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Time To Put Some (Tennis) Elbow Grease Into Piano Pop Music

Tennis Elbow Charlotte North Carolina music.JPG
Photo courtesy of Tennis Elbow.
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Ryan Wentz, Heather Jensen and Chandler Hicks perform in the North Carolina piano pop band known as Tennis Elbow.

"The music is serious, but I never take it seriously. I believe that you can make deeply personal music without sacrificing a sense of humor or self-awareness. It’s equal parts therapy and irony. Don’t tell my therapist”

The coronavirus outbreak has spurred a number of musicians to “press pause” on their plans, whether it was for concerts or travel. But COVID-19 hasn’t stopped musicians from being creative, finding inspiration and recording new songs from the comfort of home. That includes North Carolina piano pop band Tennis Elbow, which released a new full-length album inspired by and recorded entirely during the pandemic.

"I think that being playful about it and making fun of your situation, making fun of the fact that you’re making music at an impossible time keeps me from thinking about it too hard. Because if I thought about it for too long, I think I would go crazy."
– Ryan Wentz, lead singer of Tennis Elbow

Interview Highlights:

On the band’s start:

Ryan Wentz (lead singer): All of us went to UNC Wilmington, and we graduated in 2019 together. But the original band started in 2017, which was basically me, alone in my garage, being lo-fi and trying to be Jack White. And it didn’t sound great. But then in 2018, I met Heather [Jensen] on the set of the music video for Tennis Elbow’s song “Fix Me,” because she’s also an amazing photographer and videographer. And we hit it off immediately. We’ve been best friends ever since.

Heather Jensen (drummer): Our friend asked me to take photos on the set of this music video. [Ryan] had very long hair and was wearing the same jean jacket and jean pants for all four days of the shoot. I thought that was interesting. And we bonded over music.

Wentz: Heather had this thing called “Jam Club” at UNCW where it was her and four people sitting in the amphitheater and playing music. I had always wanted to be in a band. I was like, “Dude, we should be in a band.” And she’s like, “I’m kind of already in a band … and I know a bassist [Tennis Elbow’s Chandler Hicks].” And I was like, “He can be in our band too!” And then I stole both of them. [Laughing.]

On Tennis Elbow’s North Carolina-inspired sound:

Wentz: I always had this ongoing joke when we did live shows where I would call us the fifth-best Ben Folds Five cover band in North Carolina. And I would still call us that to this day. [Laughing.] For me, I’ve been obsessed with Roberta Flack and Theolonious Monk and lots of North Carolina musicians who brought out my love of funk and piano. Especially with Ben Folds. I mean, I’ve basically ripped off everything he’s ever done. But it comes from a place of love! The way that he would smack the keys and make his fingers bleed and step on the piano, it inspired me. And when I found out he was playing Chapel Hill clubs, it made it even more real because I was like, “I know where that is! I’ve been there.”

Jensen: I didn’t grow up knowing many North Carolina musicians. If anything, the landscape of North Carolina is inspiring, especially for my music videos. I love the swampiness and Southern Gothic sort of thing.

On Tennis Elbow’s style of songwriting:

Wentz: I really love the irony of the ‘90s. Having been born in 1997, I didn’t experience it. I was around for the end of irony when everything was pretty serious, for the most part. I’ve always really loved that ‘90s spirit of Harvey Danger and all of those great ballad rock bands. I think that grunge attitude is very appropriate, especially nowadays when the music landscape is so impossible to get into and so difficult to take it seriously. Making music through streaming is impossible! Growing your band when everyone has a Bandcamp and everyone’s making music, it’s hard to take it seriously. I think that being playful about it and making fun of your situation, making fun of the fact that you’re making music at an impossible time keeps me from thinking about it too hard. Because if I thought about it for too long, I think I would go crazy.

On Tennis Elbow’s Charlotte roots:

Wentz: Charlotte was the place where I learned how to make music and play music. I used to do Beatles Nights at Tosco Music, and I became really inspired and started writing all of the songs from Tennis Elbow’s debut “15 - Love” in Charlotte. It was instrumental for me. The vibe of Charlotte is the opposite of Wilmington, in a lot of ways. It was a big change for me because growing up in South Charlotte, it’s hustle bustle and there’s lots of different scenes and stuff going on. Wilmington is pretty small in comparison. I think that worked in Tennis Elbow’s benefit because we sounded really different from anything happening in Wilmington because we sounded so bright and jangly, we were so ironic and having fun … which was the vibe of Charlotte, of Amos' Southend, of the Evening Muse where I did some of my first shows. So I carried that Charlottean vibe with me, for sure.

On Tennis Elbow producing and recording its 2020 full-length release during the pandemic:

Wentz: I got laid off from my job in Manhattan. It was a crazy time. The people in our apartment (including Heather) returned in North Carolina in March and April 2020. Our intention was to go back to New York, but as the [pandemic] continued, we made the decision not to return to New York. It was in the purgatory of now knowing we were returning or not that I started writing a lot of songs. I wrote 60% of the record in the first week of returning to my mom’s house in Charlotte. I hadn’t lived in Charlotte for five years, since I was a senior in high school. It was a really weird situation where we didn’t have any of our stuff with us. Almost immediately, I had this manic craze to create this album that was supposed to mean something.

I named “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” after the Ai Weiwei triptych. It’s three pictures side-by-side of him holding a really old Han Dynasty urn, dropping it and then it shattering. The idea was, in order to build a new world, you have to destroy the old one. And I loved that. It felt really now. It felt like pandemic-era music, especially politically.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Tennis Elbow - “Fix Me”
Tennis Elbow - “Sewing Machine”
Pinky Verde - “i know u”
Tennis Elbow - “Haussmann Waltz”
Tennis Elbow - “Any Time Now”
Tennis Elbow - “Palisade Passepied”
Tennis Elbow - “Nero Diocletian”

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Joni Deutsch is happy to call Charlotte home as WFAE's manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, where she's led the first Charlotte Podcast Festival (named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout) and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. In addition to being an NPR Music contributor, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, named “Best Podcast” by Charlotte Magazine and honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by the local Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times).