How Sunflower Bean Reclaimed Classic Rock and Made It Cool Again
In three years this Brooklyn trio turned from teens to 20-somethings to one of the buzziest bands of the year.
Photos by Yudi Ela
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Standing on a Brooklyn rooftop at the frigid tail end of January, Julia Cumming shrugs off her coat, smoothes down her jumpsuit, and strikes a pose. The singer and bassist of Sunflower Bean adopts a come-at-me-if-you-dare stare and although the wind ripples her hair and goosebumps her bare arms, she doesn’t so much as shiver. She needs no direction from the photographer. Cumming is one day away from blowing a kiss to her teens and turning 20, the same age as her bandmates, drummer Jacob Faber (hirsute like it’s 1972), and singer/guitarist Nick Kivlen, who’s the spit of Bob Dylan—a resemblance which the elderly cinema-goers at the theater he sometimes works at regularly remind him of. They look cool but nonchalant, and let’s be honest, when you’re in band, the cachet of cool is key. When the trio opened DIIV’s secret show at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right back in April 2015, I watched them sail past the line outside like serene Warhol superstars, through the already perspiring crowd to get to the stage. They appeared utterly unmoved by the jostle and heat, a small entourage of attendant friends trailed in their wake. Two weeks before this date, Julian Casablancas (and Dev Hynes) attended another Sunflower Bean gig at the same venue. At the time Casablancas was keen to sign them to his label Cult Records and these days they count him as a friend.
“He put his arm on my shoulder and he looked down at me—because he's huge—and was like, ‘Well congratulations, on being cool, young, and free,'" Kivlen recalls from their first meeting with The Strokes singer, as the band wolf down sandwiches at a café up the street. "It felt really cool, even though it was a dad thing to say.”
“Every time I talk to him I blush, like, extremely,” Cumming chimes in. “We’re not very cool.”
Pretty much any fan of Sunflower Bean, or even a casual follower of emerging indie artists, would beg to differ. Although their choice of moniker has inspired a raised eyebrow or 64, since the trio coalesced in 2013, their star’s been steadily rising thanks at first to hard graft, tirelessly playing in and around Brooklyn, where they’re largely based, and furthered by word of mouth and a couple buzzy Bandcamp demos posted in 2014. Early tunes like “Bread” and “2013” offered a hazy wash of boy-girl vocals, motorik beats, and psych-rock tendencies. But by the fall of that year, interest in the band kicked up gear thanks to a successful run at New York’s CMJ, not to mention the entrance of Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane, who reached out via email after hearing their music online. Soon after, he anointed Cumming the Parisian fashion house’s muse du jour. Slimane, a designer and photographer whose collections have, for the best part of a decade, leaned heavily on rock ‘n’ roll for inspiration, has long had a savvy ear for up-and-comers who can double as edgy designer-wearing waifs. He frequently selects relatively left field artists (The Garden, Ariel Pink, Christopher Owens) to star in his campaigns alongside more established acts like Courtney Love, Beck, Joni Mitchell, and Daft Punk. Since 2014, Cumming has walked in no fewer than six Saint Laurent fashion shows.
With the Slimane cosign, more feverish words about Sunflower Bean were frantically typed and the numbers of craned necks at their shows kept tallying up and up. But there’s a certain skepticism piqued for music fans when the fashionistas come flocking: Is this just a case of style over substance? With Sunflower Bean, it’s not. Seeing them live, even last spring, was a surprising experience. Infinitely dirgier than on record, their songs shook the crowd, and when they locked into a groove, the aggression they directed at their instruments was not only thrilling, but instantly eradicated any lurking doubts. Root notes? Please! Cumming’s basslines may serve as a rhythmic anchor, but they’re also lithe, inventive, and furiously delivered.
“That's our happy place,” nods Kivlen. “Everything leads up to it, and onstage is where we're all the most comfortable being who we are.”
Kivlen and Faber first met junior year in high school on Long Island. Faber had been playing jazz sax since he was five, before ditching the brass for drums. He was also president of the high school band. (“He doesn't brag about it, but we do,” laughs Cumming, as Faber squirms a little in his seat.) For a time, the pair played in a band called Turnip King, before eventually splintering off to form what would later be Sunflower Bean, rooted in a love of Sabbath and Hendrix, with their palate soon broadening to include The Cure, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Krautrockers Neu! Cumming, meanwhile, was raised in New York City, brought up in a home where music was the magnet that first brought her parents together: Her mom and dad met playing in a band called Bite the Wax Godhead.
“I would say it's intense, and there are probably some downsides, but for the most part growing up in the city exposes you to do a lot more, and pushes you to do a lot more, too,” says Cumming. “There’s so many options. It's not like you get home from school and you have to sit in your house and look at your computer or phone for nine hours. I went to a lot of museum programs and venues and took the train a lot, and it obviously helped with me wanting to do music—it definitely helped me get a head start.”
