There’s something precious about turning 22. It brings a creeping sense of maturity — you’ve spent a year legally drinking, after all — yet you still haven’t shaken the vulnerability of coming into your own. It’s the first birthday that doesn’t actually feel that special, just sort of expected. What you do with those expectations, however, is how you begin to redefine yourself as an individual. Or, in the case of Sunflower Bean, how they reinvent themselves as a band.
The Brooklyn trio — the first artists to receive both a CoSign and Artist of the Month stamp of approval — return next week with their sophomore album, the aptly titled Twentytwo in Blue. All three members hit that palindromic age while working on the record. As if breaching adulthood or having to follow up a breakout debut like 2016’s Human Ceremony didn’t carry enough pressure as individual events, here they were confronting both simultaneously. Speak with bassist/vocalist Julia Cumming, guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen, and drummer Jacob Faber for just a few minutes, or give their new LP a spin, and it’s quickly evident how gracefully they’re handling the transition.
Where other young bands may get lost in the rush of acclaim and a touring lifestyle, Sunflower Bean are making a concerted effort towards longevity. They take nothing for granted, improving with every gig, pushing past the self-consciously imposed limitations felt by any vicenarian. Years spent in one band or another have led them to Twentytwo in Blue, and the sophistication with which they’re approaching the moment can be felt in every chord.
Their 2015 EP, Show Me Your Seven Secrets, stuck them with the label “psychedelic rock,” something that hung around even as they broke out of its confines with the muscular Human Ceremony. On the heels of singles like “I Was a Fool” and “Twentytwo”, they’ve now been saddled with comparisons to a band they jokingly hint at as “Bleetwood Black”. Though overused, it’s not terribly surprising given the new album’s larger sound flourishing with strings, bongos, and the increasingly rare use of female-male dual vocals. At the same time, a single like “Crisis Fest” cuts in like a Joan Jett protest punk rocker, and the poppy swing of “Puppet Strings” is constructed from misheard Nirvana lyrics.
Sunflower Bean’s goal is not to sound like anyone — in fact, it’s to sound like no one. Like any young adult, they want to be distinct, and the years since they first came on the scene have given them the confidence to do just that. As much as the new songs are a testament to their own growth as both individuals and artists, the lyrical honesty also makes them ready to be, as Faber puts it, “someone’s companion or friend that they can really hold on to.”
“Someone’s favorite weird song,” adds Cumming. “Something that they put on and feel strange and happy.”
When Twentytwo in Blue drops March 23rd via Mom + Pop, get ready for some happiness.
ON JULIA GETTING PAID $5 FOR HER FIRST GIG
Photo by Ben Kaye
Julia Cumming: I’ve been touring since I was 11. My dad is a bass player, so I grew up with music and people playing music being pretty normal. I remember taking naps in studios that my dad was playing in. [The first band I toured with, The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players,] had a girl who was two years older than me, basically a child drummer. She needed a kid to hang out with, and I would get paid $5 a night, and I would go up to people and offer them CDs. They would have to buy them from me, and it was this really odd power dynamic because they couldn’t say no to a child!
Nick Kivlen: That’s slave labor!
JC: What’s funny is it almost set me up, because what do you do after that? Do you go back to school? It’s not like I had stage parents, but it was so cool. I got to travel the world. I got to make $5. It was amazing! I never really saw anything any other way. So a few years later when that girl said to me, “I’m starting my own band. Do you want to join?” I was like, “Yeah!” But I didn’t play any instruments.
NK: You were like, “I cost $5 a night.”
JC: So I think from being in that band and the guys being in another band, we learned a lot of how to be in a band. Which is where a lot of bands suffer. For a band to work, it takes a lot of love and a lot of mutual respect. Of course, we still get into fights. But I know what not to do. These guys know what those dynamics are like from that other band. So we offered a different kind of relationship to each other, which I think is what I learned most from bands before this: how to not fuck it up this time.
ON COMING OF AGE ON THE ROAD
Photo by Ben Kaye
JC: We played the most shows out of any band between 2014 and 2015 in New York City, which was over 50 shows and, in reality, was probably more around 60 or 70 for all the shows that weren’t listed.
Jacob Faber: You learn everything. It becomes your life. There’s no separation from it. On a personal level, it helps with maturing in a way because you’re going to so many different places, and you’re always having to adjust yourself and think about how you have to be in whatever certain place it is. Looking at yourself and how you feel in all these different places, what your role is in what you’re doing. A lot of that is amplified on the road rather than just sitting at home or in your college dorm for these four years.
I’m always reflecting on things like, “Oh, shit, this is crazy. I’m living my dream.” For some reason, it always only happens during a random show. Not even a big show or an important show — I mean, all shows are important — but just the most random show. And I’ll just be playing a song, and I’ll just get chills and be like, “Fuck. This is really amazing.” It’s good to think, because then after that, you always feel more clearheaded. It can be difficult to deal with your mind within all this stuff.
