Sunflower Bean’s debut album ‘Human Ceremony’ is an instant classic. Dan Stubbs chats fashion, The Strokes and, er, Gary Glitter with New York’s next great band.
We find Sunflower Bean in two parts: the male two-thirds, singer/guitarist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber, are on conference call from New York, where they live; while singer/bassist Julia Cumming is in Paris at Fashion Week, building on a modelling career that’s already seen her pose in a Saint Laurent campaign. “I’m not a regular model, you know,” she laughs. “I just wear what I want to castings and do my thing – and it doesn’t often work.”
That do-your-own-thing ethos holds up in the band, too. Nick has a Jim Morrison hairdo, androgynous Julia frugs around stage like a puffed-up rooster and Jacob apparently takes grooming cues from Charles II. Together, they make music that blends the dark-matter heaviness of Black Sabbath with the new-wave pop smarts of Blondie and The Go-Go’s, the floaty, fey romance of 1980s lo-fi indie pop and the insouciant cool of The Velvet Underground. It came from their dissatisfaction at Brooklyn’s musical landscape two years ago: “A lot of shoegaze, post-rock and weirdo noise bands who took everything so seriously,” says Nick. “There are clichés that are so underdone they’d stopped being clichés – like having a song that has a guitar solo instead of a feedback loop. We just wanted to do something fun.”
The result is ‘Human Ceremony’, their brilliant, trippy debut album. They’ve explained the title as ‘how Earthlings going about their business might be captured as a picture in an alien textbook’, but the result is more terrestrial – a proper, classic debut. “Just a time capsule of the band; 11 songs we’ve been working on for a year and a half,” in Nick’s words.
Bizarre concepts are a part of the band’s language. When Nick and Jacob first heard The Strokes’ 2001 debut ‘Is This It’ in 2013, Nick says it was such an “instant click moment” that he wrote “a ton of songs directly mimicking the group. I wanted to make a fake rip-off band called The Van Gogh.” Julia once went one bigger as singer of Terry Tinsel, a glam concept duo covering the music of – wait for it – paedophile pariah Gary Glitter. Put the pitchforks away. “People are horrified in the UK, but he doesn’t mean anything to anybody in the States,” says Julia, who grew up listening to his music. “He was in his 30s, he had a hairpiece, he was ugly. A big part of rock’n’roll is taking your ugliness, dressing it up and showing it to the world. I think he’s retarded, but the music he was a part of really did change my life.” Terry Tinsel was a spin-off from another concept-y group – postmodern teen-pop duo Supercute, which Julia formed at age 13. “It was almost an art project about not letting your age or being a girl stop you from trying anything,” she says.
In the UK for their album launch this week, Sunflower Bean’s European jaunt winds up in Brighton on February 19. Britain, they say, is already starting to feel like home. “You guys are very excited about rock music,” says Nick. “In America, it’s been out of the mainstream since I was five years old and any time it’s mentioned it’s always the same people: Jack White or Dave Grohl. I’m so sick of seeing their faces. One band of 20-year-olds making relevant rock music would be nice, wouldn’t it?” Nick, you may have answered your own question.
Catch Sunflower Bean at their remaining UK shows this month
Feb 15 – Edinburgh Sneaky Pete’s
Feb 16 – Manchester Soup Kitchen
Feb 18 – London The Dome
Feb 19 – Brighton Bleach