Alaina Moore shares how Tennis keep tread on the tires and allergies at bay
Denver-based indie pop husband-and-wife duo Tennis just released POLLEN (their first new album since 2020’s SWIMMER), a batch of songs that finds the band settling even more firmly into their unique vibe, deflecting typical pop structures and trying on new instruments seemingly effortlessly.
Throughout POLLEN, Alaina Moore’s light, girlish vocals hover over playful and brooding beats, and a bevy of synth and piano sounds, aided by Patrick Riley’s creative guitar work. Tennis seldom stays in one pocket. They thrive on change, even going so far as to swap out all their gear to try on new techniques and sounds expressly for a new record.
Although their sound is expansive, the songs’ stories focus on the introspective; Moore said of this particular album, “We named the album POLLEN, [and] it’s about small things with big consequences: a particle, a moment, a choice. It’s striving to remain in a moment without slipping into dread. It’s about the way I can be undone by a very small thing.”
Their single “Let’s Make a Mistake Tonight” lyrically explores the effects of those smallest things, starting out as a journal entry that stretched the bounds of Moore’s exploratory imagination.
We spoke to Moore just as Tennis got ready to start their tour (with a stop at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom on Monday, April 10). Moore dished about some very spring things, including her family’s pollen-count thread, her “Allergic” embroidered jacket, and just tapping into and savoring those smaller, fleeting moments.
You can listen or watch the interview at the top of the page, or keep scrolling for the text version.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alaina from Tennis, hi! How are ya?
Hi! I'm great, thank you.
Right before we went on the record together, you said that you're packing, getting ready to go on tour.
Yeah, my whole closet is dumped out right now, and I'm a very nervous packer, so I start packing usually like two days in advance. And no matter how much time I put into it, I always bring everything wrong and nothing that I needed [laughs].
Are you a warm-weather kind of optimist where you just bring t-shirts and shorts, and then all of a sudden you see snow outside your tour bus?
Yes, that's exactly what's gonna happen.
Spring is hard. Spring tours probably are challenging.
I know. I'm like, I don't wanna give up precious real estate to a down jacket and snow boots, but it's probably gonna be a blizzard the whole tour [laughs].
Well, you're starting out in Georgia, so hopefully that's not the case.
You're touring on your album POLLEN, and I did a lot of research on the record, read all the reviews, and I keep reading that it’s about how the small things can have large consequences. It kept reminding me, for example, that pollen is a very small thing, and I thought I would ask you the “spring” question: Is one of you a sufferer of seasonal allergies?
Oh yeah, that's me. I have a jacket that's embroidered, like, “allergic” on the back. It’s actually a family affliction. Like, my whole family. We have a thread that tracks pollen count. The hottest thing about me is my allergies, personally [laughs]. But yeah, it’s super embarrassing,
Pat and I joke about it a lot, and the lyrics — there's a song on that record called “Pollen Song” — [they were] the first that I wrote about not being able to enjoy this beautiful spring bloom ’cause I was jumping ahead to how tortured my allergies are gonna be for the next like week or whatever, and just thinking about how I can't be in a moment that's like a good moment without spiraling it out to what might happen that will be bad about it.
That feels like something that I realized I wanted to spend some time unpacking about myself. So that was kind of the entry point into this record for me.
I'm sure your family has an “inside joke” view on this album, too, if you guys are trading pollen counts and such.
Oh, they do. They do, yes. When I told them we were calling the album POLLEN, they were like, “no explanation needed” [laughs].
In all seriousness, though, the album does truly examine small things having big consequences. You even mentioned finding meaning in minutia on your Bandcamp. Do you two personally feel that’s a result of growing older and becoming more aware? Or is there another reason for that?
I mean, we started this band in our early 20s, and now we're in our late 30s. Things have shifted a lot, and there is a lot of room for reflection, you know? Especially when we're releasing a new record, kind of comparing it content-wise to what I was writing about two or three albums ago, and just noticing how we've evolved as people.
I do feel more compelled by and tapped into like those smaller moments of life. I think as you get older and you realize your life is flying by at, like, a rocketing speed, I do wanna spend more time focusing on and being present in and appreciating those things.
Even touring, you know? It goes by so fast, and just trying to just stay present and experience it is definitely one of the challenges that I'm facing at this point in life. Yeah, it definitely is what I was interested in when we were writing this record.
That's a good message for a lot of folks: Slow down and enjoy everything.
You recorded and produced POLLEN at your home in Denver at your home studio, which I think is the coolest. What was the vibe of that space going into the recording process, and likewise what was your mindset going into laying down these tracks?
After we made a record several years ago with the now-late Richard Swift — he's a legendary producer and musician — that was the first time we worked in somebody's home studio. It was his converted backyard garage, and we would work all day in his studio and then have dinner with his family in their house afterwards. And it was the most amazing recording experience.
After that, I told Pat I wanted to build our own studio at home. Now that I realize how simple it could be and how … edited? Like, you don't need to have a 60-channel mixer, and you don't need every piece of gear on the planet to make your album. You only need what you need for your album.
That's kind of what motivated the change, and since then we've just been refining the gear that we want. We also like to change things up ’cause this is the third album we’ve self-produced and engineered, so we like to swap out what we use in our home studio to motivate different sounds.
So we changed out a lot of our gear, a lot of our instruments, like we got all new keyboards. I played mostly keys on record, and it was really nice to not be reliant on sounds that were “go-to” sounds for me in the past. So I had all new keyboards that I had never touched before that were totally foreign, so there was just a lot of exploration when we made this record that was really amazing and a big part of the writing process.
I feel like there's definitely this presence of pianos and keys and synths on this record, and it feels really refreshing. And of course there's guitar that comes in, but I always feel drawn to the synths and the pianos mostly.
Oh, thanks! I really wish I was a guitar player. Like, in my soul, I feel like I should be a shredder, like I’ve got an “inner shredder” [laughs]. But I just really didn't learn how to play guitar, so I've just been accepting that I am a pianist, and it's maybe not quite as flashy as guitar, but I'm just trying to lean into it.
Those big guitar moments on the record are me pushing Pat. He often falls into a producer/engineer role on the record, even though he also plays everything and is deeply involved in the writing. A big part of his contribution will be just sitting at the computer and crafting things with me, and whenever I would push him to just get the guitar out and whatever, then we'd have big guitar moments on record, which was really fun. But a lot of the rest of the time it would be kind of him driving and me just playing keys.
It feels very focused in a good way.
Honestly, it’s been a really cool process of learning to make music with him. At first, we couldn't really write together; we were too “double alpha.” We were not collaborating at all, so we would kind of write alone and then share with each other what we had written. But now, as years have gone by, we've established our own kind of working relationship, and for this record we wrote literally everything in the room together, which was really cool for us. It was a new experience.
Yeah, it sounds like a lot of new, fresh vibes for this record in general.
Going into the tour, you do a lot of key sounds, and things are a little more produced. How does that translate to the stage? Do you have to prep super hard to get your tour down cold?
Yes, that's such a great question. A lot of what we do on record I don't think translates to live. I still think live works best when it's more of a band-y moment. We do use very minimal tracks that kind of fill out some ambient textures that we would need to hire, like, a fifth and sixth person to be playing — just some like ethereal pad or something — so we use tracks for that.
But in general, we really prefer [to] stay a band, like our roots. When we first started, we toured as a three-piece, so it's been quite a journey kind of exploring, like, “How do we translate our studio production to live?” And, you know, some songs don't really work to be honest.
We’ll never know when it comes to adapting a studio album for a tour. We're often kind of surprised. We'll find out one song that we thought was gonna crush live, we're just gonna be like, “You know what? This is gonna be a studio song.” Unless we were [using] full-on backing tracks, and I just sang to the album track, you know? Which we don't do.
