Last year Tennis released the EP Small Sound, and it was a big change for the group. Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore had gained no small amount of acclaim for the bright, sunshiny pop found on their albums Cape Dory and Young & Old, but Small Sound revealed that there was even more to the duo than had been suspected, and it was clear to Riley and Moore that they had to continue to explore the grittiness and groove revealed on Small Sound. The pair spent more than a year and a half writing and recording, working with producer Richard Swift, who helmed Small Sound, as well as with Spoon’s Jim Eno and The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. The end result of that hard work is Ritual in Repeat, their first full length for Communion, and an album that retains the sweetness Tennis became known for, especially on the Brill Building -Worthy “This Isn’t My Song,” but finds Tennis sounding looser and more soulful than ever before. It took a while to complete this Ritual, though, and here’s Moore and Riley on pairing the right producer with the right song, learning to sing in character and the importance of Vashti Bunyan.
So for this album you worked with three different producers: Patrick Carney, Jim Eno and Richard Swift. What made you decide to break it up like this? Was it a situation where you did a session with one, waited a bit then did another session with someone else and so on until you felt the album was finished?
P: Our dream for Ritual in Repeat was to write an album’s worth of demos and then pair small batches of songs with the producer we thought was best suited to bring them to life. Our three recording sessions were spread out over the course of the long year that it took to write the album. Our first five demos were recorded with Jim Eno, who besides producing Alaina’s very best vocal performances, influenced the rest of our writing more than he could ever know by introducing us to Shuggie Otis. Five months later we recorded 10 songs with Richard Swift, seeking him out for his mastery of an iconic studio sound. Some of those songs were released as the Small Sound EP, and the others were saved for Ritual In Repeat. Releasing Small Sound helped us get a handle on the still un-finished full length. It became clear what the album was missing, so we booked studio time with Patrick Carney and wrote five songs specifically for him to work on. Having worked together before really enhanced our time together in the studio. He was able to push us harder because we trusted him in a way that doesn’t come easily for us. The best thing about being a self-made, DIY band is autonomy, but the downside to that is never having to learn how to collaborate. Carney has been really instrumental in helping us navigate this internal conflict and provided that final push we needed to make our best record yet.
This is the longest you’ve ever spent working on an album: a year and a half. I’m sure it felt like a luxury to be able to take your time. How do you think the extended gestation period affected the final product? Did you write everything at once and just have multiple sessions, or were you writing throughout?
P: This was easily the hardest year and a half of our lives. Copious amounts of time turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help. We would finish a song only to revise and scrutinize it until we lost perspective on it entirely and scrapped it. We wanted to write something deliberate and powerful; something we could look back on and admire. The pain of this expectation pushed us to our limits at times, but we have never been more proud of our work.
To my ears, this album sounds like a continuation of the Mean Streets EP. I feel like you’re taking the ideas you had there, and your interest in soul and R&B, and just going all the way with it, especially on the opener “Night Vision,” which has a very slinky feel. Looking back, was that EP a dry run for where you wanted to take Tennis?
P: We wanted the EP to act as a precursor to the album. To our ears the new songs are drastically different than the days of Cape Dory/Young & Old. The EP felt like a transition between old and new.
So you have a song on here called “Never Work For Free.” What, you’ve never had an internship? But seriously, this one, to my ears, has a bit of an early Joe Jackson feel, especially on the drums. New Wave-y, but soulful. Was that era a bit of a touchstone?
A: This song is a perfect example of Patrick and I seeking out common ground in the midst of our increasingly disparate musical tastes. Initially, I intended “Never Work For Free” to be a ‘70s soul piano ballad. We liked it, but it felt a little too reserved. Patrick had just written this swelling guitar-driven thing he was looking to use, and suggested that we reimagine “Never Work For Free” with this arrangement. Our combined efforts resulted in something much better than what either of us had written on our own.
Alaina, throughout this album we hear you belting it out like never before, especially on “Bad Girls.” How do you feel that you’ve grown as a vocalist? Did it take a while for you to feel comfortable with taking such a forceful approach?
A: When I first started singing in Tennis I didn’t want to manipulate my voice at all because I wanted to discover its true character. I grew up singing other people’s songs and mimicking their voices so carefully I had no idea how I really sounded. I felt like any contrivance of manner would be a false representation of myself a self I didn’t know. Fortunately, about a year ago I heard a PJ Harvey interview in which she talks about purposefully altering her voice in order to service a song, its mood, or lyrics. The idea of privileging the song over my vocal identity was epiphanic for me. Since then I’ve allowed myself to channel different voices for each song and it’s completely transformed the way I sing.
And in that song, you talk about losing your peace of mind. Is that true? It seems that trying to stay sane and grounded while grinding it out is one the reoccurring themes of the album. Where do you think that comes from?
A: The peace of mind I’m talking about in “Bad Girls” is more philosophical than psychological. The chorus, “If it were physical it would show/if it were spiritual I would know” refers to my own lack of spiritual certainty. I come from a traditional background that was religious, binary, and absolute. Breaking from that and embracing the ambiguity of my own belief is kind of the story of my adult life and a recurring theme in my writing.
“This Isn’t My Song” is such an interesting outlier for the album. It feels, to me, almost like something reminiscent of a 1950s prom song, just a very classic, throwback style. Could you tell me a little bit about the making of it?
A: Patrick and I wrote “This Isn’t My Song” stream of conscious style over the course of a day. That rarely happens for us. We usually toil over a song for weeks or months ‘til its completion. This is probably why it stands out from the rest of the record it came from a spontaneous, unself-conscious place.
While there’s a lot of soul music here, “Wounded Heart” has an English folk feel. How did that one come about?
A: I initially wrote “Wounded Heart” as a little exercise for myself. I was going through this phase where I would wake up early every morning and listen to Vashti Bunyan. Her songs felt very close to me, and I wanted to turn a poem I had written into something reminiscent of her style. I wrote the whole song one morning after breakfast. Patrick was very supportive about including it on the record, despite its being so different from anything else on the album.
So what does the phrase Ritual In Repeat mean? What makes it a good summary of the album?
A: The story of this record is a story of false starts and indecision. We had no idea how the next Tennis release should sound. We knew we had outgrown our previous writing style, but were unsure of how to supplant it. After several difficult months without results, we finally hit our stride by establishing a schedule of writing and living that consumed every waking moment and rigidly adhering to it. Our devotion to this process felt at times desperate, but the results it yielded made the routine sacred. It’s strange to say that our best work yet came out of a mindless routine, but it’s the truth. This record is the product of ritual in repeat.
Last time we talked, you mentioned that you were hoping to get people to focus less on your sweet backstory and more on your music. Do you feel that you’re accomplishing that? It does seem like Mean Streets changed some peoples’s perceptions of you.
A: This isn’t something that worries me so much anymore. As we shift focus from the origin of our work to the work itself, our audience has done the same. Our sailing trip and the first album it inspired is an important part of our past, but is definitely in the past.