It takes all of two seconds into the first song of the latest Tegan and Sara record to determine that something is different.
Since they got their footing in the early 2000s, the Quin Twins from Calgary have tried to maintain a folk/indie-rock aesthetic, but on “Heartthrob” that goes out the window in a hurry for a Top 40 sound with synths, dance beats and big hook-filled choruses.
They laid the groundwork for it by guesting on a David Guetta/Alesso track. Tegan says in a phone interview that with the last three Tegan and Sara records, “We’d really exhausted a lot of our production ideas regarding guitar and indie-rock and how to bridge the pop and rock worlds. So we really wanted to do something new and different, and a lot of people were like ‘Make a dance record, your songs with Guetta and Alesso were so cool.’
“We were like, ‘Eh, that feels pretty disingenuous.’ We’re not dancers, we’re not going to be up there partying and whatever, so we started thinking about how to keep our projects feeling fresh and new and inspired. We started thinking of a lot of alternative pop bands hitting the mainstream. And I remember, specifically, The xx. Here is this sort of hooky pop production, but it’s like really alternative and dark. So we were like maybe we could bridge some of the pop/dance elements with our darkness and or emotion.”
She says when they started shopping the demos of their new songs, “everyone was gravitating toward songs like ‘Goodbye, Goodbye,’ ‘Closer’ and ‘I Was a Fool.’ They weren’t saying, ‘Ooo, I love this moody, sad song you wrote.’ That’s not what’s happening in music right now, so I think it’s just natural.’ ”
They did 17 producer meetings, she says, “and everyone reiterated, ‘You’re never going to escape your voice. You’re never going to escape the way you guys look. You’re never going escape the fact that you’re gay, you’re women, you’re alternative. You’ve earned the right to do just what you want to do, but ultimately, you’re still limited by some of your attributes,’ and so I was like, ‘It’s true, we really can’t escape us, and we’re still going to be us, but hopefully we’re going to be us being played on the radio.’ ”
They settled on Greg Kurstin, a former Beck touring musician whose credits ranged from the Bird and the Bee to Pink and Katy Perry. He helped them make a smart, bright pop record that still emphasizes the strength of their twin harmonies and probing lyrics. Debuting at No. 3 on the charts in January 2013, it’s the highest-charting and best-selling album of their career.
For the most part, fans reacted well to the sonic makeover.
“I think the general consensus is that they loved it,” she says. “I think they feel proud of us. It’s undeniable that the record is poppy and it’s pleasing to listen to. Once the die-hards came and saw it live and realized it was the same old Tegan and Sara and we’re up there singing our hearts out, they got on board. We try not to spend too much time on [social media], but the truth is, if we did everything people wanted, we wouldn’t be popular. People are like, ‘I like your records from 2002,’ and I’m like, ‘Be glad we’re not making that music, because you wouldn’t know us. No one would put out our record.’ ”
She has talked to bands who have refused to be part of the pop takeover, and she senses that some of them might be looking for a way in.
“I’m not going to ‘out’ any bands, but a lot of really cool amazing indie-rock bands put out records this year and nobody cared. They sold 50,000 records and they’re already complaining and making their new record. And we talk to a lot of those bands, and we’re fans of them — those were our peers — and now they’re like, ‘We thought it was crazy for you to be doing what you’re doing, but now we want to do that.’
“Because that’s what people are listening to. You can be a stickler and you can stand in the corner and say, ‘I wanna keep making shoegazer, like, boring indie-rock music.’ That’s fine. But no one’s going to care about it. If you’re going to make indie-rock, make it good. Make it amazing. To me, the Arcade Fire record is incredible because they joined forces with something that is cool, and they still made indie-rock, but it can fit into an arena.”
Tegan and Sara are headlining smaller venues now, but will jump on the arena tour in September with Katy Perry, who Tegan says is “smart and funny, and listens to great music.
“A lot of these women are so different,” she says of the current stars. “When we started putting out records, it was Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. And to look at what’s in the mainstream now, it’s Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and Pink and Ellie Goulding. These are strong women running businesses. When we opened for Taylor Swift, I was blown away. I mean, she is in charge of the organization. We’re talking 30 semis and 30 buses, and she’s up on stage directing the band, directing her crew. And she’s nice and she’s articulate and she’s educated. The world has changed and pop has changed and people who are still doing their, like, ‘Pop is fake! And stupid!’ … yeah, some of it is, but the rest of it is actually really good.”
As it turns out, the most-heard Tegan and Sara song this year wasn’t even on “Heartthrob.” It was the twins rocking for the kids on “The Lego Movie” hit “Everything Is Awesome.”
“They sent us the song and said, ‘A bunch of people are trying out for this soundtrack. We were just wondering, would you ever do something like that?’ We were like, ‘Oh my God, Legos are amazing and the song is crack.’ So we demo’d it and sent it back and thought we’d never get it, then maybe a week later they emailed and said, ‘When are you going to be in LA? Mark Mothersbaugh from DEVO is doing the song. He’s doing all the music.’ And we said, ‘Oh my God, could this project get any cooler?!’ So after we record the song, the next day it felt like it was out and every 8-year-old was a fan, and I was like, ‘This is rad.’ ”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.