“For the most part, Edmonton is adorable.” This is Tess Pretty, the drumming portion of Tennyson. “As soon as it’s winter it’s the worst place imaginable.” Tess is particularly aggrieved because we’re in Los Angeles, outside in the sun, and she’ll play a show tonight and then head back north, because she’s still in high school.
“I just want to be able to do this all the time. I learn a song, and then we go play a show, and then I come back, and I’m in school. I’m in school every day, and that’s the worst!”
The best? “Tennyson is the most fun you could ever have playing music live. For me, it’s not necessarily just drumming. It’s the most complicated and the most fun form of drumming you could possibly do.”
Three Decembers ago, Tess and her two years older brother Luke decided they would play a live show in their hometown of Edmonton. They had been onstage together for years, jazz covers, all over Canada, hitting the road in the summer under the guidance of their father, who is also a drummer. But this show would be different.
"This was before I started wearing makeup. But I put on makeup for this show,” she says. This show meant that Tennyson, which had been Luke’s nom de plume, would become a family affair. “It looked for a while like Tennyson might have been just Luke. To be included as a part of that, even though it wasn’t my thing, was to continue something that for a little bit I was afraid might end.”
She could do those jazz covers in her sleep. “The show we used to do kind of sucked sometimes,” she says. “It just wasn’t fun.” Tennyson songs are a different matter. “He’ll write a drum part and he won’t think about it and then he’ll come into my room or whatever, and be like, ‘You can’t play this drum part. But you have to play this drum part. But you can’t play it.’”
Luke recognizes the immensity of the task he’s assigned his little sister. “Tess’ drum kit has three tom toms just in front of her. And each of the tom toms has a rim as well. So I usually, to keep up with the complexity, have to put different pitches of snare drums and kick drums on the toms. And sounds just all over the place.”
“So, learning songs,” says Tess, “you have to listen to the parts that he writes and figure out which of the four snare drums is which pitch. It’s such a thing. To hear the snare drum and find it. Like, is this my foot bass drum, or is this the bass drum on my left tom or is this the bass drum on my snare drum rim? And is it two of those and one of those? Or is it one, two, three? Aaargh. And then you have to remember it all in one song. And then you have to remember every single song. And it always changes, too.”
The ass backwardness of Tennyson’s live setup belies the breeziness of the songs Luke writes. They’re lithe. They joke. They are smoothly present, making it so you could confuse recorded footsteps for your own, doors and alarms and dial tones and caught breaths that are coming out of your speakers for what’s happening next door. Because of their brightness and a certain debonair flavor, it’s sometimes like there’s an orchestra in the shower with you, like there’s a pit under the drain. It’s sometimes like Who Framed Roger Rabbit up in here.
“It’s almost painful. I feel guilty that I don’t enjoy all of the time. It seems like you have to.”
The 20 minutes of music on Like What did not come easy. “It’s almost painful,” says Luke. “I feel guilty that I don’t enjoy all of the time. It seems like you have to. But it’s definitely more like the only source of stress that I have. There’s just some times when you’re so discouraged.”
“That’s just part of it,” says his sister. “Luke gets, obviously, very frustrated writing songs, and I get even more frustrated trying to learn them, sometimes.”
“I noticed something recently,” says Luke. “Part of the reason why it was so hard, is because there was a fear of, like — if there’s a section that you know you want to make, but you haven’t started yet, there’s a part of you that’s scared to start. Because you feel like maybe now is not the best time to make it, or something. Or, tomorrow, maybe in the morning, you could really get that section to sound right. But I realized — the last song in the album is the only one I made in a week, where the other ones were two or three months. But that week was kind of like, ‘Whoa, you can just make it. You don’t have to worry about it.’ And same with lyrics. You could just write them. And then kind of fix it. And it’s good. It’s probably better if you’re not worried the whole time you’re making it.”
The months Tennyson has been quiet, the time that’s passed since they dropped a new song, have kept Luke from the only people he trusts to judge his work: you. “I’m just so scared that I’m not getting better,” he says. “I think my only actual way of knowing if I’m getting better is seeing the numbers.” He’s talking about Soundcloud, watching the listens on his newest work increase over the listens on his older. “And I haven’t been able to see that. So I feel kind of lost.”
The ass backwardness of Tennyson’s live setup belies the breeziness of the songs Luke writes. They’re lithe. They joke. They are smoothly present.
I asked him what would happen if people didn’t like his music. “That happened once,” he says. “It was more than a year ago. I was so invested — I think I spent two months on this song. And I got so confident. Like for the first time. Usually I didn’t have any way of knowing until I posted it. But I was like, ‘This is gonna be — people are gonna enjoy this.’ And then I posted it and nobody really cared. And that was a turning point for me where I realized how to consider the audience, in a different way. Kind if like a pop mentality almost. People aren’t listening for real content. They’re listening for things they can go ‘Oh’ to. Popular electronic music has a lot of the same elements, just cause they figured out what people like to listen to. But I think you need both, you need to consider your audience the entire time you’re making music but also don’t lose your soul or anything. I think you kind of have to change yourself into a bit more like your audience. It’s kind of a nice challenge: How can I make something that I’m proud of and that people will like immediately?”
Luke and Tess both find a little mystery, a little bit of a front, appealing. But they don’t try to shroud the hours of their actual working lives in glamour. They’re not superstitious. They know there will be sweat. They also know that they cannot explain exactly what is happening.
“If it comes out accidentally, that’s always the best. The best parts of the EP are the parts that I forgot I was alive while I made them. Like, all of my tea is freezing cold. And I don’t know what happened there, but there’s a part that I really like.” This is Luke. “I made all of the songs out of my house, just going to the university campus and sitting at the top of the library or like different cafes in weird spots. The best feeling was making something that you kind of didn’t like and then taking your backpack home and setting up your laptop before you go to sleep and listening to the part that you weren’t too sure of and it overwhelming you how good it is. It’s the only time where — those five seconds where you really love your own work. And then it kind of goes back to the normal thing.”
“I think you kind of have to change yourself into a bit more like your audience. It’s kind of a nice challenge: How can I make something that I’m proud of and that people will like immediately?”