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Tennis System: An Interview with Matty Taylor

Photo by Anthony Tran
19 February 2020

Photo by Anthony Tran
Los Angeles, CA’s most energetic shoegazers, Tennis System, have released their latest full-length, Lovesick, this past fall via Graveface Records, and have garnered a well-deserved reputation of delivering pulverizing live shows in its wake. Recorded by acclaimed producer/engineer, Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Oathbreaker, Gouge Away), Lovesick perfectly captures the compelling blend of towering shoegaze and driving punk that defines Tennis System’s sound. “Rotting Out” showcases that kinetic side, opening with a pulsating post-punk bass line and thundering drums before exploding into a hook-filled chorus. Tennis System has been compared favorably to the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine and more.
Lovesick finds Tennis System channeling years of determination, frustration, and musical and personal growth into a collection of songs that achieve the band’s full potential and chart new sonic territory. Made up of Matty Taylor (guitar/vocals), Sam Glassberg (bass), and Garren Orr (drums), Tennis System are a power trio with the emphasis on power; capable of conjuring a storm of noise and melody that would make Kevin Shields proud. While uncertainty and self-doubt are common lyrical themes on Lovesick, there’s also conviction – the desire to make the most of the time we have and follow the most fulfilling path, even if it’s an unconventional one. Taylor explains, “everyone finds something they fall in love with, for me it was music. I’m always searching for that feeling I had as a child discovering it for the first time. Even though so much of this album is about frustration, at the end of the day it’s really about having a passion for something.”

Huge thanks to James Goodson with Let’s Go Publicity for the coordination and to Matty for the interview.

James Broscheid: Congrats on Lovesick! Counting 2018’s P A I N, this is your second release for Graveface correct? How did you guys get hooked up with them in the first place?

Matty Taylor: Yep, that’s correct. This is our first full length with them and we’re very excited. We met (owner) Ryan (Graveface) at SXSW in 2017. I have been a very big fan of the label since 2013, so when he contacted us after our Part Time Punks Showcase (Los Angeles-based promotor), I was very quick to lock it in.

JB: The band’s origins go back to Washington D.C. I was wondering if you could give us a brief history of the band? From its beginnings and name to ending up on the opposite coast.

MT: I started Tennis System back in 2009. It was originally just a bedroom project I was doing. I wrote a song a day for about 4 months, until I found myself wanting to build a band. Once I found a crew to play the songs, we recorded demos and started touring the east coast a bit with a few shows in Philly and New York. That lead to the recording of Teenagers (self-released, 2011), which was pretty well received as the whole “shoegaze revival” hadn’t really happened yet. At that point I felt I hit the glass ceiling in DC. I decided to take to the west coast. In the first month of living in Los Angeles we wrote Technicolour Blind (_Papercup Music, 2014), and then toured it a bit. Hit a few road blocks with band members, but in 2016 met Sam and Garren. We locked in and have made some of our best material, to date.

JB: Last year’s P A I N was aptly named not only with what the band was going through but also as a kind of national mood barometer. Was Lovesick then a record born out of resignation? Lyrically it would seem so.

MT: That’s correct, P A I N was a personal album about what each one of us were going through during the time of writing and recording the record. Lovesick is still very personal but it’s about a bigger topic that a lot of people—especially people our age—can relate to. We wanted our experiences to be more of a jumping off point and for listeners to see their own lives reflected back. The album is about the day-to-day struggles that people in all walks of life face in order to pursue the things they’re passionate about. It’s about reckoning with the barriers and structures that were built without our say, and trying to make changes. There’s definitely frustration there, but unlike P A I N, it’s not about resignation—we wanted Lovesick to be more of a cry to stand for something.

JB: Tennis System’s sound is unique without doubt. The band has been compared to Ride and Lilys, rightfully so. But, Tennis System’s intensity can be traced to punk’s/hardcore’s power (reminds me of the great Mega City Four!). Can you discuss the band’s influences and where you draw inspiration from?

MT: I can’t pinpoint one particular band or artist that we specifically draw from. Music is a big influence, but we draw from art, our families, our friends, and social climates. We make the music we’d want to listen to.

JB: I read P A I N was recorded live. Lovesick also? Were there any special treatments to the production/mixing of this record that differed from anything you did in the past? Perhaps some experimentation?

