Tegan and Sara Quin are identical twins who have been playing music and writing songs together inseparably for over a decade as (naturally) Tegan and Sara. The Canadian duo's 2004 album So Jealous raised its profile in the U.S., largely on the strength of "Walking With a Ghost," a no-nonsense, three chord, mid-tempo rocker. That song, in fact, also caught the ear of a certain pair of color-coded fake siblings: The White Stripes proved their admiration by recording their own version of the track.
Tegan Quin laughs, almost embarrassedly, as she explains how this happened. "We got a call from their record company and they said the White Stripes were going to cover 'Walking With a Ghost' and release it as a single," she says. "We couldn't believe it! So then a few weeks later we were in Detroit and Meg White came to see us play and wanted us to hear it. So she came backstage after the show and pulled out a battery-powered ghetto blaster and played us the song twice, and then we all went bowling. It was totally insane, totally something that would happen in Detroit."
Tegan speaks with humble amazement as she tells this story, and speaks with the same tone when talking about the unlikely success of her group. To her, the popularity of the band is just as shocking and unbelievable as bowling and boomboxing with Meg White. But to longtime fans, Tegan and Sara's increasing notoriety makes perfect sense. Each woman possesses a powerful voice and penchant for crafting thoughtful, charming and occasionally heartbreaking pop tunes; it's rare to find two songwriters as like-minded, even if they do share most of their genetics.
After years of touring and releasing albums in a strictly DIY fashion, Tegan and Sara released The Con last year on Sire Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. The Con is exactly the type of album that fans want their favorite bands to make: It's a focused, lush and diverse album that, in recorded form, fully realizes the group's ambitions while reinforcing their strengths. Hints of folk and an occasional sprinkling of electronica join sharp acoustic guitar strumming and buoyant melodies, all tied together by the heavy-handed production of Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla. "Back In Your Head," The Con's signature single, is a bouncy breakup anthem clever enough to make you reach for the lyric booklet — and catchy enough to sell breakfast cereal.
The record has fared well with fans and critics alike, although some may have been skeptical of the band's leap to the big leagues. Tegan explains that this jump was more out of necessity after the album's intended label, Sanctuary Records, closed its doors.
Ryan Wasoba: Were you nervous about putting out The Con on a major label?
Tegan Quin: Absolutely. It was very unplanned and kind of forced upon us. We had the option to have three months of a company [Sanctuary] working our record and then have [the label] be done or find a new home for us and our back catalog, and we kind of felt sad about that. But people knew we were going to be free agents after this album, so there were a few record companies that were already starting to circle and drop off their business cards, if you will. We were terrified. The last thing we really wanted to do at this point, especially with the industry like it is, was sign a new record deal. We hadn't done that in ten years, and I didn't want to do it again. It was a scary transition, but it's been working out. I mean, we're still Tegan and Sara, and we're not going to sell a million records and we're not going to be on mainstream radio as long as it's as male-dominated as it is, so being on a major wasn't as big of a deal as we thought it might be.
So you seem pretty satisfied with the decision, then.
Yeah, I mean I'd love for everything to be how it was and to be a free agent. I'd love to be creating a cool new way to release a record in a majorly unconventional way like Radiohead or the Raconteurs. I wish we were in a position to say, "OK, we've financed our own record and now we're going to put it out and make five bucks a record instead of nothing." I wish we could say that, but in terms of what our options were, we made the best choice.
So why do you hate Sara so much?
[Laughs] I don't really hate her, but sometimes I wish I did. Like, we could just have a sister breakup and get our own lives. A few months ago in Europe, we got into a fistfight for the first time in seven years. We have fights, but it's never about the things you'd think. It's never about sibling rivalry or "Your song is better than mine, so I'm going to punch you in the face." We saw some movie a few years ago about Siamese twins, and there's a scene where they're fighting and they're pushing each other, but they're completely stuck together and I turned to Sara and said, "That's how I feel about you." So even if that's how it is, we still have this career and life together and it can be really tense. But Sara and I can't fire each other, otherwise we wouldn't have a career. We've gone though enough tour managers and band members, so thank God we can't fire each other.
Do you think it's harder being the Tegan because there are fewer Tegans than Saras?
Well, sometimes. Definitely when I'm in the grocery store and my girlfriend yells, "Tegan!" I get embarrassed and mad and I think, "Don't yell my name! It's so distinct," on the off chance that somebody in the store knows about our band. But sometimes if I'm getting a table reservation for myself it'll be like, "Put it under Tegan. Tegan. With a "T," like tiger. Nevermind. Fuck it, I'm Sara." I think she got lucky there.
Growing up, did you ever pull any Disney Channel-caliber switcharoo pranks?
No, we never tried to trick anybody. None of that. We both think we look completely different. I don't trust that we look the same so I would never think that we could get away with it! I know we do look alike but I don't think we do.
When I saw you play before, you and Sara conversed a lot in between the songs. Do all of your shows have a VH1 Storytellers vibe as opposed to standard rock-show fare?
We always have a bit of VH1 in there. We always like to talk, and I like to be able to be onstage and say whatever random shit is in my head or tell a story about the song. I like that interactivity. It gives people a reason to come see us play because it differentiates the show from the record. But Sara was recently single and she needed a lot of attention, and we weren't giving it to her, so when she went up onstage she wouldn't shut the fuck up. She's calmed down, though, and she's not talking as much, which is really good.
I think that's the most fun part about seeing you guys, to witness you two kind of going at it.
Yeah, well, Sara's really funny and if she's "on" then I'll just sit back and enjoy the show, but if she's not I have to remind her that we're in a band and not a comedy troupe. If she wants to do sketch comedy she should set that up on her own time.
8 p.m. Sunday, May 4. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $20. 314-726-6161.