All the small things

Denver indie-pop duo Tennis gets granular on 'Pollen'

Courtesy: Big Hassle

In his essay introducing the easy-listening compilation Seafaring Strangers: Private Yacht, critic Jon Kirby unpacks the baggage surrounding the oft-maligned subgenre known as “yacht rock,” a gentle wave that crested after the countercultural turn of the 1960s by “peddling a product that was sincere, leisurely, and lofty … a sound that was buoyant, crisp, defined.”

The 2011 debut from Denver indie-pop duo Tennis dropped many decades after the low-decibel decadence of Christopher Cross and Carly Simon softly rocked the worlds of burgeoning baby boomers, but there’s something of that seaworthy DNA in the smooth, synth-forward sound of the Front Range husband-and-wife outfit. It only makes sense for a band whose journey began with an extended sailing trip that has since become a touchstone of their origin story.

But there was no open sea beckoning Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley when the two started work on the band’s new album Pollen, released in February through their Mutually Detrimental record label. With the pandemic at a fever pitch, they found themselves rooted like never before — a new equation for artists typically inspired by the experience of wrapping their arms around life’s grandeur.   

‘Pollen’ is out now via Mutually Detrimental.

“There weren’t any of those big earth-shattering moments, like massive tours or sailing trips, that have motivated our writing in the past,” Moore says. “Focusing more on the minutiae of the everyday is what I ended up honing in on for this record.”

The album’s 2020 predecessor Swimmer began with a widescreen meditation on the horizon (“I’ll Haunt You”), but the title-checking centerpiece of the new Tennis LP (“Pollen Song”) shrinks the frame: “You point to the trail where the blossoms have fallen,” Moore sighs over a shuffling drum kit and reverb-drenched guitar. “But all I can see is the pollen fucking me up.” 

As the first lyrical knot untangled during the writing process of the new record, the perspective shift spurred by an allergy attack would lead to the 10-song offering’s most central theme: the largeness of small stuff. For a songwriter whose view skews panoramic, this new tendency to dwell on the details of daily experience (instead of getting swept up in the splendor of it all) offered a new set of creative possibilities for what Moore describes as the band’s most cohesive album yet. 

“Pollen ended up becoming symbolic of a small thing that has a massive impact,” she says. “I started thinking about moments, choices, relationships — those trivial, everyday banalities that can alter the trajectory of your life. I feel like those end up being the moments that are the most definitive, and you don’t even notice them when they’re happening.”

Little thing called love

Alaina Moore (left) and Patrick Riley. Photo courtesy Big Hassle.

But when it comes to those tiny factors that steer our lives into new territory, Moore is quick to emphasize that it’s not all itchy eyes and ruined scenery. No stranger to writing about her marriage to Riley, whom she met in a University of Denver philosophy class in 2008, she exalts the early days of their romance on Pollen with not one but two songs (“One Night with the Valet” and “Hotel Valet”) about the granular details of the couple’s first meeting, when he worked the graveyard shift as a driver at a Front Range hotel. 

“Every time we write an album, I think I’ve tapped out everything I could say about my relationship with Patrick, but then I surprise myself by having more to say,” Moore says. “In keeping with the theme of Pollen, those little moments that alter your life, I thought back to how we first met — how accidental it was, and how small it was. It could have been nothing, but instead it was something.”

But whether it’s the thrill of young love or the majesty of a Rocky Mountain view, there’s a third step to the alchemy of miniaturizing life’s biggest moments — making them huge again. That’s the task ahead of Moore and Riley as they support Pollen on their upcoming U.S. tour, which comes to the Mission Ballroom in Denver on April 14. After breaking out of the local DIY scene more than a decade ago, the band’s slated return to the Queen City is, like many larger-than-life experiences, cluttered by small complications. 

“A hometown show is the most stressful because you’re playing to the people who know you best. I think in order to convincingly be on stage, you need some sort of mystique that allows people to believe that you, an ordinary person, should be on a stage. And that mystique is completely gone when everyone in the crowd has known you since you were like five,” Moore says. “What I would normally rely on to feel comfortable on stage feels really silly when I’m in front of my whole high school class. But it’s also special, because it’s home, and it’s full of all the people who love you — and you love them.” 

ON THE BILL: Tennis with Loving. 8 p.m. Friday, April 14, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop St., Denver. Tickets here.