One fateful day in a college philosophy class, Patrick Riley sat next to Alaina Moore, a fellow student at the University of Colorado Denver, and as she tells it, their connection was “instantaneous.” They embarked on a relationship and then an eight-month sailing trip following graduation. When they returned to Denver, they took up painting—”We would paint really shitty pictures together and then paint over them the next day,” recalls Moore—before arriving at a collective pursuit: making music. It seems the couple, who married in 2009 and now form the band Tennis, made the right choice. They’ve released three indie-pop albums, and today their fourth, Yours Conditionally (Mutually Detrimental), arrives. Filled with melodies that evoke ’70s AM radio, it sees them wrestle with the conditions of love and commitment. Their story and music remain romantic, but one’s reminded that while they’re “in it together,” they’re also wholly individual.
Here, Riley and Moore speak to their friend Patrick Carney, a musician and producer who’s best known as the drummer of the Black Keys. Topics of conversation include owning their output; sexism; and fears of driving, flying, and sailing.
PATRICK CARNEY: What made you guys decide to do [Yours Conditionally] on your own this time? In my experience, every record release is always fundamentally flawed somehow.
PATRICK RILEY: All right, I’m going to name two reasons, but I know there are, like, 10 reasons.
ALAINA MOORE: I don’t know what your reasons are, so I’m really curious. I have my own reasons.
RILEY: Reason one: I think we were ready to make an album on our own again; I think we had learned all the tools necessary to pull off the type of album we wanted to make. Reason two would be the last album wasn’t very fun for us.
MOORE: That was going to be my reason. I was going to phrase it as, “The last album cycle broke me.” It was just miserable.
RILEY: It broke both of us.
CARNEY: What aspect of it? Was it working with the label? Was it the way you guys divided up the work, doing some of it in different locations and stuff?
MOORE: I feel like the message that we kept getting from everyone we were working with, who were all really great, really supportive people who we loved working with, was that no one ever knew what to do with us. They were like, “We like your band, people like your band, something will work, but I don’t know how. You’re not hitting with radio.” All the methods that they would try didn’t really work and hearing everyone saying, “I don’t know what to do with you, I don’t know where you fit in the world,” is not good for your morale and we felt like, well, if nobody knows what to do with us, then you shouldn’t be owning our album or calling the shots. We might as well do whatever we want because it suits our temperament and is fulfilling.
RILEY: Yeah—we’re kind of a “we’re on a sinking ship together” type of band.
MOORE: So we might as well steer it ourselves. [laughs]
CARNEY: I think one of the things that’s most cool about you guys is that since you’re a married couple and you’re able to work together, you live together, and then you guys have a common goal, no one else is going to be as invested in your career as you two will be.
RILEY: And we’ll both filter it heavily, too. Alaina’s going to filter everything we do through her own perspective, and so am I, so it’s already going to go through this…
MOORE: A lot of scrutiny.
RILEY: To get to where we need to be.
MOORE: [It’s] exactly what you said: no one will care as much as you because it’s your thing. Also, nobody writes music alone in their bedroom because they want to work with 200 people. Pat and I, we like to be alone, we like to be together, and our music comes from our internal life. And that’s all we really want out of it, basically.
CARNEY: So you said that when you were working with previous people or labels there was confusion from the label on what to do with you guys, because you guys don’t fit into whatever they are perceiving as “a current band that’s working.” I think there’s so little creativity when it comes to most people who work in the record industry at that level. As far as the label, it’s always been like that. One band hits, you get another band signed. Even the Black Keys, when we first came out, people were like, “You’re just like the White Stripes. We’ll give you a record deal.” But every band is different and takes a different time to mature and figure out your own way.
MOORE: And people are not okay with that. Pat and I have realized that it’s actually a lot less stress for us to spend our own money on our own work because we have no fear. We’ll never lose the money because we’re investing in our own intellectual property, our own art, our own future, and it’s always okay. And no one else wants to do that. And it is, really, always okay.
RILEY: It’s scary.
MOORE: I’ll never regret it. If we empty our bank account down to zero but we make our own record, it doesn’t matter because now we’ll have a record that will last. We’ll have it forever.
CARNEY: In theory, when you’re working with a record label, you’re just borrowing their money. And that’s basically how the record industry works, right? It’s like, you borrow $100,000 from a record label, so you don’t make any money until you make back that money for them. In theory, they have you held hostage, so you’ve got to do every little stupid thing that they want you to do. Like, what’s the dumbest thing you guys have ever been asked to do for promotion of the record?
MOORE: South by Southwest. … I don’t want to ruin it for the people who go, because it’s obviously amazing for the people who attend, but I’ve never gotten to watch anything.
