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Meet Tennis, an indie-rock daydream.
The band members are young and adorable. They wear cool clothes that complement their retro pop sound. They are swooned over by bloggers, and their back story is a little too good to be true (but by all accounts, is).
Tennis, the husband-and-wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, went from playing living rooms in Denver to touring nationally in less than six months. Now, as they prepare to release their debut full-length album in January, the pair wonders whether the tailwinds that carried their surf sound forward this past year will remain once winter comes.
It’s a valid concern, seeing as the band’s lightning-fast rise was anything but conventional by major record label standards. Tennis is making it the other way, the “independent” way. For the duo, it’s not about building a local following, hoping label scouts will notice, then letting industry executives carefully manage their careers. Not yet, at least.
It’s about enchanting the blogosphere, releasing a few DIY singles, skipping the hometown scene, signing with a small label and learning it as they go.
It’s the new formula for pop success, and it is very much of the moment.
Start with the name: It’s short and sweet with no variable meaning. It glides off the tongue and conjures an image of preppiness, which is hip right now.
Then there’s the sound — a minimalist sound that recalls a simpler era, built on breezy female vocals, warm, reverberated guitar tones, catchy hooks and tap-tap beats.
2010 will likely be remembered as the year that indie rock decided it was OK to smile again. And make no mistake, Tennis is all about fun. Along with other lo-fi, surf-rock bands like Best Coast, Harlem and Dum Dum Girls, Tennis has crested the sandy shores of indie-pop stardom.
With all of that on their side, they are one good ride away from making the big time, of going from a band with a minor hit and blog buzz to that band on the Apple commercial whose song you hum throughout the workday.
And they know the odds are against them.
A small band on a big stage
It’s a Friday afternoon in Washington, D.C., in early December. Patrick Riley speaks softly between intermittent dry coughs. Stress simmers atop his two-day head cold. Tennis is the opening act for a show that starts in just three hours. Turns out, the assigned set is longer than expected, and suddenly they are one song short.
As his band quickly gathers to finish a new tune for this crucial gig at the 9:30 Club — a 1,200-capacity venue of national acclaim — they can’t help but be distracted by the headliners blaring in the main room downstairs.
Those headliners, the 10-year-old major-label-turned-indie success story named the Walkmen, are playfully sound checking with the “Rocky” theme song; a sign of a veteran act in its comfort zone.
Its five members are getting older, married and, in some cases, losing hair. One of them, keys player Peter Bauer, tells the large room of crew members and club staffers that he’s looking for a babysitter tonight.
Meanwhile, Tennis is frantic. Recently signed to the prominent yet independent Fat Possum Records (home to the Walkmen, the Black Keys and Lissie, to name a few), the band was tapped to open both this and the preceding night’s show in New York. It’s the type of break that road-dogging bands would sacrifice an appendage for.
Riley, Moore and touring drummer James Barone have roughly 40 shows (total!) under their belt and are fully aware of the gravity of this night.
“They’re like the best band, ever,” Moore says of the Walkmen. “You can’t help but feel more pressure when opening for them.”
Not so glamorous
Five days earlier, Tennis arrived in New York City in a dull, gray Chevy Astro. They had driven 1,800 miles from Denver for a week of media appearances and performances before embarking on a two-week tour through the Northeast. On Tuesday afternoon they played a brief set in Rolling Stone’s offices for an upcoming online feature. Wednesday night saw a sold-out headlining show at the intimate Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side. A writer and photographer from the taste-making Brooklyn Vegan music blog were in that audience, as were label representatives from Fat Possum.
Floating by the bar was Daniel Gill, the band’s recently hired publicist, who had flown in from L.A. to be there as the week unfolded. Gill, an entrepreneur in indie-rock publicity who owns and operates Force Field PR, was the architect behind this week of careful exposure, though the band ultimately gave its yea or nay for each happening.
“We want to get a lot of press, but we also want to be picky,” Gill said, adding that for every tour date, he gets at least six media requests to talk to Tennis, more in a major market like New York.
