In Conversation with Sunflower Bean
By Sarah Taylor
Sunflower Bean are back with a vengeance on their forthcoming record ‘Headful of Sugar’. Now in their mid-20s, the trio, which consists of Julia Cumming (lead vocals, bass), Nick Kivlen (backing vocals, guitars), and Olive Faber (drums), are exploring fulfilment, hope, and hedonism this time around.
Starting out in their late teens, Sunflower Bean soon made an impact, garnering support slots with Wolf Alice, the Pixies, and Cage the Elephant. Hailing from New York, the band took inspiration from the city’s rich creative scene, fashioning their own eclectic brand of glam-rock, dream-pop, and psychedelia. Their debut album Human Ceremony was released in 2016 and was received warmly by indie lovers. But it was their 2018 sophomore, Twentytwo in Blue, which proved Sunflower Bean are a force to be reckoned with. The record boasts its fair share of big choruses (‘Twentytwo’), bombastic instrumentation (‘Crisis Fest’) and nostalgia (‘I Was a Fool’). Some moments are soft and sugary, others hard and heavier.
In the period between this record and the last, Sunflower Bean have remained busy, putting out an EP ‘King of the Dudes’ (2019) and a shimmering summer single ‘Moment in the Sun’ (2020), before teasing Headful of Sugar with its lead single ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ last year. The group have been able to see the limitations imposed by the pandemic in a positive light, setting up a home studio in Olive’s mother’s basement. “We thought: let’s just keep going. For the last two years we’ve been writing and recording a lot. It’s been a long process but a very good and creatively fulfilling one – we actually had over 80 demos!”
It also meant the band became more self-reliant: “We just thought let’s try to do as much as we can ourselves. We really dug deep into the creative process. The extra time allowed us to let go of things easier, and not hold songs too preciously. We kind of got comfortable with letting songs be what they are going to be. Sometimes it takes 5 or 6 tries at writing a song to get the song you’re actually looking for.”
Art and culture also bear an influence on Sunflower Bean, which may not come as a surprise given the ornate string arrangements and cinematic feel of Twentytwo in Blue and Nick [Kivlen] has mentioned Jim Jarmusch as an inspiration. However, Olive explains “We wanted to keep it as bare boned as possible. Having a few very bombastic big elements to each track and keeping things as simple and organic as possible. Nick uses the word casual a lot – a casual energy. It’s tricky because there’s nothing very casual about making a record in many ways, but I guess it was more so about having that time to experiment. It really allowed us to believe in our musicianship and let that be our voice.”
So where does that ambiguous album title come from? “Headful of Sugar…it’s reflecting on all the fucking empty things that are pumped into our brains each day particularly through social media. It’s all kind of unfulfilling. The album is about realising that unfulfillment and trying to let go of some of those sugary things and find the things that matter, like our relationships with people etc.”
As a band, Sunflower Bean have never shied away from using their fame to throw support behind the causes they care about. The last show they played was part of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2020, an experience that Olive will never forget. “There was so much hope and it felt amazing to be part of that moment. Obviously, there was total juxtaposition when a couple of weeks later they shut down Bernie’s campaign and then the pandemic happened. That show felt like the part in a movie where they show the best time at the beginning and then it’s all downhill from there.”
Songs like ‘Crisis Fest’ and ‘Roll the Dice’ touch on socio-political themes, with the former a rebellion of sorts against the Trump administration, whilst the latter expresses the financial frustrations young people face today. Olive tells me making political music is “unavoidable. On this album there really are no political words per se, it’s just a more real way of talking about it sometimes. With ‘Roll the Dice’, it’s sort of about how life is a gamble if you want to find this fulfilment. Everyone’s trying to win in their own ways, everything’s political in an aspect. We want to take larger political ideas and apply them to very monotonous everyday things in life.”
Sunflower Bean are, undeniably, an act best experienced live. Last time the band played Manchester, back in 2018 in support of Twentytwo in Blue, frontwoman Julia Cumming dived into the crowd for several songs, sharing the mic with concertgoers and getting stuck into the mosh pit for tracks like ‘Come For Me.’ They return to Manchester on 1st April, playing the O2 Ritz as part of Strange Waves festival, where they’ll share the stage with Dry Cleaning, The Lounge Society, and W. H. Lung amongst others. Olive says audiences can expect a set of “Psychedelic heavy rock music. We’ll be playing lots of songs off the new album – pretty much the whole thing. We’ve done seven shows in the US so far with this new set. We’re still a three-piece for the time being. Sometimes it’s hard to describe the set, you just have to come and experience it!”
Last year, Julia lent her vocals to Welsh rock icons Manic Street Preachers’ thirteenth album The Ultra Vivid Lament on the track ‘The Secret He Had Missed.’ I ask if the Manics plan on returning the favour and Olive laughs “there’s always time. They’re such lovely people. I engineered the vocals on that track, and it was such a fun experience. I love that song so much – it’s a little earworm that gets stuck in your head. We’re always looking to collaborate with others. We worked with Shamir on one of the songs on our album, and we’re excited for everyone to hear that.”
Olive expands that their role as engineer for this album has helped to “keep the creative process closer to us. In a personal way, it made me a better drummer. I wasn’t focusing on drumming; I was focusing on recording. So, I learned how to play the drums for recordings which is such a different thing compared to playing live. I think we’re going to keep doing it like this. The basement studio is always growing. Its cool to get out into other studios too. The fact we’re able to do so much ourselves first and then bring it to Jacob Portrait who produced a lot of it really reflects on how personal this album came out and how it really is the melding of the four of our minds.”
Asking Olive to summarise Headful of Sugar in three words, she concludes “Psychedelic pop-rock (one word!) masterpiece!”
Sunflower Bean will release their third album Headful of Sugar on 6th May. You can pre-order it here.
Sunflower Bean will embark on their UK tour including a date in Manchester, playing Strange Waves festival at the O2 Ritz on 1st April. Remaining tickets are available here.