I remember one time, someone was trying to get us to play The Grammys showcase at South by Southwest, like that was going to help us win a Grammy one day. [laughs] Like, “I got my Grammy because we played their South by Southwest show!”
CARNEY: Hopefully you guys get nominated, and then you guys can have the experience of going and watching Justin Bieber play with the marching band. Because I’ve had to do that. [Moore and Riley laugh]
I think this is the most interesting thing for people who are going be reading this: the fact that you guys are a married couple. So how did you guys meet?
RILEY: We met in college. We both were in philosophy class.
MOORE: We were in Analytic Philosophy, and there are 30 people and two girls, and I guess Pat looked at both girls and chose me and sat next to me. [laughs]
RILEY: I just felt a connection, you know? [laughs] We were both music majors at one point and had both recently dropped out and switched to philosophy.
CARNEY: So, when you met in that class, did you guys instantly hit it off and then just start dating? Right at that point?
RILEY: Pretty much.
MOORE: Pat recognized me because I guess I had waited tables on him. I worked at this Jewish deli, the only one in Denver, called Zaidy’s. He remembered me, he recognized me when we got to that class, and so we started talking. … I moved in three months later, or something.
CARNEY: And how soon after you guys fell in love did you start making music together?
MOORE: We didn’t make music together for about two years.
RILEY: Because we had both dropped out of music school for different reasons. But we had both kind of quit, or closed that chapter.
MOORE: We were both very over it.
RILEY: Yeah. I sold almost all of my recording equipment.
MOORE: He had a guitar in his closet when I met him. I didn’t even ask about it, I just closed the door and was like, “I don’t need to hear anyone play.”
CARNEY: You guys were so over music. Studying music made you hate music.
RILEY: For me, [it’s] that, but I had also tried to make a band work and got that door closed in front of me so many times that I was just tired of it. And then I’d also tried to work for a record label, and that ended very poorly. So those were my two attempts.
MOORE: For me, I had come from a church background with music and had studied music at a Christian university, and it was nothing in particular, but I had a lot of resentment; I felt like everyone was like, “You’re a great singer,” and that was very reductive. And I feel like that’s why there are so many female vocalists but not drummers—because it’s too easy. So I literally chose philosophy because it was the opposite of being a singer. I was not into it. So we were together for two years and we were already married when we started making music.
CARNEY: What brought about the decision to make music? Was it just a discussion you guys had?
RILEY: This is going to open up a huge can of worms…
CARNEY: Not like the one I do with my mom and her Facebook posts?
MOORE: Not that kind of a can of worms. [laughs]
MOORE: The real reason why we started doing it is because we were really stressed. We didn’t like our jobs, we were not happy, and we’d come home at the end of the day. Pat had a list of stress-relieving activities that his doctor told him to do and it was like, “Try painting or playing music.” At first we actually tried painting. Horrible. … Then we were like, “We’re horrible at this. We’re actually musicians, so we should make music instead.” And he got his guitar out of storage.
RILEY: And I bought a four-track. And literally, the first song—
MOORE: The first thing he played is the first song we wrote, and it’s on our first record. It was immediately; the first blah blah blah that he did, it’s on the album.
CARNEY: That’s awesome. … You said something interesting a second ago—you said that you think there are so many female vocalists because?
MOORE: It’s innate. It’s not an acquired skill. It’s the same as their looks. It’s just your body. Women are only encouraged to develop an innate talent. That’s why men learn technical things, because it’s not just the instantaneous, surface-level ability that’s encouraged. They go try to learn something that’s hard.
CARNEY: But you’re really a keyboard player. So did anybody ever encourage you?
MOORE: They did, for sure, but no one was like, “Oh, you’re going to be a concert pianist.” Even then, I just happened to enjoy playing piano. People would just be like, “Oh, you should be on American Idol,” or whatever. And obviously, these are all compliments. People are being kind and encouraging. But I just had an epiphany one day. No one ever said “you’re smart” or “articulate” or “a good piano player” or anything. It was just “your voice”—the simplest, most reductive part. And I wanted to learn something else. But I notice this all the time.
CARNEY: I was wondering about this, because I know it’s true, I know that women in the music industry get treated a lot differently than men. I’ve seen it firsthand with somebody in particular, where it’s almost that men like to treat women in the music industry like they can’t make their own decisions. Do you feel like you’ve ever been treated that way? Or do you think having the buffer, the protection, I guess, of being in a relationship with your bandmate, makes it less…
MOORE: A common occurrence will be during sound check I’ll be explaining what I need from my monitors, and I understand EQ, and I will explain what I need. And they’ll go, “It sounds good to me.” And then Pat will say the same thing I just said.
