The Big Read – Sunflower Bean: “We’re coming at the world with a jackhammer”
On the sly, Sunflower Bean have proven themselves one of the world’s coolest, funnest and, er, hard-workingest bands. Following the brilliant ‘Twentytwo In Blue‘ – a Top Five entry in NME’s Albums Of 2018 – the New York trio today release the rocking follow-up EP, ‘King Of The Dudes’. Rhian Daly meets them in Brooklyn to talk about music, patriarchy-smashing and that time at band camp.
Somewhere, engulfed in a bouncing throng of people, is Julia Cumming. You can hear her disembodied voice rasping through the microphone and, occasionally, you can spot her platinum blonde hair through a sea of raised arms and heads jostling to see where Sunflower Bean’s frontwoman has gone. As ‘Come For Me’, the band’s disco-spangled latest song, reaches its climax, she emerges from the thicket of fans and stands on the edge of the stage. There’s something about the look on her face as she does so – one of powerful, fiery intensity – that makes her look like she’s just had some kind of transcendental experience reserved solely for rock gods.
It would make sense if she had. Sunflower Bean, including curly-haired guitarist Nick Kivlen and moustachioed drummer Jacob Faber, are one of the most badass young bands around. We’re not measuring by the bullshit old yardstick of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll hedonism but one that makes more sense in this age – attitude, talent, and hard graft. Tonight’s show at Greenpoint’s Warsaw, a former Polish social club-turned-rock venue where you can still buy a plate of pierogis next to the merch table, is the band’s final one of 2018. It takes their tally for the year to 160. But anyone expecting a crumpled and exhausted performance will leave feeling very silly – the trio (plus live keyboardist Danny Ayala) are anything but, hair-flipping, kicking, stomping, and strutting through a set that never feels anything less than supercharged.
In a Williamsburg coffee shop three days later, Julia, Nick, and Jacob look like they could easily hit the road for another mammoth run right away. “I’ve only felt tired about touring because the world expects me to,” the frontwoman says. “Everyone’s like, ‘Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you tired?’ Not really, bitch! I should stop – my arm might fall off, my neck might break – but it’s all about perspective.”
What isn’t so subjective is how big a year 2018 was for the band. In March, they released their sublime second album, ‘Twentytwo In Blue’, which showed they could do even more than the psych brilliance of their 2016 debut ‘Human Ceremony’. A glorious mix of glam-rock stompers (‘Crisis Fest’, ‘Burn It’), dreamy, emotional pop (‘I Was A Fool’, ‘Only A Moment’), and time-travelling oddities (‘Sinking Sands’, ‘Puppet Strings’), it found the group putting their feelings about politics and the world into their best work so far, and resonating with resilience and hopefulness. It charted in the Top 40 and was named NME’s fourth best album of the year, coming after only The 1975, Arctic Monkeys, and Idles.
“‘Twentytwo In Blue’ helped me be myself,” Julia reflects now. “It was an experience in going deeper and getting in yourself. Opening up what we did on that record [made me] actually be comfortable with who I am and my story and my path. I was a lot more comfortable in myself as a singer, performer, and writer, and just in my opinions and believing that we’re on the right path.”
In April, the band did something usually reserved for heritage acts looking back on their long-distant glory days and played ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ in full at New York’s famed Bowery Ballroom. They expanded their line-up to include Danny, Julia’s high school friends Marcela and Claire on backing vocals, Zoë on percussion, and intermittently, the record’s engineer Jarvis Taveniere and co-producer Matt Molnar on acoustic guitar and bass respectively.
“That was one of the most magical endeavours we’ve ever tried to do,” smiles Julia. “It was really ambitious.” Nick, too, grins at the memory. “I felt like Arcade Fire,” he laughs.
The idea behind the special gig came from them wanting to do something a little out of the ordinary for their hometown, a place they’ve played more than any other. “We know how to play a show in New York so it was like, ‘How do we make this a challenge?’” Jacob explains. “We’re just always striving for something more.” There’s a moment’s silence around the table before Julia sums it up matter-of-factly: “I don’t think we can ever just play a New York show. It has to have a reason to be.”
New York might be Sunflower Bean’s home but they’ve set up a pretty solid second base in the UK, having scorched a blazing path across the country several times now. Despite that, it was only last August that they made their first appearance at Reading & Leeds, where they were surprised not to be the most junior group on the bill. “I was amazed at how young a lot of the other bands were,” says Jacob. “And at how young the crowd was and how down they were for rock music.”
