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The Weekly interview: Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara

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Tegan and Sara play the Pearl on October 21.
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Ten years ago, Tegan and Sara released breakout album The Con, changing their career path—and the lives of their dedicated fans—forever. The Weekly caught up with Sara Quin at her unofficial home base in LA weeks before the Con X anniversary tour kicked off in San Diego last Friday.

How have you been gearing up for this tour? We’re sort of doing a complete reset of the production and our band and crew. Tegan and I have to dust off our old brains and remember all 14 songs on The Con, and because it’s going to be a stripped-down acoustic tour, we’re learning brand new arrangements.

Has it been difficult relearning these songs since your sound has changed so much? The scope of our musicianship has really advanced due in part to making pop records. … I know sometimes pop gets this sort of reputation as being this dumbed-down simple music, but in a lot of cases I actually feel it’s far more complicated. In our case, the songs that we’ve written for our last two albums are way more intricate and complicated when you strip them down than anything off The Con. I mean, half my songs on The Con are basically two chords. So it’s weird, in a way.

Learning The Con has been easier than when we first made it, because I think a lot of what we were doing back then was instinct, it was intuition. It was kind of making music in the dark, you know? … Now I have more of a nerdy music brain, and learning the songs has been easier. … I hate the guitar, so I’m trying not to do any of it on the guitar, but I also want to honor those original versions, so I’m trying to figure out how to do something that is inspiring to me but also not totally unrecognizable to the fanbase.

Why did you decide to do The Con in this stripped down version? When we’re creating a show and just touring normally, trying to fit the music into a modern show is really important to us. But to go and play The Con that way wouldn’t really speak to the original album. That album was the opposite of modern pop. It was really a collage of ideas, and it was messy and dark. It was a very odd record, and I think the only way to do it from start to finish with the right kind of sentiment is to kind of strip it back down and do it organically. We’re offering something very unique compared to what we normally do. I love our modern pop show—it’s super weird and what we’re able to do with it is really exciting—but then to be able to strip this music back and do it this way also feels compelling.

I read an article where you were talking about your entrepreneurial spirit. How important do you think it is to be business-savvy when you’re an artist? Everyone is different, and I hate to sound like I’m casting any kind of judgment on anyone. If you’re not interested in the business and you don’t want to be a part of that, then just make sure you’re hiring people that have your best interest at heart.

For me, I can’t really imagine not having a pretty massive role in the back end and business infrastructure of our career. I love knowing everything about what’s going on. Anything to do with mone— and money that I’m going to owe back to people—I think it’s just important to understand. I know some people are not good with their personal finances, but I wouldn’t hand my credit card to someone and say, “I’m never going to look at my credit card statement, go wild.” For me, the business is exactly the same.

The record label gives us money to make an album, and for me it’s important to understand the budget and who gets paid what and how much money we’re spending and how we’re going to pay that back. I feel that way about touring. I feel that way about T-shirts that we manufacture. I want to know every detail, and I want to understand my contracts and I want to be able to stand in a room with my publisher or the head of the record label or the merchandise manager at a show in the lobby … I want to be able to stand in a room with those people and understand what they’re talking about and what they’re doing.

You’re releasing The Con X: Covers album soon. How did you go about selecting the artists for it? The goal was to really curate interesting versions of each individual track. It was like, okay, we don’t want someone to do a pop-acoustic version of “Back in Your Head,” because I already did that. Let’s pick someone who’s going to slash it up or do an electronic jam or whatever. We really were specific about trying to find people who would surprise the listener. And then also we really wanted to make sure whoever was on the album was either LGBTQ or was a good ally, someone who we would be able to vouch for and stand beside, and I think a big part of that is just who we are, but also because the project itself is about raising proceeds for our foundation which benefits LGBTQ people.

You don’t want to have someone who is super hot right now but also homophobic. I don’t know that Tegan or I would ever knowingly work with someone who was homophobic or racist or sexist or whatever, but we specifically were scrutinizing the list of artists making sure that no one had any skeletons in their closet.

Shamir is originally from Vegas, and he performs “Like O Like H.” Why did you pick him for that song? When I discovered Shamir, who I love, I think I tweeted something—maybe a review of the album or something—and said, “This is awesome,” and Shamir wrote me back immediately and was like, “Oh my God, this is crazy, I’m actually getting a ‘Like O Like H’ tattoo.” So when we started putting the covers record together, I was like, the only person who can do this song is Shamir. So I quickly reached out.

You mentioned that proceeds from the tour and the cover album go toward your foundation. Can you talk about some of the Tegan and Sara Foundation’s efforts? A huge part of starting the foundation was to be more strategic and more proactive about our own philanthropic and charitable goals. There’s two different types of efforts that the foundation is focusing on. One is just writing grants and providing funds to organizations that we already know exist, that are doing amazing work and are outstanding social justice supporters in the queer community. Making sure that we redistribute wealth from where it is to where it isn’t and supporting those organizations is a huge focus for us.

And then the other side of things is more in our wheelhouse and a little more creative: sort of addressing some of the gaps in programming that we don’t see happening right now and using our entertainment and business ethos to address those things. Tegan and I are in the middle of working with an amazing group of volunteers to build a mentorship app that would connect queer women with each other to help in business and strategizing in different industries. That was born out of our own experience of not having any, not a single mentor, in the music business for the first 10 years that we were here.

We’re really getting deeply involved in LGBTQ summer camps for kids. When I think about being a queer teenager and getting to actually meet other queer teenagers it kind of blows my mind, so we really want to get involved in helping grow some of the existing camps that exist in North America that are very underfunded. We’re working with corporate sponsors and other organizations to help increase enrollment and staffing to actually reach a lot of the queer kids who would want to go to summer camp and be focused on leadership and mentorship at those camps.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on Las Vegas? I totally love Vegas. I really get the idea that there are kind of two Vegases: The Strip and the rest of Las Vegas. I’ve had this experience in a lot of cities, not just in Vegas, but touring allows you to see totally different parts of a city. When we first started touring, we were in big cities where the local theater or club was in a totally weird part of the city, and people would be like, ‘This is the new hip area no one knows about yet.’ So I’ve always felt Vegas has this wonderful underbelly of amazing untouched weirdness, and if you are lucky enough to experience it, it can be really inspiring.

Tegan and Sara October 21, 9 p.m., $36-$189. The Pearl, 702-944-3200.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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