Marriage Story: How Grief Strengthened Tennis and Shaped Their New Album
Swimmer recounts the darkest times of Alaina's and Patrick's marriage. But it’s anything but morose.Photos by Annie Dressner, Luca Venter Music Features Tennis
Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, the husband and wife behind indie-pop duo Tennis, are sailors. They could’ve used any number of nautical metaphors to describe the choppy waters they’ve been wading through the past few years. But they ultimately settled on the simple “Swimmer” as the title for their fifth LP, out now on the couple’s own Mutually Detrimental label. Despite multiple stints living on their shared sailboat, Moore never learned how to swim. But when it comes to the unceasing waves of life’s tragedies, both Moore and Riley are familiar with all the strokes.
In the time between the 2017 arrival of their second breakout release Yours Conditionally and now, Moore was hospitalized with the flu, Riley’s father died of cancer and Moore’s mother was also hospitalized “on the brink of a stroke.” All of this occurred during a robust tour, one the self-made musicians needed to complete in order to sustain their income upon its end. Moore, in a recent phone call with Paste, described it as a “month of suffering.” But it was also the biggest tour of their careers up to this point.
“We all called it the tour from hell,” she says, “because like every five days a new horrific event would occur. And we all got very superstitious. We felt like the universe was conspiring to just end the tour suddenly at some point.”
Despite the ever-mounting list of major, miserable life events, Tennis found themselves at a pivotal point in their careers. So they soldiered on and completed the scheduled dates, vowing to “always, always” finish tours in the future.
“It was just so surreal to feel that vulnerable,” Moore continues. “We felt so broken and beaten down by what was going on in our lives, but then we would walk on stage at Brooklyn Steel or 9:30 Club, and it would be sold out and everyone would be this warm, attentive, kind audience. And the juxtaposition was so profound that I think [it] really helped us survive that month.”
Moore and Riley weren’t even sure a fifth LP was in their future. Yours Conditionally felt like a logical resting place, Moore says, but instead of calling time out, the pair pushed forward. They returned to the sea for a third time—following a post-college sailing excursion down the East Coast to write their 2011 debut Cape Dory and a salty sequel in the Sea of Cortez for Yours Conditionally—to write Swimmer. They found themselves again in the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez, for another extended, off-the-grid writing retreat.
“We love the way it feels living on the boat,” Moore says. “It’s so romantic, and it’s very idyllic. I love it immensely. I feel like I can’t trust my judgment or my taste unless I’m almost completely outside of culture, so we go to huge extremes in order to create that environment. And on the boat, it just so happens that it’s off the grid, so there’s no cell service, there’s no internet. So I can’t have a moment of weakness and dive back into it.”
Moore’s and Riley’s “taste” can easily be described as something like “retro.” Throughout their five albums’ release cycles, Moore has continuously sported her bodacious natural curls, crooned lines that would fit right in on a ’60s girl-group record and starred (alongside Girls’ Zosia Mamet) in Tennis’ own groovy infomercial. Longtime Tennis art director Luca Venter has helped solidify the band’s aesthetics, which remain a wash of ’70s-indebted glam and oceanside vibes.
Venter also had a hand in the videos and album artwork of Swimmer, which features more piano and synth than many of Tennis’ previous releases. But Moore’s voice, which she describes as a “period voice” (“I just sound more at home in something that’s sort of borrowing from the ’60s and ’70s,” she says), remains the silvery, soprano throughline that connects each album to the next. She shines on Swimmer single “Need Your Love,” which borrows some free-jazz drum stylings from A Seat at the Table. But that’s not even the most dynamic arrangement on the album: Moore says the luscious, romantic (two words you’ll often find ascribed to Tennis’ music) “Runner” was “a big step forward in our songwriting,” a “crowning achievement” and “the most challenging technical song that we’ve written.” For a band who started touring as a three-piece, this layered pop song with hooks around every corner feels like a turning point in their career. It’s still inherently indie-pop, but “Runner” soars beyond typical synth-pop.
Maybe you’d expect solemnity on an album by a couple who experienced so much horror in their personal lives in such a short amount of time, but Swimmer is anything but somber. These songs are, like so much of their catalogue, beachy and bouncy. Even the recount of Moore’s hospitalization, “Echoes,” which finds her “33 and on a gurney,” sounds nearly tropical. It’s a purposeful juxtaposition.
“Even when I am spending some time writing about a very difficult event in my life, it would just not be natural or instinctive to me to frame it in some desolate, hopeless way,” Moore says. “I really like the balance of opposites, like ugliness with beauty. I like to make a beautiful thing a little bit ugly, or I like to take painful subject matter and put it in like something that feels like an extremely mood-lifting upbeat song.”
Maybe that relentless optimism in the face of adversity is just a testament to the harbor that is Riley’s and Moore’s marriage—or their marital practices, which, of course, occasionally find them much farther out at sea. Safety found in matrimony is also the subject of album closer “Matrimony II,” in which Moore sings, “I could never find something better / I even changed my name / By my side in every kind of weather / I’ll never be the same.” As our critic Clare Martin pointed out, that’s “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” in action.
If music was no longer a sustainable operation (Riley threatened to quit and become an accountant after Moore’s health scare, per the Moore-penned liner notes), Moore says she would immediately start waiting tables and/or go back to graduate school for philosophy (her plan long before Patrick “derailed all of my life in the most pleasant way possible”), and Riley would return to bartending. But something—their unmatched resilience, maybe?—tells me Alaina and Patrick won’t return to the service industry any time soon. They embark on another nationwide tour this week. And so the tide goes out again.