Nick nods in agreement. “To be in the UK and with a lot of artists that we really love, like HMLTD, Shame, Pale Waves, and Dream Wife, all backstage and to have that feeling of international community is really cool. In New York, we’re kind of alone. We were never part of a movement or a scene. There weren’t any other young bands [when we were coming up].”
For each individual member of Sunflower Bean, music has been something they’ve been drawn to since well before they were a teenage band running around the Brooklyn DIY scene with big Sharpie Xs daubed on their hands. Julia was raised in the four-avenue East Village area known as Alphabet City before it was home to “Burberry advertisements and really nice bars” by parents who are both musicians, although not professionally. People would ask them, “How are you raising a child on Avenue B?” Readers of Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom might remember the chapter in which Moby breaks down avenues A, B, C, and D as “Alcohol, blow, crack, and heroin and getting stabbed to death.” But Julia sees being brought up in what was a less than glamorous part of town as having made her who she is, “for better or worse.” “It’s weird to be in a place of such chaos and feel so relaxed and comfortable,” she shrugs. “But what are you gonna do? Home is home.”
One of her earliest memories suggests her path into making music was always inevitable. “My first conscious, real memory is being on the playground and thinking that my dream in life was to be The Beatles II,” she says. “Like, how could I do The Beatles again, but me?” The Fab Four were the first band she was ever obsessed with and she and her dad would drive around listening to ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, recreating the harmonies. “It’s indistinguishable to who I am as a musician, growing up on those songs,” she explains now.
At 11, little Julia got her first taste of touring when she joined The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, who were her friend Rachel’s family, on the road. She worked for $5 a night selling merch. “It was kind of bohemian,” she says before Nick jokes: “It was child labour.”
“It was the New York arts scene!” she says in their defence. “The anti-folk scene that Adam Green and Regina Spektor came out of where, in retrospect, some things were odd. But it was very freeing and I learned a lot.” Aged 13, Julia would form a band with Rachel, who is two years her senior, called Supercute! She had no idea how to play an instrument but had “faith that it was what [she] was supposed to be doing.” They toured the US and Europe, and recorded an album that was produced by Kate Nash but was never released.
Jacob and Nick, meanwhile, grew up outside of the city, in the Long Island suburb of Glen Head. Jacob’s dad used to play guitar while he describes his English mum as “a huge music fan”, and both would get him listening to different records. That’s one reason why his listening as a kid eclectically hopped from jazz fusion to Aaron Carter to The Who.
He played piano and saxophone at school and was the president of the jazz band, which both he and Nick insist wasn’t “that lame.” “In our school, there was a level of cool to being in the band,” Jacob explains. “It wasn’t as black-and-white as band geeks and jocks.”
Nick began playing guitar when he was eight and had lessons from the drummer of New York hardcore band Agnostic Front, who was dating Nick’s mum’s hairdresser at the time. “He started teaching me but then he would go on tour and I wouldn’t get lessons for three months,” Nick explains. “So I started to learn to do my own thing and play from looking up tabs on the internet.”
A big heavy metal fan as a kid, he got his introduction to indie rock from his high school friend Cal. “We went through our Neutral Milk Hotel phase together,” he says. They also played in a band called Turnip King together, who Jacob would later join on drums after befriending Nick in their driver’s ed class. The band gave them an escape route out of Long Island, at least for a night at a time, and into the gigging scene of Brooklyn.
Although they both describe Glen Head as “beautiful” and “a very nice place to grow up”, the way they talk about their suburban youth will resonate with anyone who grew up in similar surroundings, feeling trapped in a beige world of quiet mundanity. “People don’t know the city is just a 35-minute train ride away and it’s an entire world of culture, and things happening, and freedom,” Jacob says. “New York was the key. It sounds so silly cos there’s literally a train station a five-minute walk from our high school…”
“Even though it’s only 15 miles from the city, being in our high school culturally and the mindset of the students, it might as well have been 100, 200 miles away,” Nick says, picking up his bandmate’s thread. “There was no inkling of that New York City thing where we lived. A lot of the kids in our school probably didn’t even know how to use the subway.”
It was running around Brooklyn, playing and watching shows, that the pair met Julia, who says that borough, more than Manhattan or Long Island, was key to Sunflower Bean’s formation. “That was our playground,” she says. “It’s where we lived. Every day it was, ‘What are we gonna do tonight?’ or, ‘How are you going to make your parents OK with it?’”