JC: The first year the band started I was a senior in high school, and the boys had just graduated. We started playing a lot of college shows that year, and I called it our own roundabout college tour. It felt like I was getting my college experience at Penn State or Bennington or Purchase. I remember the feeling that always came from that is that it’s really cold and depressing out there. We were partying and it didn’t seem like the right thing for me. When it came to graduating, we said we’re going to take a gap year, which has sort of become a gap life. We’ve always had this sense that there’s nothing to lose: “I’m 18, I’m healthy. You never know what’s going to happen. Right now, I have the ability to do this. We just have to follow that.” When kids ask us how to start a band or what to do, which they do a lot on the road, the thing I always say is if you have even the feeling that you have the spark, if you see something in the thing you’re doing even a little bit, follow that and chase it. It’s worth it.
ON HEADLINING BOWERY BALLROOM AS NEW YORKERS
JC: I feel like every single step we’ve made has been kind of like climbing a never-ending staircase of really tiny steps. Everything has felt really nice, and now we’re going to play Bowery again on April 26th; we’re going to play the whole record in full and have a bunch of cameos. I remember when we first headlined Bowery, I had this feeling — I’d opened there in my life like four or five times, and I had this feeling that I could die now. As a New Yorker, this is it. I’ve been here a million times, I’ve played here a handful of times, but to actually sell it out, having my family there, and having everyone there … And now to come back two years later and feel like this is an intimate show. It’s crazy!
It wasn’t ego, but we were high after that show! “We have an album coming out! We played Bowery! Pow pow pow!” And the next night we were going on tour, and it was the first night of the tour. We had an opening band. We were like, “We’re doing it!” We were in our zone. And we’re getting paid to play a fraternity at Dartmouth.
NK: We were getting more to play their frathouse than I think we got from selling out Bowery Ballroom.
JC: We show up and it was snowing. They’d left all the doors open; it was so cold we almost couldn’t play. And I swear to God not one person watched the set. There were like 20 people in the room, and a fight happened upstairs that everyone went upstairs to watch. And there was some shady shit going on in the basement. We were literally playing to the sound guy, to the point where it was the middle of the set and we were like, “Should we stop?” And this frat kid is so high he can’t finish writing the check. So one night we sell out 600 people, and the next night you play to nobody, and you have to bring the same thing all the time and you have to know that the world doesn’t owe you anything and every wonderful moment that happens is a special gift. And the things that aren’t special are just part of the thing.
ON WORKING WITH UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA’S JAKE PORTRAIT
Photo by Pete Vandenbelt
JC: With us it really is sort of a family affair, ride or die. With [producer] Matt [Molnar], we felt like we grew so much from doing the EP to doing Human Ceremony into actually being who we wanted to be that we thought we could take that even further. Matt had been so helpful in so many ways. Especially with writing stuff that’s intense or personal.
JF: I think we decided to work with him again because we can really trust him. That’s the biggest thing, just having someone in the initial writing and demoing process whom you can trust and you know will give you a straight answer with things. I think going to this one, we knew we wanted to add someone else, a new set of ears to it.
NK: Then enter Jacob Portrait … We were always big fans of UMO. They were a band we looked up to when we first formed. We always thought of them as a rock band that was taking traditional and classic things and elevating them to a different height. They really inspired us. So when it came time to bring in a wild card, Jacob was just so crazy and inventive. His ideas, we never even considered. He had all these strange guitars that you might not think were actually instruments you’d want to use, and he’d be like, “Go plug that in. We’ll put it through this pedal and see what happens!” And it would sound bizarrely wonderful. He reminds me a lot of Brian Eno in that way. He’s very, very experimental and inventive in the studio. He brought the songs from these initial tracks we brought to him that were just us playing live like we normally would, and he just elevated them to the next level.
ON REFINING FOR LONGEVITY
Photo by Hollie Fernando
JC: We’d put everything into the live show, and I think something we inadvertently learned on tour — being fortunate enough to support really legendary acts like the Pixies and have their influence permeate us — was our real longevity and our real purpose was still not entirely harnessed yet. I think that what we’ve done now is gotten a lot closer to it. I think we realized that there was more we could be doing as artists. What we needed to do actually was work on songs for the sake of songs. That’s what we loved and that’s how we approached this record.
I think we were doing that before, but we were also still really experimenting with sounds, with different formats, a little more obscurity, more tongue-in-cheekiness. We didn’t really talk about our lyrics in interviews. We focused on making a really cool live experience and curating these sounds. On this one, we wanted to focus on going deeper into ourselves and what we had to say, putting that more into the forefront instead of obscuring it.
NK: It was more of a refined thing for us at this point. We had found our footing a little bit. We were ready to be a little more earnest. I think that’s a big part of it.
