I Want You to Give Me Enough Time: An Interview with Sunflower Bean

Sunflower Bean's bassist Julia Cumming explains why NYC's hottest band won’t "cater to the super-snobby purist music world".
Sunflower Bean
Human Ceremony
Fat Possum

Sunflower Bean is a New York band with three kids in it. It’s easy to dispute how “New York” they are and to dispute that they’re really “kids.” What’s not up for debate is that the band’s debut album, Human Ceremony, displays a freshness only achievable through particularly diverse roots. Sometimes Julia Cumming’s vocals sound like Juliana Hatfield; sometimes Nick Kivlen’s vocals sound like Jeff Tweedy. When Kivlen’s guitar rises to the untamed heights of twinkly, Jacob Farber’s drums tamp the rhythm back down to rock and roll reality.

Human Ceremony will lend a terrifically mellow vibe to a backyard barbecue, but it also might be really good soundtrack to cleaning the house. Spacey and ephemeral on the one hand, yet fierce and wild on the other, what Human Ceremony makes clear above all else is that the tip of Sunflower Bean’s iceberg is already pretty sharp. This is a thoughtful trio built on a range of interests, such that their subsequent albums are likely to surprise. They could go in a metal direction; they could fiddle around with synthesizers; they could find themselves on a stadium tour.

PopMatters sat down with bassist and co-vocalist Julia Cumming to try to put a finger on where Sunflower Bean has been and where they are going. Spoiler alert: they can go anywhere they want.

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You played more than 100 shows before recording your EP, and then you recorded the Human Ceremony debut very quickly — 11 tracks in seven days. Is it safe to say that Sunflower Bean prefers stages to studios?

We do really enjoy playing shows. I think we developed a lot on stage, which made us better musicians and helped us learn about each other as musicians. I think without that, we would have made a very different record. I think playing live together is a really special experience, and I wouldn’t take back all of those shows for the world. But it was really interesting to record the record too, and I think we are all excited to start working on the second record as well.

And perhaps the band prefers basements to stages. You, Kivlen and Farber have extremely diverse musical influences. What is it that drew you Farber’s Long Island basement in the first place? Are there a couple of bands all three of you agree upon, or is it debating those conflicting influences that creates the band’s chemistry?

We practice in Jacob’s basement because we don’t have the money to practice in Brooklyn. In Jacob’s basement, we can play for as long as we want, without the pressure of having to move all of our gear around or pay a really high monthly rent. We feel the most comfortable there, and write everything there, so we would like to keep that going as long as we can.

We have a lot of musical interests in common, which was one of the reasons we thought we could make music together. I love The Who (the early stuff) and so does Jacob. And we also all loved Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Smiths, The Cure. We all had a very classic rock and roll education from our parents, and just being interested in rock music and doing our own research. But our tastes definitely differ as well, and I think that makes us who we are. I love the Beach Boys’ later stuff, and I think that really affected the singing and melodies on the album.

What’s so great about Tame Impala? You’ve previously compared them to Led Zeppelin. Do you think it’s important for bands to keep up with and appreciate other current bands, or do all roads lead to the hardest rocking days of rock and roll? How do you figure out whether you’re making something old or something new? The Strypes, for comparison’s sake, are a very young band that seems bent on making something straightforwardly old.

Tame Impala is one of the biggest bands in the world right now that still makes music with guitars. I don’t know if it’s possible to compare any band to Led Zeppelin, or any band from now to a band that existed when rock and roll was the music of the kids, of the rebels.

I think that it’s easy to get lost in the history of rock music, because there is so much good stuff, and to avoid projects that are releasing music currently. But there is still a lot of amazing stuff going on right now, even if it is hard to find sometimes.

I wouldn’t say that you really “figure out” if you are making something old or new. I think that the time and place you make something inexplicably affects it, even if you want to make something that is just rehashing the past. All of us have grown up with the internet, and that changes your brain I think. I think the music we make will always be affected by that somehow.

We definitely don’t want to be a band that just re-creates stuff from the past.

Should we care that all three members of Sunflower Bean are under 21 years old? You’ve spent less time with your instruments than older bands, had less time to dig into researching your influences than older bands, but Sunflower Bean seems to set a high bar for itself. Do you want to be measured against your true contemporaries, or stacked up against the likes of Led Zeppelin and other immortals?

Historically, a lot of bands have made their best stuff when they were late teenagers and early 20’s. Being young is a big part of being a rock musician (unfortunately, since we all get older everyday). But I don’t think that means you have to give up. I think we get better everyday, and we are always pushing ourselves.