While her mother became a successful neurologist, her father continued with music, performing with the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. For those unfamiliar, in the early 2000s, Jason Trachtenburg, with his wife Tina, and their daughter Rachel on drums, toured the world in home-stitched clothes, performing songs inspired by, and set to, slideshows they picked up at estate sales. It was kitsch conceit and kind of brilliant. Cumming joined her dad and The Trachtenburgs selling merch during a few school holidays, eventually bonding with Rachel and forming Supercute! They penned ukulele songs about boys and S’mores and other tween-to-teen concerns, and toured America and Europe opening for Kate Nash.
“Let's just say your heyday was when you were 12!” laughs Kivlen.
“Rude!” retorts Cumming. “I was 13!”
Cumming continued to study music at school—she’s a classically trained Soprano—and at some point during this era, Supercute! and Kivlen and Faber’s band ended up on the same bill. The seed was planted. “I was like 'Julia's super cool. She's gonna be in my band,'” says Kivlen.
Released this past February, Sunflower Bean’s debut album, Human Ceremony, was recorded at Thump Studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with producer Matt Molnar (formerly a member of Friends). It took eleven days to record. Unlike their early demos, and even the psych-sprawl of last summer’s EP, Show Me Your Seven Secrets, the songs here are burnished and gleamy with Cumming’s crystalline tones complementing Kivlen’s retro-treated vocals. The guitars frequently lean on the languid effect of a chorus pedal—think early Cure or the sound of the six-string on Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” Although live their songs take on an angsty cast, on record Human Ceremony is more kaleidoscopic dream-pop than fuzzed up riff-rock.
“Matt helped us like, tap into—I don't wanna say our pop potential, but he helped us tap into that side of us,” admits Kivlen. He sounds almost sheepish, but he shouldn’t—there’s a classic 60s swoon to “I Want You to Give Me Enough Time,” while “Wall Watcher” slinks in like a brooding Brando-esque bad boy. As for the lyrics, Cumming and Kivlen remain opaque, back-and-forthing and claiming loneliness, monotony, depression, apathy, feeling outcast, and the impending apocalypse as light jumping off points. “Seriously, it's a sad record because it's about being a human, and the heaviness of that,” says Faber.
“So it's us grappling with the big, big things, like space and time and our age, and the ages of people around us,” Cumming explains, before musing on the multiple closures of local DIY stages on which they cut their teeth. They might be a smidge nostalgic for the old dives, but change marches on. Sharing each other’s food, and then devouring what’s left on their publicist’s plate too, Sunflower Bean insist they’re as intrigued and inspired by the old (Kubrick, Vonnegut, Van Gogh), as suckered in by the new (Tim & Eric, while the trashiness of TLC reality show Extreme Cheapskates is a guilty pleasure). On the road, where many bands disappear into an isolated, headphones-in, smartphone-hypnotized K-hole, Cumming, Kivlen, and Faber like to listen to music together, absorbing culture in tandem which then positively affects the cohesiveness of the band as a whole—from their attire, to their artwork, to the way they fall into place when photographed.
Sunflower Bean are having a moment: in their short career they’ve already flown to Europe four times, played Saint Laurent fashion week parties, toured with DIIV, and opened for Wolf Alice and Best Coast and The Vaccines. It’s conceivable, if not expected, that this trio of 20 year olds should be hedonistically running riot, but they bat away any such suggestion.
“We're not saints, but drinking is not a priority,” states Kivlen. “It’s really important when you're starting out not to treat your band like a party.”
“In general, it’s just good not to have substance abuse problems,” says Faber wryly. “It's a party because we love it. Just playing is already the most fun thing to do in the world. Just being able to do that is what we look for, you know?”
Partying hard may not be on the agenda, but unlike the other two, Cumming does love to let loose and dance. “I like when you dance randomly,” Kivlen tells her before turning to me. “Have you ever read David Byrne's book How Music Works? The first chapter is about how music develops from its environment. I've seen Julia dance to the sound of construction—Julia dances to her environment. The traffic on 1st Avenue? That's a party for her.” Cumming laughs.
This year will be an endless nomadic jaunt, and it’s an opportunity they relish. They recognize that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t mainstream anymore, and their record isn’t going to shift anywhere near the ballpark of Taylor Swift-sized units. In a somewhat un-rock ‘n’ roll manner, they realize that applying themselves is vital to Sunflower Bean's success, but also that the experience as it unfolds is theirs to embrace.
“We're goal-oriented people, like we want to get things done,” says Kivlen, suddenly sounding rather serious. “If I have a day where I sit around at my house and I don't have to do anything, it's the worst feeling in the world, you know? Not accomplishing something. And there's just something romantic about you and your best friends driving across a desert for 500 miles. And, yeah, it's life. It's good.”
Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey. She mostly tweets about music and #VICEsnacks on Twitter.