BY T. Cole Rachel
March 10 2010 9:00 AM ET
Tegan and Sara Quin are the last of a dying breed. At a time when the music industry is flailing and bands are routinely signed to recording contracts on the strength of MySpace posts rather than the ability to actually perform live, the 29-year-old Quin sisters represent the old-fashioned, slightly romanticized model for how a band succeeds. It’s a model in which the path to success is reachable not via the Internet but only by car—or rather, in a van, surrounded by gear, driving for many, many, many miles on a tour that lasts roughly a decade.
It’s a model that seems to have paid off. Now, six albums deep into their career, Tegan and Sara have reached a level of success that seems, at least to the two of them, almost impossible to believe. Having labored together as a band since graduating high school, indie rock’s most famous twin sisters are finally coming to terms with what success hath wrought. The band’s current album, Sainthood, is the most assured piece of pop music the two have ever recorded, and the ongoing tour—which will take them to points all over the globe—is proving to be their biggest ever (no small feat for musicians who routinely spend as many as 200 days out of the year on the road). Given their commitment to their work, their general accessibility, and the fact that they are both out lesbians, it’s no surprise that they command such a loyal and demanding fan base. This wasn’t always the case, though.
“It’s horrifying,” Tegan says, laughing. “We’ve been doing this now for 12 years. We can joke about it now, but I sometimes still lie in bed at night and start to have anxiety when I think back on the way things were when we started. We were never the kind of people who would do anything to be famous or would do whatever it took to have a career in music. Our primary motivation sprang from the fact that we didn’t know what we wanted to study at university and we didn’t want to be a drain on our parents. Music seemed to be working, so we just figured that we’d stick with it for a while. This was at a time when we didn’t have cell phones or laptops. We didn’t even have credit cards. The first couple of years were very scary and pretty lonely.”
The road to success might have been a long one, but the sisters agree that for them, the journey was necessary. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the two vaguely awkward women singing on their 1999 debut, Under Feet Like Ours, are the same two people tearing through the jagged pop gems of Sainthood and relentlessly working some of the world’s biggest festival stages. The difference that a decade of touring can make is not lost on the band.
“There’s a reason it took so many years for Tegan and me to get here,” Sara says. “At least four or five of those years were spent just trying to figure out what kind of musicians we were going to be and learning how the music industry actually works. Because those first years and so many of those tours were done without the benefit of the Internet, there was a lot of blind ambition happening. We knew we were working toward something bigger, but I don’t think we ever really understood what exactly that was.”
Blind ambition or not, with each successive tour Tegan and Sara saw their popularity continue to grow. Shows got bigger, album sales increased, and things generally got weirder. By the time they recorded The Con in 2007, the size and scope of the band had increased dramatically, but so had all the complications. After a knock-down, drag-out brawl erupted between the sisters backstage at a show (“Bouncers literally had to peel us apart from each other,” Tegan says), they took a step back to reassess exactly how they were going to work together. Both seem to view that moment as a necessary turning point. In a band with two self-avowed workaholic control freaks, slowing down can often be the hardest thing.
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