While some acts come on strong with a hit single or album before fading into the netherrealm, there are others who start out with a modest debut and continue to progress in an organic way with each release. While both scenarios have their perks, they can lead to far different trajectories for how the band's sound will evolve over time. Finding wide success early on can lead to the attention of major labels who will try to lock the artist or group into a contract while they are vulnerable. Even if their proposal may sound great, many artists do not know what they are getting themselves into as they are blinded by the money and fame put in front of them. What it comes down to is control; do you have control over the process, control over how often you tour, control of when and how you release music.
This same creative control is one of the aspects that husband and wife duo Tennis cherish. However, don't be confused, as Tennis stuck out from the get go, as their debut album, and even moreso the song "Marathon", was praised for its beach-inspired sound that can transport you into the summer any time of year. While they were presented with plenty of opportunities early on, they turned most of them down, opting to go with the indie label route where they controlled their own destiny from the driver's seat. Three and a half albums later Tennis are putting out the most refined music of their careers, exploring what makes them unique and in doing so maturing naturally.
This progression was more than apparent in Tennis' mid-day FYF set, playing an endearing playlist of songs for a crowd of die-hards and newcomers alike. Performing at a stage that all concertgoers had to pass by upon entering FYF, Tennis presented the perfect mix of laid back, progressive vibes that the festival works to conjoin with its image. A surprising aspect to their show was that the song "Marathon", that helped to establish their career, was nowhere to be found, representing part of the creative freedom that Tennis posses. We were lucky enough to meet up with Tennis after their set for an in-depth interview outlining their past and future.
Carl Pocket for FYF Fest
EARMILK: You have taken extended amounts of time off of touring to focus on writing new material in the past. How do you prepare when writing a new album or song and with each release do you find it easier or more difficult to come up with new material?
Alaina: Well, typically it has been extremely difficult to come up with new material. With writing our first album there was no expectation, no deadlines, it was so easy. From then on it was never as easy. Recently we thought we were going be taking a year or two off from music, but we just kept writing just for fun on the side as a habit and I think that we accidentally wrote a record.
Patrick: Once we stripped away the intention it was a lot easier to write. And, I think that we found ourselves realizing that maybe intention is not the best feeling to take when you are trying to write something — that’s more secondary.
Alaina: In general with songwriting, we are always inspired by sounds. Just a sound or a melody, or a feeling — It’s not usually that conceptual.
EM: With your first two albums coming out in quick succession (a year apart), have you given any thought to the followup album or EP to Ritual In Repeat?
Alaina: Yeah, we have given it a lot of thought. We want to make some changes. I feel like we just let our band grow how it would. I feel like there is this notion of indie band success where these are the steps you take and these are the things you do. You start on an indie label, then you cross over to a major…
Patrick: I think we were feeling that there was a path laid in front of us that we were being corralled into. But, I think we caught it early enough…
Alaina: We were just like ‘why are we doing this?’, ‘I don’t like any of this - none of this has anything to do with why we started making music, or why we ever wrote a single song.'
Patrick: Yeah, so our follow up is all about why we are taking back the reigns and stripping away intention and stripping away the success motivators and just doing what we want to do. It’s a lot more minimal… I don’t even know where I’m going with this.
Alaina: Well, there’s a lot that I can’t say right now. It’s the first time we’ve talked about it. This has all happened over the summer and we haven’t spoken to anyone about it. So, there are a lot of things going on that feel really good. A lot of epiphanies, a lot of realizations and a lot of soul searching and I think we are in a place that feels a lot more level and personal and fitted to us, instead of feeling like we are on a conveyer belt of mid-level indie bands.
EM: And you played a new song this evening, actually. What was the name of that song?
Alaina: It’s not named yet. I don’t want to commit to a name cause I don’t have one yet.
EM: You were both brought up listening to very different styles of music. How do you think that has translated into the music that you put out as Tennis?
Alaina: A lot. We listen to music that we wish we made and we let it sink in and become our new framework.
Patrick: But, I think our influences gap the hole in each of our different writing styles. Where I write a song and what’s missing is the stuff that she can put in and her influence, which is more melody-oriented. So, in other words, I am more rhythm-oriented. When I write a song all I care about is bass drums and maybe a guitar part, or maybe a keyboard part. As I feel like Alaina can write a song without any instruments. She can just sing a melody -- and she will. Occasionally she’ll have an idea where she sings all of the back up parts and the lead melody with literally no music. Then, it will excite something from me and in return we are able to put the two ideas together.
Carl Pocket for FYF Fest
EM: In writing and recording your newest album you have stated that you looked to music from the 70’s for inspiration. What in particular did you take away from all that you listened to and how did that translate into Ritual In Repeat?
Alaina: I looked towards the 70’s because I thought I needed to get more acquainted with singer/songwriter music. Patrick was as the forefront of our writing, which can be hard because he doesn’t sing or write lyrics at all. So, he will write amazing parts aimlessly and then I have to take them and arrange them and put them into songwriting. It’s figuring out what to do with someone else’s ideas and making it coherent. I started listening to singer/songwriter music where I had to dig to find something that resonated with me and that I felt could translate to Tennis. So, I started listen to Vashti Bunyan and more psychedelic stuff that I felt still had a 60’s flavor, but felt a little more mature.
