“Having grown up in Arizona and Colorado, I was never very close to the ocean,” Riley writes in an e-mail from the U.K., where his band's been on tour. “But one year my parents took us to San Diego and chartered a sailboat for a couple of days. I couldn't have had a better time.”
After that, the landlocked Riley, a Denver resident, harbored a nagging goal: Sail the eastern Seaboard for two years after college. He met his future wife and bandmate, Alaina Moore, in a college philosophy class at the University of Colorado. She climbed aboard her man's big dream, and the two scrimped and saved until they could smash a proverbial bottle against the bow.
“Our sailboat's name is Swift Ranger,” Riley says. “It's an arrogant name, but we're superstitious and you're not supposed to rename boats. It cost less than a Honda Civic and the trip lasted eight months, a bit shy of the two-year plan.”
The couple sailed the coast on their 30-footer to a soundtrack of '50s and '60s bands, especially The Shirelles, one of the first hit girl groups whose youthful, doo-wop-inflected pop helped set the era's standard.
“We mainly listened to music that made us feel good,” Riley recalls. “Music that didn't need to be rationalized to be enjoyed.”
All that together time was a creative kick in the pants. Riley, who'd played in various Denver bands, discovered that his then-girlfriend could really sing, and the two formed Tennis, the band's name a nod to a longstanding inside joke about their WASP-y appearance and predilections. By the time their money ran out, their creativity was overflowing.
“We wrote the music as soon as we came back on land,” Riley says. “But our adventure certainly inspired the music. We really couldn't do anything without referencing our trip for a while. To this day I still have dreams about it.”
Their debut full-length, Cape Dory, is an ode to their journey: a sun-dappled, Spector-esque collection of songs about coastal towns and the occasional ocean gale, not to mention the couple's deepening relationship. Their music, influenced by retro girl groups and surf rock, sounds like a minimalist take on wall-ofsound, stripped-down but with swell like a rogue wave.
“We wanted to make simple sounds that get to the heart of the song, whatever it might be,” Riley explains. “For us, the more we have to add the more we realize the song is all wrong. We originally wrote a bunch of songs that had crazy amounts of instrumentation, but then we realized how dependent they were on all that embellishment. It took us a really long time to write songs that could exist with only four instruments.”
Unlike some bands that go big in the studio—only to bum out audiences when they set up with a vanload of laptops and effects pedals—Riley says Tennis took a minimalist approach to recording.
“We never used Auto-Tune, harmonizers or vocal-doubling, and I think there's only three over-dubs on the whole album, maybe four. Aside from adding in harmonies, we wanted the album to be as honest as possible. We didn't want to hide behind all the reverb that we used on our demos. As far as live goes, it's the same. We wanted an album that can exist live without the use of backing tracks.”
The album definitely achieves honesty, imbued with the fleeting feeling of being young, liberated and swept away in love. Riley says leaving behind their carefree floating home for life on the land was an adjustment.
“The sway did take a while to fade away—I'd say at least a couple weeks. The weirdest thing was waking up in [our] apartment to go out and adjust the anchor, then realizing [we were] in an apartment. It took about a month to get that out of us.”
Their sea legs may be temporarily off duty, but Riley says the couple has future plans for Swift Ranger. The next big adventure?
“Crossing the ocean,” he says. “Sailing is more of a lifestyle—I hate that word—for us than anything. We get a lot of inspiration from living at sea, much more than we ever could from land.”
Tennis plays with Lord Huron and Air Waves at Tin Can Ale House on Saturday, Feb. 5. myspace.com/tennisinc