Column 310: Found at Sea
How indie band Tennis’ debut was born on waves.
by Tim McMahan, lazy-i.com
While they were learning to survive at sea, the thought of making music — or making an album for that matter — never crossed the minds of Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, the indie pop duo known as Tennis.
The story began when the Denver refugees bought a boat in Tampa Bay and set off into the Atlantic, sailed along the East Coast, then to the Bahamas for the winter, then back up the U.S. coastline to Chesapeake Bay, all the time living the life of two young upwardly mobile pirates trying to find themselves among the dark green waves.
During lapses into sun-soaked boredom or backbreaking exertion or gale-driven fear, Moore reminded herself that the whole thing had been her idea. “It was me who wanted to do it initially,” she told me from her Denver home. “I consider myself to have an adventurous spirit, but had never put myself in an adventurous situation.”
She said that while at sea the thing she missed the most was the stability and comfort of life on land, in a home that doesn’t move and float or could be blown away or tipped over. “At any given moment I was completely responsible for my home, the vessel and Patrick if he was asleep,” Moore said. “It was a huge responsibility that I didn’t take lightly. Patrick was the one who would motivate me to not give up in the earliest months, when everything was brand new and almost no fun at all, just tons of work.”
They hadn’t brought along any musical instruments except Patrick’s “child’s guitar.” It didn’t matter because they weren’t planning on making music, anyway. Music was something that Riley and Moore, at this point in their relationship, hadn’t shared with each other. “We both had dabbled playing music growing up,” Moore said. “We never thought of it in a serious way at all.”
But music provided a consolation during difficult moments on the boat. “There were times when I would have my shift at the helm and I would sing as loud as I could to keep myself awake and keep from being nervous,” she said.
Throughout the eight months, they dealt with several storms, “most of the time at anchorages,” Moore said. “The storm would blow in like a gale and we would have to watch to make sure the boat was safe and be prepared to sail out into the middle of the ocean to keep it from being dashed on the coral reef. We would listen to (Paul Simon’s) Graceland or the Beach Boys or something totally opposite of the situation. Your state of mind is what can put you in real danger.”
Though they planned on being together always, they hadn’t planned on getting married. “After our sailing trip was done, it had tested our relationship beyond what most people go through during 50 years of marriage,” Moore said. And so, they tied the knot. Back in Denver, Riley landed a good job as a facilities manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art; while Moore worked as an assistant manager of a small retail store. After putting in a long day’s work, they were looking for something creative to do together.
“We thought it would be fun to make music,” Moore said. “It was in the first two or three times of casually sitting down and playing together that allowed us to recall living on the boat. Something would remind me of Bimini and the Bahamas, and an hour later, we had a song written.”
The couple randomly met the young bucks behind Underwater Peoples Records at a house party and played them their demos. Within days of releasing their first 7-inch, the press run of 300 copies was sold out. “We thought it was so crazy, so we ended up writing more music and friends helped us put together a tour,” Moore said.
Among the stops was Slowdown last August, the couple’s third show ever. “They played a set of easy-going throwback rock featuring Riley’s glowing Telecaster that sounded like it was transported out of a jukebox from Happy Days,” I wrote on lazy-i.com afterward. “Moore’s voice had that uneasy Natalie Merchant lilt (when it was in key).”
“I was so scared,” Moore recalled. “It was my second show at a venue; all the others were house shows or in back yards. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do this.”
But they already had signed a deal with Fat Possum Records, who had commissioned them to finish an album in two months. Moore and Riley quit their jobs and recorded and mixed their debut themselves because they didn’t want anyone to change their sound. Cape Dory was released Jan. 18 and already is something of a smash. Paste gave it 8.8 out of 10; SPIN said, “Where Best Coast is too cool for school, Tennis seem (almost) too good to be true,” and gave it an 8 out of 10.
“The fact that it’s being treated as a serious album, as a major debut, absolutely blows our minds,” Moore said. “Our goal is make music because we enjoy it. I feel very uncomfortable desiring anything as far as the industry goes. The authenticity can’t help but be tainted by the nature of becoming a big band. We keep turning down offers that would take us to the next level.”
In fact, Moore said the couple doesn’t plan to make a career out of music. Instead, she hopes to attend grad school and continue studying philosophy. “As much as I enjoy making music, I don’t see us in this world of press releases and constant touring,” she said. “I’m always reminding myself how this whole thing started, and what we wanted from it.”
Tennis returns to Slowdown Jr. Friday, Feb. 18, with Holiday Shores and Kosha Dillz. Catch them before they head back out to sea.
* * *
Again, this show is tomorrow night. Tix are $8 today; $10 day of show. Get ’em right here.
* * *
Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.