Outside Lands 2012: Interview with Alaina Moore of Tennis

Tennis band
Tennis/Courtesy

On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke with Alaina Moore of the band Tennis. Originally from Denver, Moore and her husband Patrick Riley started the band after they met each other at college. Now, with two albums (Cape Dory and Young & Old) out, the band will be playing San Francisco’s annual Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival this Friday.

The Daily Californian: Are you excited for Outside Lands?

Alaina Moore: I am, I’m really excited. It’s a festival that we all wanted to play for a while and we’re really happy to be able to do it this year.

DC: How do you like the bay area?
AM: We love San Francisco. We love California in general. We always look forward to traveling the west coast, but San Francisco is one of our favorite cities.
DC: Yeah, it’s amazing. This is actually going to be my first time at Outside Lands as well. I love going to Golden Gate Park though and I think that it’s a perfect setting for a festival. I think its going to be great.
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely, and we’re so lucky we actually have some time to watch some bands so its going to be really fun.
DC: I was actually going to ask you, do you have anything in particular that you’re looking forward to?
AM: Yeah well we’re actually gonna stay an extra day so we can watch Grandaddy. And kind of drive through the night, because the next night we have a show in LA — the following day. But we’re going to be irresponsible and stick around so we don’t miss it.
DC: Yeah. I’m looking forward to it, I’m going to all three days. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Neil Young the night you guys play. I’ve really looked up to him.
AM: Oh my gosh, yeah thats going to be amazing. Actually I’m really excited to see Alabama Shakes.
DC: Alabama Shakes! They sound great.
AM: I know I really wanted to see them play [on] their tour with Neil Young right now. They played Red Rocks back in Colorado and we were on tour when it happened, but I would have loved to see that show actually.
DC: Yeah, I love the singer for Alabama Shakes, she has such a soulful voice. It’s awesome.
AM: If I could trade voices with someone it would be her or somebody like her. Like, down in my heart I wish I just had a powerful black woman’s voice and I obviously have the exact — I have like a frail, white girl’s voice instead, but I can dream.
DC: But I do have to say that I think for the music that you guys make with Tennis, I think your voice fits the music perfectly.
AM: Thanks, I appreciate it.
DC: We’ll talk more about the music. [There’s] one other question I wanted to ask you, just in regards to other bands. What has been [your] main summer jam? What song have you really been listening to this summer and really enjoying?
AM: Actually my favorite record right now is Frank Ocean’s record, Channel Orange. I can’t get enough of it. I’ve been listening to that a lot this week. I also really love the Dirty Projectors’ new album [that just] came out.
DC: Swing Lo Magellan.
AM: I’ve been very, very into that. It’s actually really nice to have divergent new music to be excited about. It’s really refreshing to hear something so different from your own music that you make. It’s really a nice change of pace.
DC: Yeah definitely. So since I’m still in college, this definitely interests me, but I know you and Patrick met in college, is that right?
AM: Yeah we did. We met my senior year of college, we were both philosophy majors. We actually both transferred from separate schools, where we hadn’t finished studying music. And we both had the same personal revelation, but separately, that we wanted to study philosophy instead and changed to the same school and ended up in the same program and met then.
DC: Wow, sounds like fate.
AM: Yeah I — I mean, I don’t know if I believe in that, but it really seemed like fate.
DC: Yeah, that’s probably as close as you can get to it.
AM: Definitely. And we were definitely meant to meet, especially when you add to the fact that he registered for the class where he met me by mistake because he’s a little bit dyslexic and he misread the course schedule. And then he met me the first day of class. So it definitely feels like the universe was setting everything up for us to meet.
DC: That’s awesome. So, did you both get philosophy degrees then?
AM: Yeah we did. He actually double majored with English and philosophy. But by then I’d been in college for almost six years with like a billion superfluous credits because I changed my major so many times, so I just made it by with philosophy. My professors were starting to tease me by saying, “Don’t let graduation stand in the way of your education, stay forever!”
DC: Yeah sometimes it’s tempting because there’s a bubble school can create that’s fun to operate in.
AM: Yeah. Have you ever seen the movie “Kicking and Screaming”?
DC: I have not.
AM: Not the Will Ferrel movie, but oh my gosh, I’m blanking on the director right now…
DC: I’ve heard a lot about it.
AM: Noah Baumbach! It’s [such a] good movie, but there’s a character in there who’s like a career college student who’s been in college for like 15 years and has 6 bachelor’s degrees. I feel like that almost could have been me, haha.
DC: Growing up, did you ever imagine you’d be living off of making music?
AM: No, I mean I always loved music. And I always loved to make music, but I was never exceptionally good at it to be completely honest. But I don’t know, I really, really feel like I stumbled into this, so I feel fortunate to be able to lead a creative life as an adult, because I never would have seen this coming.
DC: It must feel pretty surreal at times, I bet.
AM: Yeah it does and I often feel out of my element. You meet so many fans who are so talented and so successful, and they’ve been doing it for so long, and they’ve devoted their whole lives to making music, and they have been in 20 bands before this one, and side projects, and they play every instrument … And I don’t. My story is so different from that, but it’s still just really rewarding to be a part of this world and culture.
DC: Let’s talk about the music briefly. I have to say your album, Young & Old, I’ve had it on repeat a lot since it came out. I remember when the “Origins” single came out I was playing it quite a lot. I love the way it sounds.
AM: Thank you.
