Breaking the Waves

A conversation about boats, songs, and W.B. Yeats with Tennis Share

When they turned up a year ago, Tennis stole a little piece of my heart, and although as the months went by, I started to notice that the spell of their debut suffered, perhaps, from a certain linear quality, there can be no doubt that it was one of the most candid soundtracks to be heard last season. The opposite had happened to me with Cults, a similar band in several aspects, who left me sort of lukewarm in the beginning, but whose drum, I ended up noticing, lasted for hours and hours. Whatever the case, now is payback time for Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley. “Young and Old” is coming out (Fat Possum-ATP, 2012), a second LP that has arrived quickly, with all of its defences in place, determined to win over anyone who was less-than-thrilled by their debut. The continuation of “Cape Dory” (Fat Possum, 2011) shows us a Tennis that is more on its toes, and who have managed to thoroughly digest a success that they never expected. They have begun to investigate in other directions with their sound (opening themselves up to new influences like soul, for example), and they are definitely willing to correct the possible mistakes of yesteryear, without sacrificing a single bit of their sound.

The group is currently in the midst of a tour around Europe, trying out their new compositions, but we managed to get them to spare us a little bit of their free time to answer some questions. We didn’t get the chance to get all the way through our questions (or to delve more deeply into the metaphor of the trip, or to ask them about the “lounge” label applied to their songs, or to ask them about the portrait of her on the album cover…), but we did manage to get them to give us a few clues to better understand what lies behind their new work. Speaking almost always in first person, we have Alaina with us.

Tell us how you’ve experienced this last year. We know that you haven’t stopped playing, and we suppose that it’s been tough for newcomers like yourselves.

I'm not sure when I'll ever be done processing what happened in the last year. So much was unexpected that most of the year we felt like we were trying to keep pace with the changes happening around us. Touring was one of the hardest adjustments. It's not something I ever imagined doing, but it has its own rewards. I often feel more accomplished after completing an extensive tour, than I do after finishing recording a record.

What was the process of recording “Young and Old” in Nashville with Patrick Carney like? Why did you choose him?

Carney was our first choice to work with. We have been fans of his work with The Black Keys for years – particularly his work recording and engineering much of their catalogue. We wanted someone who could help us achieve that warm, analogue sound we love in a hi-fidelity way. That is something Carney does really well. Working with him and our engineer Roger Moutenot in Nashville was an incredible experience.

You’ve said that you wrote the album very quickly. Were all of the songs composed after releasing “Cape Dory”?

We wrote the songs for “Cape Dory” over the course of a few months. At the time we were entrenched in the idea of reliving our sailing experiences. But after six months of song-writing and touring, we felt like we had outgrown “Cape Dory.” We cut touring a little short and went home to write again. “Young & Old” was written in two consecutive months. We surprised ourselves with how quickly the new material took shape, but we had a very strong idea of what we wanted to do differently. We wanted to write songs that conveyed our present, rather than relived the past.

Regarding the songs on “Cape Dory,” your first, successful, work, we read somewhere that your initial intention was not to put them out. What moved you to do it?

I was always insecure about “Cape Dory” because it came from such a personal place that it seemed self-indulgent to assume that anyone else would enjoy or identify with it. I would have never chosen to release our music, but that was before I understood the way the internet treats intellectual property.

What exactly do you mean?

Well, as soon as one's creation appears online in any capacity, it's fair game, and anyone can access it. I didn't understand this back then. It only took sharing our demos with a few close friends, and before long so many people had heard them that there was no point in keeping them hidden away.

It’s clear that the lyrics of the first album were without a doubt dreamier, more hopeful than this one, which seem to be marked by disenchantment. What can we say that Tennis is talking about in the new album?

Again, with “Cape Dory”, I was only attempting to recall one period of time in life, a very dreamy, very fulfilled time. But life is full of hardships, disappointments, and hard lessons learned. I gave myself the freedom to express a very wide range of emotions and beliefs on “Young & Old”. Once I found the courage to express myself, writing these songs turned out to be a very cathartic experience.

“Petition” seems to talk about a specific guy, and “Never to Part,” about a girl. They seem almost like letters sent to people that you know.

