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How 'The Con' Almost Broke Tegan And Sara

Tegan (left) and Sara Quin perform at Coachella in 2008, following the release of the duo's fifth album, <em>The Con</em>. Tegan and Sara are celebrating the 10th anniversary of <em>The Con </em>with a tour and an album of covers performed by musicians influenced by the original album.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Tegan (left) and Sara Quin perform at Coachella in 2008, following the release of the duo's fifth album, The Con. Tegan and Sara are celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Con with a tour and an album of covers performed by musicians influenced by the original album.

When The Con was released on July 24, 2007, it was a different time for Tegan and Sara. The Canadian duo was five albums in and still on the fringes of the alternative indie rock world. They were cast as outsiders, ridiculed in the press for their gender and/or sexuality, not to mention their haircuts. The stress of it drove a rift between the two of them.

The Con wasn't their critical breakthrough and it wasn't their commercial crossover, but ten years later, it feels more significant than the albums on either side of it, a bridge between their past and their future. "So many people criticize The Con because it was a disaster," said Sara Quin at a rehearsal space on Sunset Boulevard where she and twin Tegan were preparing for the tenth anniversary tour that begins this week in celebration of what is arguably their most important record. "People say to me, 'You know a lot of that record is out of tune?' And I'll be like, 'No... It is?!' Oh f*** off."

The underdog status only made the fans love them even more. In advance of this interview I spoke with some about discovering the band via The Con — this off-kilter, wonky guitar record about heartbreak and disappointment inspires passion in fans on a level similar to formative coming-of-age phenomena. Many are queer-identifying and in their late twenties now. They came to The Con when they fell in love for the first time. Many were fans of bands of the emo genre. Although Tegan and Sara never belonged in that world sonically, their lyrical brazenness appealed. Suddenly, there were two ego-less individuals speaking to an experience that was neither heteronormative nor male.

While they made the record itself, Tegan and Sara documented the process on camera. Recorded in Portland with producer Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie, the films show how DIY they were, and also how much control they had. They helped to build a cultish level of admiration around them. The exposure was a double-edged sword, laying them open to an intensified level of berating and derogatory treatment — one that Tegan chose to ignore, and Sara put far too much focus on. Their relationship with that time is thus vastly different. They had to come to blows while touring The Con to survive the era and build an even stronger foundation for the band they are today.

As their live audiences swelled to the thousands they impressed a can-do attitude upon fans, some of whom went on to become musicians. The Con X: Covers, a covers album organized by the twins and released Friday to coincide with the start of the anniversary tour, features an array of artists who act as a testament to the wide-reaching charm of the original LP. Featuring PVRIS, Ryan Adams, Shura, Hayley Williams of Paramore, Chvrches and MUNA, among others, it's a collection of wildly diverse interpretations. Via the LP, the tour and the press, Tegan and Sara have a second chance to set the record straight about an album that changed their lives, and the lives of all who found it.

Do you hear younger versions of yourselves when you listen back to The Con?

Tegan: I should speak only for myself. Sara's side of the record was different. As you get older you take on more responsibility. On The Con I portrayed myself as a victim. I loved feeling taken advantage of. Looking back on it I can see how that was juvenile and childish, but also lovely. It's awesome to be a teenager, or in your twenties, and overtaken by relationships and that feeling of being played. You never have the time or energy to invest like that again.

Back then, Tegan was upfront about the album revolving around the dissolution of a five-year relationship. Over time have you realized it was about other things? Sara, what are your thoughts?

Sara: I don't feel the way Tegan does about the record. There's a sophistication [to it] that I didn't realize existed when I was 27. There's no pay-off on my songs. They're all tension — it's uncomfortable. I respect the album in a different way. There's a parallel between the music we were making and this discordant nature of being in your twenties. You're alive, you're free, but it's also just like, "Wow, life is a bummer." You start to realize that life is gonna be about death and work.

