There’s something deeply charming about Ryan Tennis and the Tennis Family Clubhouse. An unassuming three-bedroom row home in the Hawthorne neighborhood of South Philly has been hosting some killer house parties for almost eight years now.
The house’s shows, curated and hosted primarily by Ryan, are a family affair. His family owns the home. His brother, Bronson, played bass for the scorching-hot Caribbean-flavored band, El Caribefunk, which slayed a month-long residency at the Clubhouse in 2015. Gary, the youngest, sang in an a cappella group in college. An older sister sings in a band in Portland, Oregon. And cousin Johanna Austin sometimes sings with Clubhouse bands and runs a successful photography enterprise. There’s a lot of Tennis talent in and out of that house, and it used to be even more chaotic.
“I had a dream about it when I first moved in,” says Ryan, who’s preparing to celebrate the release of his third LP, “The Easier Mile,” at Milkboy Philly on March 4. “We’ve had over 75 shows. I’m always happy with the music, and we book to my tastes,” he says. It echoes a sentiment he reiterates throughout our chat — he wants the Clubhouse to be a “cool place where people feel welcome. I had a vision of bringing people together in a warm way around music.”
Tennis’ “Mile” is distinctly worldly in the sense that it incorporates reggae, tropical rhythms, covers of Steel Pulse and Bill Withers, and reflects Tennis’s travels, touring and gigging around the world over the last several years.
He grew up worshipping Paul Simon’s 1986 masterpiece, “Graceland,” and arrived to greats like Toots and the Maytals a little later in his musical evolution. “I started learning how to play those songs and seeing how certain rhythms affect people,” he says. “You’re calling forth a certain spirit and energy and I’ve seen that with doing so many shows with Caribefunk.”
Releasing ‘The Easier Mile’
“This is the most diverse of any of the albums that I’ve done. We’ve been doing a lot of touring in South America. I just got back from Colombia. I’m actually about to head to Argentina in a few weeks opening for Caribefunk,” he says. He just completed a meditation retreat of 10 days characterized by no screens, no contact with the outside world, no communication of any kind. Tennis exudes a zen mindfulness that could be corny or annoying, but it’s neither.
Pete Donnelly produced, and he got Funk-Cho Salas and Caribefunk to guest on a few tracks. Tennis says “in the studio it all came really fast.” At the house, they’ve hosted giant bands like Swift Technique and West Philly Orchestra, upwards of eight-piece bands in the living room. Tennis says one of the best things he did along the way was hire a sound guy to do the heavy tech-lifting for the last year.
What I’m curious to ask is “How have you never been busted by the Man?”
“We’ve had a lot of really loud shows, and the cops have come one time and they were totally cool. We have very thick walls and very tolerant neighbors,” he concedes. “I’m just sort of assuming that we’re just not a big enough fish — it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
All good things come to an end
There’s a less-than-optional fee at the door, and Tennis says they can be perceived as donations for the bands. The sad news is that the house is set to go on the market in early 2017. You’d better believe that there’ll be some big blowouts before a contract gets signed and keys are handed over.
“It’s a little bit sad. It’s gonna be the end of an era,” he admits. “I’m already thinking about having a big farewell show. We just did our fourth annual ’90s singalong spectacular. I want to do another one of those before we go. Caribefunk will be around in the summer again.” There are still lots of good times to be had in Hawthorne.
Tennis fully admits that he’s never really been a political writer, but his music does, in a sense, contribute towards curbing how messed up it feels to be alive in trying times.
“I’m always irked by people just talking about things, and I want to bring as much warmth to the people that I actually interact with on a daily basis as much as I can. With who I am as an artist, I’m trying to create an energy of fun, relaxed fun, that breaks down barriers and people can really be genuine and vulnerable and create a safe space for that,” he says. “It’s a fucked-up world, but the energy I’m trying to create with the band and Clubhouse parties is a warm, inclusive place that accepts people for where they are.”
Rest assured, Clubhouse vibes will be conjured in Center City on Friday night with the massive Tennis family in house: Ryan Tennis & The Clubhouse Band get opening support from Looseleaf and Chickabiddy.