Sunflower Bean Talks #MeToo, School Shootings & 'Reaching People' on New Album

Hollie Fernando
Sunflower Bean

It was an oft-repeated prediction following the American convulsion that was Election Day, 2016: “Well, at least we’re going to get some good art out of the next four years!” While that attempt at a silver lining in the black clouds may have been cold comfort for progressives, it does seem that in the first quarter of 2018, the musical chickens have come home to roost for Donald Trump. Rock’s best-received albums of the new year so far -- including releases from Ezra Furman, Shame, Superchunk, Ty Segall and MGMT -- were mostly conceived, written and recorded in the months that a president like no other was bringing chest-thumping nativism, misogyny and bullying to the most powerful office in the world. In ways subtle and explicit, those records take on these unsettling days. What sentient being with access to a microphone an a passing concern for anything beyond their bank account could not address the monster in the room in their music?

So the trio of New York millennials that makes up Sunflower Bean returns this week with a second album that is a product of our outrageous new reality. And yet rather than fire off one anti-Trump invective after another, vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming, drummer Jacob Faber and guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen, in the words of Michelle Obama, “go high” with a record that’s laced with empathy for the marginalized and solidarity with their own -- a new, intersectional generation for whom business as usual is no longer enough.

Twentytwo in Blue offers a warm embrace to anyone making their way through life’s uncertainties, but particularly to Bean’s contemporaries, navigating the waters of personal insecurity and financial qualms that come with young adulthood, while conversations about blackness, xenophobia, sexual harassment, LGBTQ identities and gun violence roil the nation. The soft rocking “I Was a Fool" was the album’s first single, but it’s the two most recently released tracks that anchor the record. With contrasting moods they’re both equally dedicated to the resistance.

Title song “Twentytwo” is sublime—a statement of steely #MeToo purpose, a gentle roar of reckoning and a rejection of social constructs and expectations placed on young women and men—a theme poetically illustrated in an sparklingly azure new video. With verses that refer obliquely to abused girls and boys with guns, Cumming, a confessed “morning person,” sings, “I do not go quietly into the night that calls me, even when I’m alone” and the song was quite rightly included in Spotify’s Women of Indie playlist to mark International Women’s Day. Next to it on the album is “Crisis Fest,” a fist-pumping barn burner that could practically soundtrack last week’s images of students walking out of schools nationwide to demand action on gun reform, and the entire #NeverAgain movement that’s arisen since the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. “If you hold us back, you know that we can shout,” the track proclaims, putting old guard elected officials on notice. “We brought you into this place, you know we can take you out!”

Through their 2015 debut EP Show Me Your Seven Secrets to their first album, 2016’s Human Ceremony, Sunflower Bean have defied easy musical boxes, and describing their sound beyond the word “rock” has proven to be something of a musical Rorschach test. “People always see us through their own lens,” explains Kivlen. “Some people will be like, ‘You know, you guys really remind me of Sonic Youth.’ That’s what we get all the time. Then they’ll be like, ‘You guys really remind me of Blondie.’ Or, ‘You guys really remind me of The Pixies.’ It’s like every person mentions someone from a different era, and it’s like, ‘That’s your favorite band! And we might do something that’s a little bit influenced by them, so you attach yourself to that aspect of it and that’s fine.’ I don’t know, there’s some bands that stick to just one specific influence or sound throughout an entire record. But that’s just not us.”

They’ll likely muddy the waters even more with Twentytwo in Blue. When I first heard the album in November, I was struck at how greatly Sunflower Bean has grown in the short time I’ve known them, and what range they now possess. While they can still get rowdy, and do so on “Burn It,” “Human For” and the glam stomper “Puppet Strings,” there’s also the jangly, shimmering pop of “Memoria” (“the past is the past for a reason” coos Cumming), the tender, waltz-time duet “Any Way You Like,” and a schizo late album gem, “Sinking Sands,” that marries a woozy Kivlen verse with a soaring hook from Cumming that is pure bliss.

I recently sat down with the three twentytwo’s of Sunflower Bean at the Manhattan offices of their label, Mom+Pop.

Guys, always great to see you. Since we last talked, have you been gradually weaving more and more of the Twentytwo in Blue songs into your live shows?

Julia Cumming: It’s stayed pretty much the same, at six. We just started playing “Memoria” these past couple of shows, which is good. I feel like once we’d worked on the six that we play live, we wanted to get them immediately, cause we were kind of sick of playing the other ones. We also gotten used to this hard 30-minute mark, opening for The Pixies [last fall], just sort of been setting up the record for a little while, and in doing that you’re almost making a little 30-minute teaser of what it is. But now I feel like we’re entering this space where we’re headlining again, and playing for our fans.

And next month you’re doing a show here at Bowery Ballroom, where you’ll play all the new record start to finish?

Nick Kivlen: Yeah, I have a whole laundry list of things I want to do for that show. I still haven’t run them by everyone yet, and I’m a little nervous because some of them are a little outlandish!

JC: We’re gonna have some special guests. There’s gonna be something special for each song.

Jacob Faber: I think we want to add some more musicians and fill out the sound, just really make it a special performance, because we might not play at like a Bowery-sized venue again for a while after that, in New York. So it’s kind of—we want to make it a special thing. Because Bowery has a lot of history and it’s a cool place.

