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The salty tales of Tennis 

This husband-and-wife duo sets a course for indie-pop sweetness.

Wednesday, Feb 2 2011

If you've heard of Tennis by now, you're probably familiar with the band's origin story, what with its mention in every iota of press the Denver indie-pop outfit has received. But for the sake of thoroughness, let's recap how Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore got here. In January 2009, the couple poured some six years of collective savings into the purchase of a small sailboat named The Swift Ranger. Riley and Moore then took off for an eight-month jaunt on the North Atlantic, traveling to, among other places, the Bahamas and up the East Coast. During that period, Moore wrote about their travels, while Riley sketched out a few songs on his guitar. After returning home, they combined their work into quick apartment recordings, posting the finished products on MySpace so their parents could hear them.

While drinking with friends one day, the couple mentioned that MySpace page. Said friends found it and enjoyed it enough to forward it to someone else, who in turn passed it on to a third party. Two weeks later, one of their songs was being evaluated on Pitchfork, indie rock's tastemaking hive-mind, prompting several labels to contact the band and ask if they wanted to release 7-inch records. Soon enough, Fat Possum — the Mississippi-based label that has housed Band of Horses, Paul Westerberg, and the Black Keys —came calling, and Riley and Moore quit their careers to pursue music full-time. Now married, the pair is joined in Tennis by drummer James Barone. "The Internet defined us before we even had a chance to define ourselves," says Riley, speaking shortly after the trio returned from a European tour. "All of that just snowballed and snowballed."

Their saga is like some kind of 21st-century fairy tale, and Tennis' work ably carries on a sense of wonder. Cape Dory, their debut released in January, is summery, genial indie-pop, rich with doe-eyed memories of their time on water. The record is titled after their vessel's manufacturer, and all of its 10 tracks chronicle moments and feelings from the couple's nautical adventure. Songs carry names like "Coconut Grove," "Bimini Bay," and "Long Boat Pass," and the majority of the lyrical content is about being smitten with your partner, as if your soulmate's affections hold the key to an unfamiliar, gorgeous world. "Seafarer/You and I belong together/Whoa-oh-oh," croons Moore with sweet femininity in "Seafarer." In "Water Birds," she goes, "When you kiss me, you really kiss me," sounding less like she's hinting at a quickie and more like she wants you to ask her to go steady. Riley, however, doesn't believe that knowing about the adventure and participants that led to Cape Dory is intrinsic to understanding it. "It was just supposed to be an album — a simple album that made you happy or want to go outside or something," he says.

In a past interview, Moore characterized Tennis' sound as "vintage pop," and her husband agrees with the description. Its sonic heritage drifts somewhere between '50s doo-wop and '60s girl groups and is deeply smitten with the advantages of limitation. Cape Dory is the product of only four sources of sound — organ, guitar, drums, and vocals — and the band used a small number of tracks to layer the album. That dearth of grandiosity has become crucial to their approach. "We don't ever want to play with backing tracks. We don't ever want to do something on record that we can't do live," says Riley. "Our whole thing is that we're trying to do what we feel not too many bands are trying to do: aim toward simplicity — just getting the rawest form of music."

This November, the couple is planning on sailing down to the Grenadines; within the next few years, they are hoping to cross the Pacific. In a way, these trips are necessary to revisit Moore and Riley's creative sides ­— a task that's too difficult to accomplish at home. "We live in downtown Denver. It's kind of hard to escape influence, whereas we need to escape influence to be creative. We need to be in our most primordial form, which is sailing for us. When we're living on our boat, we feel like we don't even exist in the world or something," says Riley with a little chuckle.

But even with all of the big plans they have in mind, that initial journey didn't have a thing to do with a career. "We didn't intend to be a professional band. We didn't even intend to play live shows. We wrote those songs just as a documentary, almost like keeping a diary or something," he says. "We just wanted to be explorers."

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Reyan Ali

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