Words By Charlie Billings and Ross Bretherton
Listening to Tennyson is an aural amusement park ride. Their knack for unpredictable song structures pairs perfectly with the playful array of sound effects they utilize for percussion. Hailing from Edmonton, the brother-sister duo of Luke and Tess Pretty started their career busking as young children and performing jazz covers onstage, but the music they create under the Tennyson moniker is distinctly different. Alongside their jazz music, Luke began to experiment with electronic music production, bringing Tess into his work by trying to write impossible drum parts to keep her entertained. The result is music with the vigor and structural complexity of jazz but the effervescence of bubblegum pop.
Tennyson’s music blends a smorgasbord of electronic textures, jazz-influenced rhythms, and, more recently, smooth vocals by Luke. Early tracks like “The Usual Mr. Nordin,” “Violet Alturas,” and “Aphasia Rewinding” blanked the listener in hazy, woozy synths over driving uptempo drums. With their single “With You/Lay-by,” Tennyson redefined their sound. Where the bubbly A-side is rhythmically complex with twinkling synths, laughter, and abrupt drops, “Lay-by” is subdued. Built around a usually annoying car noise, the track builds into a soothing electronic reverie.
On their most recent EP, Like What?, Tennyson expands their musical range with Luke singing on three tracks. The standout track, “Fault Line,” is their version of a perfect pop song, with Luke’s understated vocals enveloped in a tapestry of Tennyson’s hallmark synth work. Luke’s lyrics are simple, letting the emotive instrumentation do most of the talking for him.
Melisma got the opportunity to talk with the duo about their sibling dynamic, wildest dreams, and creative process before their Boston tour stop on Monday November 7th at Great Scott.
You guys just came off tour in Texas with M83; How was that?
Luke: It was a perfect show every time, in terms of having everything we needed. They had a huge crew there, and they were very helpful.
Over the summer, and again on this tour, you’ve gotten the chance to play some much larger venues than previously. What’s your preferred setting for performing your music live?
Tess: Oh man, I don’t know! They’re both very fun. There’s something very exciting about playing bigger venues, but there’s also something super intimate and cozy about playing smaller bars.
And what are you up to between those dates and your upcoming ones on the East Coast?
Luke: We’re going to learn a couple more songs, and add some things to the show that were missing before.
Is that new material you’re learning?
Luke: Yeah, and some songs that are released that we just haven’t had the chance to perform yet.
And your song structures are wild. What’s your arrangement process? Do you work together or is it primarily you, Luke, bringing them to Tess for drums?
Luke: The composition is usually just a linear work in progress. I’ll just do the intro first, and then just grind through trying to find a new section.
In the past, you’ve talked about being inspired by your environment, about everything around you contributing to your work. Do you think your music represents the way you see the world?
Luke: I think so. It’s more just like a little bubble, maybe not the world. It’s inspired by the bubble I’m stuck in, and everyone else is.
And I also want to ask how that transitions to songs like “Lay-by,” which samples the sound when you take the keys out of your car when the lights are still on, and “Like What,” where you’re moving around the rooms of a house. Do you consciously try to create these unique, conceptual song structures?
Luke: I was just trying to think of ways to mess with who’s listening, in a playful way. So, not too much torture. I like to do things that nobody’s expecting to happen to the flow of a song.
How does your sibling dynamic work when you and Tess are touring?
Luke: It’s pretty much the best thing ever.
Tess: It’s like what you could hope for, in a band relationship. I guess even if we get angry at each other, we’re still gonna be family at the end of the day so we kinda just have to get over it.
In the summer, I saw that you popped up in the studio with Mr. Carmack. What’s the story with that?
Luke: That is… Red Bull Music Academy, for Red Bull Sound Select.
So did they just put you together in a room?
Luke: Yeah… and I think they asked me to send a list of people I’d like to work with and then Mr. Carmack was already a big fan beforehand. He found Like What? and he reposted it. And then wanted to collab. I think he was just stoked to be able to, like, have three days. We spent three days in the studio from morning to night.
Are there any artists still on that list that you’d like to work with?
Luke: Yeah… it’s a long one for sure.
Anything coming out with other artists that we should look out for?
Luke: Yeah, there’s something coming out. I think it’s a little secret though.
[it was this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u547F-_vAmQ]
And listening to a lot of your earlier work, like off of the self-titled album, some of the earlier stuff carries a much darker mood than your most recent work. Was that a conscious decision, or where does that come from?
Luke: Oh, like the really early stuff.
Yeah, like off the Tennyson album.
