London, Old Blue Last (November 28), Moth Club (30)
Question: What do you do if you’re a hype band with a mute singer on your first trip to London where anybody actually gives a damn about you?
Answer: You play double the amount of shows you’re contractually obliged to, with double the amount of intensity that anybody with the flu should realistically be able to manage, and you smash it at every given opportunity.
This is the situation New York’s newest guitar trio Sunflower Bean found themselves in this past weekend.
After six weeks on the road with 1) rock’s most chaotic band (Diiv, in the US) and 2) rock’s most polished outfit (The Vaccines, in the UK), singer Julia Cumming lands in the capital last Thursday having completely lost her voice. Co-singer and Sunflower Bean anchor Nick Kivlen is close to following suit, while drummer Jacob Faber is feeling the strain too.
As the band take to the stage at east end pub Old Blue Last just past midnight on Friday, the omens don’t look good for them. “I’m mute” Cumming mouths to the audience, but nobody really realises it’s not a joke. She tries to speak until…nothing comes out. Kivlen is forced to take over, cranking up his guitar with the wiry, intricate lines of forthcoming album opener and title track ‘Human Ceremony’ with an almost mechanic intensity. Total Pink Floyd circa Meddle, the track is too weed-fug to suit the tension brewing from inside the band, so it’s not until second track ‘This Kinda Feeling’ – all Bow Wow Wow drums and the kind of riffs any good Hendrix student knows his way around – that they really find their groove.
Kivlen and Cumming as a front duo have already proved their worth at SXSW and The Great Escape earlier this year, but since those frantic dates they’ve morphed into something more primeval. Their playing is anarchic, but they don’t ever hit bum notes (if they were British you would feel they would – and it probably wouldn’t be frowned upon). Instead, they constantly stare each other out, and from the back of the room they look like two matadors in competition. When, on one occasion, Cumming steps that little bit further forward towards her bandmate, her bass guitar neck jousting into his in a way that’s more goading than random accident, you feel like she’s about to launch an all-out attack. But instead, she holds back at the very last second, stepping off the stage in perfect time to the music and stomping around among the audience, freaking out anyone who happens to be in her way. It’s thrilling, and aesthetically not a million miles away from the personas Kate Bush or John Lydon played out in their heyday. More importantly, it makes you remember that every great band must cut their teeth playing to the whites of people’s eyes. Sunflower Bean very obviously relish this, and despite the vocal struggles, Friday night ends up being something of a sideways, one-legged triumph.
Two days later, and with the band apparently spending the whole weekend not speaking in an occultish bid to rescue their voices, they take to the stage at Hackney’s glitziest cabaret venue, Moth Club – a former-working men’s club. Under the gold glitter ceiling, they look the part more than ever tonight. Kivlen’s Dylan-in-’66 hair is practically reflecting off Cumming’s ripped tights’n’tee getup.
Tonight, on form, they prove themselves to be a mesmerizingly tight unit, but still one that’s enticingly rough around the edges. The yin and yang of Kivlen and Cumming is magnetic – as he turns his back on the audience, guitar squalling, she veers forward towards them, eyes wide open. It’s a cat and mouse act, and it’s invigorating to watch. ‘Human Ceremony’ sounds positively angelic, revealing itself to be a lilting 70s jam that knows exactly how to not outstay its welcome, while debut EP highlight ‘2013’ fulfils its lofty promise as a long lost John Hughes OST staple, underpinned by sugar sweet vocals that hit the mark from Cumming.
Best of all is future single ‘Easier Said’ – a rare, special song that sounds like Fleetwood Mac dreaming their way into being The Cure – and a Tame Impala-meets-T Rex inspired wigout called ‘I Was Home’, which seems to be about watching TV all day. As the track reaches the kind of breaking point Hookworms or Pond would be proud of, Cumming headbangs her way around the mic, like a weird hybrid of Alice Glass and the cartoon bird out of The Road Runner, while Kivlen and Faber set about changing the pace of the music to wherever their collective mood takes them. The trio are so locked into each other at this point that you don’t really realise that nobody’s sung a word for all of five minutes. And when they finally do again? It all makes even more sense.