Interview with Matty Taylor, Sam Glassberg, and Garren Orr | By Tim Anderl | Photo by jacki Vitetta
Los Angeles-based shoegaze/post-punk trio Tennis System released PAIN via Graveface Records on April 27. The record follows on the heels of the band being lauded by LA Weekly as “one of the city’s best live acts,” a performance for “Last Call with Carson Daly,” and regular performances on L.A.’s iconic Part Time Punks showcase series.
Recorded in Philadelphia with Jeff Zeigler—who has worked with War On Drugs, Nothing, and Kurt Vile—and in L.A. with Courtney Ballard—All Time Low, Anti-Flag—PAIN stays true to the band’s characteristically lush soundscape while continuing to thematically delve into the modern, youthful dilemmas of isolation, longing, failure, and persistence and feature melodies newly infused with the sting of personal loss and sacrifice.
Vocalist and guitarist Matty Taylor, bassist Sam Glassberg, and drummer Garren Orr take a moment to discuss their sound, the new record, and more.
You are originally from D.C., right? Did growing up in D.C. mean you were exposed to all of the Dischord stuff at an early age?
MT: Absolutely. As a kid, my brother introduced me to Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Nation Of Ulysses. My first show was The Make-Up at Black Cat. He’d also sneak me out of the house pretty regularly. I saw Fugazi play their last Fort Reno show, Shudder To Think, and caught a bunch of Q And Not U shows. That was an amazing time, and I’m very grateful to have experienced it.
Does that early exposure to hardcore inform Tennis System at all?
MT: It definitely does. Our live show, especially, is heavily influenced by Fugazi and Bad Brains. To this day, I get chills watching Bad Brains’ performance at CBGB.
How does living in L.A. inform your sound?
MT: L.A. has introduced a lot of new emotion into my life. While I love the quality of life, nice weather, and great food, I often question my living here and find myself fantasizing about moving back to the East Coast, spending time with my family, and being financially stable again. Channeling this into music has become my biggest focus.
SG: I really dislike living in L.A., actually. So, for me, I daydream about being elsewhere, and I guess those other places influence what I write.
GO: I have a love-hate relationship with L.A. People are positive, the nature is beautiful, and there are a ton of opportunities, but I hate getting into a car every day and playing the who’s-who game with people. I really prefer the spontaneity and grittiness of interacting with people and a city via walking or public transit. And it’s refreshing when someone is brutally honest when they don’t know who the fuck someone’s talking about, regardless of how important they may be. So, I think the “sound” L.A. brings out of me is a push and pull of relaxed comfort with my current life and some angsty yearning for a new setting and lifestyle.
The material on the record is reflective of personal losses the band have experienced, right? If so, what is your formula for dealing with loss?
MT: Yes, that’s correct. We all deal differently. I usually keep my feelings bottled up inside and occasionally share them with others. I often try not to burden people with my problems. At the time of writing PAIN, we were all going through our own personal losses, and, together, we immersed ourselves in that emotion and created something beautiful.
SG: It takes a really long time to grieve and process loss, and everybody does it in their own way. I chose to grieve privately and remove myself from social situations and social media to handle it myself. I guess that gives me more time to write music. The act of performing is also a massive outburst of energy and emotion, so that, for me, helps blow off the pain of loss, even while playing songs about the subject.
GO: I’ve dealt with some very major losses in my life, and regardless of the type of loss, I think the most important way to keep going is to find some beauty or levity in your situation. No matter how shitty things can be, there’s always something that can be looked at positively. It’s all a matter of perspective.
You made some sacrifices to make this record. Can you talk about those?
MT: The tour we were on was set to finish in Atlanta. Our plan was to tour our way to the East Coast and then drive to Philly to record. While we were on our way to a show in San Diego, the transmission in our van died. The cost of the repair completely wiped out the band funds. We missed three shows and were completely broke. So, we threw what remaining money we had together and drove from San Diego to Alabama to play the last two shows. Since we were broke, we couldn’t afford a place to stay in Philly and slept on floors in what was one of the coldest winters since 1994. I couldn’t fall asleep, because I was so fucking cold. I was fighting off cold symptoms the entire time, and Garren caught the flu. We put our lives completely on hold to make this record and just barely scraped up enough money to make it back to L.A.
SG: I left a full-time job to focus on Tennis System. PAIN is my first release with the band, so for me, this record is the culmination of one of the largest sacrifices I’ve made in my life.
GO: Aside from recording with a broken toe and the flu during the coldest week in Philly in decades, we all put jobs and relationships on hold to make it work. When you love something and believe in it, you do what you have to do.
