Tennis Open up About ‘Swimmer,’ Marriage and the Music It Inspires

Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley joined forces to create Tennis after an eight-month sailing expedition. There could hardly be a more suitable backstory for the duo’s sound and overall aesthetic — light, breezy, whimsical, and born of a romantic connection. Their 2011 debut “Cape Dory” documented the journey, and immediately drew critical acclaim. In moments, they were indie darlings with an elusive appeal stemming from an understated, effortless cool and an elegant mesh of disparate sounds. They’ve released cover songs from the likes of the Zombies, Television, and Broadcast, which should give a hint of the sonic sphere that they inhabit. 

Tennis started their own label, produced their own albums, and are a stellar example of creative control. Their latest album, “Swimmer,” comes after ten years of marriage, and is largely a meditation on the transition from youth to maturity, and the bond that sustains a shared dream and inspires a wealth of music. Moore approaches songs from the piano, and Riley from the guitar, and their voices somehow strike as distinct, while meshing seamlessly. The new songs are musings on love and loss, primarily the former. Moore spoke with Entertainment Voice to discuss the concepts and craft behind the new song, and the band in general. 

Tennis is usually a one-on-one sport, and you are a married couple. How does the “Tennis” idea factor into your music and overall view?

Well, I’m personally rather indifferent to the sport, but if we’re going to borrow from the sport for a metaphor, I think it’s interesting that within Tennis, it’s not a team sport. It’s just two players working on behalf of their own interests, and that’s actually really similar to the mentality that Patrick and I have when it comes to writing. We don’t collaborate so much as we have autonomous, individual writing 

The opening track of “Swimmer,” “I’ll Haunt You,” begins with the lines “As the sun slips over my shoulder / I can tell I’ve been getting older.” How does the process of growing, as years go by, factor into the evolution of your sound?

Well, it informs every part of my life. As touring and writing has progressed, my whole outlook has changed, especially in the light of experience,and just aging, and leaving the mindset of your twenties behind for your mid thirties, and that really worked its way into our writing, especially after a year when we lost some loved ones. Patrick’s dad died, and one of our producers, Richard Smith, passed away, and it’s just something that starts to kind of circle around you, and makes you reevaluate things.  

“Need Your Love” has a wild tempo change, and lyrics about pent up aggression, finding its way into smooth harmony. What is the story behind this song?

That was actually working through a lost relationship, a friendship, but I sort of was stewing in the emotions, and I just decided to let myself write an angry song, which, of course, comes out not very angry at all, because it’s not an emotion I’m very comfortable with, but I felt like the drum beat that Pat had written sounded more assertive, and I kind of needed to bring something more intense to it. 

In that case, do you feel like you’d ever just let it all go, and make a raging punk rock song?

No, but I love listening to it. I feel like I get everything that I need out of that kind of music just by experiencing it, but writing it myself, I’m a very decidedly down to mid tempo person (Laughs).

Your song “Need to Forgive” has echoes, in the chorus, of Tears For Fears. You’ve mentioned Madonna as an influence for this song. Do you hear the Tears For Fears in it, and how exactly did Madonna seep in?

Oh, that’s interesting. I love Tears For Fears, and I wasn’t thinking about that at all when I wrote it, but I would not be surprised if that worked its way into my writing subconsciously all the time. I remember I was the first one of my friends to like Tears For Fears, and when I was a freshman in high school, they made fun of me (laughs).

I really like early Madonna recordings where she sounds like a little girl, (Laughs) and I already felt like my voice has a really girlish quality to it, but if I lean into it — if it works for Madonna, I could try (laughs).

Grimes is another singer that overdoes a girly voice. Do you like her

I do, a lot. It’s nothing even remotely like what I would write or do, but I’m just really fascinated by her. I think that she’s a visionary. 

“Runner” is an absolute riot, in how sugary and expansive the music sounds. It really sounds like the stuff of fantasy. There is a kind of snide, disaffected indie rock cool that has become the norm, but you’ve gone for total extravagance on this one. How did it happen? 