They did that by showing they were “dedicated to working hard.” “It’s a hustle,” reasons Jacob. “It’s not easy to be in school all day, go to your house, rehearse a set and then take the train into the city, lugging all your shit around and then running from Bushwick to Penn Station with your cymbals and snare and everything to get the 1:19AM train home.”
“I remember being in school and my teachers being like, ‘What the fuck, why do you have Xs on your hands? It’s a Tuesday, were you out last night?!’” laughs Nick.
While Julia says there was no sense that they would all inevitably end up in a band together, it helped that they had one major thing in common. “Music has just been the guiding force of our lives,” she says. “I believe that now more than ever. We all just play different songs to each other and demos of other songs and how they relate to the ones that actually came out. I think we’ve given up on the concept of all other hobbies. There’s no more space left to think about anything that’s not music.”
That would probably explain why, when the band had some time off last summer, they didn’t pack their cases and jet off on relaxing holidays or head back to New York to chill out at home. Instead, they hunkered down in a garage in LA and made a brand new EP, ‘King Of The Dudes’. By the band’s account, their time on the west coast working with producer Justin Raisen (Angel Olsen, Sky Ferreira) was quite a unique experience.
As well as having them play through six amps simultaneously – a process that made the building shake and send a stream of noise echoing down the block – he deployed some other, more outlandish techniques. “He would try to summon people,” Nick recalls. “He would try and let David Bowie inhabit his body.”
“And David Bowie might have,” Jacob adds with a grin.
Making the EP was the complete opposite to how ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ was made, partly because of their collective realisation that just because you labour over every note of something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better than something you do on instinct. Instead of making very conscious decisions about everything, they placed their trust in themselves and “put emotion and passion before over-thinking and squeezing out a concept.”
“Just because every note is perfect doesn’t mean I like it any more than the vocal take I did on ‘Fear City’, where we got into this political argument and I had this feeling in my stomach when I was singing,” Julia says. “You listen to it back and it sounds kind of country and weird.”
She sees the “more natural” delivery on that track, which deals with her falling in love with an addict and is a result of ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ giving her the confidence to be more open in her music, as something that’s needed in modern rock. “Isn’t that more trap?” she questions. “Isn’t that more mumble-rap, to go there and be like, ‘I feel sick, I feel in love, I feel hurt. I’m just gonna spit it out and we’re gonna go with it.’”
That’s not the only way Julia has been thinking about the band in relation to artists in other genres. Ariana Grande writing and releasing ‘thank u, next’ within three weeks of the events that inspired it going down has been something that’s made her reconsider how a rock band operates in 2019. “Why don’t we get out of old rock thinking and write about the passion we’re feeling today?” she says emphatically. “Let’s write about our lives today and not what that’s going to look like a year from now.”
Pop had some influence on the writing of ‘Come For Me’, too. On it, the band toy with double entendre; it boasts a chorus that finds Julia purring: “Do you really wanna come for me?/You know I got all night/Do you really wanna waste my time?/If you do, then do it right.” She could either be offering you out for a fight or making a much more carnal challenge.
The initial idea came to the frontwoman while driving on tour. “It was like, ‘Sex…’ and then it went away – that happens in the van a lot,” she says while making a gesture in the air like something disappearing on the wind. “We were listening to the radio a lot and there’s a lot of music you don’t have a lot of control over.” Here, she goes off on a tangent. “I feel that way about Drake – you don’t have a choice if you like Drake. Drake is like water. Drake is like the government. Drake is like fucking fluoride.”
She reverts back to the original topic of conversation with barely a pause to regain her focus. “There’s certain things you have to take in [listening to the radio] and I was thinking about indie rock in the context of sex and stereotypes of what indie rock bands are allowed to be. We’re allowed to be depressed, we’re allowed to be suicidal…”
“Cornily sentimental,” interjects Nick. Julia nods and carries on. “We’re allowed to be nostalgic. We’re allowed to be all these things, but are we ever allowed to…” She trails off and doesn’t finish the sentence, but what she’s alluding to is that indie bands aren’t really allowed to just wanna get down to it and fuck in the same way rappers and pop stars are. If you think about it, it’s hard to think of many indie bands who have been as explicitly sexual as, say, Rihanna’s ‘Sex With Me’, a song Jacob heard on the way to our meeting place and caused him to think: “Why don’t we have this in rock music?” In recent years, the sexiest indie has gotten is The Strokes, Nick’s suggestion of Cigarettes After Sex, Wild Beasts, Alt-J with their stomach-churning “Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet” lyric, and maybe a few others. You’ll notice that, aside from genre, they all have one thing in common – they’re all bands of men.