Patrick: At the same time I think we were both really tired of drenching everything in reverb and kind of hiding behind it. Reverb is an effect that can hide so many imperfections…
Alaina: Which is funny because I felt that we read that someone wrote that as a criticism of all of surf rock that was happening when we first came out and I felt like ‘that’s a fair point’. If you took off all of the reverb and you heard what was just happening it would be the worst thing you’ve ever heard.
Patrick: Our band especially would sound terrible if you took away all of that reverb. But we wanted to write an album where if you could strip away production and strip away reverb it would hold its own — and do something that is a little less production dependent. Which was always the forefront of our band like “oh, we recorded on this 4-track that I have and it sounds really low-fi and cool”, where at the same time what we were doing wasn’t—I don’t know—maybe that special to us.
EM: In having toured with Haim and through their headline tour last year you were intertwined with a band that went from zero to everywhere in seemingly no time at all. All the while, Tennis has taken the path of naturally progressing and gaining a larger following with each release. Where do you weight in on the whole, you have to earn your status the hard way in the music world?
Alaina: Well, the cool thing about Haim is that they had all been…
Patrick: They had kind of already done it all, just with other bands.
Alaina: Well, they had all been hired guns for other bands like Julian Casablancas, Jenny Lewis and other stuff. So, they had really put in their time on the road as someone’s rhythm guitarist or whatever…
Patrick: So, they kind of knew what they were doing.
Alaina: Even now it feels like Haim exploded overnight, where they had been really honing their craft and putting in their time with other peoples’ projects.
Patrick: We didn’t have that.
Alaina: Yeah, this was the first thing we’ve ever done. So, being on the road with them, they are very seasoned, despite it being their first record. They were just ready. They had all already played late night TV in other peoples’ bands. Whereas for us, every single experience was blind-sided. I’d never played a show. I’d never been in a band.
Patrick: It was all we could take, honestly. When we were starting out — this is going to sound like we have a huge ego or something — but, we had a few different label options ranging from major to indie. And, with the major ones there were so many more expectations with it, so if we would have done it I think we would have known that we wouldn’t have been able to meet those standards.
Alaina: I would look at a contract and there would be a tour requirement -- which Haim would have, but they are equal to that and ready to do that. Their whole family also goes on tour together and they're sisters, so it’s like a whole different thing. Where with me, every single one show is so stretching and being away from home for that long is really hard. So, when we first started we said no to like a million things that was probably really dumb to do because they’ll never come back again, but I’m so glad. Opening for Haim every night I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want that’. I don’t want to have to run and hide in a car from screaming 17 year old girls. Thank god I can just live my life.
EM: So, you wouldn’t change the way things have gone?
Alaina: On my god, no.
Patrick: I don’t think we could stomach much more to be honest.
Alaina: Our first record came from this boat trip and I think we’ve learned now from several years of doing this that a unifying theme of our band is that we just want autonomy. To maximize as much personal choice as possible. It’s immediately not fun if we’re in the situation where there are huge expectations from the fans or labels or management. I only want to be around people who are like, “if you aren’t enjoying this then there is no point in doing it” and sometimes that means turning down some things you’d think you should say yes to. That’s where we are right now.
EM: Having worked with a dream team of Jim Eno [of Spoon], Patrick Carney [of The Black Keys] and Richard Swift on your last album, are there any other artists or bands that you would like to get involved with in future projects?
Alaina: I think we worked with our heroes. I don’t know how we were able to work with all of them. Like Pat Carney, we just emailed him thinking “I hope he writes us back” and he did.
Patrick: I think we always wanted to work with Dave Friedman, but I think we have been really scared to ask him because he is such an intimidating person.
Alaina: He is like our hero. Everything he has ever mixed I am obsessed with. Even the new Spoon album, it is like my favorite ever. He mixed that and MGMT’s most recent stuff...
EM: Whenever you get back to Denver after a long tour, what is the very first place that you visit other than home?
Alaina: I would say going for a bike ride. When we met we didn’t have cars, we just had bikes, so now all that driving is kind of a drag. We usually just bike to the Foothills or something and it is such an amazing view of the city and it’s always perfect.
EM: You mentioned in the past that when you lived in Nashville for 8 months bike riding wasn’t as easy and you actually were run off the road. Do you want to speak anything else to that?
Patrick: Yeah, fix your bike laws Nashville. You’re a progressive city.
Alaina: Or, make bike lanes. It’s hard because it’s such an old city that their streets are really narrow with no shoulder. It just goes into dense woods.
Patrick: It happened twice to me within two weeks or something, where someone actually hit my handle bar.
Alaina: And, I am petrified of bugs. Growing up in basically an arid desert (Colorado). I will go months without seeing an insect.
Patrick: What does this have to do with biking?
Alaina: I would get pelted by large flying creatures and have like a panic attack.
Patrick: I think that we can point to the reason that we probably moved back to Denver being that we weren’t able to bike.
Alaina: And my shocking exposure to cockroaches.
As such a personable and personal duo, Tennis prove that doing something you love with the person you love can be extremely rewarding, just so long as you are able to do it the way you want to.