You are right, the only clarification I can offer is that “Never to Part” is not about a specific girl, but about the way girlhood was frequently portrayed to me growing up – a way that I've long been dissatisfied with. Similarly, “Petition” isn't about a particular man. It's more about the idea of one's life being restricted by someone or something powerful, and a helpless feeling to change it.

In general terms, it seems like a more stylistically diverse album to me, as if you had added new colours to your palette in order to express yourselves better.

Mostly this change stemmed from our feeling that “Cape Dory” started to feel a bit one-dimensional after playing it night after night for months on end. We improved so much as musicians on the road that we began to develop a sense for the sort of songs we wished we had written to vary our live experience. So we would write new songs keeping in mind goals like, “this song should be a slow jam,” or “this one should have a slow build” or “this song should be more about the rhythm section and less about guitars.” The result was, in our minds, a very different record that still sounds like us.

That is to say, classic pop, the 60s, girl groups, and the Brill Building sound, a type of music that is being reclaimed by many bands lately. There are other groups in that line, like Cults, Camera Obscura, She & Him, Best Coast... Do you see any type of relationship to all of them?

I feel a connection with their sense of nostalgia. I feel a connection with their desire to champion a musical style that is pleasurable but not always the most popular. In the last year there was plenty of scepticism regarding the resurgence of this genre. But sometimes I think there can never be too many songs in the world that were inspired by The Beach Boys or The Ronettes. Tennis no longer strives to emulate 50s and 60s pop. Other types of music resonate more with us at the moment – for me, it's been all about Todd Rundgren for the last year. But I hope that this musical subculture doesn't fade away anytime soon.

Where did the title “Young and Old” come from? It brings to mind concepts that are very much in vogue in current music, like memory, nostalgia—a sort of looking back in time.

For a long time I was unable to write a single lyric. The lyrics for “Cape Dory” had come so easily because my task was to narrate simple events. Our new songs had no predetermined structure – I had so much freedom that I had no idea where to begin. Aware that I struggled with that form, I started reading poetry for the first time. I came across Yeat's poem “A Woman Young and Old” (which is where our title comes from) and was so completely moved.

What was it specifically about that poem that fascinated you?

The poem is broken up into segments, in which a woman reflects on her life from youth to old age. I loved the way her perspective changed as she matured. I wanted to write songs that mirrored this change. Each song is distinct, there is no over-arching concept. Only that each song is narrated by the same voice, but that this voice matures with time and reflects on the same life experiences differently because of it.

How has the change in line-up affected the sound of the album?

It's more the case that the change of sound affected a change in line up. After recording the record, we realized that we would be unable to play it live without a fourth band member. That was a hard decision to make, but now we have so much more freedom on stage I would never want to go back to being a three piece live.

Let’s talk about covers. The ones that you’ve given us so far, of Brenda Lee, Broadcast, and The Zombies, are a real treat. Are you thinking of doing any more soon?

We started recording covers to fill time when we weren't on the road. But we've really started to enjoy the experience. At first we felt intimidated by the idea of duplicating such incredible songs, but the process of learning and recording a song written by someone else started to expand our own abilities. We learned a lot about pop music through that experience. For that reason there will certainly be new covers in the future.

In “Deep in the Woods,” the B-side of “Origins,” you give a nod to Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Is there any other iconic reference in the album that you can reveal to us?

“Deep in the Woods” was the first time I made literary reference, or re-cast someone else's story in a song. It was such a satisfying experience that I hope to do it more often in the future. There comes a point where you just can't keep talking about yourself in a song. I want to get better at using lyrics to escape my own perspective.

Why did you decide to go into music?

For fun! As a creative outlet. As a way preserving my most cherished memories. It just so happened that those memories were of an 8 month sailing trip.

By the way, we haven’t seen many new posts on your blog, White Satin Gloves , since “Cape Dory” came out. Have you been sailing again?

We went sailing for one month last April and I wrote about it. I still try to post every once in a while, but I don't really like to talk about Tennis in White Satin Gloves. I like to keep the two worlds sacred.

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