ON REJECTING EXPECTATIONS
NK: The ethos that the band formed on was we always wanted to do the opposite of what people were doing. So coming up in the Brooklyn DIY scene in 2013, there were a lot experimental noise bands and shoegaze bands where you couldn’t care about what you looked like onstage, your album art had to be obscure graphic design art, and you couldn’t be on your cover. There couldn’t be any melodic guitar solos or big choruses. It was very no-wavey, art punky. And we were just like, “No. We’re not gonna do that.”
JF: Even more than a rejection of what everyone else was doing, I think it’s finding a spot that isn’t already taken up. Finding what music we can create that can have a purpose in this climate. There’s a lot of shit out there, and I don’t think we ever want to make something that feels redundant.
JC: It’s like rebelling against ourselves in a way. Rebelling against something we knew we could do. That’s something I love about Lou Reed so much. Even late in his career, having the courage to make some really weird, bad shit. Being like, “I’m an artist. I’m not going to make the same thing. I’m not even gonna make a likable thing. I’m gonna make Lulu. I’m just gonna keep making stuff that’s really unexpected and fun.” I think that’s a really important quality to think about. With music, it is communicative, and we want people to love it and hear it, but you have to be brave.
ON THE MORE POP-ORIENTED RESULTS
JC: Let’s say you had a kid that all of sudden likes baseball; you’re going to buy them a baseball bat. You have a song like “Twentytwo” that’s really pretty and you’re like, “How do I support you? How do I help you become the version of yourself that you need to be?” It’s like, “Doy, it’s strings. It’s harmony.” The fact that we had a team in place and we had ourselves and all the things that we could pull from, we had the ability to try the things and see them through for these songs. That’s why you go from Phil Spector on “Anyway You Like” to kind of Lush on “Human For”. We were trying to see and develop the identity of the tracks before anything else.
NK: Something I was thinking about was diving into more escapism with the music while having the lyrics become more real. It wasn’t a conscious choice or anything. It was just like, “Wow, these songs are kind of fun. There’s kind of a party vibe.”
JC: This juxtaposition of how awful a term [like “busted” in “Twentytwo”] is with beautiful strings deliciously tickles this very existential part of myself that I like to indulge. A lot of it is a juxtaposition, like “Burn It” where we actively said, “This is so heavy-handed we have to make this a party.” We got bongos, we added breaths. We wanted to make it a fucked-up party.
ON THOSE “BLEETWOOD BLACK” COMPARISONS
Photo by Hollie Fernando
NK: People always want to put their own filter and their own taste over you. They want to make the connections that they want to connect. Early in the band, we were sort of a guitar wig-out, extended jam rock band, and I think the psychedelic tag fit well on maybe the first EP that we did. But we quickly outgrew that, and I don’t think of Human Ceremony as a psychedelic rock record at all. When I listen to that record, I hear the influence of the New York indie scene of 2010. The Captured Tracks sound is pretty heavy on that record.
JC: For sure. When we get asked a question like describe your band in three words, my answer is always “guitar, bass, drums.” I think that’s the quickest way to distill what the heart is. Guitar music and keeping that alive and fresh rather than covers of the past is really important to us. When people hear what they want to hear in it and call it Bleetwood Black or whatever, it’s fine. Our goal on this record was to make sure each moment was really special, and we took a lot of influence from Tusk conceptually as a record as far as the fact that it’s a really strange record. It’s super long; you have to skip two songs to get to a good song. There are all these sounds, all these experimentations with timing, this fearlessness that I think we took influence from, rather than taking direct influence from the music. Just to give us the courage to try.
ON WRITING FOR THE CURRENT ERA
NK:I think everyone has a responsibility to be political and to pay attention. I would never want to be an artist that says, “Oh, I’m never going to touch politics. I’m going to strive to be apolitical.” For us, it felt like it was so all-encompassing in our mind at the time we started working on the record that we had to.
JF: I think it’s more of a responsibility on our end to be honest in our music. Why would it be a burden? I think a song like “Crisis Fest” has its purpose. It’s a reflection of all that we saw in the year touring and meeting so many different kids and people our age and younger. I think it’s just a reflection of that.
JC: “Crisis Fest” is definitely the most direct, but you have these feelings permeating through the whole record. Even “Oh No, Bye Bye”, Nick had called it an anthem to uncertainty. I think that sums it up really well. Even a song like “Burn It”, a song that approaches this concept of cities changing, which as a native New Yorker is really important to me. This pyrotechnic idea of feeling so angry at this change you can’t control that you wanna burn everything up and start again from the ashes. That’s a really twisted way to feel. In a time like now where everything is so messed up, it on the flip side creates this immeasurable opportunity for creativity and growth. I think artists right now are in a really unique place where they can really test the limits and hopefully non-limits of their creativity to actually approach something that’s really important instead of our own fucking bellybuttons. Why not try?