Denver-based indie band Tennis (which includes husband and wife Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, and drummer James Barone) has been on a roll these past few years. Their music career began with the release of their debut EP, Baltimore, and its infectious ’60s pop throwback song “Marathon.” Two full-length albums later, the band continues to push their sound and skills forward and having fun while doing it. Tennis was gracious enough to answer some questions ahead of their afternoon performance at the fifth annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, August 10, 2012.
It seems that a long time has passed since that sailing trip you took years ago became the inspiration for your first album Cape Dory. Did you ever expect that the trip would have affected your lives in the way that it has?
We knew the sailing trip would be a life changing experience, but we never imagined in this way. For years we devoted ourselves to other pursuits so music seemed like an unlikely outcome. I feel extremely privileged to have the opportunity to lead a creative life. I can only hope that being in a band results in even more unexpected opportunities down the road.
You team up with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney for Young and Old. What was it like working with him? How did it influence your writing/composing process?
It’s hard to be objective about your own work—particularly when you are immersed in it. We sought out Patrick Carney because we believed he could provide us with some healthy perspective. He was able to motivate us, challenge us, and in some instances, force us to try new things—all while maintaining respect for our autonomy as songwriters. We constantly seek out circumstances that will force us to grow as people and musicians, and in that instance Carney was what we needed.
Your work can be described as comfort music. Even after going toward a more mature and varying sound this time around, what challenges did you face trying to maintain that core ’60s pop-like throwback sound while also trying to grow as musicians?
That style of music is something we genuinely love; we don’t consciously try to write that sort of music, it’s just what happens. As we improve as musicians and songwriters, we are able to conceive of and create more complex and dynamic music. To be completely honest, it’s hard for me to listen to our earliest recordings without a tinge of embarrassment, but that’s how I know I am growing, so I guess I should be grateful for that.
You said in an earlier interview that it’s been a little more fun to tour since you have more songs to play and rotate at each stop. What’s your process in determining which songs to play each night? Has it been liberating or challenging to come up with a set that will give the audience a great show?
We do a lot of multi-tasking on stage, so we have been working on developing a setlist that has more seamless transitions and allows for more continuous music. The gaps between songs feel like an eternity to me. Unless I’m singing, I feel shy in front of a crowd. Dialing it in has helped me tremendously. Also, having the luxury of giving songs a break from the set prevents us from feeling bored or indifferent during a show. But we’re still figuring it out.
Our biggest goal is to write a song that is not a three-minute pop song. That would feel like a breath of fresh air during our set!
You’ve covered a few songs over your career. What has been your favorite cover so far?
I loved recording our cover of The Zombies’ “Tell Her No.” It’s an incredible pop song. I only wish we could play it live, but I need a chorus of voices to sing the “no’s” and I am the only one who sings.
What is your favorite venue to perform: bars, parks, or festivals like Outside Lands?
I will always love a good dive bar the most. It’s more intimate, and there’s more energy than in a theater. Festivals are a lot of fun, but too chaotic for me. I rely heavily on routine and personal rituals before shows, but a festival can’t accommodate that—it’s a very spontaneous environment.
And finally, is there any particular artist or band that you’re looking forward to see at Outside Lands?
We are all very excited to see Grandaddy. We are staying an extra day just to see them and driving through the night to our show [at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre] the next day.
For more information about Tennis, including tour schedule and song samples, visit them on the Fat Possum Records website.