MT: P A I N actually wasn’t recorded live. We broke it down in sections and recorded it to a click, in a very conventional way. Lovesick was recorded live to tape. We made this record in five days – a process that was something we’ve never done before. We went into a room and played the songs. What was captured in each take is what you hear on the record. People always tell us our live shows are sick, and we have so much fun playing that way, so our goal in making Lovesick was to capture that energy. And to be sure that what fans like about the album is what we can do live! No one does that anymore.

JB: I can’t believe ‘Lovesick’ was recorded in five days! That is amazing!

MT: We spent 4-6 days a week rehearsing. We dissect every song and make sure it’s extremely tight before it leaves the practice space. We knew the order of the record and how each song would be performed before we entered the studio. That in conjunction with Jack’s studio proficiency helped to make this record a quick process. Jack also helped strip us of this idea that everything needs to be perfect. One of our favorite moments was after a take Sam asked “Do you think my bass sounds off in the chorus?’ To which Jack replied “sounds like a band to me.” That really shaped moving forward in the process. We focused less on perfection and more on the energy of the performance.

JB: Speaking of that, the band has a reputation for its live shows. How are the recent run of dates treating you guys? What is it about playing live that excites the band the most?

MT: That tour with The Appleseed Cast was great! The crowds have been great and it’s always nice playing full rooms out of town. The thing that excites us the most is when the crowds get into it with us. We go apeshit on stage and when the crowds do the same, it only propels the energy to another level. We love being in different cities and experiencing what each town has to offer. Be it a local dish, drink or location.

JB: I was surprised to learn D.C. didn’t take to Tennis System in the early days of the band (which was the impetus for moving to LA?). Why do you think that was? Especially considering the city’s Dischord history, et al.

MT: You and me both. I grew up in D.C. I experienced that city, at a young age, when it peaked. I embraced the scenes that were based there and came through there so hard. I saw Fugazi, Blonde Redhead, The Make Up, Polvo … I was so young, about 9, that they would just put me on the stage at clubs like The Black Cat. I could go on and on about it! But there was a community then. People embraced everyone making music. By the time I was making music and performing, the scene was dead. I feel like the main reason for that was the majority of those people had moved to New York, Philly or Los Angeles. Rent was steadily increasing, the art scene rapidly declining. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few bands doing cool shit, but D.C. just wasn’t on the map anymore. But D.C. still shaped me — I was lucky enough to be mentored by (the late) Stewart Lupton (Jonathan Fire*Eater). He always loved what we were doing and even made a few live cameos. He encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing and if it meant moving, then I had to do it. So, I left.

JB: Can you discuss the songwriting process; from conception to completion? Is it a collaborative effort? Has it evolved four LPs in?

MT: Lovesick was written in a much different manner than the previous efforts. Some tracks were written as a completely collaborative effort. We rehearse three to four times a week. In that time we do a number of things. If one of us has an idea we’ve come up with, we bring it in to rehearsal and flesh it out into a song. Sometimes one of has a song and add or subtract to make it a stronger song. We will record a demo and then not listen to it for a day. We then revisit the track and take notes in what we like and or don’t like and rework the song until we feel it’s at its best possible form.

JB: How in the hell did you manage to find a Slumberland copy of In The Presence of Nothing (Lilys, 1992)? God, even the Slumberland CD version is hard to find! Although, I must say, scoring a recently repressed version signed by Kurt Heasley was a thrill. Frontier Records did a great job on it. Can you guys share some of your personal favorite artists/records?

MT: (Laughs) I’m young, but an old head. I got it off eBay back in the day for $50. Kurt actually lived with me for the 6 months he was in LA going through all the motions to do those reissues. All of those reissues were screened in my old house by Kurt and my brother Damien (the flash hits!). I’ve known Kurt since I was a kid. Which is a bit to do with why I named the band after one of his songs.

16.) Is ‘Better Can’t Make Your Life Better’ your favorite Lilys record? Did Kurt provide any guidance/words of wisdom on your own work in Tennis System when he stayed with you? Such a great story!

