Time Traveling With Sunflower Bean

Sunflower Bean talk influences and how to avoid anxiety during their hectic year.

When listening to “Human Ceremony,” Sunflower Bean’s debut album, you’re hit with a wave of jagged call-and-response vocals. A high female voice cuts through the steady drone of her male counterpart — it’s conversational and confrontational at the same time. This device is effective and arresting, but it seems perfectly natural when you actually get to speak to the band. Nick Kivlen, Jacob Faber and Julia Cumming are always finishing each other’s sentences and adding their own two cents to any conversation thread, no matter how nitpicky or silly it is.

“I felt really old walking around Lolla,” declares Kivlen, the 21-year-old guitarist/vocalist of the group. “I don’t think that there [was] anyone over 20 in the crowd.” “No, that’s not true!” Cumming, the band’s 20-year-old bassist/vocalist interjects with an exacerbated laugh. Wearing a worn-in Joy Division T-shirt, Kivlen decides that this frivolous conversation is not one that he’s going to go out quietly on: “Seriously! I would say that 80 percent of the people I saw [there] were freshmen in college or younger and … ” “And that’s amazing!” says the group’s drummer, Faber, with a smile as he pulls on his meticulously braided pigtails. Everyone’s had their say and order is restored in the Sunflower Bean universe.

Sunflower Bean
Sunflower Bean

This playful bickering isn’t just good fun for the New York trio who have been friends since the early days of high school, it’s one of the things that keeps them all grounded and sane in the midst of a jam-packed schedule that has them touring for more half of the year. Well, it keeps them closer to sanity at least. “We’re all the same types of crazy,” laughs Faber. “Like, our work ethic is just crazy.” With over 200 shows played in 2016 alone, it’s hard to argue with Faber’s logic, but the sheer numbers aren’t the most impressive thing about Sunflower Bean’s globetrotting, it’s the maturity and composure that they tour the world with.

“I think when you do anything seriously, it kind of ages you,” says Cumming, peering out behind a pair of large sunglasses to see if her bandmates agree with her assessment. “We’ve all been pretty serious about music even before this band, so I would say that we all came into this experience kind of knowing how much it would take and I think we were kind of prepared for that. We’re all working together towards the same goal and we’re all growing up together and I think that’s a very special feeling.” Heads nod in agreement.

Julia Cumming
Julia Cumming

While the members of Sunflower Bean aren’t bogged down by the past as they work together to make it as a band, they still wear their influences on their sleeves. The trio name-drops bands like DIIV, Beach Fossils and Total Slacker as major inspirations and compares their songwriting styles and recording processes to the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones (“If you read Keith Richards’s ‘Life’ their songwriting process [of building off guitar riffs] is exactly the same. Exactly the same,” says Kivlen with a smile.) Even the band’s personal aesthetics mirror their influences with Cumming’s Edie Sedgwick pixie cut and Kivlen’s perfect Dylan-goes-electric curls.

“I think that there’s a New York attitude too,” Cumming says when thinking about how their alt-post-punk sound comes to life. “That’s why stuff that comes out of New York sounds different from stuff that comes out of California [or anywhere else]. I think it’s a certain way of life, a certain level of anxiety [laughs] and also pride. We can say that The Velvet Underground are where we’re from and we can take on some of that history. That has probably seeped into us and our music somehow.”

And although their variance of fuzzy rock elders and big brothers have, indeed, seeped into their music, the thoughtfulness of Sunflower Bean’s lyrics is all their own. “I wouldn’t say that [all our songs are] confessional,” Cumming says. “But I think that it really all depends on how you define what is personal. Like growing up, existentialism, time all that stuff that kind of is inherently close.”

Julia Cumming
Julia Cumming

One thing that Faber, Kivlen and Cumming didn’t plan for when starting Sunflower Bean was how to handle all of their newfound attention. It’s sometimes hard to believe that the trio was still working part-time jobs as movie theater ushers and delivering pizzas this time last year. “We really like doing interviews when we can hang out and talk, but we’re just such normal people,” says Kivlen, struggling to pinpoint what’s draining about fame. “When people think we’re famous or freak out when [they] meet us, that’s just so not who we are. I don’t know … [Turns to Julia] Do you know what I’m saying?”

“Sort of,” says Cumming, once again not missing a beat as Kivlen’s call-and-response partner. “It’s the kind of thing where [being in a band is] such a dream, it’s such a cool thing to be able to do it at all — and it’s really exciting and always amazing if anyone shows up to any of our shows. So, I think there’s a mix of this being a job — showing up and doing it well — and also appreciating the hardships of being in our van. We get to travel, see the world and do this! And we don’t have to sweep the floor all the time right now, we might have to again some day.” Instead of being afraid of the bubble burst that Cumming’s describing, though, the boys erupt into laughter, shouting “probably” when getting “real” jobs again are mentioned.

Just like in the album, Cumming’s voice cuts through the noise as she continues her thoughtful outlook on life: “Everytime it gets a little hard [I] just have to remember that I’m young, I’m healthy, I’m happy and I’m getting to do what I love. It’s all worth it.”

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