Tennis had a problem. They had two great albums and a growing legion of fans, but were getting bored with the process, the sound and explaining their backstory. The duo, who are married, retreated to Nashville to write their third record, Ritual In Repeat, effectively giving them a chance to start over. They changed the way they wrote songs, they changed their environment, and they changed their sound. It has all made for a fantastic listen, with song after song jam-packed full of catchy hooks. We caught up with them during a stop through Louisville on their most recent tour to find out why they needed a change, what it was like working with three well-known producers and just who their song “Bad Girls” really about.
: Let’s be fair and not start with your backstory about sailing a boat around the world, because plenty of other cool moments have happened in your life since then. So if this were the beginning of your story, what would it be? What would be the hook for your backstory if this were the start?
Alaina Moore: If everything just started recently, it would be us. I mean the most immediate presence in our life is the band that we’re doing now, which is so much newer and more imminent than even the sailing trip now. When people ask about that now, I’m like, “I barely remember that.” That feels like a dream. What feels like a reality is being on tour, meeting with and working with some of our heroes, musically.
Patrick Riley: Even just writing with a great purpose. I feel like our first album, it’s a documentary of sorts. Of course, there’s a backstory with it and it makes it romantic or whatever, but these last few albums that we’ve put out, we’ve written with more purpose and we’re trying to communicate messages or ideas that are beyond that documentary that was the first album.
Moore: I feel like we’re finally learning how to actually do something intentionally and feel like it’s a true expression of ourselves creatively, instead of like, a moment in time. It’s so different, it actually feels…even though this album, Ritual In Repeat, isn’t remotely autobiographical, it feels so much closer to me than our first record did.
: It’s interesting. I think artists might be some of the only people that are into that kind of thing, like you’re always attached to a moment. Richie Havens once said that he would always be riding the Woodstock train. If every album is a yearbook picture, it’s like you always have to be that awkward 14-year-old.
Moore: That’s very true. There is like a weird connection not just with the original story of your music, but even…a friend pointed this out to me recently. I’m pretty sure it was Joni Mitchell who said this, but I don’t know for fact. She said that being a musician, it’s one of those weird mediums as an artist where people want you to recreate the work of art on demand at any moment. You wouldn’t ever ask a master painter to repaint your favorite one on command, but you write a song and there’s magic in it and it means something to you in that moment, but people expect you to perform it over and over again with the same conviction for the next however many decades that you’re lucky enough that they like your song. There is this weird ball-and-chain thing where you end up getting stuck to where you were years ago.
: It’s an interesting lifestyle you all have chosen.
Riley: I don’t think we really chose it. I think that’s maybe the weirdest part about our origin story is that I don’t think we chose this. Or at least not intentionally.
Moore: Not at first, but I’m so glad that we accidentally didn’t do this and now we are.
Riley: We sound like jerks for saying that because I know there are tons of people who desperately want to do this, but I can say that because I was one of those people. I tried my damnedest to do this for a living when I was in college. I literally worked my ass off in different bands and tried to intern with record labels and tried to play shows. None of the promoters would book me and all this stuff. I got burned out on it. Shut the door on the whole thing and said I would never play music again.
Moore: Threw in the towel.
Riley: Then like, what, five years went by and then we started this band unintentionally.
: A lot can happen in five years. You can change your entire path. Five years, when you look back on it, a lot happens in that time. And you could have done anything else.
Riley: Especially that time in your life. Those formative years of going from your teenage life through college and after college. Those years, I feel like I changed more per year than any other time in my life. Like, these last five years, I haven’t changed much.
Moore: I think that makes a lot of sense, because you have to live some life before you can write about it. That’s the thing that young, starving artists, 19 or 20 don’t know yet. They have to go get some experiences under their belt.
: I know there is one little story that I’m sure you all will be talking a lot about that goes along with Ritual In Repeat and I guess goes along with the album title about having this writer’s block and then suddenly you’re on a schedule to write. That’s interesting because you all moved to Nashville, and now you’ve left it for whatever reason, but there was point where you were recommended a book about ritual and schedules.
Moore: Yeah, it was called Daily Rituals.
: But that’s how they write in Nashville. It almost seems so perfect. When you hear about the country music machine, you go under fluorescent lighting at 9 a.m. with another person that you’ve barely met. Then it’s like, “For these next three hours, we’re going to write.” And so here you are in Nashville accidentally doing it the Nashville way.
Riley: It wasn’t so 9 to 5, like clock in, clock out, as it was us trying to get into this weird moment where we would forget our conscious selves, and then hopefully our subconscious selves would speak a little bit.
Moore: You have to trick yourself, your conscience and inner critic. You have to trick it away through pure, monotonous routine until you get lulled into a stupor and you’re just playing piano, playing piano. Then you’re like, “Whoa, what did I just do? That was really good.”
Riley: When we were done, we would just go to sleep and then we’d wake up and do it over again. We would never take a break and go hang out with friends. Because we didn’t have any. Or we would never take a break and go out to dinner. We just stayed in this house for months and months and months.
Moore: You shouldn’t be saying this because there’s no reason why we didn’t write 17,000 songs.
Riley: I know!
: You guys make being a musician sound so romantic.
Moore: It was actually really fun. After so much touring the year before that, I didn’t want to see one pocket of the world. I didn’t want to see anything. I didn’t want to get on a plane. I didn’t want to get in a car. I just wanted to be in that house and watch birds outside of my window and play guitar or read a book. I need that experience though in order to appreciate the Nashville way, which I totally would have been critical of, thinking that wasn’t true artistry or something, but I do not feel that way anymore. Not at all.
: Now you can throw on some Hot Country every now and then and get down to Florida Georgia Line.
Moore: Oh my God, sure!