Gill was hip to the band back in July, before it signed to Fat Possum, back when two 7-inch singles on two tiny labels (Underwater Peoples and Fire Talk) were its only merchandise to sell.
“The band was too much of a workload for Underwater Peoples,” Gill said. “Too many people were asking for their music.” He works with a handful of other artists on the Fat Possum roster and picked up Tennis as his client almost immediately after its deal was put to paper in early September.
In an era where bloggers have replaced the need for A&R scouts and in-house publicity, countless labels reach out to self-starters like Gill to promote a band on a month-to-month basis. With the consensus that the indie-rock landscape has reached a point of saturation, it’s unspoken that a label’s aspirations for new bands are more short-term than long-term.
As Tennis leaves the Mercury Lounge stage, a sweat-drenched Riley puts down his guitar and muscles through the crowd to get behind the merch table and engage fans. Much to Fat Possum and Gill’s dismay, Tennis has chosen to hit the road without a tour manager, roadies or even a person to sell its kitschy sleeveless shirts and beer koozies. They do it all themselves.
“There’s a lot of hands in the pot right now,” Riley says as he separates small cash denominations.
Every dollar the band makes goes out to cover the cost of motels, food, gas and the label’s cut to cover promotion, marketing, album pressings and Gill’s paycheck.
“We pay for everything ourselves,” Moore says. She’s exasperated. “Fat Possum offered tour support, but they would’ve had to recoup that.”
So the glamorous national rock tour becomes an exercise in minimalism: Barone uses no case for his vintage Ludwig bass drum, and the three tote but a gym bag’s worth of clothing. Backstage at the massive Terminal 5 venue the following night (where they open for the Walkmen), Riley is excited to take a free case of bottled water for the van.
The next morning, the baggy-eyed trio waits rigidly in the green room of the Sirius XM headquarters on the 37th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. They’re here to record a performance and interview segment for Sirius XMU, the indie-rock arm of the satellite radio behemoth that began spinning the band’s song “Marathon” this past summer. Riley complains that his stomach is bothering him. Moore and Barone fiddle with their cellphones as framed images of Kanye West, John Mayer and Miley Cyrus glare down from above.
While the band records three songs inside the glass-walled studio (a comic resemblance to a fishbowl), Gill schmoozes with Jake Fogelnest, the Sirius DJ and former VH1/MTV personality who is preparing to host the group on his program.
When the interview begins, Fogelnest proceeds with the inevitable “sailing question.” It’s a question — or series of questions — that Moore and Riley have answered dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the past six months. It’s an integral part of their overnight success, and, somehow, they find a way to sound excited about it with each subsequent rehashing to starry-eyed journalists coast to coast.
The story, in its most basic form, involves Riley and Moore leaving landlocked Colorado for a sailing voyage around the Atlantic Ocean for the better part of 2009.
While the young married couple now live by extremely modest means, Riley got hooked on the elite pastime of sailing during a trip to Southern California at age 12. This first trip, and six years of saving for another upon his college graduation, is what blew Tennis on a course that hardly anyone expected. No cellphones, little money, an abundance of books and young love were the only things aboard their rickety vessel, Cape Dory.
They had hoped to make it two years, but reality had other plans and they returned to Denver after eight months at sea. Restless and unable to effectively communicate their memories to friends and family, they began writing a collection of summery, sweet, jangly tunes, that — hard as it is to wrap your head around — were precisely in line with indie-rock’s next big sonic craze.
And then the current took over.
These early lo-fi demos were passed around the Web, eventually landing in the inbox of Chris Cantalini, founder and editor of Gorilla vs. Bear, a popular Dallas-based music blog.
“My first impression was that their songs were extremely sincere and sweet, and at the same time, immediate and insanely catchy,” said Cantalini. “Learning about the back story later only made the songs more endearing and genuine, in a way.”