MT: That’s like asking me what my favorite Beatles record is, (laughs)! So there are two versions of ‘Better Can’t Make Your Life Better’. There’s the U.S. and the UK. The UK version has amazing orchestral instrumentations on it. I fell in love with the UK version. When I was a kid there was something about the strings that hit at about 3:11 that I fell completely head over heels for. That’s why I chose to name the band after it. That and because of the line in there about Lush, another one of my favorite bands.
I have another Lilys story that may top that. In 2011 on the way to All Points West festival in New Jersey, my brother and I ran into Kurt and his wife on the train from Philly to Jersey. We were all headed to the festival on the later side to catch My Bloody Valentine. This was when MBV had reunited and was touring the U.S. Kurt was opening for them as a solo acoustic act. So when we arrived at the festival, Kurt and his wife ducked to the backstage area and onto the stage for their set. My brother and I got as close as possible. After the show, we headed into New York City to grab a bite and hang out. After we had eaten, we were walking to a bodega for my brother to grab smokes, when we passed Kurt in front of this little Irish pub. He reaches over to grab my shoulder and says, “Matthew Taylor! Let me introduce you to my good friend, Kevin Shields!” So Kevin and I chatted for several hours about pedals and settings. He was extremely nice and was so eager to talk about sounds and tones as well as the pedals and settings he used to obtain them. Then (MBV drummer) Colm (Ó Cíosóig) started playing drums on the kit set up at the bar and Kurt started playing guitar. They were jamming for a bit when he looked over at me and we made eye contact. He stopped playing, grinned at me and started playing The Tennis System (And Its Stars). I lost my shit!

JB: I love the *Cure*-esque bass playing on the P A I N track, Clearer and synths on Coming Down. It was surprising at the time much like the first time I heard the new LP’s title track. Surprising because, as a fan, you come to expect a pile-driving wall of sound from a Tennis System record! Is it important to stay flexible in regards to incorporating new sounds/styles?

MT: Thank you for that! For us, it’s important to continue to grow. As I said before, we do everything we can to make each song the strongest version it can be. If that means adding a synth or building a song around a strong riff, we do it. The most important thing for us, is making sure we stay true to ourselves. We don’t follow any guidelines other than that of making songs we’d want to listen to. Lovesick is, hands down, our best work to date.

JB: What are some of the pros/cons to being a band based in LA? One thing that stood out when I interviewed the guys in Smokescreens was how resourceful musicians need to be there. It came from a place of necessity. Are any of you part of other bands/projects?

MT: I’ve found it to be the exact opposite, actually. Sadly, I don’t feel like we are apart of anything here. The only person to really have our back in LA has been Michael Stock of Part Time Punks. There’s no camaraderie. The pros I’ve found, are that the weather is really nice most of the time and the food is pretty good!

JB: Why do you think there isn’t more support in LA and other artists? Is it more geographical because it is so sprawled out that the scenes are more like niches? Any parallels to your old stomping grounds in D.C?

MT: A lot of it is fear. It’s very tough to feel secure in a city like LA, and in a world where most bands have a shelf life of one to two years. In reality, if everyone here were working together, we’d make a large impact on music as a whole. Look at the D.C. scene or the Seattle scene. Those were bands that genuinely respected each other, and supported one another, and that is why they were remembered as part of a scene. Nirvana taking women-led acts like Shonen Knife and the Breeders on tour, D.C. bands playing the National Mall in protest of Reagan-era politics – it takes strength and self-assuredness to see beyond yourself. If everyone is doing rad shit, and willing to step out and support others, more eyes are on the scene and it flourishes. Instead, people are afraid that if they help you, you’ll pass them or steal their shine.

JB: You worked with Jeff Zeigler & Courtney Ballard on the P A I N EP. What attracted you to Jack Shirley for production/engineer duties on Lovesick? How do you decide whether to hire a producer or self-produce? Is that a luxury of being on a label?

MT: When we were in Europe, with The Black Queen, we were discussing who we’d like to do the new record with. We made a list of our favorite records of the past three years. He made almost every one of them. So we reached out. After a couple of lengthy phone conversations of what we wanted to accomplish, we sent over the demos. He was stoked on the songs and the album we could make together. We learned A LOT from working with Jack and are forever grateful for such an amazing experience.

JB: Can you discuss the new LP’s cover art and what, if anything, it says about the music inside?

MT: We wanted the cover to be as complex and enigmatic as the idea of love. The art is vibrant, pulsing, and lush. But the longer you look at it, you can find tension, emptiness, and a longing for more. Like bacteria inching toward one other, like gravity pulling the planets toward the sun, like the epicenter of an explosion; love is a seismic force. And we are lovesick.

