Tennis – For The Sake Of Music
Over the past year of their existence, Tennis has risen out of a seeming mess of contradictions and fortuitous occurrences into indie stardom. Tennis, contrary to the name is actually a musical project derived from the experience of a seven-month sailing trip of husband and wife Alaina Moore, and Patrick Riley, the founders of the three-part group. Moore was actually terrified of the ocean and couldn’t swim prior to the trip. She had to overcome stage fright in the band's initial live shows. Riley and Moore first met serendipitously after quitting music and transferring schools to study both philosophy. They saved for six years and sold most of their possessions to fund the sailing trip after college. After the trip, they both took up music again to preserve and record their experiences and accidentally created a band in the process. They eventually had to quit their jobs and enlist the help of James Barone on drums to keep the band up full-time. Tennis themselves are just as cool as their history indicates. Riley and Moore carried a reserved, but warm calmness, combined with an articulate intelligence fitting of philosophy majors. This translates to their stage performance as well. Moore’s powerful vocals give no indication that she ever had stage fright that almost prevented live shows and Riley keeps up a cool charisma indicative of the new-wave Northeast vibe he gives off. We met up with them on their tour to speak with them about their interesting history, collaboration with The Black Keys' member Patrick Carney, and much more. By Ali Breland.
One thing you guys have said is that blogs have defined you and not allowed you to come up with your definition of who you are. How would you define Tennis?
Alaina Moore: I think I still don't feel ready to define us honestly. We've only been a band for a year and a half now. It's approaching two years, but it's been a very short time. I had never been in a band before this. People started writing about us online before we had ever played a show and when we had only written about two songs. People started formulating very concrete opinions about us before we even had a goal or a concept. I feel like that I can only form an identity through an experience. Because my experience is so new and so limited, and that it's been in the face of the public who has already made a decision about me, I feel like I haven't [formed an identity] yet.
Do you guys have a goal or definition that you're working towards?
Moore: One thing that I care very much about is figuring out more what we want to be as a live act. I had absolutely no intention of ever playing live when I started this with Patrick. The first year of touring was me trying to come to terms with it and get over my stage fright and deciding whether or not I could even tolerate playing shows. I hate being in giant crowds. I've never enjoyed that. I'm finally learning to move past that and see playing live as an extension of our songwriting. In that sense, I feel that I went towards writing music keeping in mind that we play it live on stage. I think being able to play live is very important and matters a great deal to me. Even though I prefer recording and writing much more than the live setting, I'm starting to see them as two sides of a coin and seeing that you can't really have one without the other. I guess that's my ultimate goal, is figuring out what it means to be a live act and learning how to write to that.
There's a pretty heavy difference between Cape Dory and Young & Old. You guys have talked about how people compared the two albums in a way that you hadn't really expected. How would you compare the two?
Moore: I think that the difference between Cape Dory and Young & Old is primarily that Cape Dory was not written for the music itself but for the sake of experiences and memories we wanted to convey, and music was the medium not the outcome. Now there was no other thing outside of music motivating us in writing Young & Old. We wrote Young & Old to make music and that was the purpose. They both serve a very different purpose to us personally.
Cape Dory seemed like it was more about your experiences with sailing; there wasn't a sort of dark element or conflict usually present in art or music. Young & Old seemed to have a far less clear meaning. Did you use it as more of a mechanism to express darker things?
Moore: Absolutely, I do think that we are starting to use our songwriting as a means of conflict resolution. Even in a certain way on Cape Dory, we wrote that music to process very a poignant experience we had and now in a similar way we write music to the same effect. The difference is [that now] we write songs for the sake of those songs existing. I wanted the meaning behind Young & Old to be much less clear because it is so overt in Cape Dory, and I wanted it to be much more open-ended in this instance.
Patrick Riley: I think Cape Dory was very objective in its meaning, at least from our perspective. What we noticed was that people took what seemed to be extremely objective and made it their own, and derived meaning from it. It was a lot different meaning from what we had intended. I think with Young & Old we just kind of embraced that. If people are going to take this and run with it and create their own meaning, we might as well give them more tools to do it and more space to do it. I think that is why music is really important, because the listener has a stake. There is this interaction between the listener and the band, and they can define what the song means to them.
You guys have said that when you were in the sailboat together, you became so close that when people would visit you, it was almost kind of irritating because that was less time you could spend with each other. How has the transition with that been now that you live off the boat with your tour where have to see a lot of people?
Moore: That is hard. We are a well-oiled machine. We work very well together and it does get more complicated when we introduce people into the mix, especially creatively. It is a good thing though, and we felt like that was really important for our music to be a band and not just be a completely isolated project. I think it's very important for personal growth to expose yourself to outside influences. With sailing that happens naturally, but in music I don't think that happens unless you put yourself in those circumstances to bring it out of you. That's why we have James Brown and that's why we have a new live member, and that's why we worked with Patrick Carney as a producer, to kind of introduce that new element that we already have.
A lot of people focus on the fact that Patrick Carney [drummer of The Black Keys] produced Young & Old. Do you feel like that's something that is starting to overshadow the album or becoming a little overbearing?
Moore: No, I actually really like talking about Pat Carney because it's different than the sailing trip. I'm proud of, and love in the fondest way our sailing trip, but I've had to talk about that exclusively and it's actually a huge break to talk about another person.
Riley: I think the one thing that I've noticed that people are really fascinated about in the relationship between us and Patrick Carney is that they think he played on the album, or that he wrote songs with or something. I think that the idea of producer that they have is a lot different when you think of Patrick Carney producing when he actually really just held the role as a producer in the strictest sense. I think that's why that question gets asked a lot because he's a musician first and a producer second rather than the other way around.
It was Patrick's idea to go on the trip. What compelled you to go off and do something like that?
Riley: It was a childhood dream that stayed with me for a really long time and never really faded away. I feel like I'm the type of person who gets bored really quickly and needs something grandiose to keep my life moving and that was that thing.
For Alaina, how did he convince you to this?
Moore: Well, I graduated with a philosophy degree. Philosophy is really good for soul searching. I felt like I had lived a very cushioned isolated existence. Even though I had traveled and been to third-world countries, it was always in the most American, tourist sense. I felt like I hadn't really had a challenging experience in my entire life. So, I'm petrified of the ocean, I can't swim and I am not extremely physically adept, and I though that doing something like that could be the very hardest thing I could choose to do, and so I did.
You guys are both Philosophy majors, does that play into your writing at all?
Moore: No, but I'd like to. I have purposefully not really touched on any philosophical things in my writing.
Riley: It's not the place for it.
Moore: Maybe one day, eventually I’d be interested in exploring it, but first of all, I feel like I'm still too clumsy with my lyrics to try something that bold. Also, we do write pop music and I don't want our pop music to be sententious or polemic. I just want it to be more emotive and more of a visceral experience. That's why I liked music while I was a philosophy major. I liked to relax my critical mind in that way. For that reason I never really felt like I listened to music that critically. I always felt like that's what academia was for.
You guys went a slightly different direction when you released the covers of the Brenda Lee as well as the Zombies song in between albums, that didn't sound like Tennis. Could you explain what was happening there musically?
Moore: That was mostly because we were playing music that was made by someone else. I think we're discovering that we can't not write music that sounds like us. It's just the way we play our instruments really. That's why it's so fun for us to play covers. I feel like we've inadvertently locked into a thing that we do. For better or worse we just do it, and I feel like it's a good exercise to cover other people's songs and expose ourselves. When we were figuring out "Tell Her No" by The Zombies, Patrick was like, "I never play chords like this on the guitar." It was really fun for him to remember that these chords exist and that you could write that way.
Riley: There's not a single bar chord, or an open chord on any of the albums. I think that's because I found it boring and overdone, but then doing those covers, it made me think that I shouldn't throw those chords away so quickly.
You guys have very interesting fashion sense, playing a lot of the old school preppy style. What influenced you towards that?
Riley: Dress like my grandpa, that's my secret.
Moore: He wears a lot of his grandfather’s clothes. Those are his grandpa's shoesand his grandpa's watch. He's dressed like this since high school. He had never owned a pair of jeans. He always wore slacks, always.
Riley: I feel like this is coming off really bougie [laughs].
Moore: He just always likes to dress like his grandpa. When I met him years ago, before dressing [preppy] was cool, which I know because I worked at American Apparel before they had cool clothes. I worked there when they only had sweatsuits, tracksuits, T-shirts and nothing else. That's when I met him, and he was still just wearing this, and I loved it. I personally like to dress androgynously usually. I like to dress classic. I like things that look more timeless. I would never want to look like I jumped out of the '50s. I like to wear classic things that look like they could have been from any decade. And I like to dress like a man usually [laughs].
What direction do you see yourself taking Tennis in?
Riley: It's still kind of unwritten at this point. We have a lot of demos that we're working on. As far as the overall direction, it's kind of up in the air right now. There's a lot of different things we're working with and a lot of different elements we're pulling in for the next songs, and they're definitely different than what we've been doing. There is a sense of evolution within our music that's really exciting to watch unfold in front of us. It's hard to say exactly what that is.