Since first posting “Marathon” to his site in early June, Cantalini has plugged Tennis a baffling 19 times in one form or another. But it’s not just one notable fan. Tennis has received extensive written coverage, MP3 shares and video postings from some of the blogosphere’s heaviest hitters: Pitchfork, Daytrotter, Stereogum and, most recently, a precious performance/ interview clip on San Francisco’s Yours Truly.
For better or worse, Tennis got to this point because it is a “blog band.” The phrase rarely carries a positive connotation, and more often than not, it bodes for a limited shelf life. Tennis readily confronts this fact and grapples with it.
Moore dislikes the hype, “but I’m grateful for it,” she says before sound check at Terminal 5. “Suddenly, we had to go from thinking about never playing outside of houses and garages to playing venues like this.”
She, her husband and Barone sit on yet another couch in yet another green room. Barone’s gaze is locked on their shared MacBook computer; he’s fooling with the HTML code to a post a video to the band’s MySpace profile. Earlier, he was posting tour dates to its Facebook page.
Despite having engineered and played drums on the album, as well as on tour, Barone’s place in the group remains fuzzy. This is because Moore and Riley inked their contract with Fat Possum before he was officially in the picture.
Still, they function effortlessly as a trio. A seasoned drummer and respected sound guy in the Denver music scene, Barone is quick to map out set lists, offer technical advice and sell merch alongside the husband and wife who appear in the press photos and field most — if not all — of the interview questions. Both Riley and Moore are vocally adamant about keeping Barone onboard as an indefinite member. “I’m definitely committed to what we have planned for the year,” Barone says later. He doesn’t elaborate.
If Internet exposure has gotten the band to this point, it will also be the potential root cause of its failure. Already a backlash has started against Tennis, with bloggers and self-appointed critics claiming it is nothing but an of-the-moment buzz band. Despite an earlier claim that they rarely pay attention to press clippings, both Riley and Moore are easily riled when the idea of backlash comes into the conversation.
“Here’s this band with too much hype, and here’s their song on our website!” says Riley, who understands that everybody exploits everybody for page views. Before pursuing Tennis full time, Riley gigged in other Denver bands and spent time studying the ins and outs of the industry from a business perspective. He admits that he didn’t necessarily see it as a viable career path and is still not completely sold.
“But we’re young,” he says. “This is our only shot.”
Much of the negativity toward Tennis traces back to, oddly, Denver.
Riley and Moore grew up here. Went to school here. They even met during a philosophy course (their shared major) at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I was initially attracted to him (Patrick) because he was so different from what I was used to,” Moore says, smittenly.
The band’s name comes from her ribbing of Riley, who was a standout tennis player as a teenager.
“I came from a neighborhood where all anybody ever played was basketball,” she said.
But they never really put their time in here, musically speaking.
Reviews of the band’s shows at the Larimer Lounge, Hi-Dive and Bluebird Theater have ranged from fair to bad, while critics in other cities simply can’t get enough of the light, contemporary sound.
“Our shows in Denver don’t feel good,” says Moore. “I hate our shows in Denver. We’ve had way more negativity in Denver than anywhere else.” Riley is quick to jump in, suggesting that the hometown hatred is on account of the fact that they started touring early as opposed to cutting their teeth with local bands in local venues. Moore hints that the band might pack up and move to New York or San Francisco as early as this summer.
For as genuine and honest as its ideologies seem, the band’s ultimate goal is unclear. Its music is not something you one day expect to hear at Madison Square Garden, or on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” (like another Denver success story, the Fray).
“I can’t really get a read on their goals,” Gill says.”These days, the things that really matter (for success) are iPod ads or car commercials.”
He catches himself.
“Not specifically for Tennis, but for a band operating in a non-mainstream setting . . . I think it’s on their wish list.”
Locals like the Fray, 3OH!3 and OneRepublic have gone the mainstream route with great success, though their hometown perception and appreciation vary.
Another rising Denver band, the Rouge, recently migrated from a shared ramshackle house off of South Broadway to Nashville after signing with Atlantic Records. Much like with Tennis, friends of the Rouge have noted that the guys never quite felt part of the Denver scene.