DC: It’s got a great — I don’t know, I want to say it has a very throwback feel to it, but I think you guys definitely put your own spin on it and made it really original, and I think there’s a lot to say for that.
AM: Thank you, I appreciate that. We love vintage sensibility with music and visually with clothing and style and everything, but we never want to be so throwback that we’re just duplicating something that’s already been done, because we won’t be contributing to anything. We’ll just be making poor revisions of things that already exist. So we hope that it still sounds original.
DC: It does, yeah. What is the song writing process like for you guys? Is it usually pretty collaborative, or is it just “Hey I wrote a song, we’re doing it this way” or how is it?
AM: It really just depends from song to song. Some songs are so collaborative, we really write from beginning to end together, and then other songs — more rarely — one of us will write almost the entire thing independently from the other one and show it to them later. And we always end up finishing it together, because I don’t play guitar very well and he doesn’t sing or write any of the lyrics. It just depends, every band is different.
DC: Yeah. I remember you saying that..you know, there’s the whole story where you and Patrick were on the sailboat for 8 months and it inspired to write Cape Dory. And I know you said you were influenced by the Shirelles during that time and I can definitely hear that — the ’50s and ’60s girl group vibe on tracks like “Marathon” or “My Better Self.” I think the songs have a particularly warm, analog quality, you could say. Was that a conscious decision to have it sound like that, or did it just come about?
AM: Yeah that was definitely a conscious decision. That;s part of what we love most about 50s and 60s music is the piano, tone and quality, that warmth, that sincerity. We worked very very hard to create that when we record music –it’s definitely what we love most about it.
DC: Yeah. So I know that Patrick Carney of the Black Keys worked as the producer. How did you guys hook up with him. Had he expressed interest, or did you just give him a call and ask him to come on board, or how was that?
AM: Well we were fortunate enough to be introduced by mutual friends at Fat Possum through email and we just very innocently were like, “Hey, you want to produce our next album?” and we had no idea if he would even respond. He said that he was really interested in how our band might evolve and he wanted to be a part of that. It was really great because we wanted someone who was an audio engineer, had experience crafting songs, but also knew what it felt like to be a songrwriter and feel really possessive about what we’re doing. And I mean, I feel like every time you add another person into a creative process, things inevitably get a little more complex and sometimes more difficult to maneuver. Sometimes I think it’s so hard to just go write songs. But Patrick and I, even though we couldn’t have any of the songs we wrote without the other person, but sometimes it is so hard to write with somebody. So we felt like Patrick Carney was just a good fit insofar as being able to work with us, add some qualities that we felt like we were missing. We wanted more of a [458] edge and before that, we felt like we could only achieve that through a very lo-fi recording quality that would automatically make it grittier. But we didn’t want to keep making lo-fi sounding music, we just wanted it to be inherent in the songwriting, that edginess. And we felt like he could help with that, and he did.
DC: Yeah I was going to ask how much input Patrick Carney had on the creative process. Would you say the primary thing was adding kind of an ominous undercurrent, you could say, to the songs without making them lo-fi?
AM: Well all of the songs were essentially written when we went into the studio with him, so his biggest role was helping us use sound and he helped a lot with writing drum beats. And what he would really do is play the song and he would be like, “That’s all perfect except for the chord progression of the piano on the chorus of this.” But he wouldn’t write anything. He would be like “Why don’t you revisit that?” And then I would just go write something. And so, it would just be his vision of the song that would kind of move us in a direction, but he was really good about never writing anything technically, which I appreciated because I really didn’t want anyone else to have written our record other than Patrick and I.
DC: Was he as, I guess, shall we say, “blunt” with you guys as he is in interviews?
AM: Yeah, absolutely! That’s just completely who he is and it’s awesome. It was a little … I mean it wasn’t really off-putting because I feel comfortable around that type of personality But it was hard to have the mix of being a little starstruck around him when we first were meeting with the combination of his frankness — it was kind of weird at first. But I actually feel like it made it, in a weird way, easier to get to know him. He was really down to business, very black & white about things, and honestly I am too, so it worked really well.
DC: That’s awesome to hear. So what can we expect from you guys in the near future?
AM: You know, we are on the cusp of figuring that out. I know that we really want to write again. We’re very very anxious to write and I feel like we’re on the cusp of evolving in some way. I feel like some changes are in store for us as a band. We’re kind of weighing our options right now and we’re not really sure where we’ll end up. But we have another string of dates and we’ll be done touring for the year in October and that’s when we’re kind of going to buckle down and see what the future holds.
DC: So I know that after your first album, you had said that you were going to take a little hiatus, but that didn’t end up happening. You went straight into writing and recording Young & Old. Do you think you’ll take that hiatus now or go straight into a new album?
AM: We’ll go straight into writing and recording again. I didn’t understand this at first, but I’ve met a lot of other bands who say they can’t stop. You get this momentum. When you do a break for yourself, or a vacation, or whatever, you don’t even know what to do. And I feel like people nowadays don’t take that time — that hiatus — unless they need it because they’re having a mental breakdown or something. But we’re good and we’re focused and we just don’t want to lose this momentum. We want to see where it takes us.