Reel Time: Tennis

Mike Greenhaus on May 19, 2014

“We learned a lot of hard lessons while making this album,” singer Alaina Moore admits while nearing completion of Tennis’ third full-length studio effort. Instead of hunkering down with a single producer and pushing out another album of their patented lo-fi surf pop, the Denver-bred trio spent more than a year working on tracks that run the gamut from pulsating kraut-jams to delicate girl-group-inspired vocal numbers with three noted producers who play in big-name indie bands: Spoon’s Jim Eno, The Shins’ Richard Swift and The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. What started out as a way for Moore, her husband and musical partner Patrick Riley, and drummer James Barone to expand their sonic palette turned into a period of intense self-discovery. “It’s not that I hate my voice, but I prefer more androgynous or even more masculine voices,” Moore says. “It took me a year to figure out how to sing the way I want to sing and write melodies for my own voice.”

A Long, Arduous Quest

This album is very strange for us. All of the final tracks are going to be pulled from several different studio sessions that we’ve had over the past year. We recorded five songs with Jim Eno in Austin last February and we recorded with Richard Swift in Oregon for two weeks in June. Then, in January of this year, we spent time in Nashville recording five songs with Patrick Carney. We’re taking a few songs from every studio session and that’s going to end up being the record. It’s been a really long, arduous quest. We’ve been all over the map with the recordings and

even our writing. We started off so narrow and only wrote lo-fi surf pop. Everything had a surf-beat. We only had three instruments and everything was so specific that now, as we’ve grown, we are trying to challenge ourselves and transform musically.

Disparate Tastes

Patrick [Riley] and I have all of these very disparate tastes. We finally have the chance to indulge in them with our songs, and we want some crazy, distorted kraut-rock tunes, or we want some prog-rock a la King Crimson. We’ve been able to explore these different avenues all year long with all these different batches of songs and all these different producers. Right now we’re back in Denver, and I’m singing the final vocals on a few songs that were left over. After each time in the studio, we’ll think, “What are we missing? What does the album need to feel well-rounded?” When we would start writing again and booking more studio time, we’d try to make the record feel complete.

Early Ideas

We really gravitated toward similar sounds as Jim, and he’s a purist as far as the recording goes. We met in Austin two years ago when he was doing a Spotify producer session. We went through and recorded a few songs specifically for Spotify. We got along so well and loved his space so we took five songs to him last year. It was our first batch of material for the album, so not all of those numbers necessarily fit next to what we’ve been writing this last month. This is the first time we have written more songs than will fit on the album. We would usually go into a studio session with exactly 10 songs and all of those 10 would have to go on the record—or else we wouldn’t even have a record. This is the first time we’ve had the luxury that if a song isn’t

up to snuff, we’d go work on something else.

Sonic Soul Mates

We recorded what could have been a full-length album with Richard Swift. He has a very distinctive recording and engineering style, and he is basically our soul mate, sonically. Around the time that we were looking to book some studio time, the Foxygen album that Richard produced came out. That just put it over the top for us because that’s one of my favorite records that came out last year. The best thing that we were able to learn from him is that it’s really about your ear, your taste and your understanding of music. It’s not really about having a state-of-the-

art studio. We’ve been in state-of-the-art studios and been disappointed in the way they sounded. Richard could put a microphone in a megaphone and a hamster in a wheel and somehow end up recording the best drums ever. We released an EP from the sessions, and some of those songs may make their way on the album and some of them have been saved.

Trickle-Down Economics

We’re still such a new band that often we’re still having new experiences, which are fun and rewarding, but it’s more work. It’s hard to align your expectations and learn to perform. It just felt good to really know Patrick [Carney] and to just have been through things already before. It was more exciting and more relaxed. Working in the studio can be really painful, but we had so

much trust in Pat Carney because we’d already seen him help us transform a song. Sometimes that’s what a producer will do: re-imagine a song that you already have a set idea about and take a complete left turn with it. For Young & Old, our last album that we made with Pat, I brought in a song that was essentially a piano ballad with girl-group harmonies behind it and he put a hip-hop beat underneath it.

We brought our most rock-and-roll numbers and most groove-oriented songs to him, knowing that they would be in good hands. He gets to learn from Danger Mouse and then we get the

benefit of watching him. We get to learn some of these techniques. It’s like trickledown economics.

Spirits and Singers

Jim has this great method where he’ll get a vibe going while we are picking the songs we are going to record by playing something that could almost be a spirit guide. He played some Shuggie Otis one day in the studio, and we ended up listening to him for the rest of the year. Part of us channeling so many different styles is that I’m still trying to find my voice as a singer.

I mostly listen to male-fronted bands or singer-songwriters. When I was trying to write vocal parts and lyrics, I would channel male voices that didn’t really suit me, and I wasn’t really doing myself any favors. I just kept writing songs that just didn’t belong to me or sound like me. We were living in Nashville at the time and I even started to think that maybe I should just start writing music for other people. That is also why I feel we shelved so many songs that we’ve finished because I just felt, “This is not me and I cannot sing this every night.”

Hard Lessons

Lots of singers have this problem where they don’t really like their own voice. My favorite female singer, Nico, has an extremely androgynous voice. I have just an unabashedly feminine, even girlish voice, which is not really what I want to be working with. Fortunately, I discovered some female artists that really suited me, like Vashti Bunyan. That’s when we were able to write for ourselves and get out of the weird rut where I was writing music for other people.