No strangers to life on the road, married duo Tennis have seemingly mastered the art of touring – as Alaina says, “It’s about treating yourself more like an athlete than a rock musician.” Not to mention how much of a crowd-favorite their unique soundscape of glittery pop rock has become amongst the festival circuit (they played Coachella in 2017). We had the chance to hang with Patrick & Alaina backstage at Lustre Pearl to talk about the realities of making it to SXSW, their ever-shrinking stage setup, and the importance of powering through every performance.
Is this your first SXSW?
PATRICK (guitar): No, far from it.
ALAINA (keys, vocals): Seventh, maybe?
P: Something like that, and I think we’ve probably played about five or six showcases each time we’ve been here. So, realistically, we’ve played at least forty shows to date.
How do you manage a hectic festival showcase schedule?
A: We’ve learned not to overwork ourselves by keeping our schedules more manageable. But when you’re 22 and you’ve got the energy, I’d say just go for it. It’s like battle scars, or sea stories. Getting so say “I’ve played fifteen shows in three days.” It’s fun to be able to have done that once, but it’s pretty untenable year after year. We’ve learned to dial it back. Sometimes, you need to say no to an opportunity to keep things at a human level.
P: There’s a point where it can ruin the sound and the performance, too - especially when you stack too many shows on top of one another.
Any practice tips/tricks on the road?
P: Visualization, honestly. Especially when we are driving, and there are long spans of time. I think it’s sometimes more effective to run through your set and all of your changes visually than it is to do it at rehearsal. It almost takes more mental effort to grasp the different intricacies of a performance through mental image, whereas at rehearsal, you can get kind of lazy and let your muscle memory do the work.
A: Yeah, and just being responsible. Treating yourself more like an athlete than a rock musician. Drinking water, getting sleep, not partying every single night. The rock-and-roll stereotype is fading fast - it’s more about Whole Foods and water and Kombucha and eight hours of sleep.
P: It’s getting a lot lamer.
A: Yeah – the old era is gone.
P: Because we tour this much, we treat ourselves just like long distance runners now. In the past, you could have a crazy tour once a year – there was more room to go wild. But now, most bands tour 200 days a year.
What advice do you have for other artists who may want play SXSW in the future?
P: Don’t force it. If it’s not your year, it’s not your year. Many bands come down here just for the sake of being here.
A: Yeah, don’t spend money when you’re not ready. It can sometimes be better to make your name in other ways on the road. Really huge acts play SXSW now, which means everyone’s obsessed with the big new thing or legendary act. The last time we were here, Bruce Springsteen was playing. But you can absolutely get discovered if you get on the right showcase with the right bands – it just takes time to get there.
You guys played Coachella in 2017. What was it like to play to a crowd that size?
A: I was so nervous, and then right before we went on, our soundcheck went to hell. I went from being so nervous to so angry, because nothing was working. I couldn’t hear anything conventionally through my ears - I had to use wedges. I only heard bass, Pat’s keyboard and nothing else - it was such a weird show singing to two dissonant things. I just rage played and I think it made me that much better. I nailed it. I went from timidity and nervousness to angrily thinking, What the hell is going on? I just pushed through.
P: To have the perfect situation for your set is so rare.
A: One out of maybe thirty shows.
What are some of the gear changes you’ve had throughout the years? Do you remember some of your first stage setups?
P: We’ve definitely changed around our instrumentation a lot. Different keyboard setups, guitar setups, drum setups – it’s all different shades of your own sonic architecture. But I feel like the biggest thing that’s helped us sound better is monitoring - when you have a lot of volume on stage, especially from wedges, you end up drowning out a lot of your sound through phase cancellation and other unwanted interruptions. We’ve just been on this journey of making our stage quieter and quieter. When we first started, I had a 4x12 stack, and then I moved to a Fender Super Reverb, then a Pro Reverb, Princeton, and now I play a Champ live. Which is hilarious to me.
Social media has become an incredible tool for artists to stay connected with fans when one the road, writing new music, etc. How have you creatively used social media to grow your audience?
P: We were like Luddites when we first started. We didn’t have a Facebook page. We didn’t have a Twitter page. We didn’t have Instagram. None of those things.
A: I love how he called it a Twitter page. It’s ‘Twitter account.’
P: That’s how much I get it. But for the first two years of our band, we had none of those things – we genuinely thought they were all going to go out of business. We’re like, This is just a fad. No one’s going to be wasting their time with these things in the future. And sure enough, we were wrong. We were late to the game.
A: We didn’t get an Instagram account until we went on tour with Haim. Now I love it. I think the most important thing with social media is consistently being yourself, because it can feel weird to promote yourself sometimes. It’s uncomfortable for me, but as long as I’m being as openly sincere and letting people into a sliver of my life that is truthful, I feel like it’s a cool bond. As an example - during our last tour, Pat’s dad passed away, and I wrote him a eulogy on Instagram. It was the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever done. As I was uploading it, my hands were shaking because it felt like a huge cliff dive. I ended up crying; it was so moving. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of responses – people were very touched.
What is an obstacle you overcame early on as a group?
P: Money. It’s probably the biggest one. I feel like we’ve always had a decent level of success. We’ve been really fortunate. We started out as a buzz band, so we were gifted by the internet gods by having a fan base early on. But over the years, you have these little slumps where you can’t afford to keep going, and luckily one of those dark tunnels we’ve been in found a way to push us through and afford us to another year of being a band.
A: Yeah and for me, my obstacles are different as a singer. For me, it was stamina, and no one taught me. I grew up in a male rock world, and no one showed me how to sing pop songs for hours to practice. So for me, learning how to manage my voice and maintaining a routine. I’m mostly quiet during the day - I also warm up and I cool down on show days. All of these things I’ve had to learn how to do over the years are self-taught. I’ve had to seek out a lot of these tips, and I wished I had known about them when I started. I felt powerless at first, but now I have the tools and information to help me get through it.
As veterans of SXSW, what food can you recommend in Austin?
A: Stubb’s Barbecue. If I don’t eat barbecue when I’m here, then I get depressed.
P: I know it’s basically a corporate enterprise at this point, but it’s actually really good.
What’s next for Tennis?
P: We’re doing two things. We’re going on tour with The Decemberists in a couple of weeks, and then we’re going to start…
A: …making our next record.
P: Making our next record. We have a home studio in Denver. We’re going to put everything together over the summer.
Check out the latest from Tennis: