chris said: "sounds good!"

We didn't follow any of the rules. That's when we turned the corner. I think we don't get enough credit, because we're women. What we do is really unique and different than everyone else, And we just embrace it. It was a very good time. Depressing time, but good time.

Sara recently said in an interview I read that this it was the worst time of her life.

It really was. She was really difficult. It was a tough record cycle. I was similarly ending a relationship and was displaced and anxious. But I got a lot back from the audience. I enjoyed seeing their misery and their connections to the songs. It really bolstered me and made me feel better. For Sara it was worse.

She was pretty impossible. It was weird, because we were heading out on tour and for the first time in our career selling out big rooms, playing to thousands and thousands of people and for her it was just misery. It made me feel very detached from her and angry at her.

A year into that record cycle we were in Europe on Tour. We got into a brawl one night. She didn't want to do the press, I didn't want to do it. I told her she was being impossible and she just broke. She just walked across the room and attacked me in front of everybody. It took two grown men to get her off of me.

We played the show, which is crazy, but we got on the tour bus that night and I told you her that night I was going to quit. We wrote letters to our management that we were quitting. I'll never forget this guy Chris who used to tour with us and still works with our management team, he wrote a 5,000 word essay on his Blackberry to Sara and I. The gist of it was, "you guys have made this beautiful record, you've built this career, it's been hard, you've had to work harder than most people, you deal with a lot of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia … but what you do is special and you can't give up. That fight that happened isn't between you two it's between you and all of us and we need to take better care of you." So we agreed to continue. He basically saved our band.

Was touring the anniversary of The Con something you guys signed up on immediately or did you need to persuade each other?

We wanted to do it and we've been looking forward to it. It's a record that our fans love as much as we love. I wouldn't change anything about this record, and I can't say that about all of our records. But this is one I would literally not change one note on.

We've been in the rock world and then the pop world for 10 years and this is the first time in over 10 years we've toured a record acoustically. It's stripped down. No drums, no backing tracks, no openings acts. It's just going to be an evening with us.

I think a lot of the die-hard fans have been holding out that one day we would go out and play like that. They're getting their dream. Christmas comes early.

What kinds of set lists can fans expect at these shows?

Sadly, we're not doing anything from "This Business of Art" or "Under Feet Like Ours." They're like the lost records… they're the records we reject. We pretend that's another band.

We are doing songs from all the other records. We're doing seven songs that are from "If It Was You" to "Love You To Death." And they're going to be stripped down. I hope people like it. It's going to be depressing I think but hopefully our stories in between will make up (for how sad the songs are).

Are you expecting a different crowd for these shows than crowds that you've played to around the more recent "Love You To Death" and "Heartthrob" tours?

No, I think that they'll be fans from all eras. I think sometimes the narrative that's written about how there's two different kinds of Tegan and Sara fans, the die-hards and the new fans, I don't know if that's entirely true. I feel like that makes for a good story but that's not what I necessarily see firsthand. I've seen out audience stay pretty consistent.

I think it'll be an audience made up of people who have listened to us, some for a year and some for 20 years.

What is your favorite song on "The Con" that you wrote and your favorite song that Sara wrote?

I do love "Nineteen" and "Call It Off." Those songs really resonate with me. But we've been playing them for 10 years.

I think "Dark Come Soon" is my favorite song. I love playing it and I wouldn't change anything about it. It's unique. Musically, I get really excited during that song.

For Sara's, we're doing a version of "Floorplan" that Sara Bareilles did for the covers record. It's made me feel so differently about the song.

Your music has changed a lot since "The Con." What pushed you to change your sound gradually following the record?

With "Sainthood" we went even more extreme. We really transformed into an indie rock band. After that, we had made six records, we had done every kind of rock thing you could do.

It was really natural. Lots of indie rock bands were experimenting with EDM and pop music, and we had grown up listening to both, so we thought "let's do that." For us it was partly political, honestly. There just aren't a lot of women on radio who aren't Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. I love them both and I think writing a pop song is really challenging. But it just felt like women who weren't like them, if you were alternative or queer you just got relegated to indie.

And I thought "Why? Why can't we be on pop radio? Why does it have to be so polished?" So we kind of took it as a challenge. We set out to see if we could get ourselves on radio. And we did. We win!

Is there any other Tegan and Sara album you would ever tour around for an anniversary like this?

I think it would be really cool to do "Sainthood."

Because we're doing "The Con" stripped down, it could be really fun to go out and play "Sainthood" as a rock band. There are actually a lot of songs on that record we never really play live because we still play so much from "The Con." I could get behind celebrating "Sainthood." That's 2020 though, so we'll see.

What went into picking the artists for the "The Con X: Covers" record?

We really wanted to choose people who knew our band, liked "The Con" and have talked to us about how it affected them. And we really wanted to engineer as much diversity as we could, especially when it came to having women on the record. It's still such a male-dominated industry. We set out with that in mind.

We talked to Hayley (Williams, from Paramore) and Lauren (Mayberry, from Chvrches) first and they both picked a song. After that we'd pick one artist and go after them. We felt like there were certain people that were really important in our career, like Ryan Adams.

He had taken us out in 2002 or 2003 and that had been a super important tour for us. We were playing every night in front of thousands of people. We would sell hundreds of records after the shows. It changed our career. So we really wanted to land him.

Cyndi Lauper has been such an incredible ally to us personally and we felt that having her on the record we be amazing. So we just started going down a list of people who we had felt had helped us.

And then we really wanted to tap artists who are coming up — Shamir, Mykki Blanco, Shura, MUNA. They're the next wave of alternative voices for our community and we really wanted to showcase them. That's how we did it.

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