Every band has its origin story — a saga that the public delves into with the enthusiasm of tackling a college lit paper, trying to parse out the details that explain just how that music came to be. And when it comes to modern-day “how we came to be” tales, Denver, Colorado, band Tennis definitely has a Odyssey on its hands. Husband and wife team Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley formed Tennis after a seven-month sailing trip, emerging from that journey with 2011’s Cape Dory, a languid, dreamy disc inspired by that epic trip.
With their second studio album, Young and Old, Tennis’ origin story got a little bit of a shakeup in the form of a brand-new character: The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, who came on to that album as producer. The outspoken drummer — like some bespectacled tidal wave rising from the deep — upended the couple’s self-sufficient little vessel, sending them careening into waters not previously explored in Cape Dory. There’s an urgency, a slight roughness, a definite “rock-y-ness” to Young and Old that has Carney’s fingerprints all over it.
Hive hit up Patrick Riley to find out how the other Patrick influenced Tennis’ new album, dispensing that knowledge in the form of the following lessons:
1. Take Advice
We’re calling [this lesson] ’Real Talk With Patrick.’ The first few days that we were in the studio with him it was kind of a really abrasive relationship, because we had never worked with anyone at all on anything musically. The first album was produced by us, engineered by us, mixed by us, etc. So this was the first time that anyone had ever had a say in our music. What it came down to was basically that he saw a lot of himself in us and our resistance to taking advice.
We didn’t want to repeat any choruses. I don’t think anyone noticed that too much on our first album, but every part is kind of different. But Patrick sat down with us right at the start and was like, “You have to get over that.” If you write a good part, then people are going to want to hear it more than one time.” And we had this existential crisis over that conversation where we were like, “I don’t know. Should we just quit right now? Should we just go back to Denver? I don’t even think this is what we want.” Just yelling at each other in the hotel room.
And then we were like, “Fuck it. Just let Patrick Carney have this one. We’ll repeat a couple choruses on this album.” And we had this [eye-opening moment] to how much better the songs would be if we repeated [a chorus] just once or something. It was honestly the most necessary conversation we have ever had. We’re starting to write a lot of our next album — a strong handful of demos for our next album — and that definitely changed the way we look at music.
2. Use “The Stevie Wonder Beat”
This was maybe the third day in the studio, and we were already uncomfortable with changing the song structure on a few songs, but there was this one song in particular and we had this really ballady swing beat that we wrote to it. It wasn’t a 3/4 beat, but it felt waltzy. And Patrick Carney was like, “Stevie Wonder Beat,” and we were like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
He kind of mouthed the beat, which ended up kind of being — I don’t know how James [Barone] interpreted it, but he ended up interpreting it kind of the wrong way and started playing this hip-hop drum beat. That’s the drum beat that’s on “My Better Self.” When we first started playing it, we were all just laughing our asses off, thinking it’s the most hilarious thing ever. It’s so Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We were all just rapping to it in the studio. Then we ended up recording it behind the music and it totally worked. And we were like, “Okay, I guess Patrick Carney’s right on that one, too.” That was probably the most blatant soul element that ended up getting added to our album.
3. Nix the Blonde Telecaster
We were just sitting in the studio talking about [The Black Keys’] rise to success and how it was a slow climb. He was talking about what goes into making a successful rock group, and one of the details was that you can’t play a Telecaster with a white pickguard. Everyone plays a blonde Telecaster with a white pickguard. People want to see something that you can’t replicate so easily. They want a guitar that is maybe really hard to find — that no one has ever seen before.
Through the grapevine, I ended up getting to meet someone in Nashville who can build me my dream guitar, so to speak. I still have the blonde Telecaster, which is the guitar I used to record all of Cape Dory. It’s my only guitar, but I ended up getting this custom Telecaster made, which is essentially a hybrid of a lot of guitars that I really like. It’s this Frankenstein guitar.
It’s really not that much different [to play on]. It has more of a rock sound, whereas the other one had more of a ’50s sound. We wanted to get away from that. I think that was the one thing that was driving us crazy — that people were pigeon-holing us as this surf band or like ’50s-inspired band. I’m sure we’re going to get it again. I’ve read that people think there’s surf guitars on this album, which is ridiculous.
4. Never Sing Perfectly
Right when we get into the studio and started tracking vocals, it’s like too perfect almost. Over the course of us playing in a band, Alaina has sort of slowly stepped away from singing safely and perfectly, perfectly on-key to adding more character to her voice and singing with more, I don’t know — harsh qualities and stuff like that.
Alaina would finish a song in one take and every single note would be perfect and we wouldn’t have to redo anything. Patrick wanted her to sing off-key. Not off-key, but, “Don’t sing perfectly, sing with a few notes that slide around a little bit.” When you hit every note perfectly, your ear gets used to it and nothing jumps out.
5. Mix at 120 Decibels
There were times when we thought Carney blew Roger Moutenot’s studio monitors while mixing our songs — mixing louder than most of our live shows. It sounds trivial, but it takes a lot of courage to confront your recorded music head-on, almost aggressively. Playing it loud reveals each strength and weakness. It forces you to decide definitively whether or not the song is right. It’s liberating to move forward without looking back.
Young and Old is out February 14 on Fat Possum. Watch the video for “Deep in the Woods” below: