In their court – Glass reviews Denver Duo Tennis

Tennis’ Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are a Denver duo who’ve been serving up dreamy free-spirited melodies since the release of their 2010 debut album Young and Old. They recently returned with their excellent new EP Small Sound. It refines their trademark formula of fusing the arcane and the universal via the medium of lo-fi lightweight pop music, this time tip-toe’ing into darker territories and using more textured instrumentation.

“As with anything, our music reflects our lives at the time of our writing,” Alaina told Glass. “Though, despite changes in instrumentation and subject matter, our basic style remains intact. I think that has more to do with personal limitation than aesthetic. It seems no matter how much we plan on deviating from our original material, we still manage to sound like Tennis.”

The now-married couple met while studying philosophy in college and eventually a friendship blossomed into romance. They formed Tennis after returning from a seven-month sailing trip down the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard.

“Studying philosophy completely changed my life,” said Alaina. “It’s what motivated me to take a chance and live on a sailboat with Patrick and, later on, to make music. When we write, I connect most to the songs that do emotional or philosophical work for me.”

I asked Alaina how her church upbringing – she started singing in church at an early age – and philosophical background informed the band’s writing. “I shied away from that part of myself until I discovered Judee Sill. Her lyrics are rich with spiritual symbolism – to a self-indulgent degree, but it’s what makes her special,” she says. “Although my history with religion and philosophy might be off-putting to some, it’s the language that I am most familiar with. It’s a way for me to be sincere in a genre that is mostly artifice.”

Though the band’s music has attracted widespread critical acclaim, reading negative reviews is always not easy for Alaina, something she addresses on Small Sound track Timothy. “Timothy is perhaps my most self-revealing song. I wrote as a way of processing my reaction to a dismissive review of our previous record [2012’s Young and Old]. Of the negative things I read, this review stung the most. Voicing and hyperbolising my insecurities made them easier to forget. I was hesitant to use the reviewer’s actual name, but I have a feeling no one will make the connection. Patrick helped me complete the song by arranging the music. Our method varies, but usually I write a very rudimentary version of a song, including lyrics and vocal melody, then Patrick fills in the music.”

Alaina grew up singing in a church environment, but her travels made her more open-minded when it comes to religion.I playfully asked her who would win in a battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan – biblical propaganda aside. “I like to think good conquers evil, so my first answer would be Michael. But Patrick and I sometimes joke that Satan is actually this Sartrean intellectual type who’s really misunderstood; just super smart and a bit depressed. Someone we would hang out with. If the fight between good and evil is more like a debate, my money’s on Satan!”

Many of the lyrics on Small Sound are inspired by ex-lovers – I wondered if the songwriting process is ever awkward, given their relationship status. 

“Patrick and I are very interested in the lives we led before we met. Having been in love before contextualises the love we have now. He wouldn’t expect me to write every love song about him. Not every song is autobiographical, but I do think that I do my best writing when I draw from personal experience.”

As the interview draws to a close, Glass inquired about the EP’s surreal but beautiful cover art. ”Two good friends saved the day! Our art deadline was dropped on us last minute and we had no way of submitting it on time. They edited a photo they already had of me, and worked closely with Patrick to create the concept. We were so stressed putting it together, but those boys are geniuses. It turned out to be my favourite artwork we’ve ever had!”

by Luke Edwards

The Small Sound ep is available now.

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