We want to make great music.

Human Ceremony is a loose concept album where a pent-up rock god reinvents the universe. It’s mythic in an epic but fragmentary way; it’s religious in tone and imagery but appears to worship nothing besides creativity. Psychedelic bands and metal bands both lean that way, and you’ve been in both types of bands, but progressive rock also really appreciates a concept album. Any latent prog rock tendencies to confess?

Human Ceremony actually didn’t really turn out to be a concept album, even though we spoke about it loosely in some interviews pretty early on in our career. We may make a concept record someday, but this isn’t that record.

That’s not to say that this record doesn’t have a lot of themes and imagery. It’s a record about the lonely present looking at the future, about spirituality or the lack of it, about earth and space and humanity.

Human Ceremony has a remarkably consistent attitude. Whatever you want to label as its vibe, that vibe is carried from the first track through to the end. Each song is certainly fresh and unique, but the album hangs together so well that it’s hard to pick out a single. Which tracks are frontrunners at the live shows? Which tracks are most representative of the band’s capabilities?

Thank you! I think that the first track on the album, “Human Ceremony” kind of sets up the mindset of the rest of the album. “Easier Said” is a very personal song for me, and I think we took some risks when we made it as a band, and it was interesting to explore that side of ourselves more. “This Kind of Feeling” with the backwards guitar is one of my favorite tracks as well.

Sunflower Bean has been hailed as the next big New York band, or called the hardest working band in New York, and simultaneously cited as a critical response to New York’s current light-weight dream-pop obsession. In what ways are you indeed a “New York band,” and in what ways are you aspiring to get beyond that label?

It’s hard to describe exactly what a “New York” band is or what is sounds like, except like before, how I mentioned that I think your surroundings affect you and the art you are making. I am from Manhattan and the boys are from just a little bit outside of the city, so they spent most of their time growing up in the city. I think we made a very “New York” record, whatever that means. It definitely sounds like New York to me.

I think even playing the most shows out of any band in NYC is a very New York thing to do, because everyone is always working constantly and pushing themselves.

Psychedelic rock is more commonly associated with the West coast than the East coast. For my money, the impulses of Sunflower Bean somewhat echo that of Jefferson Airplane. People forget that the epic “White Rabbit” was just two and a half minutes long and that generally they really didn’t care too much about rhyming. They had lyrical interests in science fiction, fairly parallel to Sunflower Bean. Any reflections on Airplane/Starship, especially guitarist Paul Kantner, who passed away in late January?

I wouldn’t say so, but we are definitely all fans! I just wouldn’t cite them as a main musical interest.

Grace Slick was also a model turned singer. Then there’s your love of the Velvet Underground, and Nico was likewise a model. You’re a model; you were recently in Paris for Couture Week. What’s up with models joining bands? How are these professions similarly collaborative and creative, and what do you get out of being in a band that you don’t get from being a model?

Fun fact: I’ve been a musician since I was 13 years old. That’s when I joined my first band. We toured the U.S and Europe when I was 14. We even made a record, although it never came out. I was a musician many years before I became a model.

Being a musician was always what I wanted to do, since I was a kid. Creating music out of thin air, expressing yourself, and making your art exactly how you want to will always be where my heart is. But when I started modeling, I found parts of it empowering and creative. Not all projects are that way, but when I believe in what we are creating, it can be really special to make an amazing image. Plus, fashion is the only industry in the world where women make more than men.

One of the reasons I do what I do, and continue to work in fashion, is to end questions like, “What’s up with models joining bands?” I think questions like that would never be asked to men, and I think it keeps people in narrow creative boxes that cater to the super-snobby purist music world. Why can’t I be an artist who works hard to make the best music I can make and be the best musician I can be, while also working on creating interesting and provocative imagery in the world of fashion? Why does that make me less of a musician?

I could talk about this for days, but in short, I am working to disprove that.

You have a punk’s answer for every question. Are you psyched to tour with the Vaccines? They may be “indie rock” in England, but in the States, they’re “punk”. How does touring Europe compare to your American shows?

When we are touring in the US, it’s just the four of us (the fourth is our manager, who is our best friend as well) driving around the country, it is kind of romantic. The US is a huge country, and we’ve been lucky to see it in the way that we have, state by state, in our minivan. Plus, we know so many people in the US, it’s easy for us to crash on the floors of our friend’s houses.

Europe is special because it is beautiful and foreign. Also, in the UK, people care about rock music in a different way than they do in the US which can be really inspiring! We’ve had a really wonderful time here, and I hope we get to spend more time in Europe in the future.