Who Are…Tennis

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 02.16.11 in Who Is...?s

File under: summertime

From: Colorado and Denver

Personae: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley

Young love makes couples do crazy things. It can make them defy their families or make them cut off decades-old friendships. It can even make them sell everything they own and take off on a boat trip — the length of which is strictly TBD.

The latter is precisely what Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley of Tennis did: They bid farewell to family and loved ones and took off along the Eastern Seaboard with no set end date. They deliberately removed themselves from a world driven by technology, limiting their energy usage, budgeting their food intake and banning any electronics that weren't absolutely necessary for survival (which turned out to be little more than their on-board navigation system). For eight months, it was just them and the ocean, with periodic stop-offs to replenish supplies and to see parts of the continent unknown to landlovers. And when they finally got back, they turned their experiences into a record: the starry-eyed, sweet-tongued, bewitching Cape Dory, an album that owes as much to Belinda Carlisle as it does the Shirelles.

eMusic's J. Edward Keyes caught up with Alaina Moore during the group's landlocked fall tour to discuss their one-of-a-kind origin story.

On meeting cute and hitting the high seas:

Patrick and I met in college. We were both philosophy majors and we ended up in a class together and became friends immediately. He was already full of life plans to live on a sailboat and live a life as an explorer, essentially. By our last semester of college, we'd started dating and I'd caught the excitement myself and decided to go on the sailing trip with him.

The point was for the trip to be indefinite, and we left with that in mind. Our overall goal was minimalism and simplicity: We wanted to have the most self-sustaining existence possible. So we eliminated any extraneous thing, any luxury, and by doing that we were able to make our ideal lifestyle go on longer. Unfortunately, we ended up having to have an end date, mostly because of the recession. We ended up having to top in July of 2009, and we'd started in January of 2009.

My family was a little weirded out. They never lived near a coast and no one they knew sailed. On top of that, I don't know how to swim. But I actually discovered that the old British Navy used to encourage their seaman to not know how to swim, because it made them better sailors. They had a paralyzing fear of going overboard, so they'd do anything to protect the ship. It would also prevent mutiny: No one was about to just bail out and swim away. So when I discovered that the British Navy didn't want their sailors swimming, I realized that I'd probably be OK! Basically, a boat is a million times safer than your ability to swim could ever be. Just don't ever, ever fall overboard.

On the philosophy that propels someone to do something like this:

Patrick and I being philosophy majors, I feel like a lot of people who study that are looking for a way to explain their existence, outside of religion, that gives it significance. Patrick is a Luddite — he's really interested in keeping any technological intermediary to a minimum in your life. He thinks it makes you reliant on things, where you would have been skillful and perfectly capable without it.

That carried over when we started making music. We wanted to make music that sounded like it was made by human beings, not software programs. For us, it's about using technology only after all of your natural abilities are being used to their fullest first. When we recorded, we wanted it to be as authentically “us” as possible. We'd try and do things in one take and not multi-track things in like crazy. We didn't want it to sound like we had 30 people in our band when we only had three, and we didn't want to make it sound like I have a flawless voice, because I don't. Part of the reason we love the recordings of the '50s and '60s is because they were so much more limited back then. You can hear the flaws in their performances, from the tuning of their instruments to their vocals. I love that. I think it gives the music so much character.

On how they survived, day-to-day:

We were terrible fisherman, and I'd get really emotional even when we did catch fish. We had very limited electricity, and it was just for using safety things — like a GPS or an auxiliary engine. Having to be stewards of our own energy was really cool. We also had to stock our own food. We tried to have enough food on board for about a month's worth of eating, so we'd have to live and ration from our own supplies. I had to plan meals in the order in which they would spoil — and also plan meals so that we'd eat everything that we had and not waste anything. It was really the most amazing thing — it was almost like a science project: What would it be like to live under those restrictions? It was rewarding to live such a disciplined life where nothing can be wasted.

We had no intention of making music initially — it was really just about taking the trip and about that being our life experience. But it inspired us so much creatively. There aren't a lot of distractions — we weren't going out to bars or surfing the internet — we were outdoors, we were reading and writing, and we set up a life that forced us to live that way. We ended up wanting to create things when we really hadn't before.

On boat travel as a gateway to the unseen:

We got to see the southern coast of the United States and the Bahamas from the perspective of the water. You row to shore, you live people who live near the water — that's the lens through which you see these places. I loved South Carolina, the whole state was beautiful from the water. We also loved the Bahamas. Because we had our own boat, we could go to the small islands where only the locals lived — because the water's too shallow for cruise ships to go. So we could actually see the real Bahamas — which, as it turned out, was really, really poor. It was sad to see how much of its survival really depends on tourism. But the people were just amazing.

On that ridiculous album art:

That was actually never meant to be the album cover. It was meant to be a sarcastic press photo. That picture is exactly my sense of humor — some people get it and some people despise it. But it got leaked on the internet and someone announced it as the album cover, and then hundreds of other people did the same thing. I mean, notable, reliable media sources were reporting it. And we started hearing from a lot of people who said, “This is totally unexpected and funny — I love it.” Our label, Fat Possum, was like, “Well, it looks like your artwork has been chosen for you!” Originally, we had a sailing-themed cover. But it's funny, because at the end of the day, that probably would have been beating a dead horse. The album is so very thematic, it would have been to cliché to have a sailboat on the cover. So we just decided — once again! — to let fate take its course.