Sex, despite the above, wasn’t the primary thing on Sunflower Bean’s mind when they were writing ‘Come For Me’. Instead, the song was about liberation and strength, until more saucy notions returned to Julia later on. “I was like, ‘How much can we push this? How much can we ride the line?’” she explains. “In a moment where a lot of really important discussions about sex are happening culturally, it felt interesting to make a song from what is inadvertently a female perspective about what you want and what you’re gonna do and letting that have a space in indie rock where I felt like I hadn’t heard it conveyed in that way in a really long time.”
Julia hated the EP’s title at first. It began life as an epithet that Nick coined for her when they were working on ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ because, despite being the only woman in a room of men, she was always, undeniably in charge. Later, the guitarist began applying the nickname to her in relation to backstage situations too. “At a festival, there’s so many bands around where they’re like four dudes in leather jackets drinking beers and we’re a little bit of a weirder band,” he begins.
“You wear a full jumpsuit over your jeans,” Julia laughs, reinforcing his point.
“Yeah, I’m looking like I do and Jacob is who he is,” Nick replies. “We’re not that sort of boyish indie rock caricature. Julia has a way of going into these situations and doing what I call kinging on them cos these guys think they’re in their guy gang, they’re cool. And then Julia’s this big, tall weirdo who just saunters over and disarms them and makes them little boys. She’s the king of the dudes!” (Later, he points out the name isn’t necessarily attached to one gender or another.)
The frontwoman looks unimpressed with the idea even now. “It’s being perceived as conquering men, that’s why I always hated it,” she explains. “I thought it was unfair and it was coming from a very male perspective to even think me going up to any male group makes me a king.”
Writing the song gave the phrase meaning to her, though. As she points out, the lyrics aren’t absolute – she’s offering to be “King of the dudes, if you want me to be.” “It’s like, ‘Fine, I’ll do it,’” she says. “‘I don’t even wanna do it, but that’s what boss bitches do.’ I don’t know if Madonna is a feeling but that’s what I felt. A woman is never going to reclaim the word king in that way but it’s almost about pulling it out of context and putting it in the sky so anyone can hold it and make fun of it and just see how silly the whole thing is.”
In a way, it feels like a song only a woman would – or could – write. It’s so conscious and aware of the actions portrayed in the lyrics in a way that most men would never be. “I won’t let you stand in my way,” she sings in the first verse, both putting herself in a man’s position and laying bare her own gender. “I don’t need to think, I just reach out and take it.”
“I actually thought about Donald Trump when I wrote that,” she explains. “I really do think before I reach out and take something but I was thinking about and briefly embodying the kind of person, or feeling of someone, that really doesn’t.” The song, she says, is two-sided – exploring the idea of people who live like that with negative intent and that approach to life being “how you get things done, in a weird way.”
“There is an element of my life where I do believe you do have to reach out and do what you wanna do, rather than spend your life wondering if you could ever do it,” she reasons. It’s an ethos that makes sense – why wait for things to happen to you when you could already be busy making them your reality? – and explains the attitude and constant levelling up of Sunflower Bean’s journey so far.
As you read this, the band will be back on the road for another stint supporting NYC indie legends Interpol. Aside from a couple of other dates this summer, that’s all they have on the books for now and are making a conscious effort to do less this year. You might think they’re looking forward to having more time to themselves, but you wouldn’t be entirely correct.
“I’m actually really worried about this next year, where I’m not going to be on the road,” Nick says apprehensively. “When I’m on stage, I don’t have to worry about my problems, I don’t have to work on myself or deal with the real world. You’re changing cities every day and meeting 100 new people every week and then, when you’re at home alone, it’s just you.”
With his time off, Nick is going to start work on a new art project – making papier-mâché clock sculptures. Jacob, meanwhile, is looking forward to finding out who he is as someone living in one fixed place instead of their usual nomadic existence. “The past couple of years, being home has just been running errands to get my life to a place where I could do something,” the drummer says. “I’m excited for 2019 – we can try and and find ourselves as people who aren’t on the road all the time. I think it’s important for the art and the songs too.”
For Julia, that doesn’t mean running away from music but quite the opposite. “I feel like I’m about to enter deeper into music,” she says. “I feel like I’m about to go headfirst into more music in every way possible.” When she emerges, expect Sunflower Bean to continue “coming at the world with a jackhammer” and finesse their place in New York’s rich history.