Words by Tommy Johnson
This past summer was nothing short of a whirlwind for the members of Tennis System. Before our phone conversation in late August, the Los Angeles-based trio had just wrapped up some dates with Appleseed Cast in the Midwest along with some West Coast dates supporting Ringo Deathstar. Now, the members have come back together for rehearsal; their show in support of the latest album Lovesick is within a month (September 6th was the release date). “It’s cool to see how the new singles have been translating to crowds,” lead singer/guitarist Matty Taylor says. “It’s cool to play after we released ‘Shelf Life’ and see people get really excited that we played it.”
One person that wasn’t in attendance at the shows but has been exciting about the new music was no other than my son. I sheepishly mention to Matty, along with bassist Sam Glassberg and drummer Garren Orr, that my two-year-old child begins to sway uncontrollably once the chorus of the guitar-driven “Turn” ramps up; his claps his hands as if he is in front of sing-along video. Much to my chagrin at revealing this moment of my life to the band I’m having a conversation with, the boys took it as a badge of honor. “We are just doing this for the kids, man,” Taylor jokingly declared.
It has been a little over eight years now that Taylor packed up all of his belongings and moved out to Los Angeles. Tired of the blistering winters that came each year in his home in Washington, D.C., Taylor looked to the California city for new opportunities despite Tennis System gaining traction as one of the great and upcoming acts. Through a handful of lineup changes, this current ensemble of the band is at its strongest. Lovesick only drives home even more with its blistering focus and the deep attention to detail throughout. The tracks are paved with loud rounds of shoegaze, punk, and rock. Guitar riffs sway around fuzzed-out levels while brooding bass and hollow drum lines carry out the trio’s vision to perfection.
OffShelf: How did you all meet?
Matty Taylor: I put up an ad on Craigslist looking for a bass player, and Sam came and tried out. Obviously, he killed it.
Sam Glassberg: Garren and I have been in other bands before, during college.
MT: We needed a replacement drummer quickly, so Garren filled in. Now Garren is in the band.
Garren Orr: All those facts are true. [Everyone laughs]
OS: When all of you got together, did it feel that there was a secure connection immediately, or did it take some time?
MT: I think that it clicked pretty much on the day that we all sat down and played together.
SG: For me, I didn’t play bass seriously before getting into Tennis System; I played guitar mostly. Not to speak ill of playing with drummers that you don’t have chemistry, it’s an odd thing. It made me doubt my ability of a bass player and maybe not try some things. Once Garren got in, it became much easier.
I think that we have all grown as a unit, ability-wise. Playing with a better drummer has made me a better bass player. Especially with this new record, we all pushed each other to try different things. Obviously, Matty didn’t play drums on the record, but there are notes in the drum parts, and Garren gave vocal notes. This is the first record that Tennis System has done that everyone in the band contributed to every song. Every song was a building process between the three of us.
GO: I think that having the focus be translating our live show into the record was important. The songs wouldn’t work the way we play live, and the way we play live has been the most alluring. Wanting to bridge that gap and the record really helped with our focus when we were writing the songs.
OS: From what I was reading, Lovesick had the feeling that is going to be “all or nothing.” Is that true?
SG: I think that every release is sort of “all or nothing” release; if you are not doing your all, you are doing nothing. [Lovesick] was very much like the very first I’ve been a part that we weren’t being hindered by outside influence. It was just us.
OS: Please tell me if I’m wrong, but from reading about the release of Pain and the difficulty of getting the deserved attention to your work, the band was losing the love for music to some degree.
MT: Yeah, I think that’s fair. It’s more of the idea of doing something that you love so much that it breaks you. Obviously, you want to be heard, but it’s also just the things that you go through to create.
OS: Recording Lovesick, did it feel different from the other albums that you have released?
SG: We did this whole record live with tape and all being in the room together, just the three of us not really thinking about production… Jack Shirley is a magic man; he didn’t push us to do anything that was out of our comfort zone. He wants us to sound like ourselves. There were times listening back on tape, and we could hear things that sounded a little raw or out of place, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sounds like a band to me.” And I think that is what the album sounds like… it sounds like us; three best friends doing what they needed to do.
OS: I appreciate that you recorded on tape. That’s something that many bands don’t do as much anyone. I feel that there’s something special about it.
SG: It’s having the organic feel to it. We left some tape artifacts in a couple of places in the record. Side two starts with the tape sound starting up. I think that there’s this misconception that doing stuff digitally can make it easier, and you can get more ideas. Doing the record on tape, it kept us honest with the songwriting.
MT: Also, we had to be very tight. There was no room for error.
OS: How long did the album take to record?
MT: Five days. Five days of tracking, took a day off for mixing, had our notes for the mixes, and then that was it.
SG: We come home with a pretty finished album. [laughs]
OS: Is this something different from the previous efforts?
MT: With Pain, it took us ten days to record. Then it took about two weeks for us to get back mixes. It was really nice to have an efficient session where you go in, do exactly what you came there to do, and leave with exactly what you came to make. We rehearsed three times a week before going into that, so we were extremely tight. We had broken down songs. We basically came up with every possible idea before going in, so when we went in, we knew exactly what we were going to do how to execute it. Speaking with Jack all along the way as well, so by the time we got in, we were on par with what we wanted to do.
OS: “Turn” has become one of my all-time favorite songs. The video that accompanies it is insane; the shots of everyone playing the chords stood out to me. Who thought of that idea?
GO: Sam saw this insane video from the late 80s-early 90s and pitched it to us.
MT: We came up with the narrative and wrote it. It was a cool process that we did ourselves and forget about worrying about outside influences. It was nice to have a vision and goal that was all ours and come out like it did.