Sometimes in those cases, we'll completely rearrange the song for live, or we'll just say, “It’s its own song. It lives on record and not live.” So, yeah, we'll find out! We haven't started the tour yet, so it's gonna be quite an adventure.
And then folks will be yelling out the name of the song you can't play from the record.
Probably the one song that doesn't work is gonna be the one everyone wants every night [laughs].
We've been playing “Let's Make a Mistake Tonight” for quite a while. Love the song. Would you mind unwinding the story behind the song, lyrically?
Most of our songs don't start with lyrics, but this one I had had lyrics in my journal: “Let's make a mistake tonight / Let's turn water into wine.” I had the sentiments of lyrics written in my journal, and I liked how assertive it was, which is very out of character for me. I would never say something like that, but it was kind of fun to do something that felt impulsive and against the grain of my personality.
Then when Pat and I were writing, we were writing this chord progression and then this hook — that's the hook leading into the chorus for that song. We came up with that while I was experimenting with the new synth that we had gotten. I immediately heard those lines in my head because they felt kind of tough but also hyperbolic. And the song almost feels kind of campy, like playing at a diva moment but not quite. So the whole song just kind of came together in that moment.
What was the synth that you were mentioning that you were using?
I love that sound.
Thanks! Yeah, it was fun to use. Before that, we had used a lot of Juno, and then we decided to put that to bed and not use a Juno, so it forced me to do something different.
It's cool. It's such a fun song. POLLEN, sound-wise, has got its chill moments, it’s got its upbeat moments. Would you say that it’s a little bit of a fickle record, or do you think that there's a strong mood?
I sometimes struggle to explain our concept behind a record, which sort of reminds us of a mixtape in the sense that it can feel like genre-hopping from track to track. But it's not because it doesn't have an identity. I think it's actually because Patrick and I don't like to linger in a certain arrangement too long? I imagine ….this is such a bizarre example, but like needing to rotate your tires? The tread? You know what I mean? I don't like to wear out the tread.
I get that.
It's a weird way of putting it. I just don't like to live too long in one kind of sonic moment. And then also the music that we listen to in our day-to-day is all over the map — from eras and different genres, and I just feel like it pours out in our writing.
It totally does. I've taken note of all the covers you've done, which is amazing. You've done The Carpenters and Broadcast …
And a Television cover.
Yes! So you're, uh, “rotating the tires” all the time.
Yeah! No kidding.
One of the really cool tour dates that you've got lined up is playing Austin City Limits in May. Going into something like that, do you just hunker down and watch all the episodes as much as you can to get mentally prepared?
I just like to do my own thing. I feel like the less influenced I can be by the way other people are doing things [the better]. I feel like what works about our band is that we're pretty true to ourselves.
This is such a cliche, but cliches are cliches for a reason. I think authenticity is the most important guidepost for any artistic endeavor or just being a human. People will resonate with you and want to know about what you're doing and be a part of that if you are being authentic and sharing something like an original point of view. I think the less I am exposed to what other people are doing, the more I can trust what I would do myself.
That makes total sense to me.
As you head off on tour, you're coming to Milwaukee on April 10. What is one thing you'd like folks to know who've bought their tickets to the show? What can they expect?
Well, I think what I try to do live is make the stage feel like my own personal space that I then invite the entire crowd to join me in. I really love to be a host. I love having people over to our house, whether it's two people or 50 people, and I really like to make everyone feel welcome. So I try to imagine that I'm hosting an intimate party for a thousand people, and that's been working for me so far.
That's awesome. I love little mind tricks like that.
Everyone's there to have a good time, and I'm the steward of that. I'm just the party chef. I just need to help everyone mingle and relax and just enjoy themselves and, yeah …
Well, Milwaukee, listen up: Alaina’s the party chef. She's gonna help you have an awesome show on April 10! Tennis is coming to Milwaukee and playing with Kate Bollinger, which I think is the coolest thing ever.
Yeah, me too!
We're looking forward to having you here. Hopefully you have an awesome first leg of your tour, and thanks so much for your time today.
Yeah, thanks for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.