Sailing has been part of Tennis’ story from the band’s beginning a decade ago. Vocalist/keyboardist Alaina Moore and her husband, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Riley, live together on a boat, and each of their albums has been inspired by an expedition. It was surprising, then, to hear Moore describe the ocean as an “abstract dread” in notes accompanying Tennis’ fifth album, Swimmer, and admit that she can’t actually swim. Why would she and Riley build an entire life around the body of water she also terms an “obliterating void”?
The ocean was always chief among them, but Tennis has sung into many voids — love, fear, death — and Swimmer is no exception. The songs, as ever, are indie pop with a sparkle that belies a turbulent emotional core. The couple began writing the record in the Sea of Cortez, after scattering the ashes of Riley’s father and after Moore’s own health scare nearly dissolved the band. It’s their darkest and their most exquisite record yet.
On March 10, just before the COVID-19 pandemic halted Tennis’ then-upcoming tour, along with countless others, Moore talked about overcoming the grief and fear that preceded Swimmer, and about learning to live adjacent to oblivion.
When I first wrote these questions, they were about the idea of overcoming a difficult time in your life, an “on the other side” framing. But it seems you’re on the precipice of plunging into yet another fearsome situation. How are you feeling going into the tour? [Ed. note: At press time the band has cancelled a handful of dates, primarily on the West Coast, and plans to resume touring on April 10 in Denver.]
Normally I would just be excited, and I still am, and the tour’s pretty much all sold out and we really can’t wait to play those shows. But we’re watching the news [about COVID-19], along with everyone else.
Swimmer was written processing this very difficult experience, most of which occurred on tour [where] I did get influenza and I had to be hospitalized [in 2018]. And then Pat’s dad died. So it is very, very weird that we’re about to begin what should really be another joyful experience — and I think it’s still going to be that in a lot of ways — but I think now everyone’s in a kind of holding pattern and trying to be wise, listen and pay attention and do what’s safe.
The idea of the precipice seems to recur in your discography. In the run up to this album, you wrote about the fact that you’d never learned to swim. Of course, a big part of your story is the sailing expeditions as a place of inspiration. How can you stand to live on the edge of what you call an “obliterating void”?
When I first met Patrick, [I] found out he had been planning for this trip and saving up for it since he was like 12 years old — it was like his childhood dream. I was intrigued in the sense of it being something that was so outside of my world it was almost unfathomable. So it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t know how to swim. I think it made me become a better sailor, because I was so committed to taking good care of the boat and practicing good seamanship and being safe. Because sinking the ship and swimming away was never an option for me [laughs]. And sailing reminds me of what is important in my life and helps me keep a zoomed-out perspective that keeps everything more balanced. It’s the thing that reminds me that I could be happy living a really simple life.
You’ve talked before about how the structure of boat life forces you to overcome fear.
I have anxiety, and in my normal life it’s always simmering at this low level, and obviously can be triggered situationally. It’s this amorphous thing that’s aimed at nothing, [but] when I go sailing, the structure and the discipline of the day, coupled with the immediate dangers, are so immediate that all of my ambient anxiety gets focused in a very specific and real way. It’s almost like a release. Things like that actually seem to eliminate the anxiety that I live with day-to-day.
In “How to Forgive,” you talk about forgiveness as an “act of surrender,” and then on the opposite end, there’s the impulse to “make ’em all suffer.” That’s another motif that recurs in your discography: surrender.
I haven’t really been meditating because I’m still baffled by the experience [laughs], but conceptually I’m really interested in it. I was reading about how, after the moment of anger, whatever experience ignited that feeling within you, from that moment on you’re reliving it every time you have the memory. You are just perpetuating that experience, and you’re only hurting yourself. And I wrote “How to Forgive” as the companion song to “Need Your Love,” which was my angry song with all my inner self-talk of wanting to punish them, wanting them to see how they wronged me. ... And “How to Forgive” is like, “OK, I’m accomplishing nothing. I’m recreating my anger, and all I have to do is stop doing that and then my anger will go away, and that’s as close to forgiveness as I can even fathom.” But just releasing everyone from that emotion is like the path to freedom for me.
“Need Your Love” has that tempo slowdown in the chorus, and that’s mirrored by the lyrics, which are acidic in the verses and tender in the chorus.
I wanted the song to parallel my own experience of anger, where I pendulum swing to suddenly caving because the emotion is exhausting and I just want to stop feeling it, or I remember something I loved about the person. I wanted the song to kind of tumble around emotionally the way that I do, where you get heated and then you cool down and then you get mad again, and then it tapers off.
What has playing the songs been like? Is it a release, or like reliving that time of grief?
When I’m really in the throes of a painful experience, I can’t write about it right then. I need more distance between that moment and then writing, so writing this record felt more like archival work; the emotions had mostly passed by then. So, it’s not so much of a catharsis as it is like an oral history. Playing the songs live feels really triumphant, kind of. It feels like a powerful way of revisiting something, but from the other side, where I’m in a really good place.
Can I ask about the cover art, by photographer Luca Venter? There’s so much energy in the image: Patrick’s pose, the encroaching shadows. It’s low-key violent, almost.
I’m really drawn to directors like David Lynch and even David Cronenberg, who have very restrained cinematography that feels violent, or [has] an underlying feeling of horror. It might be a really beautiful image, and even though nothing ever happens, it’s like a picture of dread. Even in our music, I want to write pop music but I want there to be something unsettling about it, and we work really hard to try and balance opposites. Like I want to make a beautiful thing a little bit ugly, or a very cloying sentiment a little bit horrific, or too intense.
Tennis is a band with such a strong narrative, a well-defined image. Is there part of that you wish you could shake off?
Sometimes I wish I could have avoided some of that, but I also think that the narrative is part of what allowed us to have the early success that we did. The only thing I sometimes think about is that a lot of people felt like it was a very carefully crafted, savvy press strategy, when in fact we had no publicist and no manager and no agent and no label. People wrote about what they wrote about, and as music writers read what other music writers were saying about us, this whole narrative solidified that was totally beyond us. It just really, truly happened on its own. I’m not going to begrudge the thing that may or may not be responsible for us being here today, but sometimes I wish that our music could stand a little more on its own.
I know the last tour was really difficult, particularly because of illness. Why was it important to go through with the tour?
Touring is our only income at all. So I had that pressure on me every day that I was sick. I would wake up and think, “If I cancel tonight’s show, I’ve lost us and all of our band ‘x’ amount of money. If I cancel tomorrow night’s show I’ve lost double that, and then triple that.” And it’s not just me and Pat, it’s our bandmates — they’re working musicians. It’s everyone’s money, and all of it was tied to my ability to just get onstage, and that was such a horrible burden. I did 10 days sick until I just fucking collapsed.