Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, the husband-and-wife duo behind indie-pop group Tennis, know the pressure of image. They've felt it since the release of their debut album Cape Dory (2011), the cover of which features Moore reclining in black heels and a navy blue lace jumpsuit.
"That was a press photo we had made sarcastically and it got leaked," Moore said. "At that time, people were very trigger-happy with blog posts. Somebody just wrote, 'Tennis's Album Cover Announced,' and posted this picture."
Once Pitchfork and other websites picked up the story, Moore and Riley felt obligated to use the photo as the cover. It set a template for subsequent album covers: Young and Old (2012) and the EP Small Sound (2013) both feature portraits of Moore. After artist Michael Carney finished the cover art for Ritual in Repeat (2014), Moore told him to cover her face with spray paint.
"[It] speaks to the way that I feel about feeling pressured to be this identifiable presence in the band," Moore said, "with a signature style and a look and a persona and a dance move or something. I don't have those things, and I never will."
Whether Moore has those things, her bold move suits Tennis's latest work. Supplanting the sunny, '60s girl group-influenced sound of earlier albums with the nimble beats of '70s and '80s new wave and disco, Ritual in Repeat showcases the Denver-based band's smartest, catchiest recordings to date. Time.com noted that "this effort sees the band moving from their poppy doo-wop surf rock into slightly harder terrain."
Fans of Tennis can venture into that terrain on Saturday, Oct. 18, when the band plays the Knitting Factory with Portland, Ore.-based New Age group Pure Bathing Culture.
The title "Ritual in Repeat" came from a songwriting and recording regimen that Moore and Riley developed. They spend certain hours of each day playing their instruments, reading, writing and editing older material. The couple worked out this routine as Tennis suffered what Moore called a "massive identity crisis" while trying to write a follow-up to Young and Old.
"We were realizing that the only way to get out of that was to kind of trick ourselves into shutting down your inner critic and your most analytic self," Moore said, "and just doing true work and not really looking back."
This approach helped Riley and Moore start Tennis in the first place. For the songs on Cape Dory, they drew on their experiences sailing around the Eastern Seaboard for a year.
"It was so easy to write those songs because there were no stakes," Moore remembered. "No one heard us. No one expected anything from us. We didn't have to show anyone [the songs] ever if we didn't want to."
Soon enough, a lot of people heard them. With the release of Cape Dory and Young and Old, Tennis started getting coverage from NPR, Stereogum, Nylon Magazine and other prominent outlets. The band also performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman.
Some of the scrutiny wasn't so welcome.
"I can't tell you how many times people have suggested that I stop playing an instrument live so I can just sing and engage the crowd and be a frontperson," Moore said. "But I don't want to because I'm a pianist and I play instruments."
Moore said those suggestions are symptomatic of a double standard in the music industry. It extends not just to performing but to songwriting.
"It's funny to me that someone who reviews music doesn't understand poetic license or a thought experiment. If it's a girl writing a song, it's like her journal entry. It's like a one-to-one correspondence of her life."
Such is not the case with Tennis's recent work. Unlike the autobiographical Cape Dory, Ritual in Repeat seeks to draw in as many different points of view as possible.
"Growing up the daughter of a pastor in a large family that was all home-schooled—I don't feel like those are universal experiences," Moore said. "With Ritual in Repeat, I wrote songs for and about other women, and I've never done that before. And I was trying to pull archetypal things from it."
Having established her creative process, Moore is excited to bring Tennis back into the public eye—and ear.
"The ambiguity of experience and the way that you filter everything through your own framework—that's the most interesting thing to me about art and songwriting," she said. "It's not really a song until it's heard by somebody else, if that makes sense."