Summer Twins has been turning out a catchy breed of California-tinged garage and dream pop since 2008, but their history goes much further back. The band’s core members, Chelsea and Justine Brown, are sisters a year apart, and, as I learned from an email interview, they have been playing music together since their childhood in Riverside, California (an hour east of LA). The chemistry that comes from history and family is easy to detect in harmonies that are reminiscent of ‘60s girl groups, an easy confidence that evokes The Donnas, and a dynamic blend of sounds that is very much their own.
Chelsea and Justine wrote to me from SXSW, one stop on a jam-packed tour to promote their latest album, Limbo, released last October on Burger Records. Produced by Chris Woodhouse, who has worked with garage-rock greats like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees, the album reflects a slight shift towards a grittier side—a natural progression, they say, and one that might come from the struggle of creating art while trying to make a living as adults (“Never again will I be so young and free,” they sing on the track “Florence”). Later this week, Chelsea, Justine, and band members Michael Rey and Andy Moran take their tour minivan all the way up to Brooklyn, where you can catch them headlining our show at Babycastles. Get to know them here a little bit first.
Thrdcoast: Let’s start at the beginning. Chelsea and Justine, you two are sisters—have you always played music together? And are your parents psyched about it?
Chelsea Brown: Yeah, we've always played together and I think our parents are pretty stoked! They put us in piano and violin lessons when we were kids with the hopes of us playing together. That didn't quite stick, but we started our first band when we were 13 and 14 and have kept it going ever since!
TC: In the Limbo cover art, it looks like you’re lovingly and playfully fighting. Is that a pretty accurate depiction of your sisterly dynamic?
Justine Brown: I can see how that could represent our friendship, though it wasn't meant to. We do spend a lot of time together so we have our clashing moments, but they are quick. We know it's not worth it to keep arguing when we don't agree on something because it won't get us anywhere! We always end up laughing afterwards.
TC: How and when did Summer Twins start in earnest?
CB: We played in a band with our friend Mia called the Scandells for most of our teenage years. We all kind of grew out of it, and I started writing some new songs without any real direction. We took up the name Summer Twins in 2008 and always had a rotating lineup of friends. We've been playing shows consistently ever since and have progressed a lot with each album.
TC: Do you write songs together and if not, how do you divide writing responsibilities?
CB: I would usually write the foundation and lyrics of the songs and most of the guitar parts, then we would develop the song as a band and everyone would kind of add their own thing. Now Justine is starting to write a bunch (she wrote and played all of the instruments on "Helpless" and "Florence" on our new album, and recently started her own band called Easy Love), and we have two other songwriters in the band: our bassist Michael Rey (with his band the Woebegones) and Andy Moran (who leads the Shingles). They're all so talented! I'm used to writing alone, but I'm hoping to get more input from the rest of the band for our new stuff.
TC: In songs like “JuJu” and “Helpless,” the lyrics are very personal, while others sound more dreamy. Do you draw most of the lyrics from personal experience or is it more like storytelling? Or both?
JB: I've been drawing off of personal experiences for the most part. My lyrics are all over the place, but they mostly describe what I'm thinking or how I'm feeling about a specific person. I'm usually over-dramatic about stuff when I put it into a song because when I actually sit down to write, these feelings are what compelled me. They are all built up in the beginning and then they dissipate eventually.
TC: There’s a really wonderful balance in your music between a sweeter pop sensibility and a more fuzzed-out and gritty edge, with a little more of the latter in the last album. Is that grittiness something you intentionally sought out in making Limbo or did it come naturally?
CB: I think it came pretty naturally. I've always been really inspired by '50s music, which tends to have a more sweet, innocent sound, but I was also into fuzzed-out '60s garage and French pop. I think being immersed in the world of Burger Records and seeing so many great garage bands also inspired us a bit! I like the dynamic of the two sounds.
TC: How did you get together with Chris Woodhouse? What was it like to work with him?
JB: Lee from Burger Records suggested him. When we found out what other albums he had done for Thee oh Sees and Ty Segall, we knew that we would be getting the best production! He knows so much about equipment and getting the right sound. He also helped solidify some of my guitar and bass parts. He was really cool to work with.
TC: I read that you made Limbo in 10 days holed up in a studio in Sacramento. What was that like?
CB: It was really intense! We recorded 12 hours a day and only left the studio for breakfast and dinner, and it rained the whole time. For the most part it was just the two of us and Chris (Michael drove up to play bass on five tracks), and it's weird being isolated like that. You're kind of in this bubble, and you can't really tell what it's going to sound like until the very end. Chris is a master at analog recording and mixing and we were really happy with how it came out! I feel good knowing that we put so much into it, and as tough as it can be, I like when we can test our endurance and push ourselves. I love a challenge and I love being a slave to art :)
TC: How’s the tour going?
JB: It's going really well! I definitely have moments of uncertainty. This tour has been very DIY. It's kind of fun that every show is a mystery, but there are definitely ups and downs. The sound on stage (if there is any) is difficult in most situations. We have had some fans come out, though, and that reminds me why we are doing this in the first place. Our fans are so sweet and dedicated. We had to just get out there and play no matter how small the shows were going to be. I'm finally getting to the point in the tour now where I'm really excited to play. At the beginning I wasn't used to it and was tired before every show. In Eugene, I was basically napping while the other bands were playing, and the promoter offered me some tea. SXSW is exciting. It's great to be here. I've seen so many good bands already!
TC: How are you getting from place to place?
CB: We borrowed our parents' Toyota Sienna minivan and we PACKED it to the brim! We've got five people, all our equipment, our luggage and sleeping bags, and skateboards. It's nuts.
JB: We are so organized, though. I love it.
TC: Are you excited for the show at Babycastles? We are!
JB: Yeah, we are stoked! We haven't been to NYC in a while.
TC: And now for the requisite final interview question: What’s next?
CB: Michael and Andy (and our friend/merch guy Brad) all quit their jobs for this tour and Justine and I took a break from ours. It's the first time in a while that we've been able to fully dedicate ourselves, and I'm hoping that we can find a way to continue to do so when we get back. We’ve both got some new songs and we're eager to start working on the next album! Justine and I are hoping to expand our online store and get more into publishing (music for TV and commercials, etc.) so we can sustain ourselves. Also we're planning our first European tour and hoping to go back to Japan! We've got lots to do...