Posted June 29, 2022 by Jeff in Tunes

Indie Rockers Sunflower Bean Embrace ‘New York Energy’

Sunflower Bean photo by Driely S
Sunflower Bean photo by Driely S

New York trio Sunflower Bean—singer-bassist Julia Cumming, singer-guitarist Nick Kivlen and drummer Olive Faber spent the better part of the pandemic working on songs for their new album, Headful of Sugar. Singles such as Who Put You Up To This?,” “Baby Don’t Cry” and “Roll The Dice,” and “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” suggest the group’s heady of mix of synth-pop and psychedelic rock has only become more sophisticated.

While they were doing some work at the studio in Long Island prior to embarking on a spring tour, Cumming and Kivlen spoke about the new album during a Zoom call.

I think the band members all grew up in New York. What was that like?

Cumming: When we were really young and going to a lot of shows, it was a great experience. There were a lot of DIY venues, and we spent a lot of our time at DIY venues. That’s essentially how we met. We were kids who loved DIY and we found each other and paved our own way from there. Music and going to shows was always a big part of our experience of the city. We were mostly Brooklyn at the time. We lived together for a while when the band first started. I was still in high school when the band started. Most of the venues were in Bushwick and Williamsburg.

Are the venues not there anymore?

Kivlen: It’s not the same.

Cumming: The city had this brief, interesting moment during the pandemic when people started coming back because the rent had gotten cheaper, and there was this arts energy when the city started coming back. Since then, it’s over, and the city has been ravaged by greed. But most things are. That’s not necessarily unique to New York.

How did the band first come together?

Cumming: I always loved bands and always wanted to be in a band. My first band was a Syd Barrett-inspired acoustic girl group. I did some solo music. I met Nick and Olive, and I was inspired by them as people, and I thought they were great players. It felt like we had so much to prove and a lot that we wanted to do. It was this feeling I had with them that we were on the same page about what it takes to really be a good band. It takes everyone having an understanding of what that is. It was very natural. As soon as I met Nick, and he said, “I’m starting this band called Sunflower Bean, and I think you should join it,” I said I would join the band. I knew it. And I knew it would be my life.

You started calling your music neo-psychedelia for the digital age. Talk about what you meant by that.

Kivlen: It was definitely psychedelic, but it wasn’t very ‘60s. We had more a Cyber Punk aware kind of sound. You have to make a buzz word. I remember bands in Brooklyn calling themselves shit gaze at the time. Now, it sounds so antiquated to say something about the digital age. That sounds like something from the ’90s because we are so far into the digital age.. At the time, it was the perfect way to describe our sound. It had influences from Pink Floyd, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane but there was newer influence from electronic music and No Wave and Sonic Youth and more contemporary Captured Track bands.

Cumming: I also think that it’s something that has made more sense as more time has passed. The way Gen Z makes art is to pull from so many cultural music and historical influences without having to commit to that. That was natural to us. We didn’t fit in with the millennials. We were all writers on our own and then writing together. With our different influences, it created something we really liked that we thought was different and worth doing.

Your first album, Human Ceremony, came out on Fat Possum Records. How’d that come about?

Cumming: They signed us after our second South by Southwest. That was really cool.

Kivlen: It’s so funny. They were one of the first labels I was ever made aware of. Fat Possum and Captured Tracks were the two schools I wanted to go to. It was cool to sign with them. They had a proactive, music-centric team. They went to a ton of shows and were there early for us. They have this cool thing where they won’t sign a band for more than one album at a time. The label owner said he never wanted to work with a band that doesn’t want to be there. it’s really valiant but then you don’t have the next one for sure and you could miss out on a ton of money. They honestly get a lot of amazing debut albums.

What did you try to do differently with Twentytwo in blue?

Cumming: We had a lot of fun and excitement with our first record, which was a collection of songs we had written up until that point. We were always learning publically and writing our lives as they’ve been going down and learning how to make records. We were eager to start and did it as soon as it could. Mom + Pop had been interested, and they got what we were trying to do with that album.

