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How a Fear of Water Inspired Tennis' New Album 'Swimmer'

Tennis
Luca Venter

Tennis

There's an underlying reason why water is a common theme in the music of alternative duo Tennis, whether the fact that the bulk of the output from its two members (real life couple Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley) are inspired by sailing trips or the concise title of their new album, Swimmer. "The only reason it has played such a big role is because I'm afraid of it," Moore says frankly from her and Riley's home in Denver. "I only learned how to swim functionally this past year because I was putting it off, but it's the fear that holds me close to it. Whenever I'm afraid of something, I feel like I have to confront it. So much of it is the fear of confronting the other."  

Moore and Riley are so dedicated to the hobby they treat their beloved boat like an RV, spending as much time as their schedule permits out on the open water, sometimes even living out of it. "With sailing, it's the idea of harnessing a ship to help negotiate this foreign substance that could kill you," she explains. In fact, their rise from Colorado obscurity to well-respected indie pop darlings after nearly a decade of industry navigation draws the perfect analogy to the hobby, especially as Moore explains the lure of being on a boat. "The whole time you're on the water, you're just maintaining your ship doing constant checks, navigation and then responding to the sea state."

The sea state surrounding Tennis has been comprised of both smooth sailing as well as choppy waters and stormy weather, both professionally and personally. The duo, who concocts what they call "minimalist pop," has made a name for themselves by putting a modern spin on '60s and '70s-era melodies and recording techniques, exemplified in initial standout track "Origins" to sophomore effort Ritual In Repeat or follow-up Yours, Conditionally. Along the way, they've been comfortable with a respectable level of success, not so much mainstream but still drawing crowds and cultivating a loyal fanbase.

"When we first started, there was an explosion of interest and then it plateaued really quickly compared to other bands who came up around the same time," says Moore, pointing specifically to acts like Best Coast or Washed Out. "I felt that they were getting bigger and bigger and outpacing us, but I also thought things were moving too fast for us." As a result, Moore admits she "threw away" some opportunities that could have propelled their fortunes. "I tried to pump the breaks whenever I could, like turning down tours or touring less. They may or may not have been the best choices, but I had a lot of talks with Pat in those early days that I wanted the band to grow steadily or slowly over time, so that one day if we got big I'd be prepared for it."

Larger success did come with the aforementioned Yours, Conditionally. Debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard Alternative Albums chart, it was the first album release on their very own label, sardonically named Mutually Detrimental. Coupled with critical acclaim, a plum spot at Coachella and playing the largest rooms of their career, Moore says "everything was working really well for our band for the first time ever." That is, until fate intervened: the duo nearly canceled their de facto victory lap tour after Moore became seriously ill from the flu. Then, before a performance at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club, Riley got a call that his father was gravely ill, and he made the wrenching decision to pull him from life support. Riley's mother, meanwhile, had a stroke which she would fully recover from. Although they would only miss a handful of shows, it's the irony of this strife at the height of their success that helped inspire Swimmer.

"When we were pouring Patrick's father's ashes into the ocean or when I woke up in the hospital to Patrick holding me, I didn't know what I would say but I knew at the time I was going to write about these experiences," Moore recalls. To that end, she's quick to note that she doesn't have a difficult time playing tracks inspired by trying times precisely because they were so difficult to comprehend in the moment. "I feel some sense of removal from the songs. It's like being in Plato's cave: it's the shadows in the cave and not the thing itself. Our own songs are archival. I don't want to forget what happened, but they're not launching me into my emotional grief." Soon revisiting the 9:30 Club, where Riley got the grim news about his father, is another story. "I've already been thinking about that," Moore says. "And how I'm going to prepare myself emotionally."

Not all of Swimmer is deep, with its nine tracks (including "Runner") having a buoyant quality which probably stems from the fact that its demos were recorded on their boat with only an acoustic guitar and drum sequencer on hand, all while anchored in a cove off of Baja California Sur. Single "Need Your Love," for example, is sonically made up of colliding Motown-like melodies grounded in an alternative pop style. The track's warped hooks were partly inspired by a '70s-era Cleveland trio dubbed Love Apple who recorded a sparse series of obscure demos before immediately disbanding. "They only made maybe like six songs but I love them so much," says Moore of the vocal, piano and drum tracks which are void of bass guitar. "They'll have a really locked groove and break out of it sporadically with girl group style harmonies. It's so groovy, loose and it feels very wild and joyful. I've never found anything else like it."

With much of Swimmer so focused on the experiences of Moore and Riley, it's fitting the album would have a Valentine's Day release, which will then be followed by a nationwide spring tour. But it perhaps goes without saying that once this Swimmer cycle is over, they'll be back on open waters with their trusty sailboat in no time. "The appeal is that Patrick and I are both the captains," she says. "We take turns, so when one person is on watch the other is completely in charge of the boat and all of the ships functions and navigations. It's an extreme bonding experience."