Here's how Tegan Quin would like this to go down -- we start with the basics: She plays with her sister Sara in a band called Tegan and Sara, they sing catchy songs about relationships, they're from Canada and they like hockey (go Flames!). "Journalists always blow their load in the first paragraph," she says, sipping water at a bar in downtown Vancouver. (She's ill.) "Then they spend the next five floundering around with boring details."
Fair enough. So what next? "Then we get into the twin thing," she says. Okay: Tegan and Sara are 29-year-old identical twins born eight minutes apart. (Tegan is older.) They admit to sometimes trading places for interviews, but otherwise they're far from interchangeable. Tegan dates an L.A. photographer and parties with rock stars like Paramore's Hayley Williams; Sara's idea of a great evening is a glass of whiskey, a copy of The New Yorker, and Fresh Air on NPR. Their onstage chemistry issuch that a few of their typically obsessive fans started a self-explanatory site called teganandsarabanter.com. "I think Sara is probably a little smarter than me," Tegan says. "But I'm taller."
Then when do we get to the part about them being lesbians? "Third paragraph!" says Tegan. "Just drop it in, like, 'Also, they're gay.'" Done.
On one hand, you can't blame them for being a bit touchy. The Quins have been playing music together for most of their lives. They have toured with Neil Young (who signed them to his Vapor label when they were 19), been covered by the White Stripes ("Walking With a Ghost," from their 2004 breakthrough So Jealous), and write the kind of peppy, lovelorn pop songs that sound tailor-made for lucrative prime-time TV placement. ("I think we used more than half [of So Jealous]," says Grey's Anatomy music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas.) Their last album, 2007's The Con, sold a robust 300,000 copies.
"Part of what drew me to them is the fact that you can't place them," says Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who produced The Con and coproduced Tegan and Sara's new album, Sainthood. "They're not the Arcade Fire. They're not the Indigo Girls. They're not Kelly Clarkson." (Implication being they're a little of all three.) "Their stamp is so big and so signature that they can do anything, yet you instantly know it's them."
Sure. But on the other hand...they're lesbian identical twins.
"I understand," Sara says, sipping on a Maker's Mark. "It's fucking fascinating."
The Quins have always written separately. Sara's songs are knottier, with lots of moving parts and oblique metaphors. (Her sister once compared them to Rubik's Cubes.) Tegan's are more immediate. But for Sainthood, they tried writing together. "I was definitely scared," Sara says. "People were like, 'God, it's going to be World War III in there!'" It wasn't, and even though only one bona fide cowrite made the record, the overall result is their most cohesive and collaborative album yet.
"The hooks are big and bold and in big primary colors," says Walla, "but it also unravels sort of like a novel. It reveals itself a little at a time." In other words, it's the best of both worlds. "It's so easy to boil them down to 'They're twins, you know, fire and ice.' But it's a way more interesting, awesome, nuanced, horrifying relationship than that. All of those things, all the time."
Read the entire Tegan and Sara feature in the December issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.