Tennis closes fall tour at Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Saturday, Nov. 8, 9:30 p.m.
Cost: $15 advance; $18 day-of
Tickets and more info: http://www.bellyupaspen.com
Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore had a story to tell when they returned from a seven-month sailing trip down the Eastern seaboard, but they didn’t know how to tell it. The Denver couple turned to music to express the experience, though neither was a musician (neither had sailing skills before they set out, either).
The result was the band Tennis, and its debut album, 2011’s “Cape Dory,” filled with songs inspired by their time on the sea. The record’s winning take on retro pop unexpectedly earned the band a national following and critical acclaim. The seafaring origin story proved irresistible for the press, as the songs caught on with listeners.
“We could not express it,” Moore said during a recent tour break in Denver. “It was like trying to describe God or something. It was frustrating when people would say, ‘Oh, how was the last year of your life?’ and I didn’t know where to start. So we wrote songs about it, because it was an ineffable thing and such a unique experience that no one could understand. Then, suddenly, people were connecting.”
The couple, now married, met in a philosophy class at the University of Colorado Denver, from which they graduated in 2008. They released their third album, “Ritual in Repeat” in September. They finish up their national fall tour on Saturday with a show at Belly Up.
Four years removed from the trip, one might wonder whether Riley and Moore want to get out of the shadow of the sailing journey that birthed the band and became the dominant narrative about them.
“I’ll never want to get away from that story, because that sailing trip was so significant, so monumental in our lives,” Moore said. “I don’t mind if the story lingers with us for our entire career and our whole lives. … It’s something that still feels significant about it, which is why people have latched onto it.”
The new album is a creative leap forward for the duo. It has a richer sound, with more dynamic writing and a confidence in Moore’s voice that balances out the sweetness of their often breezy indie-pop compositions. “Never Work for Free” has an ’80s pop feel to it, with Moore’s vocals reminiscent of early Madonna, set against a brooding synth backdrop. “I’m Calling” has a funk touch. Since the surprise success of “Cape Dory,” they’ve felt they need to push themselves as musicians and songwriters.
“(‘Cape Dory’) was naïve and heartfelt and uncontrived, but years later, after writing a lot, we don’t have the luxury of complete ignorance in what we’re doing,” Moore said.
The band brought in Patrick Carney, of the Black Keys, to produce their second album, 2012’s “Young & Old.” Jim Eno, the drummer for Spoon, produced the new album, and helped Moore and Riley to grow musically.
“Being a drummer and producer and engineer, he was the most intuitive in the studio, which allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t normally do — taking some chances, putting some more emotion into my takes,” she added.
Their songs tend toward a wall-of-sound production style, but more recently, Moore has focused on writing songs that aren’t necessarily dependent on an intricate soundscape to connect with listeners.
“Now I want to write songs that can translate no matter what the production value is,” she said. “The production back then (on ‘Cape Dory’), was almost the point. We’d write all these very simple tunes and then bury them in reverb and analog distortion and it would be beautiful and (it would be) what we wanted. But when we’d remove all that, I’d feel sometimes like the song was lacking.”
The litmus test for new Tennis songs is in whether Moore and Riley can play them without effects on their instruments or on her voice, and still make them work.
The last two months of touring and playing the new material has been a relief for Tennis, which brings a full band when they play live.
“We’ve wanted to play these songs since we wrote them, but we don’t want to bombard people with all songs they haven’t heard before,” she said. “So we’ve wanted to wait. Even now, we don’t want to play the whole record, because quite a lot of people haven’t had a chance to get to know it yet.”
Closing the tour with homecoming shows in Denver and here Aspen is a significant career moment for the band, Moore said.
“I think it’s going to be amazing — Belly Up is iconic for anyone who’s grown up in Denver,” Moore said of the vaunted nine-year old club.
Local audiences have previously gotten a taste of Tennis at two high-profile opening gigs at Belly Up — playing on the bill with The Shins and The National.
But the band sort of took a side door onto the national music scene, mostly bypassing the Colorado music scene on their way up. They hadn’t played much when they started releasing music, and garnering buzz on music blogs and by word of mouth nationally.
“We kind of felt like we were drifting out in outer space,” Moore explained. “We didn’t have a lot of help and we didn’t know anyone. We had no relationship with any bands in Denver because we weren’t ever in bands.”
It’s been just in the past year or two, Moore said, that they’ve gotten to know musicians in Denver and around Colorado, and put down musical roots here.
From this point, Moore said, they aren’t aiming for pop stardom much beyond the level Tennis has already reached. They’ve been able to support themselves playing music for four years now, and if they can keep that going without needing second jobs, Moore said, they’re happy. The bands they look to as models are artists like The Walkmen and Yo La Tengo — bands with devoted followings and long careers free of the trappings of rock stardom (touring with the Australian hitmakers Fun, Moore said, gave them a glimpse at a level of commercial success they’re not interested in).
“The bands we want to be like aren’t going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, they’re not going to win VMAs,” she said. “My hope would be to make our mark somewhere in the underground, alternative, independent music.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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