Some bands pop in to the NME office for an interview and look like they could be here on work experience. Others strut in like aliens from planet rock. Such is the case when Sunflower Bean stopped by to talk about their woozy, brilliant new album ‘TwentyTwo In Blue’ and answer your questions in a Facebook Live chat – they actually look like a band, and a damn cool one at that.
Guitarist Nick Kivlen is a gangly young Bob Dylan, singer/bassist Julia Cumming – who models for Saint Laurent – is a New York City art punk in the mould of Debbie Harry, and drummer Jacob Faber is a pocket-sized Frank Zappa. They are the greatest hits of the 1970s packaged up as a very modern trio.
And their new album brings that decade up to date with the modern world, mixing a heavy – very heavy – Fleetwood Mac influence with lyrics that tap into youth and young millennial-hood against a backdrop of Trump-era America.
“The world is not in a great place right now so it’s a little hard to do anything [that doesn’t address that], says Kilven. “I think musically, we’re delving into escapism and fantasy, but lyrically we’re becoming a little bit more topical.”
Cumming agrees: “There’s so much going on in the US and in the world right now that I think no matter how you feel politically, you’re affected by the change. That gave us a lot of inspiration because every day something new happens, you go into the practice space and you start playing and all these feelings come out that you didn’t even know where there.”
Funnily enough, Nick doesn’t feel the Fleetwood Mac thing is a thing. “We’ve been getting that [comparison] a lot throughout our entire career,” he says. “I don’t know where it comes from!”
Julia is a little more accepting of the band’s obvious influence from the AOR greats. “I think a record that we definitely took inspiration from when making this one was ‘Tusk’,” she says, ‘Tusk’ being the Mac’s cocaine-addled 1979 epic, and the sessions for ‘Twentytwo In Blue presumably being a little less wild. “Not so much the songs as the element of experimentation. But also, we’re looking from really modern, current places too. We pulled from Gorillaz a lot, who we love and admire as far as a contemporary band. We also worked with Jacob Portrait from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, an incredible bassist and an incredible producer.”
The change in sound is significant. The Brooklyn trio first shimmied into our vision with 2016’s ‘Human Ceremony’, impressing with their poppy hooks, garage rock edge and effortless cool. They were the slick but grimy New York guitar band we’d spent the past decade looking for – worthy successors to The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ crown. Yet two years down the line and Julia Cumming (vocals/bass) Jacob Faber (drums) and Nick Kivlen (guitar/vocals) have reinvented themselves with a softer, more sensitive, more emotional sound.
‘Twentytwo In Blue’ is a confident, effortless release, and one which belies the band’s youth – they’re all 22, funnily enough. That’s an age when many people feel more uncertain than ever before, yet one that Sunflower Bean are owning. Julia’s current style inspiration – the stomping silver David Bowie boots she’s wearing when she meets us aside – harks back to the shoulder-padded, power suits of the 1980s. The message: she means business. “I think I have phases,” she explains. “Like, this year with everything going on, and this record, even the political climate of the world and the United States [means] I’m excited by suits. Even horrible $4 suits you get from a thrift store. There’s something about being a woman in a power suit that’s just a really awesome feeling.”
The album’s title also re-casts pop’s loneliest colour as something far more vibrant and alive. “When we were trying to visualise an aesthetic, or what we thought the songs looked like, blue kept coming to mind,” explains Jacob. “Classically, it’s a very melancholy or sad colour, but I think we were also trying to think of it as a representation of a big blue open ocean or open sky, like a hopefulness and a resilient feeling towards it.”
Resilient is certainly one word you could use to describe Sunflower Bean. When they were first starting out they ended up as one of two rock bands on the bill at a dubstep festival – the other act being psych nomads The Flaming Lips. “We’d never been to a festival before, so we were like, ‘Let’s go the whole weekend and camp and it will be fun!’” remembers Jacob. “It was pretty bad. The whole thing got evacuated just as we were loading onto the stage because of a thunderstorm. People ended up being stuck there for four days.” Nick shakes his head, horror in his eyes: “It torrentially downpoured and just turned the entire festival ground into like a swamp. There was a river rolling down the main festival tent area. People were just, like, rolling down the river of mud-water and garbage.” Jacob calls it a “low-key national disaster.”