Well, I think sincerity works for me. Also, sarcasm is okay sometimes, but snide, I can’t pull it off (laughs). Patrick wrote most of the music to “Runner,” and I just tried to find a voice that would layer over it without altering the quality of what he was going for with his songwriting. This side is way more like a Kate Bush thing.

“Echoes” was inspired by a near death experience in a Whole Foods. Which foods should we avoid? And on a more serious note, how did that experience shape your overall outlook, and make its way into the song?

I didn’t get to the point of eating anything (laughs). I just walked inside and fainted. That experience alone was very influential for me, but coupled with the fact that within one week from that day, Patrick’s father died. That was really the thing that turned it into a very profound, almost even traumatic experience. That’s when I felt like I needed to start writing about it and exploring it. Just coupling me going through that with an actual death was the thing that tipped it over the edge for me. 

I had influenza. I had it all tour, and I had ten days on tour, extremely sick, and my body just gave out. There was a huge flu epidemic at that time, and when I got to hospital, there were no beds. Everyone had the flu. There was this gurney lining every square inch of the hospital.

“Late Night” is about losing faith. What is faith, to you, and how does the concept tie into the song, in the broadest and also most specific sense?

Well, I grew up in the church. My father and every man throughout the lineage is a pastor, and I grew up singing in church, so it is the language and context of my experience, from my worldview to even my exposure to music, and now I no longer have any faith of my own, but that journey to developing my own point of view has been a really painful one, where I was feeling like I was losing everything, and then trying to rebuild it in little pieces, and that really coupled also with my identity as a woman, which is strange in a very specific way within Christianity, and within patriarchy in general. Just starting over. 

“Matrimony II” is about as close as it gets to a statement of the ideal indie married couple group. It surely has fans worldwide gushing over the mere idea of such an ideal situation, relating to one another in music and in love. How has your music been specifically shaped by your being in a relationship?

I wouldn’t call it indie. I would call it an egalitarian marriage. We have the odds stacked against us, so every year that we last, we celebrate it (laughs). I wouldn’t even make music if I wasn’t in a relationship with Patrick. Our partnership really informed all of our pursuits and interests. Our partnership is foundational to everything that we do, and I’m grateful that it worked that way. When we first got married, it was sort of to assuage our parents, who really needed us to be married. We tried to explain being life partners, and they were just disappointed by that. So finally, after several years of being life partners, we were like “Ok, well, this means more to you than it does to me,” so we got married. It meant that much to them, and it didn’t hurt us to do.

It worked out really well, honestly. We were so skeptical going into our marriage that we didn’t say any traditional vows. We didn’t say, “‘Til death do us apart” or anything. In fact, we promised each other if our marriage ruined our relationship, we would immediately separate (laughs) and go back to dating. My dad is an ordained minister, so my dad performed the ceremony, and he was really respectful, and he understood what we wanted, and that, in a way, it was that we respected it so much that we didn’t want to put any pressure on ourselves to have a certain thing. So fortunately, that kind of insistence on viewing each other as separate individuals — not two becoming one, but two separate people living their lives together, by choice — I think that mentality is what has allowed us to have a working relationship, in addition to a romantic partnership.  

A major part of your general appeal stems from the idea of just being two people, in it forever. How does this dynamic translate to the live experience?

The live experience — obviously, being on stage with people you trust completely — and not just Patrick, but our bandmates as well — we tour with a drummer and a bass player. I can trust them completely. I know that they have my back, and that makes being on stage a lot easier for me. But in a lot of ways, once you’re out there, it’s up to you to do your own thing, and I do feel alone in a way, like my job is just on me, and no one is going to really help me get through it. So it’s still the same mentality. We’re just all completely disparate, autonomous people, trying to work together in parallel. It still feels that way on stage. 

Swimmer” is available Feb. 14 on Apple Music.