Summer Salt Talks New Album And How They Reimagined Doo-Wop For The Indie-Rock World

The Texas-born indie-rock duo, Summer Salt, occupies one of the more interesting roles in the landscape of contemporary music.

Videos by American Songwriter

After quietly releasing their modern classic, “Driving To Hawaii,” in 2014, Matthew Terry and Eugene Chung began slowly but surely climbing their way up the rungs of indie notability. With no definitive “big break” moment at any point in their story, they stuck to their method of self-recording homegrown, tropical-pop singles, EPs and albums, building up a devoted fanbase among indiehead scenes across the country. Now, while they’ve never really hit the mainstream, their songs have racked up millions of streams, becoming integral parts of the soundtracks of countless folks’ lives.

On June 25, the band is putting out one of their most exciting records to date: Sequoia Moon. Produced by iconic producer, Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, Fleet Foxes) and recorded in a fully-outfitted studio, the album is a step forward for Summer Salt, compositionally and sonically. With sophisticated harmony, dreamy layers of Terry’s vocals and their classic guitar-led sound, the band found a perfect balance between evolving and still staying true to their inimitable style. 

Terry and Chung hopped on a Zoom call with American Songwriter to discuss it all. Chatting about everything from their process to working with Ek to the influence of ‘50s doo-wop romanticism on their music, both men revealed an earnest devotion to their craft, as well as a sincere sense of humility—and both of those qualities certainly find their way onto the tracks gracing Sequoia Moon. Read the conversation below: 

American Songwriter: Your new album, Sequoia Moon, was made during COVID, but some of the songs are much older (with the oldest being from circa 2013). When did the actual process of making this record start proper? 

Eugene Chung: We probably had the idea to make this record before our last tour, before COVID, even. Then, we were mid-tour when COVID started happening, so we had to stop and go back home for quarantine and everything—that’s when we really started to hit the studio, making the demos and stuff. I think it was kinda good for us because it gave us time to really focus on the album, writing at home and recording in general. But yeah, some of these songs have been around for a long time.

Matthew Terry: Yeah, I think it always happens where the moment one record’s done, then it’s like “Well, time to cherry-pick through songs we’ve done and see what we come up with for the next record.” So, the month after Happy Camper was released, we were like “Okay, what do we got?” We just picked from the songs that we had made in the past that we really liked. Then, we mixed them in with songs that we were working on at the time. From there, we just narrowed it down—we had a list of, like, 20 songs and we narrowed it down to 10. Then, two of the songs were actually just new little instrumentals that we included.

AS: Did it feel good to have this project to pour your efforts into during that time? Especially considering the feel-good vibes of y’all’s specific brand of tropical pop, I could imagine that it would be a fantastic outlet and source of solace. 

MT: Yeah, I definitely think it was, lyrically and melodically. It was just good to stay positive during that time, writing songs that were good, happy, but with a bit of a bittersweet sound. And I think I could probably speak for a lot of musicians—or even people who aren’t musicians—that during this time, we were able to dial-in on our craft and learn a lot. I feel like I learned tons of production techniques that I wouldn’t have been able to do if it wasn’t for being stuck at home during quarantine. We were just at home all the time, and I think that was pretty good for us. 

AS: Are there any specific techniques that come to mind that you’ve learned during this time? 

EC: Well, we’ve been recording a lot at home, like we always have in the past. We use an Apollo Twin for our interface. For drums, I need to have at least four mics. But the problem with the Twin is that it only has two inputs. So, during quarantine, I learned how to combine multiple interfaces to make an aggregate device, so you can have multiple inputs coming in. That was a cool solution that we were able to figure out—it allowed me to finally use four mics in the home studio instead of just two. 

AS: Well, on that note, something really cool about Sequoia Moon is that y’all teamed up with Phil Ek and did some tracking in a studio. What was that experience like? 

EC: That was a really fun process. It was cool to be in a big studio for once. Very different, and it entailed a lot of learning, for sure.

MT: Yeah. I think it was just nice to be like “Okay, we have a month booked.” We had six days a week (with Sundays off), which added up to a total of 24 days in the studio to record 10 songs, making them what we wanted. I think it was just cool to be able to come in with the demos that we had made during quarantine and have a deadline to finish them. Sometimes, I feel like when there’s no deadline, you’re like “Well, two years from now will be good.” So, going into the studio and having someone telling us “We’re doing this” or “We’re not doing that” was super cool and helpful. 

I think a lot of the time, you can get caught up in what you think is good. But, as artists, there’s always some subjectivity of what you think is “right” and what’s not. So, it was good to have someone with an outside perspective. That was the first time we’d ever worked with a producer. And he’s really nice—he’s curious and just had a spirit of “Whatever y’all are good at, whatever y’all do, we’re going to just do that and we’re going to make it sound cool.” It wasn’t like we added too much or had hired musicians come in and do everything. We just played and did our thing. It was intimidating, but it was also just really fun. The first few days were super intimidating. Ek even told us that when we talked to him on the phone. He was like “Yeah, the first couple of days might feel like dusting out cobwebs and stuff, but after that, it’s going to be really good.”

AS: Y’all have such a distinctive signature sound, blending elements of modern indie with baroque pop, bossa nova, doo-wop and more. What’s the process of arranging your songs like? 

MT: Oh, like Bob Ross: happy accidents. When we’re writing things and thinking about the arrangement, sometimes we’ll be like “Alright, let’s just leave some open space here,” then we fill it in later. That’s kinda what I did with “Sweet To Me.” I was like, “I’m going to leave the beginning empty and just throw a bunch of vocal shit on there and see what happens.” So, yeah, then you get happy accidents. Sometimes you’ll, like, mess something up on the guitar or something, but then you’re like “Woah, wait…” and your brain gets triggered to come up with something new. Other times, it can be very intentional too. But, yeah, we always build up—if it becomes too much, we’ll dial it back.

EC: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of back and forth collaboration. Matt will show me something like, “Hey, do you like this idea?” Then, we’ll talk about it and work through it. A lot of times too, we’ll just jam and come up with parts that way.

AS: I want to dig in a little on the doo-wop influence—y’all have such a knack for capturing that halcyon nostalgia of the 1950s’ uber-romantic doo-wop, while still framing it in a way that’s fresh and alluring for modern ears. How do you approach that balance? 

EC: Well, first off, thank you so much. We appreciate that because we appreciate that music so much. The whole doo-wop sound is something we both love, espeically for the vocals and stuff. When I wrote “One Last Time,” I was in a phase where I was listening to a lot of that old stuff and thought “Is there a way we can bring that out?” I also think the words “dreamy” and “romantic” are very apt because I love dreamy music. Matt and I are both huge romantics, so it naturally comes into play with our songwriting. 

MT: Sometimes, I forget to remember. I think back on my parents showing me that stuff—it stuck out to me because it’s what they (or their parents, even) used to listen to. So, sometimes I forget that for this generation that grew up listening to indie music, it can get somewhat lost in there. To be able to bring that influence out is really cool. The music just goes so deep, so we love honoring that element of our sound.

AS: With the record out on June 25 and tour dates finally on the horizon again, how do y’all feel now? 

MT: We’re so stoked and excited to get back on the road. It’s gonna be a whirlwind—it’s been over a year now since we got to share our music in-person with our fans. So, maybe it’ll be kinda like culture shock for a second. Just like, “Wow, I missed this. I remember this.” So, yeah, I’m excited to tour. And we’re super excited for this album to come out too. Hopefully everyone enjoys it.

Summer Salt’s new album, Sequoia Moon, is out June 25. Watch the music video for their single, “Lewa Lani,” below:

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