You recorded PAIN in two locations, right?
MT: Yep. We recorded “LACKLUSTER” and “EVERYBODY” with Courtney Ballard in L.A. and “COMING DOWN,” “CLEARER,” “CRUSHING” and “LIE” in Philly with Jeff Zeigler.
How did you decide to record in Philadelphia with Zeigler as well?
MT: We’ve known each other since I was a kid, and I’ve always been a big fan of Jeff’s work. He actually recorded the first Tennis System demos back in 2009. I have been wanting to work with him again for some time, and with this tour ending on the East Coast, it just made sense. I really love his work on Nothing’s Guilty of Everything and Violens’ True. So, when he came out to L.A. to play a show, we linked up and rapped about making the new record together. He was into the demos and has always had a good grasp on the direction I like to take my songs.
SG: I also saw it as an opportunity to get out of L.A. for a few weeks.
GO: Jeff is a master of tone. His kit sounds are dialed in. He knows exactly what combination of amp, pedal, and guitar gets you to the aesthetic you want, and he knows it in an instant. We had a really positive experience working with him. Also, he knows his shit about good soup.
Were there huge differences in what you were hoping to get from Zeigler and Ballard?
SG: Obviously, based on each of their respective production credits, the results were going to be different. That, coupled with the very different locations and seasons the songs were recorded in made for a huge difference. That being said, I didn’t go in with any sort of expectations of those differences. I think expectations can often hold you back, so going in openly to new experiences and environments is what really makes this record work in the way it does.
GO: I think it was just a matter of playing off of each other to our greatest strengths. Jeff jumps into the pool with us, showing off his different landings, while Courtney asks us how many laps we can do before telling us to do 10 more. I love them both.
What are your favorite moments on the record?
MT: For me, it’s the way each track builds off one another. We intentionally picked the track order to create a tension that explodes at the end. At times, it’s difficult for me to listen back, because I can still feel all of the emotion from those songs—like I’m reliving those experiences.
SG: I think a lot of the textures Jeff added with his massive effects pedal collection really make some fantastic moments on the record. Matty already had a super spacey guitar tone, but Jeff has some insane delays and reverbs that added a new dimension. The intro to “COMING DOWN” in particular gives me chills. I also love the Nashville-tuned guitar on the bridge of “CLEARER.”
GO: The ambient way the record opens is such a drastic difference from what our live show is, so I love bringing the listener into this warm embrace before completely annihilating them with the intensity of the rest of the record. I also love flipping the record and hearing the bassline of “CLEARER” fade in. Feels so new and fresh every time I hear it.
You came up with the concept for the “CLEARER” video, right? Are there parts of that video that are autobiographical in nature?
MT: Yeah, I had this idea of the scenery changing while the subject stayed the same. I wanted the beauty of the locations to create a contrast with the melancholy subject.
There definitely are. I wanted to show how, even in this beautiful place, you can still be unhappy. People have a misconception of this city. There’s this facade that it’s so beautiful here and nothing can ever go wrong. What they don’t see is the struggle a lot of artists go through here to “make it” or reach a level of accomplishment. Lots of them change who they are to fit an image in hopes of success. While others were changing, I was staying the same—staying in my lane and true to myself.
GO: It feels special to think that you’re the only one going through what you’re going through, but in reality, we all share the same feelings of social awkwardness and isolation at one level or another. All that matters is where you go from there.
Living in L.A., I imagine you have occasional brushes with famous people. Are there any that were particularly memorable for you?
MT: Not particularly. I don’t really care too much about “famous people.” I’m more interested in famous artists or musicians. Tears For Fears came into the bar I used to run. That was about as “star-struck” as I’ve ever been. Like four years ago, I found a box of Greg Sestero’s—from “The Room”—stuff in Los Feliz. There were a bunch of headshots, a letter from his agent, a few diet books, and a copy of “Pretty Woman” on VHS. It’s maybe the only time my habit of picking up stuff off the street actually paid off. Other than that, I saw David Chang, my number one celeb crush, at my favorite soup spot in Koreatown, so that was pretty cool.
GO: People are people. I just like talking with people who don’t take themselves too seriously—and people who love people and are interested in making the world a better place. That being said, Andy Dick once told my friends we were too nice for him to tell us to suck his dick. So, there’s that.
What are your loftiest goals for Tennis System?
MT: I speak for all of us when I say we want to be on tour more. It’s always been a personal goal of mine to see the world off the merit of music.
SG: I just want to play at venues with high enough ceilings that I can jump off my cab and not have to worry about hitting my head.
Garren: World Domination. Glory. A fully fulfilled rider.