Mostly Smooth Sailing: A Q&A with Tennis’ Patrick Riley

Vortex Music Magazine

Although Tennis was forced to reschedule their October show in Portland, in the days leading up to it Vortex got the chance to chat with Riley about food, the new album ‘Ritual In Repeat,’ philosophy, living as an artist, and the one time the pair almost died sailing. They'll be back in town on January 16.

Since their delicately saccharine introduction to the world in 2010, the seaworthy husband-and-wife duo of Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore have captured ears and audiences with their brand of reverbed, doo-wopped pop. Yet more recently, they've broadened their rock horizons working with The Black Keys' Patrick Carney (on their last two records), plus Jim Eno of Spoon in Austin and The Shins' Richard Swift  (who collaborated with the band on four new songs) right here in Oregon on their 2014 effort Ritual In Repeat.

And while it's been mostly smooth sailing for the band, Tennis unfortunately will not make their Wonder Ballroom date on Wednesday, October 22—Moore has come down with laryngitis. But Vortex did have the opportunity to catch up with Riley while the band was in Seattle a few days ago and look forward to a rescheduled date in January (exact date to be determined). Until then, get your Tennis fix here!

Update 11/3/14:

Tennis have rescheduled their Wonder Ballroom show for Friday, Jan. 16, 2015—tickets for the original October date will be honored.

How’s it going?

Good. We’re in Seattle on tour and just had the best brunch of our lives.

Where at?

Oddfellows. One of the reasons why we love the Pacific Northwest so much is because of the food. Seattle and Portland are similar in the dedication to good food. It makes going out on tour so much more pleasant when you’re having the best food of your life.

Where do you like to eat when you’re in Portland?

Bunk Sandwiches—I’ve never had a sandwich that good before. Also the outside patio at Tin Shed for brunch and Cuban food from Pambiche.

Do you make it to the Pacific Northwest often?

We try to. The West Coast is our favorite to tour. The drive is so beautiful and the cities are so pleasant. This’ll be our eighth show in Portland.

How did you come up with your band name, Tennis?

There is a touch of sentiment behind the name. Playing tennis was my first real endeavor in life. I really wanted to play in college and professionally. I literally poured every ounce of myself into it, figuring out a way to practice six hours every day for seven years. I finally kind of broke down and couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t stand up to the mental side of the game and I gave it up. I went on and focused on music. The funny thing is I ended up shutting the door on music shortly after that. After we started playing again, Alaina wanted to call the band Tennis because it was an extension of that dream I once had.

When did you start playing music again?  Was it after your year-long sailing trip with Alaina?

It was just after. Near the end of our trip, we talked about how fun it’d be to make music because we were so inspired by our trip and really wanted a creative outlet for it. We had decided it’d be fun to make some songs of our trip. We were just making songs for ourselves. We had no intention of releasing or even showing them to anyone else. But one thing led to the other and we just kept going and kept getting more interested in it and all of a sudden we found ourselves releasing the Baltimore EP. From then on it was like, “Oh my gosh, people actually care about this, and people want to listen to our band. Maybe we should keep doing this.”

Have you been sailing lately?

Not really, we don’t have time for it.  It’s funny trying to explain this to our families and they never really understand, but having a band is so much work. You don’t really have time off,  and when you do, you have to use it wisely by constantly creating. Living as an artist is not what it was like 10 years ago. You need to stay on top of everything just to exist.  

In the song “Marathon,” Alaina says you “barely made it out alive” while sailing at Coconut Grove. Was that the most dangerous moment on the sailing trip?

Oh yeah, that was the come-to-Jesus moment. Like, we could really kill ourselves doing this. And even if we did make it out alive, we could potentially lose the boat, which represented 100 percent of all of our combined income for the last 10 years.

It was this really fragile moment. We decided to do our first overnight trip from Fort Myers to Marathon, Fla. And the weather report ended up getting changed late at night and the winds picked up. And we didn’t have any sophisticated GPS; we were doing the majority of our navigation with hand-bearing compases. It got foggy out, and we kind of lost our position in reef-infested waters. If we made a wrong turn, we would have hit the reef and sank the boat. It was an insane night where we really didn’t know where we were. And finally at the last minute, we got sight of a buoy and we were able to orient ourselves and navigate in. We were scared to death.

You were both philosophy majors at University of Colorado Denver. Were there any philosophers in particular you were interested in?

Baruch Spinoza, and his influence on the existential movement in the modern era. Alaina focused a lot on Immanuel Kant, who also helped lay the foundation of the existential movement. We’re interested in philosophies about liberating life, and liberating science from religion.

How do you write your songs?

No set method, every time it changes. For the most part, Alaina writes all the lyrics and I have no say in that whatsoever. I want to give her that and I don’t want to be an influence on any of the lyrics. I feel the most personal songs are the most powerful. She does all the lyrics and melodies, but sometimes I help out the melodies. Some songs I write all the music and some we write it together.

Your sound has developed on your recent album Ritual In Repeat. (Watch the video for the new single “I’m Callin’” above.) The doo-wop and lo-fi influences from your previous albums have been traded out for a more ‘80s pop feel. Do you see yourselves going in that direction?

I don’t think anyone has a direction anymore. No one is making a five year plan of what their sound is going to sound like. I think the days of bands coming out with 10 albums that sound the same is over.

What was the impetus for the change?

It naturally came out that way. We definitely wanted to make a cleaner album that was less reliant on distortion and reverb. It’s really forgiving to make a song with distortion and reverb.  It masks any problems or unresolved structure elements. Our first stuff was drenched in it.  Now we wanted the challenge of creating a cleaner album. We wanted to tread some new water.

You worked on a few of the tracks from the new album with Richard Swift of The Shins. What was that like?

It was awesome, man. We spent a month with him last summer in the Eugene area. It was awesome to learn from him and learn about his use of simplicity in music. His recording technique is just absolutely brilliant. He’s all about getting the right takes and right sounds before we record them. There’s a lot of people out there that try and fix stuff later, but he’s all about getting it right the first time. It’s pretty cool to be working on a song, and after you add in all the parts, all of a sudden it’s done. Whereas a lot of times when recording a song, we put all the parts together and then we need to spend a whole nother day tweaking the sounds and structure. But Richard is all about getting it right before you even start recording.

Why did you choose to work with him?

We loved everything he’s done. His solo stuff is representative of what he is as a producer. We loved what he did with Pure Bathing Culture [below], who we’re on tour with. We loved the Foxygen album [We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic], and not only did he produce it, but I believe he played on every song.

Do both you and Alaina have the same favorite color?

No, I like blue and I think Alaina would say black. It’s representative of the way our music works together because we don’t have the same musical tastes either.


Yeah, we have a Venn diagram where we meet in the middle, but it’s the interests that we don’t share that really equalizes the music we make.

What’s an example?

It really comes down to our childhood. I grew up in an insanely white part of Colorado with no ethnicity—the whitest high school that you could possibly think of. And so I just listened to white people music like rock bands and prog rock that my dad influenced me to listen to. And Alaina grew up in a totally different part of Colorado and was one of only 20 people who were white in her high school—the rest was black. She listened to hip-hop and rap primarily.

In the Venn diagram, you have prog rock on your side and Alaina has rap on hers, so where do you meet in the middle?

We like the band Broadcast a lot. They have a prog influence but it’s more of like a ‘60s psychedelic band. Trish Keenan in the band just passed away a few years ago. It was sad—we were going to play a festival on the same stage with them and we were looking forward to meeting the band, but Trish died the day before they were going to play.

We both also like Laura Nyro and Hall & Oates. For the most part though, our interests lay on the opposite sides of the Venn diagram.

Seen any good movies lately?

I don’t watch movies or TV shows, but Alaina loves to. She just saw Gone Girl and she loved it. She’s going to make me go see it. But I do have one director that I totally love—Paul Thomas Anderson. His upcoming movie Inherent Vice is based on one of my favorite books. I’m really excited about that.

You guys like to record covers, which one’s your favorite?

“Tears In The Typing Pool” by Broadcast [below]. It was a dark time for us because we wrote it after Trish died. It was kind of a tribute. Every time you cover a song you get more intimate with that artist. It was a special time when we recorded that.

Are y’all going to play it on Wednesday at the Wonder?

We’re not, we actually don’t play covers live. We used to. For a while, we only had seven songs to our name. We would do these headlining tours with only seven songs that added up to a half hour, so we had to put covers in our sets. Now we have 40 to 50 original songs and got a lot to choose from.

I think I’m going to cover your song “Marathon” (below) at one of my shows.

We’d be honored. One of our friends told us after we got back from tour last year, “Hey, have you seen your songs that are being covered on YouTube?” A few days later, we got really drunk and watched a bunch of them and it blew our minds that people would ever cover our songs. It’s pretty awesome, and it was really flattering for us that someone cared enough to want to recreate that.

Tennis have rescheduled their Portland show for January 16, 2015.

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