Tegan: What we were going through was dark. That record was marked by significant loss in our life; not just relationships but actual humans. We'd been reflecting on eight full years of tour. Everyone else was graduating with university degrees. We were just in a band driving around. We've now had another round of loss; people dying, relationships ending. So much of that record still resonates.

Sara: My couples therapist refers to the injured part of myself as "Little Sara." In a video we've re-cut for [the song] "Floorplan" I'm cast as a young child. I was looking at it thinking, "There she is! There's Little Sara." It doesn't matter how much older I get I see myself as this empathetic sweet, anxious child. The Con is youthful and sophisticated. It's still how I am today. I just have different coping strategies. It resonates with our fans because it's imperfect and ugly. It's not always great to listen to. Our current musical director was trying to figure out parts recently. By way of compliment he said, "The record is a mess."

Tegan: Sara and I would have four or five different guitar parts that were all interlocking and breaking all the rules of musical theory. It's all there on the record: the humility and realness. We were always in control, but The Con is really the purest Tegan and Sara record.

At the time you were in your late twenties, experiencing what some refer to as their "return of Saturn," which is like a second adolescence. In a sense The Con is Tegan and Sara's adolescent album; the bridge between who you were as a band and who you became. As a parallel too, so many of the hardcore fans were teenagers when the album came out. Do you agree that it's crystallized the teenage experience?

Sara: We hesitated, resented and pushed back against being classified that way. So much of it was sexism. The language around this record was coded in: "Isn't it cute that these girls are so anguished about stuff?" This emotional, dark and intense record has managed to resonate for 10 years and it's the opposite of the "cute" thing people described it as. I've gone back and read the press. It's unreal. So shocking. Men have written their best things in their teen years or their twenties — prolific artists like Kurt Cobain or Hendrix. We were not babies. We were 27 years old. We had lived a lot of life. Because we were women it was so hard to take what we were doing seriously.

Tegan: Teenagers were flocking to the shows. We went from playing 300-400 people to selling out auditoriums for 3,000 people. It wasn't women, it was men too, a lot of the emo or hardcore people. It was at that point that we realized there was a wide range of people coming and it was important not to negate their experiences. We wanted to protect them. They had every right to get emotional, to get The Con tattoos on their bodies. We realized that just because we're women doesn't make it less valid.

Speaking of emo, some suggest The Con was a record that was emo in spirit, if not in sound, and wasn't heteronormative nor necessarily gendered. People who didn't pander to being heterosexual, white and male saw a perspective that reflected their reality. Was this the first lease of life you experienced outside of the indie rock battlefield you'd been contending with for a decade?

Sara: Truthfully I still felt [on the outside] all through The Con. I didn't start to feel a shift away from that until the end of [the 2009 album] Sainthood. We were still in the muck. Things got somewhat better but in some ways our success made things worse initially. We were stoked that we'd got on MTV but that increased the weird crap that was said about us online and the weird people showing up at shows. We started to get lewd photos [from men]. Visibility means more of everything — good and bad. I was shell shocked.

Tegan: It's funny because The Con was when I felt so validated. Sara and I were in different places. It was such a transcendent moment in my life. We made it. We turned that corner. There were thousands of people singing along. There were moments for sure — important press that was so complimentary but so backhanded. I was enraged about that.

Sara: That's where I'd invested a lot of my value.

Tegan: We lived in different cities and had different circles. I felt like we were part of a new alternative indie rock scene. The pop punk scene reached out. It was a key point where I started to make friends with people in bands I liked. They loved our record. That was when we cashed in. I was like, "This rules!"

And you really weren't into it Sara?

Sara: No. It felt worse to me. It felt hopeless, like we would never be taken seriously by the people who I take seriously. We'd never be written about by the people I desperately wanted to be understood by. I still feel that way. I feel a thousand per cent better but it lingers. I see my peers getting the accolades I still long for. The Con was so difficult for me because of that. We got more popular but we didn't get the respect.