Moore: But no artist who’s ever done anything that I genuinely respect didn’t have that serious work ethic and a lot of diligence and a lot of pure time poured into it.
: With everything that came before this, labels as they are and as annoying as they are to an artist, you all were lumped into the revivalist sound. This album seems almost defiant of that. This is a pop record. The best album you’ve done so far. But to change gears like that, how hard was that?
Riley: I think our style of writing is very much confused, and we don’t stick to one method even though we were taking on these ritualist methods to create this album; every song was treated in a very unique way. So when trying to write the music to some song or Alaina trying to write the melody to some song, we would come at it from a different angle every time. So that was a way to keep it fresh and to keep unique melodies and newness to every song.
Moore: And I think one of the reasons this record does sound a lot different is because over the years of releases and touring, we started to learn what we wished we were playing live. We loved everything we wrote when we wrote Cape Dory, our first record, but after literally two months of touring that album, it’s 28 minutes, a surf beat every single song, by the end, we’re like, “Oh my God, I’m having insane dreams with a surf beat and it’s taunting me and I want to hear something else.” That naturally pushed us in opposite directions, and we started listening to Shuggie Otis and Funkadelic. You know, we loved all those things initially. It just took time, and learning ourselves, and what we wanted to be doing. So that was definitely the forefront of our mind when we wrote Ritual in Repeat. Patrick and I would write separately, and I would be filling a need that I had. I wanted a song that could be sung like an old Carole King song that’s almost like an old standard mixed with a pop song, and then Patrick would want to play a song like he’s in a Built To Spill cover band or something, and together we’d just keep melding these ideas that were selfish fulfillments.
: The best way to go forward, without just picking one sound and saying that’s what you’re going to sound like. Did it ever get to a point though, where you said, “We have to be a different band”? Maybe not because of personal reasons, but critically.
Riley: We didn’t have to say that. I think we just acted that way. We would write a song that was maybe reminiscent of Cape Dory, or even Young & Old, and we would just…
Moore: ...Feel like we’d done that already.
Riley: Yeah. Or it wasn’t good enough or something.
Moore: Sometimes I read criticisms where they wish we would keep writing songs like “Marathon,” our very first single we ever released. I feel like there is something really special about that song, but I could never write that song again. Not if I tried, and I don’t even want to. I think it’s just that if you have to make yourself happier, there’s no reason to be doing it.
: It may be an unfair question since I said I was going to ignore backstories, but there is a great story in your past about not being brought up around pop music at all, that you were brought up around classical. So it seems that either it would be an extra hard challenge to pick up all of these pop techniques, or it’s more of bursting with a whole new world suddenly and there it all is.
Moore: Yeah, totally. It really was. The funny thing is, the more I’ve been reading, I just read Linda Ronstadt’s memoir, and she’s this amazing pop rock icon from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but she grew up on the same music as I did, mostly because she was like, a child in the ‘40s or ‘50s or something. But she would make all of these connections between old, American standards of even like Gershwin songs. What she would be doing with the Stone Ponys, I’d be like, “Oh my gosh,” because that’s what I’m thinking, we’d write a ‘70s rock song, but I’m going to sing it like Judy Garland 1960. How would that sound? And that’s what I like.
: And you can usually do a connection, a line, like earlier this year I was talking about how to get from Stravinsky to The Stokes, which can be done without too much effort.
Moore: Absolutely. I love it. We studied philosophy in college and my favorite part of that was just seeing how the whole history of human consciousness was this long dialogue. And music is the exact same. I mean, all of our history is like this. The more we’ve made music, the more I’ve gotten to know music and spend time with it and discover these links. That’s the most incredible part.
: I want to talk about your producers for this album. It’s like you picked the Holy Trinity.
Riley: I think that’s what we were going for.
: Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, Jim Eno of Spoon and Richard Swift! How do you take that and make a cohesive album, which you’ve done quite spectacularly? It’s not like they’re all three completely different from each other, but those are definitely three different sounds.
Moore: Well, the unifying thread is definitely us doing all the writing. The other thing is that we wrote this giant batch of songs, but then we imagined in an ideal world, like not every song is suited to every producer. Even the best producers. So we just imagined in an ideal world who would we give each song to? And that’s what we ended up being able to do.
Riley: Yeah, we didn’t want to treat this like we had treated our previous albums. We wanted this to be a new thing. We felt like there were a batch of songs that could benefit from the power and minimalism in Patrick Carney’s production. We felt like there were a batch of songs that could benefit from the heart and soul and vintageness of a Richard Swift recording. Then there was a batch that we felt like could benefit from the…I feel like Jim is a really delicate producer. Like, he’s really good at fine-tuning songs and getting all the intricacies worked out. So yeah, we called up all these people, and somehow they all said yes.
: It’s really different than when a pop star goes after five different producers and it sounds like five different producers. These were a batch of songs that were coming from the same place, individually doled out toward the strength you wanted.
Moore: And that’s because that pop star usually isn’t writing them. Different writers and different producers.
Riley: And they usually don’t have a choice. A lot of the higher-ups don’t really grant that choice to an artist to work with any producer they want. They don’t want to risk losing money on it. They want to go with their tried-and-true producer.
Moore: We’re lucky that we get to do whatever we want even if it’s a dumb idea. We still get to do it.
: A video is out for “Bad Girls,” which is not really the first single but the first video. And I did at least, maybe in a TMZ sort of way wonder if there was anyone you were pointing out?
Moore: Actually that song is about me.
Riley: That’s like the most personal song on the album.
Moore: It’s the only song on the record where I wrote the lyrics first and wrote a melody to carry the lyrics. I never do that. Lyrics are always the very last thing. But it’s definitely about me realigning my beliefs about the world and maybe a little justification of that. Even bad girls can do good things.