How do you follow up your critically-acclaimed second album? Well according to Sunflower Bean, by creating something entirely different. “I don’t think we could make the same thing twice, even if we actually wanted to,” singer Julia Cumming tells NME of the trio’s next project. “But also, we didn’t want to.”
While their 2018 record ‘Twentytwo in Blue’ was a tribute to the fleeting innocence of youth, delivered with an ambitious “string section and a lot of percussion” according to guitarist Nick Kivlen, this time around they wanted to make something a “bit more stripped-down” while still having “every single element be super bold.” The result is ‘Headful of Sugar’, a sonic sugar rush that delves into themes of disillusionment, over-reliance on convenience, and the cheap entertainment that makes up modern life.
Despite the heavy themes, the band took to the studio with what Kivlen describes as “gleeful anarchy”, creating this bright sound by focusing on the freedom of letting go and the joy of dropping the preconceived programming of what society deems important. “We really let ourselves be free with all the styles of songs and vibes we wanted to put together,” Cumming shares. “That freedom on the record was really connected with the thought of fast pleasure. It really is a psychedelic pop-rock record and it was just like this sweetness that was on our mind.”
For the latest instalment of NME’s In Conversation series, we spoke with Sunflower Bean about shedding the past, decluttering their sound, and the creative autonomy that led to ‘Headful of Sugar’.
The album’s opening track ‘Who Put You Up To This?’ is a reintroduction to the band
Within seconds of pressing play on ‘Headful of Sugar’ you can hear that Sunflower Bean has entered new sonic territory, thanks to Cumming’s hushed echoing vocals which quickly evolves into her inquiring “who put you up to this?” over distorted guitar and synth. The question, which also happens to be the title of the song, felt like a perfect way for the band to open the album. “It’s a question someone asks you, but it’s also a question you ask yourself and in the context of this song, it’s a rhetorical question,” she shares. “I think it makes a lot of sense as the opener and as the beginning of this record because it’s the crack in the foundation of everything we were, and this entrance and rebirth into this record and this new feeling of freedom,” Cumming says.
In the track, she confidently dishes out revelations, singing: “In another life I was a bitch/ In another life I was your bitch/ Here’s how it turned out.” For her, the song is about moving on from the past. “On the verses, there’s a lot of this shedding of your old self,” she says. “It’s letting go of maybe a lover, but it’s also letting go of the selves that don’t serve you anymore, that are holding you back.” ‘Who Put You Up To This?’ operates as a sonic and symbolic warning shot of what’s about to come in the album. “That’s definitely why we placed it where we placed it. It’s doing a few different things for the record,” she explains. “It’s the beginning of the new.”
Recording the album outside of a traditional studio gave the band creative autonomy
When covid forced the band to stop touring for the first time in five years, they took advantage of the opportunity to record at home. Cumming notes that it allowed them to experiment more, sharing: “being able to do a lot of [the record] here made that possible. Even the pandemic made it possible.”
Recording in solitude gave the band the space and time they needed to follow their creative instincts. “When you go into a studio the clock’s running, you’re losing money as soon as you step it,” says drummer Olive Faber. “It’s shitty to record and make music like that sometimes.” It also gave Faber the opportunity to step into the role of engineer for the first time. “The fact that we have our own space now and are able to let things take the time they need and let our excitement about things guide the way instead of outside pressures, really informed how the album came out,” she says.
The band’s intention with the album is to create a collective journey
Though the album shines a light on consumer-driven society, Sunflower Bean aren’t interested in preaching to their fans. “We want people to feel that energy with us rather than us telling them what to feel,” Cumming says. “My favourite art and our favourite art is the kind that brings you in and takes you on a journey together. So, rather than us trying to say, ‘this is what you need, this is how you should feel’ we just tried to convey the feeling we were feeling and thinking, and having the faith that a lot of people feel similarly.”
Sunflower Bean made the conscious decision to “declutter” their sound
Though Sunflower Bean still consider ‘Twentytwo in Blue’ pivotal to who they are as a band, shifting attention away from their previous record gave them the creative freedom to create a new sound. “A big theme on this record emotionally, and I think what [it] became sonically, is letting go,” Cumming says. “‘Twentytwo in Blue’ was such a special, important record and such a special, important time in our lives that gave us the chance to tour the world and really do this. At this point where we’re at, we really just wanted to let go of the pressures that you put on [yourself], or that people put on bands or what you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to sound. We wanted to just take the reins.”
Taking the reins also meant returning to their original recording style. “We were playing more as a band in a room earlier in our career,” Kivlen shares. “Then we started branching out more, layering and doing different tracks and then adding on and building the songs more instead of practicing them as a three-piece.” Not only did the band return to playing as a trio, but they were also intentional about stepping back from the lush orchestration they leaned into on their previous album. “We wanted to declutter everything,” Kivlen explains. “So even if there’s only a bass, vocal, and drums, they’re all very distinct and they’re all doing something insanely important. We wanted to go for something less ornate, something more punk.”
Cumming almost performed with Manic Street Preachers at Wembley before covid forced her to change plans
Last year, Cumming collaborated with Manic Street Preachers on their single ‘The Secret He Had Missed’. “I think that the Manics have an amazing way of writing great pop, and rock, and just art songs, and I got to be a part of that record,” she says. “It was the first number one record I’ve ever been a part of.”
Cumming had also been planning on joining the Manics to sing the track live before covid changed her plans. “It was a day or two before Omicron was announced. I had my tickets and everything, and I was going to perform with them at Wembley but it could not happen due to the virus who shall not be named.”
Sunflower Bean does have plans to return to the UK this spring, and will also be announcing more tour dates for the summer. “I’m not sure what we’re able to share, but we do have a lot more dates,” Cumming explains when asked if the band has summer festival plans. “We’re just going to continue to announce them as we can and as the world continues to allow things to happen.”