You mentioned proving people wrong. You demo'd the hell out of the songs before you worked with Chris Walla. You were calling the shots. Then you documented it so there was evidence.

Tegan: I don't know that we ever used the word "proof" but The Con was our final step in proving that we were worthy of the accolades, the nominations, getting signed as teenagers. We'd put thousands of hours into travelling around the world. It was our way of saying, "We've co-produced our records, we're gonna do it our way and record all of our ideas." Chris did the most important thing anyone could have done at that point. He said that we should do it exactly the way we were doing it. Every single one of our collaborators gave us full credit and said, "This was their idea." I never felt like I had to apologize after that.

Was the connection with Walla a kindred one because Death Cab For Cutie had also experienced being ripped by the critic world despite huge fanbases?

Sara: To me, Chris was also one of those gatekeepers. When I opened up and shared my feelings about how we saw our industry and Chris was like, "Duh! That's how everyone feels. No one likes their press, no one thinks anyone gets it," it was news to me. I remember thinking, "It's different 'cause you're a guy." At the time I don't know that I had empathy for what other bands were going through. The original Pitchfork review of The Con had this line in it about Chris. The publicist complained and Pitchfork took that out. The rest of the review was garbage ...

That review is terrible. It describes you as 'tampon rock'. And ... it's written by a woman!

Sara: And you know what? She became a big fan. I've talked to her again. I used that as an example to Chris of the power he had. I'd say to him, "You get s*** on, you complain about it and it's taken down. I will have to live with that forever." I felt so estranged from women in the industry. I said to other women, "Can you f****** believe this?" And they'd reply, "I don't experience that at all." I'd be like, "Are you in denial or are we really just getting f***** all the time?" I didn't know. Maybe we were. I didn't feel like we had anyone. But we were defiant. At that stage we were anti-establishment. I was sick and tired of reading that we were manufactured. We were so DIY. We were business owners running everything. We were the bosses from the beginning. So we had to record everything and literally show people that we were doing it.

Tegan: Also, from the outside it looked like we were really f****** killing it. The record did well, the fans liked it, we were playing huge rooms, we started a whole haircut fad, there was a culture around us.

Sara: And we didn't know any of [that] was going on.

Because there was no social media.

Sara: Exactly. All I saw was that there were a hundred kids standing by the bus. We would freak. Emy [Storey, Artistic Director and Sara's ex] has all these film rolls of Tegan and I standing by the bus with the fans. Back then it was like, "Get a load of this!" There were a lot of firsts but it was happening in isolation.

Tegan: I remember going to Europe to do festivals at the end of that cycle. Eagles Of Death Metal, Sparta and Jimmy Eat World came over to meet us. I remember coming home and going, "Wow, people are really nice." Whether we knew it or not, we were involved in a club or a scene. But we were just touring and didn't have access to that information. We still felt alienated. We were worried people wouldn't get the record and the press reflected that. But from the first shows I knew there was something special. I relied more on the connection to the fans than any other detail. I'd just look into their faces. There was something about it that people feel torn up about, which was good because I was so torn up. My knees would shake onstage. It was my first experience of people having a visceral reaction.

Do you think the confidence that came from making your most off-kilter music had an irreversible effect on your songwriting and performing going forward?

Tegan: It became part of our narrative to be sincere and make music that connects. We were in charge and the audience had to trust us. It cemented that this is what the band was gonna be. Plain and simple. No matter how big it was. Even at the heights of [2013 album] Heartthrob we were still that band.

Did The Con also close the chapter on a certain kind of sound? From that moment on you moved into more electronics. The Con opened a door, then you took the confidence and experimented ...

Sara: That's how I saw it. The more technology we had in our hands the more experimental we'd get. The Con was experimental because I wasn't just recording myself playing guitar and singing. I used GarageBand and ProTools. On Sainthood I programmed drums. By Heartthrob I said, "I hate guitars."

Tegan: I guess we did close a chapter. I just don't think people realized it was the fifth chapter.

