A Q&A with Sunflower Bean
by Terence Cawley (Biology), published March 25th 2017
The rise of Sunflower Bean has been a meteoric one, even by buzz band standards. Singer/bassist Julia Cumming, singer/guitarist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber formed the band in 2013 while still teenagers, and over the next three years of near-constant gigging they honed their fresh take on classic psych-rock and dream-pop influences. All the goodwill they’d accumulated paid off last year, with their debut album Human Ceremony justifying the hype and prompting Rolling Stone to dub them “NYC’s coolest young band.” They’ve got a busy 2017 ahead of them, too: they’re already working on the next album, and they’ll be opening for the Pixies on a run of U.S. shows in September and October. Before playing our Tastemakers Presents showcase with Cymbals Eat Guitars, Sunflower Bean took some time to speak with us about how success has been treating them, the pros and cons of being a young band and what to expect from the new album.
Tastemakers Magazine (TMM): 2016 was a big year for you — you released your debut album, toured a bunch and did pretty well on the year-end lists. Have you been able to truly enjoy your success, or have you been too busy to really take it all in? Does it feel real at this point?
Jacob Faber (JF): It feels pretty real. It’s all been very small increments. We haven’t had one big jump, so we’re kind of just working along.
Julia Cumming (JC): We’ve put in a lot of work and the opportunities have changed. Like us being able to open for the Pixies, direct supporting, is a big opportunity, and even shows like this one, college shows, are really fun, you get to see your friends… I think that we feel very fortunate, but it is a full-time job, so…it’s like Jake said, it’s like little baby stairs that you work on every day.
JF: It’s nice to take the time to reflect though. I feel like at every big New York show, it’s like…
Nick Kivlen (NK): That’s the only time our life seems crazy. Like in New York and in L.A., and that’s it.
JC: And in London.
NK: Then it’s casual the rest of the time.
JC: The rest of the time you’re a regular old loser.
TMM: Do you get recognized at all in those places?
NK: New York and L.A. and London is just where bands in general draw the biggest crowds.
TMM: You play the largest venues there because they have the greatest concentration of people.
NK: Yeah, and they’re also music cities.
JF: We got off the plane the other day in London, and the duty-free man was like, “Oh, Sunflower Bean!”
TMM: How’d you get the Pixies gig?
NK: I think it was just a thing where the Pixies picked a bunch of really cool bands to support them. Mitski’s doing it, Cymbals Eat Guitars as well. You know, they were smart, they didn’t just pick like a stupid, irrelevant band to open for them like a lot of big bands like that do. They picked cool, happening young bands, which I appreciate because usually they’ll get like a major-label rock band or something like that that no one’s ever heard of.
TMM: One of the big talking points around Sunflower Bean when you started out a few years back was how young you all were. Did you ever feel like your youth meant you had to work harder to be taken seriously?
NK: I feel like the young thing is only a benefit. No one ever gets down on a band for being too young. But I think that musically it’s a disadvantage because you can’t really write a good song, because you’re such a young, immature person. [laughs]
JC: [Laughs] That’s not true!
NK: I mean, I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean.
TMM: In interviews, you’ve mentioned mostly older bands like the Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd as musical influences, and your choices for the covers EP you released in September, From the Basement, also skew retro — Neil Young, T. Rex, and so on. How do you incorporate such well-known influences into your sound without losing your sense of freshness and originality?
NK: That’s a good question. I feel like you just need to have enough personality that you can carry whatever you’re doing. If you do anything in a youthful way, and you don’t copy exactly from the past…that’s my only sort of opinion on that issue.
JC: Well it’s sort of, I think, maybe harder to be an exact replica, you know what I mean? Like to have all that vintage gear, it would be so expensive and painstaking to just be like a copy. We’re just naturally, as we are now, influenced by the things that we have now — smartphones, the Internet, technology, just everything that we have changes your brain and who you are and that will just naturally effect the art that you’re making.
TMM: I’ve heard you’ve already started working on your follow-up album. In an interview with the NME, you said that the new record would be more escapist musically but more topical lyrically. That’s an interesting combination; what made you want to juxtapose those two moods?
NK: I think that our music on this next record is becoming a little bit more whimsical.
JF: We’re digging deeper.
NK: I kind of feel like we’re making the record that I want to listen to that doesn’t exist yet, which is exciting.
TMM: But with the subject matter, which you said was influenced by world events. It’s hard not to be right now…
NK: It’s impossible to not be influenced at least a little bit by what’s happening.
TMM: But is there any concern that the whimsicality of the music might trivialize the subject matter, in some way?
NK: I don’t think so, because even fairy tales were about social things at the time.
JC: Plus, we’ve always been dealing with that juxtaposition, even with the name Sunflower Bean. We used to be super-heavy live, more like Black Sabbath, but when you say you’re in a band called Sunflower Bean people are like “Hmm that’s really cute!” And then they check it out and they’re like “Oh, what the shit?” [NK and JF laugh] So I think that’s not something we’re afraid of or that we even think about.
TMM: Are your writing and recording processes pretty much the same as for Human Ceremony, or are you doing anything different to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump?
NK: It’s extremely different, actually, because Human Ceremony contained songs that we had been playing for years, and this entire album came together in basically two months.
TMM: It’s the cliché that you have your whole life to write your debut album and six months to write the follow-up.
NK: Yeah, but luckily, I found the process of writing the follow-up in one month much less stressful. Well, the songs had been brewing for a little bit, but we didn’t get all together and play them in our practice space until the end of December. I’d say we have 13 or 14 songs that are almost done, and tonight will be the third time that we’ve ever played them in front of people. It’s a completely different thing this time around, which is exciting.
TMM: Did having done it before give you any extra confidence going into it this time?
NK: I think that we’re just older, we’re more mature, we’re better at working with each other. I think there’s a lot more easy compromises happening on this one. We’re just getting along a lot better in terms of creativity, I think we’re hitting our stride in a lot of ways.
JC: You sound like Donald Trump [laughs].
NK: It’s gonna be the best record, it’s gonna be the biggest album that was ever made.
JC: We have the best people working on it — the smartest people, great people!
NK: [Laughs] I guess the answer to your question, like, we do… [in unison with JC] we do have the best people!
JC: We’ve got great people working on it!
TMM: You’ve already accomplished so much so early in your career — what’s the next big milestone you want to achieve?
NK: Our goals have always been really realistic, we’ve always been realistic with ourselves.
JF: The next realistic goal? Play Webster Hall.
NK: I think that’s a pretty good one. Like our next New York show to sell out Webster Hall or Irving Plaza, like the same steady trajectory that we’ve always been on.
JC: I think those are all good goals, and to be able to keep doing what we’re doing; we’re already really lucky. And to keep making art that pushes ourselves and, hopefully, pushes the world, a little bit, and makes people feel something. I think that’s a personal goal, to touch more people.
NK: Absolutely. Because sometimes I feel like it’s a very selfish, pointless thing to do this band, but then when you see a band that you like and you feel so great after seeing them you’re like “Oh, if we can do this for people, then we’re not horrible and we’re not being selfish and this isn’t just a waste of time.”
JC: Music is never a waste of time. Music is life.