Luke: Oh, I don’t know. That’s probably just the bouncy-ball energy when I made all those. I don’t know where it came from. I’ve been channeling the collective unemptied feelings since birth. There was probably enough built up by the time I started making songs. But I definitely wasn’t like a dark person when I was making that stuff.
What direction, then, do you see your sound taking in the next few years or so? Are you trying to work in any new genres into it or any new influences?
Luke: Yeah. I think it’s a combination of an increase of scale – so like real instruments and string sections and energy – but at the same time, kinda simplifying everything so it’s completely sparse and it’s epic, but at the same time it’s barely there.
If you had to add one live instrumentalist or artist to your band, because you already talked about adding that real instrument into, who would you bring on? Like what would you add?
Luke: A vocalist, someone who could sing. It would take a lot of weight off of me trying to sing.
So that’s you singing in songs like “Fault Line”?
Luke: Yeah, yeah yeah. Those three songs. I’m singing on the EP.
And when you were writing lyrics, where were you drawing inspiration from? How do you go about writing lyrics for music as wild and unpredictable as yours?
Luke: The last time I wrote lyrics, I took a camera out in last October or maybe last November and went around taking videos of flies and tunnels. And then, I would do that on the way to a coffeeshop and then get there and try to write some words down, and then go out and take more videos.
Do you make a lot of your music in coffee shops?
Luke: Up until this point, yeah. That feels kinda like an old method now. I think I’ve found other ways.
Have you been able to make music on tour? Have you had time to do that?
Luke: Yeah, actually I had some deadlines to make while I was on tour, so I was definitely taking my laptop out wherever I could.
If you two weren’t called Tennyson, what would you be called?
Luke: My middle name is Tennyson, but Tess’s name, in the middle, is Rain. *both laugh* So maybe we’d just call it Rain, or Tennyson Rain.
Tess: I was thinking about… it’s really hard to say our name on the mic. For some reason, whenever I say we’re Tennyson, it just sounds weird. But I think we almost should have had a name that has “the” at the beginning, ‘cause any name with “the”… like even if we were “The Tennyson.”
What’s the craziest dream you’ve ever had? A lot of your music has a lot of soundscapes that sound like they could soundtrack weird dreams?
Tess: There’s so many of them. When you’re telling people about dreams you have to kind of streamline it into a sentence. One of the craziest dreams was watching myself get murdered
Luke: I had a dream when I was 8 years old of this amazing water slide tunnel system on Mars. It was the best. I got up and opened up microsoft paint and was just drawing tunnels.
That’s a pretty apt representation of your music, a water slide tunnel system on Mars. Are you still rocking a bowl cut Luke?
Luke: I just killed it
You had a twitter poll up about it
Luke: It’s gone now. I had too many things to blame on the bowl-cut. And it built up to where I was just blaming everything on the bowl cut. Then I got rid of the bowl cut and none of that stuff’s changed.
If you had synesthesia what do you think your songs would smell like?
Luke: Really bad probably. Like when you try to cook with a million ingredients and you’re left with a very indistinguishable soup.
I imagine you’re stir frying in a wok but with bubblegum, hard candy, and fruit salad
Tess (laughing): yeah definitely
What’s the most underrated fruit salad ingredient?
Tess: I think maybe grapes
Luke: grapes are really killing it
Tess: i don’t think enough people use grapes in their fruit salad. Also watermelon
Luke: watermelon in fruit salad kills it
The cover of Like What was taken in front of an Asian restaurant right?
Luke: It’s like a chain sushi restaurant I think
Is Japanese your favorite asian cuisine?
Luke: Korean takes the lead. I just imagine like a Japanese man with sushi ingredients all over his body running and then a korean man with strings carrying all the little side dishes rattling behind him. And he just takes the lead
Music video idea?
Luke: Maybe not
What’s your favorite thing about Edmonton?
Tess: It’s very beautiful, even in the Winter. There’s two hills on either side of the river valley that you can drive down and whenever you drive down, whatever season it is, it’s pretty.
Do you miss it on tour?
Luke: No, but yes
Tess: We came back and it was winter and we hadn’t seen snow since the last winter and the first time you walk out in winter you just want to scream, “no!” but now being outside is nice. I kind of miss it. It’s calm and it smells nice because all you can smell is water.
Has anyone showed up to your concert wearing a blanket? I feel like that would be really appropriate.
Luke: I’ve definitely seen people show up wearing like a cape-like blanket
Tess: people have worn onesies to our shows. We threw pillows into the audience once at a show. We had a rare surplus of pillows.