Has the Denver music family become somewhat of an insular fraternity? Perhaps.
“I’m not sure Denver realizes what a successful and exciting band Tennis is and how lucky we are to have a band like that in our community,” said Ben DeSoto, talent buyer for the South Broadway rock club the Hi-Dive. DeSoto booked Tennis as an opener in September and will have the band as a headliner in February.
The long road to get there
After a modest half-hour set to a half-empty Terminal 5 on the edge of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, the trio stayed the night at a friend’s house in New Jersey before making the long drive down the I-95 corridor to D.C. The songs did not translate all that well to the large space (at a capacity of 3,000, the largest it’s played), as they did the night before in the cavernous Mercury Lounge.
After six months of sunshine Tennis now wades carefully through rocky seas. Just over one month away from the release of its debut album, it seems that the music community, both local and digital, is waiting with skepticism. “Cape Dory,” recorded on a small budget at Denver’s Notably Fine Audio, is the band’s thesis that the members must defend in front of a review board.
Another “blog band,” Vampire Weekend, was met with harsh criticism upon the release of this year’s “Contra,” often hailed as an overproduced, radio-friendly album that failed to capture the Afro-pop magic of its self-titled debut.
Who knows whether the public will continue swooning over Tennis’ summer tunes in the dead of winter.
“(Blogs) take away the chance for us to define ourselves,” says Riley upstairs at the 9:30 Club, shortly before the final show with the Walkmen. He and Barone are throwing together a pile of laundry while Moore sorts through her sparse wardrobe options for that night. “There’s dressing rooms upstairs, Alaina,” Riley politely tells his wife when she chooses a blouse in the roomful of guys.
Riley’s posture and intensity while on stage are visual evidence of the weight he carries. Moore explains that she’s a classically trained pianist and that learning to play modern styles — particularly to hold bass lines on her keys while singing vocals — is still a struggle. Thus, Riley has no room to falter. He is both the lead and rhythm instrumentalist of this band, whether he’s under the lights or making change for T-shirt purchases.
Some elements of Tennis are clearly calculated, like the Wilson tennis bag the members use to carry equipment. Others seem more genuine, like the big, bulky, uncool parka that Moore wears when she’s cold (which is often).
There’s also an element of raw, unadulterated luck.
This past summer, while driving his mother’s Subaru on an errand, the Walkmen’s Peter Bauer heard Tennis on the car’s satellite radio. Bauer dropped his managers a note telling them to keep the band in the back of their mind. This past fall, Tennis was called to open shows for the Walkmen in Boulder and Omaha. Bauer, whose band opened for the likes of Incubus, Kings of Leon and Cake before reaching its own headliner status, sympathizes with the pressures that come with being first on the bill.
“When I’m in the opening act . . . it’s get the hell out of there as fast as possible,” said Bauer.
These days, he has taken on somewhat of a mentor role for Tennis, whether he’s aware of it or not. So much of what Riley strives for is the dapper Walkmen aesthetic. It’s evident in his dress (preppy), his guitar tone (clean, vintage), his hair (neatly combed), all the way down to the same gold microphone in front of his Fender amplifier.
“Patrick looks up to those guys a lot,” noted Gill one day prior.
“Lisbon,” the Walkmen’s fifth studio album of original material, is an effective foray into minimalism and retro-rock that feels more timeless than its younger contemporaries. Both Riley and Moore are quick to call it their favorite album of the year.
Timelessness is the quality that Tennis chases most, though a timeless sound is extremely timely at this moment.
Later that night, 1,800 miles from home, in a sold-out venue with wide-eyed audience attention and its favorite band watching from the wings, Tennis, as an opener, is the recipient of song requests. And the drunken guy who’s hollering in the front row is calling out Tennis’ songs.
“We’re going to play all of those!” Moore assures the fan, excitedly.
And they do, plus one more. Because, after six months, that’s all they’ve got now.