RILEY: I’ll have to go over and literally say the same thing and then they’ll be like, “Oh, cool, I hear that too.”
MOORE: Like, “Yeah, you’re right, I’ll take out 5k,” and it will baffle me. It’s not malicious or anything; it’s just stupid shit. But the real place where I notice it is in reviews. It’s out of control.
RILEY: With reviews, any time they’re talking about me, it’s in regard to my talents, or they’ll attribute to me things that I didn’t do, whereas Alaina’s talent is her appearance, her voice, and her stage presence. She’s shredding on the keyboard and no one will notice.
MOORE: No one even knows that I have a keyboard. It could just be a floating, invisible thing and people will be like, “She’s not making eye contact with the crowd.” I’m playing almost everything that’s happening in the song, that’s coming from me. I’m busy! [laughs]
CARNEY: I can relate to that as a drummer.
MOORE: They want more crowd interaction from you, and you’re like, “My whole body is employed at the moment.” … It doesn’t happen all the time, but I definitely notice the difference. It’s the difference in expectations from a show. When you see a woman on stage, people expect something different. My favorite bands are the War on Drugs or Real Estate, and no one’s saying, “Where’s the crowd work, guys?” They just look at their guitars.
CARNEY: Right. I’ve seen some of those bands and they’re very stagnant. … When you tour, do you guys tour in a van still?
MOORE: Yes, we just graduated to a trailer.
RILEY: We talk about this because we are right on that cusp where we probably could do a tour bus and it’d be fine, but I am so scared of other people driving.
CARNEY: You need not be.
RILEY: I don’t think I can ever be. I’m not the type of person who would ever be cool of that. I would need some serious prescription.
MOORE: Basically Pat is our only driver.
CARNEY: This is a control issue.
CARNEY: I know someone who can fix this. He’s a hypnotist in L.A. Seriously. Because you need to be cool with that. Are you stressed out on airplanes?
MOORE: I am. He’s not.
RILEY: I’m not. I think I’ve accepted death.
MOORE: He tells me that as soon as he boards a plane he just accepts death. [laughs]
CARNEY: Well that’s not cool. [all laugh] Aside from the fact that you guys are a couple and other than your music, I think the thing people, when they think of your band, would be interested in is you’re scared to let other people drive you, but you guys together have navigated, basically around the world. Not the Pacific.
MOORE: [laughs] A lot of open ocean, yeah.
CARNEY: So who grew up sailing here?
MOORE: Neither of us.
CARNEY: Neither one?
MOORE: We learned together at the same time.
CARNEY: Was this the same doctor that told you to start playing music together too?
MOORE: [laughs] Should be.
RILEY: No, no. I went once with my dad growing up and I fell in love with it. When I was in college and the dreams of starting a band died, and the dreams of working for a record label died, all my outlets were slowly vanishing. The boat for me was a way to escape everything and a sign of, “Oh I can sail myself off to paradise. I can reinvent my life whenever I want.” So that was a really powerful thing to motivate me to save enough money to buy a small sailboat.
CARNEY: Did you do that before you guys met?
MOORE: No, we did that together. He already had the plan before I met him. When I met him, his coffee table was covered in books, one that was really depressing was Sailing Alone Around the World. [laughs] And I was like, “Whoa, what’s wrong with you? We live in Colorado, what are you doing?”
RILEY: It was a dark time.
CARNEY: You do get scared at sea?
RILEY: Yeah, both of us.
MOORE: We’re not like, “Oh yeah, the ocean, pfft.” It’s like existential terror, mortal terror—it’s all things.
CARNEY: I don’t really go on boats that often—obviously, like most people—but I was on a fishing boat with my girlfriend and her daughter, and there were probably 10 foot waves.
MOORE: That’s scary.
CARNEY: It was fucking terrifying, to the point where I was just holding on to the ship. This was a two-hour fishing trip. And I made them take the boat in early. Like, “I just can’t fucking deal with this shit.” I don’t know how the fuck you guys do that.
RILEY: This last trip we had easily the worst weather we’ve ever faced. A wave came into the cockpit of our boat.
MOORE: Like it broke into the cockpit.
RILEY: Just filled the cockpit completely with water. And that had never happened before. And we both looked at each other like, “What the fuck?”
MOORE: So the reason why we can take those risks though, is what you were saying about control, we know the boat, we know every single part of the boat.
RILEY: I rebuilt every single piece of that boat—I rebuilt the engine, the rigging, the deck. Every little detail I had rebuilt over the last couple years.
MOORE: So we know what it can do and what it can’t do. We know its limits. And then we are the captains and we know that we know almost everything. We know everything that one should do.