Did it have a bigger impact in the UK?

Cumming: I think it did. We have always connected with the audiences there, and it broke Top 40 there. That was really exciting for us. There’s more rock culture there and music culture in general there. It’s always been like a second home for us.

At what point did you start opening for Bernie Sanders?

Cumming: that was right before the pandemic started. We did a couple of shows in New Hampshire. The second one was us and the Strokes and Bernie. It was an iconic feeling evening. It was very optimistic and very hopeful. Within a few weeks, everything took a big downturn. That was the story with that.

Kivlen: We were volunteering for Bernie and doing canvasing and phone banking, and our friend who is a photographer was friends with his booking agent who asked her if there were any bands who would want to play. Credit to Bernie’s team. He had cool younger bands playing with him.

When did the songs for Headful of Sugar start to come together?

Cumming: For the past couple of years while we haven’t been able to tour or really do any of the other stuff we do as a band, we’ve just been writing. Making a record and recording was our way of staying on task and keeping the band alive.

Kivlen: Just keeping sane. When we were working on the album, I was convinced it would never come out. I thought the world would never be the same and we would I thought everything was so weird and up on the air that there was no thought of every having a career again. It was just making music for fun. It was the only thing that kept us sane. The only thing that felt good was getting together in our home studio.

Cumming: You talk to the labels and they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t want you put out a record and not tour. That’s why 2022 is such an exciting time. Everyone that has been on the sidelines is ready to come back. We were just writing what we wanted to make on that day to see what would happen. It made for a more experimental and exciting and ambitious record than if we had done it over six months in a more normal situation.

Talk about some of the collaborations on the album. You work with Shamir, Suzy Shinn and Jacob Portrait (who also produced, mixed and co-engineered the record with Faber).

Cumming: Jacob Portrait co-produced Twentytwo in Blue and we started working with him a little bit before the pandemic started. Once the pandemic started, the world became very small, and some of our ideas about going to L.A. and traveling were just not possible. We trusted Jake and he is a special and interesting artist in his own right. I think he brought a lot to the table, and he pushed us a lot to keep writing and keep going and not stop until we turned it in. That pushed us as artists. Suzy Shinn is one of the coolest producers out there. She did the last Weezer record. She can do it all. She has this energy of wanting more women in the field. She lives that and is that and is just really incredible and being able to work on her and with Shamir, an artist I really love and respect, as really cool. It’s a very earnest group around the record. There’s not a lot of different players. It’s pretty tight.

The album opener, “Who Put You Up To This?,” features a nice mix of synths and guitars. Was there something specific that inspired it?

Cumming: It’s funny. It started out in the very beginning as a wistful, existential song about wanting to be an animal and be a part of nature. We wanted to make a song that was more about this breaking free energy that is on a bunch of songs. It’s about stepping into this new world and this new life. The tones we used on it and the vocal performance were different for us. It’s a different sound, and that’s why we wanted to put it at the top of the record. It kind of opens the whole thing up and says this is a new world for us, sonically.

“I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” has a Cure-like feel to it.

Kivlen: We love the Cure. They’re one of those bands that have put out so many albums that are masterpieces in their own right. They have singles too. I love the Cure when they’re being really moody and the early stuff that’s more stripped down.

“Baby Don’t Cry” has a simmering intensity to it. What inspired it?

Kivlen: That song was one of the last ones written for the record. I had this voice memo on my phone from a year before when I was just singing it. I realized it was really catchy, and we should make it an actual song. It was a very late addition to the record. It’s so poppy and fun. The chorus is the song. If you don’t like the chorus, you’re not going to like the song.

What will the live show be like?

Cumming: We did a little bit of touring already before the record was out. It became this promo tour where we could see how people reacted to the songs. It’s the three of us, so it’s back to the basics. It’s a rock trio. I think it’s similar to the record. Come in with an open mind and we’re going to bring the New York energy.  

Photo Credit: Driely S.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].