“I’m Sorry But That Version Of Us Doesn’t Exist Anymore”: Tegan And Sara On Going Pop And Speaking Out For LGBT Rights

Canadian twins Tegan and Sara have recently released their amazing eighth album, ‘Love You To Death’. Formerly an indie concern, the 35-year-olds have now gone pop, a move that has seen them smash into the mainstream. Ahead of their sold-out show London’s KOKO June 22, we spoke to Sara Quin about pop music, visibility for LGBT artists and why the band’s not boycotting North Carolina over its transphobic bathroom law.

‘Love You To Death follows in the pop vein you explored on 2013’s ‘Heartthrob’, which was a departure from your established indie rock sound. How did that new sound come about?
Sara: “I was just tired of the scene we were in. It’s easy to articulate this now because I’ve had so many years to think about it, and what is obvious to me now is that we had hit a bit of a ceiling in rock music. The guitar had left me feeling a bit handcuffed; I hit a certain skill level and wasn’t willing to go further than that. Also, a lot of people are now using recording programmes and are able to access sounds and ideas, so you don’t necessarily have to do ten years of drum lessons to become a drummer. You can use your skills to ‘drop in’ a drum set. You don’t have to be a guitar God to make pop music, you don’t have to be Max Martin to write a pop song – the rest of us down here can do it ourselves. And that makes me really excited.”

Were you concerned that the shift towards pop music risked alienating fans from your earlier, indie rock days?
“Of course, yes. But I always am careful about driving too much attention to that, because from the first time Tegan and I got an email address, the first email I remember getting was hate mail. There’s such a primal instinct in human beings to tell you that you’re shit, y’know? I’ve always been really careful about [acknowledging] that the negative voice is the loudest voice. I think people think pop music is a lifestyle, that it automatically means you’re vapid or you don’t care about your audience, or that you’re trying to just sell music. But our band has always been about the same thing – it’s about the songs and the stories. If you liked our songs before, there’s a way to still like us now. But if you’re just really into rock music, or pissed off that I’m not wearing a hoodie and have a symmetrical haircut, then I’m sorry but that version doesn’t exist anymore.”

You seem to enjoy surprising your fans – like when you recorded ‘Everything Is Awesome’ for The Lego Movie in 2013, which brought you almost instantly to a much wider audience.
“One thing that Tegan and I talked about is visibility. Coming out of high school, we were both gay and then we entered an industry that felt really male-dominated. We asked, ‘How do we make ourselves visible? How do we push ourselves out of the margin and into the mainstream?’ In the last five or six years, there’s been a real thrust to get the hell out of obscurity and access a bigger stage. We had a strategy to bring our music to a larger group of people, so it felt really satisfying and fun, and a challenge. Something totally new. And we’re just really loving it.”

What drives that desire to increase your visibility – to raise social issues, or to seek fame and financial security?
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of all of that in there. I mean, fame is questionable, if by fame you mean like paparazzi and red carpets. No, I don’t want that. But this is our job; the music industry is our workplace. We’ve worked for so long. Having people recognise the work we put in, and hopefully our development as songwriters – I desire that. I wouldn’t be fine with the career that we had 10 years ago. There also is a part of us that looked at what was popular, whose voices were popular, and thought: ‘Why can’t that be us? Why aren’t there more women who are on the pop charts, or headlining festivals, or on the cover of magazines?’ We’re definitely seeing a lot more gay men crossing those boundaries, but where are the girls?”

Do you think there’s more visibility for gay men than gay women in pop music, then?
“I think so, yes. A huge part of what makes it more challenging is that men have power. No matter what their sexuality is, sex and men equals power. That’s just the golden rule if you look at men exploring sexuality or sex in their music. They’re powerful. People look up to them. As a woman exploring your sexuality [in music], you’re written off as a bimbo if you’re too sexy. If you’re complex about your sexuality like a Beyoncé or Madonna, you can be a real trailblazer. But if you don’t fit into the hetero-normative world, or you don’t meet the same beauty standards, who is going to look up to you? Who is going to objectify you? If you’re a gay woman, men feel uncomfortable because they’re confused. They’re like: ‘Who am I relating to?'”

With people like Frank Ocean and Years & Years becoming popular in recent years, is it becoming easier for members of the LGBT community to make it in the pop world?
“Right now it’s like when I was growing up and listening to David Bowie, Kate Bush, Madonna and George Michael. There was a real queer vibe then, even when people weren’t actually gay. When you look at what was popular in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was out of this world. It was so cool and awesome – and really popular. When you look at something really straight like Depeche Mode, by today’s standards it seems really gay: the clothes, the make-up, the emotion. There was something really open about how we received music and gender. I was watching a video of Sinead O’Connor at this big festival in the ’90s and she’s up there with a shaved head and army boots, signing about a relationship with a man. People are losing their minds; she’s just so aggressive and confident. I think we lacked that for a while and it seems the queer, open experimental pop landscape has come back into vogue. That’s exciting to me.”

A lot of artists – such as Bruce Springsteen – are boycotting gigs in North Carolina in protest against HB2, the anti-LGBT law that prevents trans people from using toilets that correlate to the gender with which they identify. What’s your take on that?
“I’m hesitant to say that one approach is better than another. When Bruce cancelled that show, my first instinct was, ‘Don’t punish people in North Carolina; that’s bullshit.’ But then I thought, ‘This is gonna raise lots of awareness and the news will talk about it.’ That kind of action is really effective. There is a greater public service announcement to someone like Bruce saying, ‘I’m gonna cancel this show’, because it drives a lot of attention to the law and that makes sense to me. But a band like us should just go and show our support. We wouldn’t be raising any awareness by not going to North Carolina. Given a lot of our community would be already on the same side as us, we serve a better purpose by just going and being in support of them. Each band or artist has to look at where they can have the biggest impact.”

Tegan and Sara play London’s KOKO on June 22