"All I wanna get is a little bit closer," sings Tegan Quin on "Closer," the first single from Tegan and Sara's synth disturber of a record, Heartthrob. "All I wanna know is, can you come a little closer?" It's about a person, seemingly, but it could also be considered a thesis statement from your favourite lesbian indie-rockers, who openly, as always, and boldly, as always, declared their desire to be closer to everyone with a big ol' pop record. And you can cry into your turntable about them selling out.
"There's been this idea in music, especially certain types of music---in hip-hop, it's totally cool to say 'I want money, I want cars, I want girls,' capitalist whatever. With pop music, maybe people aren't saying it but the whole implication is you're trying to be popular," says Sara Quin over the phone from Cleveland, a favourite stop. "Anything outside of that, I guess the idea is if it happens organically and naturally, if you don't sell your soul to the devil, then any success you achieve then is yours and it's valid and credible. I always thought that that was bullshit."
Case in point: Quin is calling from the third date in a three-month tour opening for fun. across most of North America (in Halifax Tegan and Sara will headline the Metro Centre, with Lights supporting). Though the trio has been around for a decade, fun. shot to fame with the monster single "We Are Young" and a record full of Queen-like bombast, an apparent overnight success tailor-made for backlash.
"I don't hold it against anyone, whether they've worked hard or they've haven't worked hard; whether they've had a ton of success or late success, whatever it is. I mean this business is so crazy," says Quin. "A band like fun. is out there to show people, 'We've been around a long time and we've worked really hard' but even if they'd just blown out of the gates with this record, I think they deserve everything they've got. It's not easy working at the level they're working at now, being pulled in so many different directions, and when you make something really powerful, that really connects with millions and millions of people, whether you've got 10 years under your belt or six months under your belt---whether you've worked hard before, you're about to start working really hard."
Tegan and Sara have been working hard since the twins were Calgary teens. Now knocking on 33, after a pair of terrific guitar records produced by Chris Walla, Sainthood and The Con, they decided to change some notable things up, chiefly by hiring Greg Kurstin and piling on the keyboards.
"When we sat down after Sainthood we sort of threw the paper out," says Quin. "We were like, 'Let's start fresh: If we were a band today---forget what we've accomplished, forget all the things that we've done---what are the things that we still wanna do? Where are we at now? And not taking small little incremental steps because of where we've been or where we're at. Let's pretend today that we're a brand-new band. What do we wanna accomplish?'
"And I think this record is a result of that."
Heartthrob, unabashedly steeped in the 1980s from its synth lines through to its Saved by the Bell-like liner-note fonts, is initially a jarring listen for the old-school Tegan and Sara fan, despite warning signs like "Back In Your Head" (2007) and Sainthood's opener "Arrow" (2009). Kurstin's discography reads like a top 40 power hour---Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, Santigold, Lily Allen---and the album's other producers were Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Paramore), Rob Cavallo (Green Day) and Mike Elizondo (Eminem). These are hitmakers. This was deliberate.
"I have to be honest with you---we've never had a radio hit in Canada, we've never won a Juno. We've never had our song or video go to number one on MuchMusic or MTV," says Quin. "We feel like a big band in Canada because we've been around so long that people are like, 'Oh, those bitches.' But there were so many things that we had never accomplished."
Released at the end of January, Heartthrob debuted at number three on the Billboard 200. The karaoke-inspired video for "Closer" has over six million YouTube views. Last week the album was named to the Polaris Prize shortlist.
"You know, my Mom was a single parent and went back to school and got a degree and then went back again when we were in high school and got a second degree," says Quin. "And she's moved up in life and every job has been better than the last, and she's done so well for herself, and no one's standing around going, 'That Sonia. I mean, what a bitch. I can't believe she sold herself out and got another degree. What an asshole.' No one is thinking that. I'm just writing songs. I'm just the type of person who could never make a record that I couldn't stand behind. So it's just insane to me."
Quin says that the approach to writing and recording the new album was the same as how they wrote and recorded every other album, dating back to If It Was You---disappear into life, write songs for a year, pick the best ones, sing. There's not a song on Heartthrob, from the ballads "How Come You Don't Want Me" and "Shock To Your System" to the party jams "Goodbye Goodbye" and "Drove Me Wild," that couldn't be broken down to solo acoustic guitar---it's all hearts, you know---but the twins weren't worried about fan reaction anyway.
"We know that ultimately our songs are our songs and our voices are so specific and our message is so specific that to jump around a little bit and allow ourselves to be more creative and take more risks sonically, the audience will respond with understanding and open-mindedness," says Quin. "I mean, one of our biggest songs before Heartthrob was a collaboration we did with Tiësto."
Tegan and Sara roll into town a few days after Pride Week ends, so while their show isn't an official event, the timing is a bonus.
"Being gay has been such a significant part of my identity, and in a way our band's identity, although we see ourselves as just a band, not specifically 'a gay band,' if there can be such a thing, but we are gay people who make music in a band," says Quin, who lives part-time in New York (Tegan's often in Los Angeles). "We have a big audience of queer kids and we've really felt like role models and people who could stand up for and with people in our community."
Much of that community will be at Tuesday's show, and so will thousands of other women and men, gay and straight, guitar- and keyboard-loving. The venues may be getting bigger, and even as the band transcends every limitation applied from the outside, the sentiment remains the same--- intimate. Close.
At the Metro Centre there will be concert bowl seating, but there will also be a dance floor in front of the stage. "So let's make things physical/I won't treat you like you're oh-so-typical."
Tegan & Sara w/Lights
Tuesday, July 30 at 8pm, $46.50
Halifax Metro Centre, 1800 Argyle Street ,451-1221
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