That hasn’t put them off festivals though. This summer they’ll be appearing at Electric Fields in Scotland, and Julia is quick to sing the praises of British festivals compared to the ones back home. “The festivals in the UK are really cool. Like Green Man, a lot of them are really special. They do a really good job at making them nice. In the US they can be really, really rough.” Julia also makes an excellent point about the trouble with being stuck in a grimy field for three days when you’re a woman. “I think, something to be mentioned without being gross is being a lady during that time of the month, and it being super hot, and stuck in only port-a-potties – that should be something that should be looked at!” Jacob does his best to understand: “I feel like I can relate, but I can’t…”
It’s not just the British fields that Sunflower Bean have an affinity for, it’s British bands too. They played alongside the mighty Wolf Alice when the Londoners first went to the US in 2014 and supported them last year on their victory lap of the UK’s bigger venues. “We were really excited to do Ally Pally with them, it was like a dream come true,” says Nick with a grin. “We’re proud of them.” Julia is in agreement. “Anyone that sees the show knows they’re the hardest working, nicest people and also dedicated to making music that isn’t disposable. They’re really, really serious about it and really awesome people. And Ellie taught me about pickled onions, never tried those before.” And what did you think of them? “I like them, I’m down.” Literally just wait until you try Pickled Onion Monster Munch, Julia. Your mind will be blown.
In fact, so big is the band’s love for the UK, that Jacob refers to it as the band’s second home. “I think my favourite part of the UK is the spirit, the spirit of the music fans,” adds Julia. “You guys still have really good music and the search for really good music in your hearts. There’s nothing better from an artist’s perspective to be around people who like that and care about that.” Nick agrees: “Yeah, people aren’t jaded here and all about music, which is really, really, really amazing.” You’re welcome, guys.
The band formed five years ago when all three members were still in high school. Nick and Jacob had heard The Strokes’ 2001 debut ‘Is This It’ for the first time, and were inspired to start writing songs themselves. Julia had been in a postmodern teen-pop duo, Supercute, which she formed at just 13. “It was almost an art project about not letting your age or being a girl stop you from trying anything,” she told NME in 2016. In fact, Julia’s been primed for the rock’n’roll life since she was a kid, thanks to a hip dad who played bass with various local bands in the East Village. “He would take me to shows, like at the Sidewalk Café [the birthplace of anti-folk, the scene that gave us Moldy Peaches, Regina Spektor and more]. He made shows seem like a normal thing. Which, I think, inadvertently has become a big part of my life.” That said, the first real gig Julia can remember going to was Aaron Carter and the Baha Men. “That’s so wonderfully 2001,” says Nick, hearing this for the first time. “Mine was the Vans Warped Tour in Long Island in 2007,” he says. “I think maybe it was the last year they had the classic Warped Tour bands play, like Bad Religion and NOFX were the two main headliners. But I think I just saw a tonne of stuff all day and I really loved it.”
Jacob can’t remember what his first gig was. “My dad would take me to jazz fusion concerts as a kid,” he says. “I loved it. There was a little community centre behind my house and there used to be a little festival in the parking lot. I think I saw Taking Back Sunday play when I was like six. I didn’t really like music but I thought, ‘I’m gonna walk over there and see what’s going on.’”
Currently on the road and about to tour to the UK, the band are getting deep into their podcasts. If you want to know how a band like Sunflower Bean entertain themselves these days it’s got nothing to do with vintage style excess but rather a premium Spotify account. “Criminal is the best, the favourite,” reveals Nick. What happens in that? “It’s an interesting crime show because it’s not all about murder. Usually it’s about very strange or obscure law.” Or, as Jacob notes, about “a person living in your attic without you knowing for like a year.” Creepy.
When they’re not scaring themselves witless on the tour bus they’re listening to Iggy Pop’s classic ‘The Idiot’ and – of course – The Strokes’ classic ‘Is This It?. “It’s the first record that me and my manager, Christa, showed the boys,” remembers Julia. “They didn’t really know the beauty of that record. It’s still that record [we put on] when we can’t think of anything else to listen to.”
The team Bean to the library
What the band are tucking into
Julia Cumming: vocals/bass
Currently reading: “I’m reading a book called ‘Why Buddhism is True.’ Which is a scientific approach to how the mind works in comparison to mindfulness, which is definitely something I’m interested in, definitely cool. Kind of nerdy. I could have said a bunch of things, but that’s the one that’s in my bag right now.”
Jacob Faber: drums
Currently reading: “I have a Lou Reed biography.”
Nick Kivlen: guitar/vocals
Currently reading: “I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy recently, one of my favourite authors. And I have a diary of Werner Herzog, of him making the movie Fitzcarraldo. But I haven’t started reading it yet because I’m saving it because I think it’s going to be really good.”