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Interview Tue Jun 16 2015

Dreaming the Day Away in Conversation with Tennis

Tennis, revered dreamy pop duo, will be performing this weekend at Taste of Randolph Festival. From their celebrated unique musical styling, to their eclectic vibes that channel decades past, the accomplished group has much to celebrate following the release of their acclaimed album this year, Ritual and Repeat. I spoke with Alaina Moore regarding the signature sounds of Tennis, where she finds her muses, and their coveted Chicago memories.

Tennis is a husband and wife duo. How did you and Patrick first meet and then merge your musical talents into this established group?

Patrick and I met when we were in college, I think it was early in our last year of school. At the time we were both studying different things -- we were philosophy majors -- so we didn't really connect on the level of our musical interests and that was actually something that waited years into our relationship before it came up. We both grew up making music and it was a different part of our lives by the time that we met. I feel like it was just this weird, natural evolution as years went by and we shared experiences. It just came up one day that we both liked to make music before we met, and Patrick had a guitar.

Initially we just started writing songs to document the sailing trip that we had been on together after we graduated, only because I felt like music had a way of capturing that ineffable quality of that once in a lifetime experience and no matter what you say, no one can really understand. So we felt like that sound, that style aesthetically, that kind of surf music obviously quite literally described or reflected that experience back to us, so it started as almost a documentation or a journal or something. Later, when we got the courage to show some friends, we were just met with so much support and this shocking amount of interest that we couldn't even fathom, and here we are a band five years later.

What is your songwriting process like, now that you've been making music together for a long time. Do you work on them all together or is one person more of the lyrics connoisseur?

It's changed a lot with time and it continues to change I think from song to song. We work increasingly more autonomously. That gives us a chance to be free and explore whatever we're interested in. There's a lot of overlap in our tastes, but there's also a lot of difference, so when we start writing alone we kind of get to satisfy whatever urge we have at the moment. Especially with me, I write the lyrics and I sing, so my spectrum of interests deviates a lot from Patrick because he's more musician engineer. We've started to work more alone and then when we each get our songs to a coherent place where we feel like we can share it with each other and they can understand what our vision is, then we start to involve each other, and then we'll finish songs collectively.

Your songs obviously focus on your experiences within nature, like you were mentioning, the quality of things you'd have to experience to really understand. Tell me about how that sort of aesthetic came about and when you thought, these are the vibes we want to put out there?

Well, I think I'm still figuring out what I'm trying to communicate lyrically in songs. When we first started writing, I only wanted the lyrics to be a vehicle for the melody and lyrics were really secondary. If I could have, I just would have sung like, oohs and doo be doos, it just meant nothing to me at the time. But that's changed, especially when we started touring, and I would sing the same songs night after night after night. I would notice that the few songs where I had written something that did a lot of emotional work for me, or felt really true to me, or communicated something that I really cared about, those ended up being the songs that I wanted to sing or play night after night., and the ones that I wrote where the lyrics were kind of more insubstantial in service of melody, those were the songs that ended up feeling like they were lacking something over time.

So, I'm still trying to figure out what I want to write about, essentially. It's hard, our first record was almost a literal documentation of that sailing trip, but in our writing ever since then, I'm contemplating other things and have had so many other life experiences. I'm trying to figure out how much can I say that's really particular to me, but can still connect with other people, and that is a really hard, probably one of the hardest challenges for me as a songwriter, and I'm still working that out.

I can imagine that that would be difficult. I am not a songwriter in the least, obviously, but I can imagine that would be difficult as it's always changing because of your experiences.

It is, lyrics, and poetry in general, is a very limited medium because you have so many other concerns aside from your meaning. Which I know that's what a lot of people love about it, but for me, I would always prefer to have 2,000 words to get an idea across without being a slave to meter and line and rhyme scheme. I'm starting to learn how to work within that structure and start to enjoy it, but it definitely would not be my primary form of communication, so that in itself has been a huge struggle.

alaina moore tennis
The thing I love about your music, too is that it really recalls a bygone era. I feel like I'm being transported back decades in time with those '50s, '60s vibes. What inspirations did you have for this feel?

I think we're just deep down very nostalgic sort of people and we definitely unfairly romanticize times and ways of life from the past. Patrick and I really identify with the movie Midnight in Paris, have you seen that, the Woody Allen movie? I in particular am not obsessing over the '20s, but I've really identified with that sentiment, even if it's kind of a delusional one that you're always looking back to something that's gone wistfully, and finding a lot of romance or inspiration in that. We feel that way with songwriting; we definitely consume contemporary music, but there's something about old music that's time has gone that is very compelling to me. It's speaking to me from the past, and I just connect with it.