Sara: I started to feel resentful of guitar culture. It felt sexist to me. If you were a woman playing guitar you had to be otherworldly, the most amazing guitar player that anyone had ever seen. Every guy is allowed to be average. All the press commented that we're average guitar players. So I thought, "Excuse me for playing the wooden penis. I'm going to get rid of it." I know great guitar players personally — St Vincent, Kaki King. I'll never be those people. I wanted more control. After The Con I didn't wanna put myself in that position. I didn't wanna get better. I work hard at what I do. Being good is underrated.

Tegan: After breaking all of the rules and not knowing what we were doing, we now know exactly what we're doing. I can't think of anything more boring than people who are pitch perfect and play their instruments perfectly. Those musicians must play to four people every night. The Con is imperfect in every single way. There's something undeniably easy to relate to there.

A year ago, we were talking in an interview about a time in your career during The Con when touring was difficult and you were at each other's throats. You said this past 18 months contained the most enjoyment you've ever had playing live. Have these rehearsals allowed you to right those previous wrongs?

Sara: During the first year we toured I was nauseous and sick onstage every night playing those songs. I hated them. Tegan's songs almost made her cry because she connected [to the audience]. That was too real. Whereas I was crying on the inside. I was like, "Nope. Don't wanna deal with your grief. Don't wanna hear your story." Cos I was angry. I was selfish. It's nice to play them now and not feel depressed. I'm not playing one guitar this whole tour. I'm doing it the way I want. We have a paid guitar player who's playing all my parts. I watched him yesterday massaging his hand and I was standing there playing piano, you know?

The act of touring it again gives you an opportunity to rewrite your own history ...

Tegan: "In a weird way it rewrote itself. The Con rewrote its history because of the kids who held onto it and the bands who it inspired."

Sara: I never doubted that it was an important part of our archive. But I want a different history for the record. I think it deserves it.

The covers album features an array of artists. What was the process of getting them on board?

Tegan: Sara and I texted each other and curated it. Sara talked to Lauren from Chvrches and I talked to Hayley Williams in the same ten minutes. Then it was like, "Now who?"

Sara: We didn't just pick an artist. We'd think who would do a great job on what song. I loved hearing everything. To hear Sara Bareilles do "Floorplan" ... I haven't heard that song in 10 years and it feels like her song. A lot of these artists are like us. They do everything themselves. They're leaders. So it was very personal. The thing that struck me the most was how nervous every one of them was."

Tegan: Even Cyndi Lauper!

Sara: They would say, "I hope you love it!" And we'd love it, and they'd say, "Are you sure?" There was a real level playing field of people not wanting to dishonor the record.

Have you been able to park your demons from this era?

Sara: There's been a lot of healing. I was profoundly depressed, weighed 97 pounds and was nearly sick every day. It took me years to dig myself out of that hole. I hated this album. Tegan and I were at blows punching each other backstage.

Tegan: I had on hand press from that record cycle and was reading quotes on a podcast the other day. Afterwards [the guy] asked a question off the record: "When you read the quote about how f***able you were and how did you get anything done," he said, "I have a daughter and I have tears in my eyes, how do you not feel so angry all the time?"

Sara: I like feeling angry because I used to feel traumatized.

Tegan: Well I said, "I am angry all the time but I'm also a boss." We are so successful compared to what I could ever have imagined. That's my win. In terms of these articles. Who the f*** is that writer? Who cares? I sang in front of 30,000 people at Lollapalooza the night before that podcast. I don't care. But am I angry? Of course. That's what spurs me on. I'll prove that you're an idiot, so thanks for your opinion. There's a reason we've kept going. It's been ... It was a wonderful experience making this record and we had so much fun. There were roots of anger, frustration, depression, isolation. Of course. But it only made us want it more, made us stronger. We got off that f****** record and one month later went into pre-production for Sainthood. It just never stops and made us want more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eve Barlow
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