JB: What is your earliest recollection of wanting to be a musician? Was it a particular band/song you heard from your youth?

MT: My first recollection was when I was in first grade. I was a massive KISS fan. Somewhere there’s a photo from my youth basketball team where I had a gnarly mullet because I wanted to look like Gene Simmons. I really loved the music as well as the visual aesthetic that KISS created. The costumes, the fire and explosions on stage, the blood on Gene’s face. I thought it was so fucking cool!

JB: I remember first hearing “Lackluster” off the P A I N EP and being absolutely floored. Sure, there are atmospheric touches to your stuff but the pummeling Tennis System subjects listeners to is a sheer joy. Do you consider Tennis System to be a shoegaze band? Do you mind the tag?

MT: Thank you very much for that!! I consider Tennis System its own thing. Do I like shoegaze, absolutely, but I also love hardcore, hip hop, jazz, punk, r&b, and go-go. The shoegaze tag is fine I guess. My only qualm is that when bands tag themselves as a specific genre, they them are limiting what they can do. Do you think Kevin Shields, Jim Reid or Kurt Cobain ever said they were a specific genre? We aren’t necessarily looking to fall into a genre, we’re just looking to make rad art that will move people, the same way the art that influences us has moved us.

JB: Hearing ‘Lovesick’ the first time reminded me of the first time I heard/saw Metz and Viet Cong (now Preoccupations), live – the amplified power of their sound and the visuals of their live performance. Something so primal – 100% energy. You touched upon it briefly but, how important is the feedback you get from an audience? Do you feel Tennis System is really in its element when playing live?

MT: Whether two or two hundred. We’re always giving it our all. When the crowd gets into it and lets loose we thrive off of that. No one show is ever the same. While every show will be high in energy and volume, you’ll never get a repeat performance from us. Whether it’s Sam climbing rafters, Garren throwing his kit across the stage or me jumping into a crowd, you just never know!
We put a lot into our live show as the performance element is very important to us. It’s how we present to the crowd our vision in real time. If you’ve seen Tennis System, you know, we don’t do very much talking during our set. We keep the set moving as one large piece…a “soundscape” so to speak. It has peaks and valleys and we want you to be engaged and along with us for every step of the way.

JB: Tracking down Tennis System records can be quite a task which probably aids in making the reward of actually getting your hands on one that much more satisfying! I finally managed to obtain a copy of Technicolour Blind. Is having an air of exclusivity around your releases intended? Like discovering a treasure? If you happen to stumble upon an RSD 2016 version of ‘Teenagers’ or ‘The Future of Our History’, please do let me know!

MT: It definitely is. We try to make every element of us like finding a treasure. First you find out about us. Then you try to find the albums, which are all limited in number. We also do limited runs of t-shirts. There’s usually not more than 50 of any one shirt. Since we print our own merch, when we go on tour we’ll bring super limited “one of a kind” pieces. The only thing we’re looking to change the “exclusivity” on is the number of shows we play a year. We definitely want to make sure we’re playing out more across the globe.

Catch Tennis System on tour:

2/19: Bar Loreto – Santiago, Chile
2/20: Z-Largo da Batata – Sau Paulo, Brazil
2/21: La Tangente – Buenos Aires, Argentina
2/22: TEATRIZ – Mar del Plata, Argentina
2/26: Nebula Club – Miraflores, Peru
2/28: Antipoda – Bogota, Columbia

4/2: Rudyard’s – Houston, TX
4/3: Paper Tiger – San Antonio, TX
4/4: Cheer Up Charlie’s – Austin, TX
4/5: Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios – Denton, TX
4/6: 89th Street (formerly The Conservatory) – Oklahoma City, OK
4/7: Hi-Dive – Denver, CO
4/9: The Edge Bar – Tucson, AZ
4/10: The Lunchbox – Phoenix, AZ
4/11: Soda Bar – San Diego, CA
4/12: Echoplex – Los Angeles, CA
4/14: La Maison Kebob – Fresno, CA
4/15: Thee Parkside – San Francisco, CA
4/16: The Starlet Room – Sacramento, CA
4/17: The Sky Bar – Coos Bay, OR
4/18: Black Water – Portland, OR
4/19: Funhouse – Seattle, WA