I love your covers album along with your original material. You are both able to bring a fresh spin to these ballads I love. Where did your inspiration come from for your newest record and are these some of the groups that inspired your current material in a way?

For this most recent record what ended up inspiring me a lot - well, first we had a lot of writer's block, and weren't really sure which direction we wanted to go. It was just before we started the record and there was nothing written, we had infinite possibilities of what kind of record we could make and that was really stressful. Especially since the only thing we knew is we didn't want to do something we've already done before. So I had a friend recommend that I start going down a YouTube or even Spotify vortex, type in an artist that I love and start looking in recommended links until I've delved so deep into that musical subculture that was part of this one person that I knew, and I ended up discovering some very, very life changing female singer-songwriters from the '70s, mostly, that I didn't know about.

I become so obsessed with them, channeling them in my writing, channeling their voice. A lot of them were pianists, so I learned their piano techniques and their favorite chord voicing, and I kind of felt like I was inhabiting them in a way. So I started writing songs about them, because I started to feel so close to them. One of our songs that's called "Mean Streets" is a song I wrote about Laura Nyro, who ended up being one of my favorite songwriters of all time. I think she's a really amazing, compelling person. That for me, that's where the songwriting came from. I started nowhere and so I started looking for muses and I found them. I found women that were so inspiring to me that I wrote songs for them.

Ritual in Repeat is absolutely amazing. It emerges a little bit more diverse than your past records but contains the original identity, which you talked about, too. I'm wondering about the cover art, as it is just so different than your other cover art with its obscured portraiture, and the rest included very clear pictures of a woman. Was this a conscious choice to do that and what was the reasoning behind it?

I have been on all of our album covers, really reluctantly. The first time was an accident; we had a press photo leak, and at the time, the Internet was ravenous about it, and it was very, very strange. Someone showed someone this press letter we had made and assumed it was an album cover and all of a sudden there were announcements all over the Internet that this was our album. I was pretty torn up about it at first, because we had a completely different album cover already made, that one was not one and I never would have chosen it, but it actually got a really positive response and our label was like, 'Hey, someone chose your album art for you, you might as well just go with it." It ended up somehow that this kind of set the tone.

By the time we got to Ritual and Repeat, I don't want to say there was pressure, but there was interest from other people that we worked with to have a very conventional, you know, me looking very front person on an album cover. I felt really uncomfortable with this, because I feel like the more I'm portrayed in this way, the less of me there is. So I had a conversation with Mike, who ended up making our album cover for us. I thought it would be cool to take an iconic, like a Dionne Warwick, Barbra Streisand, a really posy portrait-style cover, but then do damage to it. We wanted to basically erase something, or take a beautiful thing and make it ugly, or take that assertion of identity and then erase it in a kind of way.

We tried lots of different things but we ended up settling on this graffiti style -- we literally spray-painted my face out. I felt like it mirrored my feelings about the way for me I did a lot of work aesthetically portraying how I actually feel about being the voice of the band and being reluctant. I'm not a front person, it's just that because I'm the voice, that's who people identify with. So I feel like I keep emerging in that way even though that's not a role that I would have chosen for myself. So that is the story behind our album cover.

Chicago is excited to welcome you back. What are you looking most forward to about visiting the city, or what's your favorite Chicago memory?

My favorite Chicago memory was from a time before Patrick and I had a band, but we actually made a trip, we did this two years in a row once when we first met in college. We would take the Amtrak train from Denver, the overnight train, and we would bring our bikes, and we'd pack them up, and that would be our baggage. We would arrive in Chicago and get our bikes out of a box and jump on and then bike through the city to Pitchfork Music Festival and then go to the festival together. We were extremely broke so the train was really cheap, and we brought our bikes so we didn't need transportation so it ended up going down in history as one of our favorite things that we've done together. So that is an incredible Chicago memory. The first festival we went to, Pitchfork, we got to see this band, Jay Reatard, and he ended up dying of an overdose six months later, so that, to see him in his glory before it ended, I actually have a lot of really intimate associations with Chicago.

~*~

Tennis will be performing at the Taste of Randolph festival on Saturday, June 20, from 7:30-8:30pm. Admission to the festival is granted with a $10 suggested donation to the West Loop Community Organization, and the festival entrance is located at 900 W. Randolph.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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