The vastness of the ocean is what spurred Tennis’ Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley to write Swimmer, their fifth full-length album released on Valentine’s Day. Based in Denver, Colorado, the husband-and-wife duo spent a year sailing (they’re self-taught) off the Sea of Cortez on their boat named Scout. Following a string of unfortunate losses, Moore and Riley saw the ocean as a cathartic—albeit intimidating—source of inspiration, making the album “by far the most intentional and methodical album we’ve ever made,” Riley tells CR.
Self-produced and released, Tennis’ new album is both a lyrical and sonic departure from the band’s critically acclaimed Cape Dory and 2017’s Yours Conditionally. “The only instruments we had on board were an acoustic guitar and a drum sequencer, but the limitations seemed to work in our favor,” Moore says. Below, and ahead of their worldwide tour, Riley and Moore chat with CR about learning to swim, the new album, and how they found solace in the choppy waters of the Pacific.
What’s the story of Swimmer? You’ve said you sailed the Sea of Cortez while writing it. What was that experience like?
Alaina: “I didn’t actually know the Sea of Cortez existed because I was really bad with geography growing up. Patrick stumbled upon it in some sailing guidebooks and it seemed like the perfect place to go because it’s not crazy far away from the states, but it feels like you’re in outer space. It’s totally undeveloped desert, most of it. We brought out boat down here and it was a totally insane ocean voyage—eight days at sea. It was really hard.”
Patrick: “Sailing has always been an integral part of our relationship and our creativity. I’ve been obsessed with the ocean from the first time I saw it at six years old. I honestly wish I didn’t have such a strong tie with the ocean, but that seems outside of my control. At this point, Alaina and I have shaped our lives around the ocean and we use it as a sort of void to create. Living on the ocean means you don’t have access to the internet, to Amazon, to people; the only thing Alaina and I have is each other and our instruments. It’s a very pure way to approach writing music or any creative endeavor.”
Do you get out and dive?
Alaina: “Patrick does a lot of that, but I actually didn’t know how to swim when we came down here. I didn’t grow up near water. I grew up land-locked; we had no pool access. I never learned how to swim. On this last trip, the last four months while we were writing Swimmer, I had made a commitment to myself—it was actually my New Year’s resolution—because my not learning how to swim had turned into a pretty insane phobia of water at that point. I find the ocean compelling, and sailing is so different than being physically in the water.”
Did you guys take lessons on how to sail?
Alaina: “We mostly read books. Neither of us had ever sailed before and I had never been on a boat or ever even seen the ocean actually. The whole concept was completely foreign to me—I just saw it as a very once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and I think it really works out to my benefit that Patrick had no idea how to sail either because it prevented us from falling into any gender roles. We’re both the captains of our boat and I actually own the boat. I don’t really know how to put this without being brag-y, but Patrick is the ultimate feminist. He is my number one supporter and pushes me so hard to achieve whatever I want [despite] fear or intimidation or any level of inexperience.”
Is Swimmer a nod to you learning how to swim and your sailing expedition?
Alaina: “Swimmer meant a lot of things to me. Firstly, the year that we wrote the record was the most disorienting and challenging year of mine and Patrick’s adult lives. In a series of a few months, we had a bunch of painful losses. His father died; his mother, immediately after, had a life-threatening illness that hospitalized her for a month and a half. It was really insane. And then I got the flu on tour and had a really weird episode where I lost consciousness and had a seizure. I’ve never had that happen before. Patrick thought I was dead. But it was just this horrifying few months and later that same summer, one of our mentors who produced one of our records, Richard Swift, died. It was just this really insane year of feeling like all the people we love could be taken away at any moment. While this was ongoing, we sailed out into the Pacific on Scout and scattered Patrick’s dad’s ashes at sea. Sailing was Patrick’s dad’s lifelong dream and he was waiting to do it when he retired, and the year he hit his retirement was the year he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, so he never got to do this thing he loved, so we took him to see his ashes in our boat. The title Swimmer came to me while we were physically putting his father to rest. Holding the weight of this man in my hands and watching it sink into the ocean which weirdly represented so much to me. The ocean feels like an archetypal void in a way. It’s as impenetrable and inhospitable as outer space. I often have that feeling when we sail at night and it’s all blackness. I feel almost more like an astronaut than a sailer. I might as well be hurdling through oblivion.”
How does Swimmer differ sonically or lyrically from your previous albums?
Patrick: “This is by far the most intentional and methodical album we’ve ever made. We built our own studio to record this album and we spent hours dialing in ever detail of the sonic palette. Normally, we’ve rented a space to record, or used someone else’s studio, so we didn’t have the luxury of dialing in sounds for countless hours. This is the first album [in which] every sound received full attention.”
It’s been eight years since you released Cape Dory. When you reflect on that time, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned? What are you most proud of?
Patrick: “Eight years since it was released, but almost 10 years since it was written. We were just kids when we made that album; it honestly sounds incredibly foreign to me. I have to struggle to remember what our mindset was like back then. We had so many rules. Only 10 tracks per song, no acoustic guitar allowed, no guitar overdubs allowed, no bass guitar, reverb on everything. It’s fun to remember writing the songs in our apartment for the first time and getting to know Alaina. Both of us had no idea that we were going to become writing partners. Oddly enough, we had both dropped out of music school years prior and had sworn off making music. I still can’t believe we found each other, accidentally wrote some songs together, and then quit our jobs to go on tour. It took years, but I’m glad we learned to get rid of the rules we had back then.”
Are there any challenges to working with someone you’re married to? What’s the best part of that?
Patrick: “It’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s only for Alaina and I. Historically, there are no examples of this working out long-term and we’re aware of that. Because Alaina and I met in a philosophy program, we are used to arguing with one another. Philosophy is basically just the study of argument. This was core to our friendship when we first met and continues to be core to our band. To this day, Alaina and I will have heated philosophical debates—about consciousness, inherent value, politics, recording techniques, and more—and never once offend or disrespect the other. We are extremely good at taking criticism from one another and using it to our advantage.”
Aside from the album, what are you most looking forward to in 2020?
Alaina: “This really unexpected side work that Patrick and I have started to accumulate which is producing other artists. We’ve just been quietly making our own records for a while and learning a lot through that experience, and other bands have started reaching out to us to produce their records and it is my favorite thing I’ve ever done.”
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