Tegan and Sara's first performance in Austin was almost their last.
"We were young, we were like 19 and we were super-intimidated," said Sara Quin, the younger (by eight minutes) twin sister in the Canadian rock duo Tegan and Sara. "And definitely well, well in over our heads. I remember coming back to Calgary where I grew up and I remember crying to my friends, and saying, 'I don't think I want to do this.' I felt very sort of like vulnerable and inexperienced."
Despite enjoying local punk shows, playing in friends' bands and making demo tapes, it took a while to develop the confidence to make the transition from wannabe to can-do artist.
"You know, the honest truth is that I didn't think we could do it for a living," Sara Quin said over the phone about those uncertain '90s when the only sister act she identified with was the Breeders' Kim and Kelley Deal. "There was not one moment where I was like, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' I knew I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was dedicated to songwriting and to trying to get better. ...
"It was much later into our career where I started to see bands who were achieving success and who had careers and thought, 'Oh, I can do this, too. Like holy shit, I can't believe they get to do this.' "
Fortunately for anyone who's developed a crush while being touched by their propulsive tunes and charismatic onstage persona, the Quin twin players continue to be a constant show of force 13 years after their first Austin appearance.
Tegan and Sara are back on the road again, including an October 12 date at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (4:30-5:30 p.m., Bud Light stage).
With the 10-song Heartthrob, their seventh studio album, completed and awaiting a January release, Tegan and Sara had just "celebrated" their 32nd birthday in Vancouver, British Columbia, on September 19, the day before they presented "Closer," their peppy first single, to the online world.
"We rehearsed all day and went to dinner with some family and I was in bed by 10," Sara said, laughing about how old they're getting while recovering from injuries that felt like they had been in a car accident. They even had the neck pains to prove it after some intense rehearsal periods that she said required "standing for eight hours a day with a heavy guitar hanging on my shoulder. ... So we've realized our physical limitations. We've realized the threshold of our endurance."
Not seeking sympathy, Sara just chalked it up to being one of the hazards of the business. She was finally "feeling like a million bucks" before heading out with Tegan to provide support for high-profile acts (the Black Keys, the Killers) amid various headlining events and appearances on TV shows like Conan on October 3. (From left, Tegan and Sara Quin. See the performance below.)
"We do a lot of talking and a lot of singing but not necessarily a lot of jumping up and down in our daily lives," Sara said about their time away from the guitars and keyboards. "We're getting back to where we're really road-worthy. By the time we hit Austin, we're gonna really be at the top of our game."
The physical nature of performing and growing up in Canada led to questions about playing sports and the prevailing thought in the United States that everyone north of the border plays hockey.
"Sure, yeah. Well, unfortunately, that stereotype is almost true," Sara joked, before adding, "I didn't mean to say 'unfortunately.' I love hockey. I have no problem with it. But that is a stereotype that is like actually fairly accurate. You either loved hockey, played it, played it professionally or played it at school or played it on the street or your dad loved it, so you watched it with him."
Sara would only go as far to admit she "dabbled" in the brutal sport at school while growing up in hockey-crazed Calgary as sisters who preferred swimming and shooting hoops. But after making another true confession, she returned to the fundamental reason why Tegan and Sara are where they are today.
"We did karate, which is sort of embarrassing, I don't know why, to admit," she said. "But mostly we did not really hit our stride until we found music. When we started taking music lessons and then sort of transitioned from learning classical and theoretical stuff, then we started making our own compositions. And I think that was really when I was like, 'Oh, this is something I want to devote myself to and train myself around.' And I never thought that way about sports."
That devotion has taken them around the world during an intriguing career that has included various side projects and offbeat collaborations. They've even made it back to Austin on several occasions, including the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema last November for the start of their Get Along DVD release tour.
As much as she was discouraged by their first Austin date, Sara Quin looks back just as fondly on recent experiences there, including the 2008 ACL Festival. Yet that thought wasn't complete without an anguished aside.
"I remember being really excited because we got to play when the sun was going down," she said. "And we generally are allotted very day-timey type slots at festivals. And I hate playing outdoors in the sun. I'm the weakest link in our band. I'm always like hot and fainting and... my aspirations to be a big successful headlining band are primarily just due to the fact that I don't think I'm capable of playing in daytime."
Sharing those feelings, whether they are real or exaggerated, could contribute to the abrasive candor that enters into what the public perceives as a highly combative relationship with her sister.
Using that as a source of amusement, they received some criticism for appearing on the cover of the Get Along CD looking like they had just given each other black eyes.
"I think people who knew the band knew we were sort of being a bit tongue-in-cheek," Sara said, acknowledging this complex blood tie has "definitely darker periods" than others mixed with inseparable and insufferable moments.
"I mean, it's funny, we most definitely have had difficult times in our relationship as most siblings or even bandmates, people who spend such extensive periods of time and also have to collaborate and negotiate through so many different obstacles and decisions and whatever," she added. "But the truth is, is that for all the pain of our relationship being negative, I think we've been tremendously successful at being in a relationship with each other. ... We tour mostly happily and we have a good friendship off the road. ... It's probably less interesting, but we actually get along pretty well."
Five quick ones for Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara about Austin and performing:
Who else is in the touring band you are bringing to Austin?
Sara: "Jason McGerr from Death Cab for Cutie is gonna play drums for us; a fantastic bass player, Jasper Leak, he came to us by way of Sia; a really nice guy from Toronto, John Spence, will do keyboards; and then our guitar player who's been with us for three albums now, Ted Gowans. We've been rehearsing up a storm and they sound fantastic."
What can the ACL Music Festival audience expect from Tegan and Sara?
Sara: "We're trying to put together a very athletic, exciting, upbeat set, and (laughs) there's no room for out-of-shape 32-year-olds. So we're working hard to get back there."
Other than your performance, what excites you most about coming to Austin?
Sara: "You know, I sincerely love the city. I think it's such a great place. I love the festival, have great friends, family friends from back home in Calgary actually that are living there now. We always have a great time whenever we're in Austin. Love the food. I love the vibe of the city."
Who would you still pay to see perform?
Sara: "Madonna. Yeah, I've seen her twice (the last time on her Confessions on a Dance Floor tour). Great show."
"Keep Austin Weird" is the local motto. What would your slogan be?
Sara, laughing: "Oh, my God. I mean, I've never had a motto. I guess in a very cheesy way I could say, 'Keep Tegan and Sara Canadian.' I'm very proud of our heritage."
Publicity photos by Lindsey Byrnes.
Next in the series: Kimbra. Check out Part 1 with First Aid Kit.
See Tegan and Sara's performance of "Closer" on Conan:
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas