Tennis’ Alaina Moore
Half of the indie-pop duo talks about the band’s latest album.
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Tennis experiencing a different process for writing its second album isn’t unusual—most bands that have put out two records can say the same thing. The real kicker comes because the husband-and-wife duo’s debut, Cape Dory, was penned during a long sailing trip, and the recent follow-up, Young & Old, came to be in the wake of touring and endlessly dealing with misconceptions about said sailing trip. It’s a strange transition and a viable cause for frustration, some of which comes out in the slightly harder edge on the new album. The A.V. Club recently spoke with singer Alaina Moore before the band co-headlines a show with Sharon Van Etten at Turner Hall Aug. 2 about working with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney on Young & Old, how sailing is actually really terrifying, and how Tennis isn’t trying to be cute.
The A.V. Club: You said before the first album came out that you’d like to take another “writing sabbatical” for the follow-up. Did you get to do anything even close to that while writing Young & Old?
Alaina Moore: That’s funny that you mention that, because I feel like Patrick [Riley] and I said a lot of things in interviews last year when Cape Dory was coming out that we fully believed at the time, and it’s just funny how, as the year passed, our opinions changed. I know we also said in interviews that we never thought we would ever work with a producer, and clearly that changed. And yes, Patrick wanted to take a sabbatical and go sailing again, or do something totally different. We definitely did not end up doing that. I think what really happened was we felt like we had all this momentum, and we were just getting used to it, and we didn’t want to stop it and lose what we had worked really hard to acquire over the last eight months. We just decided to write relentlessly and not take a break.
AVC: So the writing process was probably not as relaxing as the first time. Do you think that came across in the new album?
AM: I’m still trying to figure out what came across in the new album. It’s hard for me—I think it’s hard for both of us—to listen to it and reflect on it with a whole lot of insight, since it’s still relatively new to us. I think the fact that we chose not to take much time in between—we basically released Cape Dory, toured straight for a few months, and then immediately wrote Young & Old in the course of a month and half, and then recorded it immediately. No breaks. I guess the product of that is that Young & Old shows baby steps, like subtle transitions forward. We didn’t just stop for a year and reinvent ourselves and come back with this totally new kind of Tennis-sounding album. But I don’t think we wanted to do that, because we felt like we were just starting to figure out who we were and what kind of music should make.
AVC: Still, the differences are noticeable. Young & Old sounds a bit heavier than Cape Dory, particularly on “Origins” and “Petition.” Is that something you were aiming for going in, or is that a Patrick Carney influence?
AM: That’s something we were aiming for going in, which is why we wanted Patrick [Carney] specifically. We just wanted something with a little more emotional depth and little more heaviness to it. Actually we discovered that, as much as we love Cape Dory and that it means something really particular to us, live it didn’t always resonate anymore. You know, playing songs that recall simple days in the sun on the ocean. We felt very emotionally disparate from that, and we wanted to play songs that felt more like rock ’n’ roll, honestly. So we went home and wrote songs that would feel cathartic to play live, and that’s how we ended up quickly with “Origins.” That’s one of the first songs Patrick [Riley] wrote.
AVC: Did you try out a lot of these songs live before recording?
AM: No, actually we just weren’t playing live. We took a break, and we wrote and recorded all in one chunk of time over the early summer.
AVC: It’s been reported that Carney pushed you really hard but also threw a lot of pool parties. What was it like working with him?
AM: Yeah, he rewarded us. It was such a great experience. I feel like we learned a lot about ourselves. One of the things we wanted, in particular, to get out of that experience was a chance to feel more like musicians. Patrick [Riley] and I are so new to this that we felt really unseasoned, and we wanted an experience in the studio where, instead of agonizing over microphone placement or recording software, we could just think about our performances, play it really well, and be really engaged in those takes. And I really wanted to try some different things vocally and push my voice a little more. I also really wanted to sing songs in one entire take. And we were able to have all of that and have Roger Moutenot at the mixing board and Patrick Carney there coaching us through it.
AVC: You released a series of cover songs before the new album. How do you choose which songs you’re going to cover?
AM: Actually, that was always a really stressful process when we would decide to cover a song. I only want to cover songs that I love, and the songs that I love I really admire, and I feel like I might defile it by attempting to do it myself. Patrick [Riley] and I have reverence for songs. It took a while, but we felt really good. We ended up choosing artists who we wanted to pay homage to. We had the attitude of realizing that, “We won’t necessarily make an improvement on what you did, but we want to pay tribute to you.” Also, it’s a really fun learning experience to dissect those songs and learn a bit more about their songwriting, and I feel like that helped us a lot when we wrote more of our own music. It’s like doing pop homework, kind of.
AVC: Are there songs you’d never cover because they seem untouchable?
AM: Oh yeah, there are definitely some of those that we’d be like, “It would just not be okay if we did that. No one would forgive us.”
AVC: You recently said that “dealing with all the misinformation has become kind of comical at this point.” Any particularly funny bits of misinformation still stand out for you?
AM: Weirdly, I don’t know if I could find it again, but once one piece of press came out that I really wanted to show my mom. So I was searching for it to send to her, and for some reason the random combination of words I put into Google brought up what was like a forum or a message board, and it was huge. It was like seven pages with hundreds of posts of people who were basically acting as our fact-checkers, comparing interviews and reviews and saying, “This one says they got married before they went sailing. This one says they got married after they went sailing. This one says they crossed oceans, but this one says they only went up the Eastern Seaboard. This one says eight months. This one says six months. Get your story straight, Tennis!”
Like, I guess we’re just lying through our teeth to the point where, later on, someone wrote an article on us—it wasn’t even an interview or anything—just wrote an article on us, and they kept referring to it as our “supposed” sailing story, our “supposed” experience, or our “too good to be true, probably isn’t true.” And the funny thing is, we have a blog with video and pictures of every month of our entire trip that, for some reason, no one knows about or can manage to find, that proves and gives actual factual details about it. But people are so far removed from it now, I can’t even believe it. The first time this happened, we were mortified, and we would write in to whoever posted it and be like, “I’m sorry. You got something wrong. Do you want to fix that?” But then hundreds of them came out wrong, and we just gave up. We just have to kind of laugh about it now.
It’s just our life. Everyone mentions it as “your mythical origin story” or “the legendary story” or “the story that’s more known than the band itself.” And I’m like, “Not really. It’s just my life. It’s just one year of my normal life where I didn’t feel anything revolutionary.” I mean, it was a really important year, obviously; it was a memorable experience. So much so that it compelled us to write music about it, but it was nothing more. I can’t even fathom. It’s definitely been blown out of proportion.
AVC: The story of Cape Dory was romantic from an outsider’s perspective, and the music seemed to affirm that. But sailing can also be pretty dangerous, as can spending too much time together with just one other person. There had to be a lot material from that trip that would have fit better into a death-metal album about sailing, right?
AM: Yes, absolutely. Going back to your reference about how you imagine sailing would be, it’s funny, because that’s so much closer to the truth. I would say maybe 15 percent out of all of those months that we spent living on the boat and traveling, I was usually in perilous fear, like, uncontrollable fear. We would meet seasoned sailors on our travels, and I’d be like, “When does this get fun? I’m just terrified every day.” It’ll go from perfect, sunny, and calm to breaking waves and a gale comes in and we don’t sleep for three days. And I’m just hoping our boat doesn’t get dashed onto rocks and I have to swim ashore, and I can’t swim in a riptide. That would be like half of the time. Not that there weren’t numerous pleasurable experiences. The funny thing is that it is a romantic story, and the difficult moments and the sacrifices, that element is in every single romantic story. In a lot of the lyrics of Cape Dory, which I feel a lot of people don’t notice, maybe because they don’t understand the sailing vocabulary that I use, I’m often just talking about the hardships. Like, a lot of people love “Long Boat Pass” and always call it a love song, but all it is is describing a really terrifying storm. The whole song, that’s it; there’s no love or romance anywhere in it.
I feel like the transition that we made out of Cape Dory to Young & Old was completely based on our live experience, which has been the thing that has been really informing our day-to-day lives. In a lot of ways, touring has been equally challenging to me, on par with the sailing trip. I feel like that was mostly what I processed lyrically on Young & Old, just the changes that we’ve gone through as people, our identities, individually and with each other, and that’s how I chose to segue from one record to the next.
AVC: Touring is tough. Does that reflect in the harder edge this album has, as compared to Cape Dory?
AM: Absolutely. Also, a lot of that harder edge came from me. Patrick and I had to internalize having this very personal, sacred life of solitude in which we had these weird adventures together and making music, to having a much more public life, even on the small, indie blog-band scale that it is. You can’t help but develop a slightly hardened edge when everything you do, 300 people pipe in and tell you what they think of it. You have to really set your eyes on what you want and try to block out all that white noise.
It’s funny, I feel like one of the weirdest things that’s happened for me is the way I see tabloids now when I’m at the grocery store. Just yesterday I saw this horrifying picture of Demi Moore being like, “She’s ruining her children’s lives.” Before I wouldn’t have even seen that as being real. I wouldn’t have even noticed it. And now I look at it and I’m like, “That’s so fucked up. That’s so horrible. Why does anyone have the right to say that about someone?” But at the same time, I have to balance that with the fact that [without] people [who] were interested in our lives and wrote about it, we wouldn’t even be doing this. So I feel like that’s a lot of what I was processing in Young & Old, especially with the song “My Better Self.” That was one of the first sets of lyrics I wrote for the record, because I felt I couldn’t say anything at first, because I kept anticipating all the ways that people would misinterpret it. Especially in terms of our now “reiterated to the point of being obnoxious” stereotypical tidbits about us. I would just imagine in advance how people would react to it. So I wrote the lyrics to “My Better Self” first as a process of acknowledging it and moving away from it. The lyrics are just me acknowledging everything I’m going to say will have its own meaning assigned by the person who hears it, and I just need to let that be because I can’t control it. Even if we’re using the same dictionary-defined word, you will still probably not know exactly what I mean or my motivation behind writing it, and I just have to accept that. Once I did and I wrote those lyrics, I felt a little more freedom to open up, and the rest of the lyrics came much more easily from then on.
AVC: Speaking about how the press has viewed you, one recent review continually referred to you as cute. As grown-ups, do you get tired of that?
AM: Yeah, and actually joke about it a lot. We joked about it with a lot with Patrick Carney in the studio, and we would say to him, “You’re here to save us from our intolerable cuteness.” And he would be like, “Yes, I will help you do that.” And he would be like, “Poppy is good; cute is bad.” I can assure you, I can assure the world, in nothing we do are we trying to be cute or cloying. I feel like it’s an inevitable drawback to me being very small and a girl, and that we’re married. I genuinely wish we never told anyone that we’re married, because I feel if nobody knew that, the cute adjective would be less likely to be thrown around. I feel like it makes people take music that is sincere and does have some depth to it as cute and therefore superficial. It’s a little frustrating. I saw one review that called it cute and fun but superficial, and I feel like they don’t even read my lyrics. Not that they’re philosophical or profound, but they’re very far from cute.
AVC: Similar to that, do you get tired of all of the Tennis puns that are used in headlines about you?
AM: Oh my god! Right as I was picking up the phone we saw something where the headline was a pun, and we were like “When will those stop?” and laughing. But at the same time, I don’t really begrudge anyone because it’s a really easy pun to make. I feel like any other band name that does lend itself toward being turned into a pun, it probably happens all the time and they hate it, too. I have no hope that that will ever stop, but I wish it would.