JC: New York is such a big part of who we are that we really want to make sure that this show is special for the people who have seen us, and for us to try some new things. I remember when we first played Bowery, it was our New York headlining show for Human Ceremony, and I remember when we did that, it felt like I could die now, do you know what I mean? Anyway, we don’t want to give it all away. I do know it will require at least a couple full-length rehearsals, if that gives you any information.

The new record cover has a starker look, but the same set-up as Human Ceremony, with Nick seated in the middle. And you said recently that you kind of don’t buy into the supposed “cool” indie rule that you’re not supposed to appear on your album covers?

NK: Yes, well it was a thing that was sort of very specific to the music scene that we sort of started in, around like 2013, 2014 Brooklyn. A lot of the bands were like hiding behind graphic design art. Like the Captured Tracks bands. I don’t think any Captured Tracks artist before Mac DeMarco ever put themselves on their cover.   

JC: I think there’s something about us, which I didn’t even realize, which we’re all kind of still doing, towards ourselves, is we’ve always been almost acting in rejection to what’s happening. Like when the band was first starting, everyone was shoegaze and we were doing guitar solos, you know what I mean? And everyone was doing graphics and we’re like in these big spaces outside. And even with this record, it’s almost like we reject ourselves. In the way of, when we came together to make sounds, to try to figure out what this really looked like, early in Bean, when I started like screaming or doing these things, that was a rejection of who I used to be when I was in an acoustic band, or when I studied classical even. And now, on this record, to be able to sing a lot more with my chest or to be able to sing a lot more melodically, and to be what I perceive to be a truer sense of myself, is a rejection of the screaming!

The new video for “Twentytwo” is incredible. There’s beauty pageant costumes, a sunroof Mercedes ride, a house that’s awash in blue, then you’re in a bathtub—it’s all really striking. And it was done by the photographic artist Olivia Bee?

JC: Yeah! Olivia has obviously been a really cool artist in New York for a long time, and we always kind of knew each other and never actually solidified working together. She tried to shoot me for Playboy when I was 19! And I was like, ‘Wow, no. But um, I need to remember how this feels when I’m like 100 years old and my boobs are on the floor! I’ll remember that this happened!’ But no—so there was always this thing of us trying to get it together with this certain set of circumstances  in this song. I think she interpreted it really well. One of my favorite things about her treatment was her opening intro, when she had this beauty pageant idea and wanted to put Nick and Jake into these like suits, which I feel it kind of reflected this concept of the standards that you’re meant to fit into, and things that boys are put into as well, because you forget about. I think to Olivia, the song became kind of about opening up into the more surreal, or opening up into something much more freeing, which is why we’re taking the sashes off and moving into this space and entering this space of the blue house and this tub, and this silver outfit, it’s like almost a journey of becoming who you are, or becoming Twentytwo in Blue.

I think that it’s cool that the song is really there for people and a lot of what they’re going through in a time of #MeToo and everything that we’re feeling—people are connecting with it and that’s ultimately our goal with our music.

People have also connected with “Crisis Fest,” which Nick you’ve told me before was less a song about the Trump administration specifically and more this but about a divide between generations, and the unwillingness of young people to just accept things as they’ve always been. And I kept thinking about that in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and the amazing response of these kids who refuse to be shackled by old ways of thinking about guns. Is that fair and have you been inspired by what they’ve done?

NK: Yeah! Absolutely. I think you hit the nail on the head.

JF: Yeah, seeing those kids speak, and they’re so articulate, more than I ever am!  It’s amazing to see them just go out there and put their foot down.

And I think we’ve seen a similar spirit around Black Lives Matter, around LGBTQ issues, and of course #MeToo. Social media has to be the big thing that’s making a difference today.

JC: Well yeah, to be able see images that would have been hard to find before, and concepts that you would have had to really seek out before are definitely playing into a kid in, you know, Pennsylvania. The value of that is immeasurable.

You were only 3 when Columbine happened, but you’ve grown up at a time when school shootings have been a reality. When you were in high school was that something that weighed on your minds?

JF: We had lockdown drills. But it wasn’t—I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in high school today—for us it didn’t feel like there was this imminent danger of that happening.

NK: But the high school that me and Jacob went to was actually on lockdown for a shooting thread like two days ago.

JF: There was a thing where someone wrote on a desk and it got shared and like ten schools over Long Island were on lockdown.

JC: These kids today, they’re unbelievably articulate, and it’s like they’re having lockdowns in schools like they’re fighting for their lives! Like, they don’t want to die! They don’t want to die in school, and they don’t want their teachers to have guns.

With a second album about to come out, at this point how do you measure success for the band? Is it like the first time playing a certain venue, first time playing this festival, first time being on a certain TV show, is it the record’s rating on Metacritic? Are any of those measures of progress for you?

JF: I think it’s a mixture of those things. Kind of whichever ones, as it goes along. And for me I always feel like after every tour I feel like we’ve improved a lot, and a lot of progress has been made.

NK: I think maybe the growth you can see from our first EP to the first record to this record, I feel like that growth has been probably our biggest achievement.

JC: Yeah, and I think we really consciously made this record with the hope of it being really lovable and reaching people. We still go to the merch table a lot at the end of the nights when the shows aren’t too crazy, and talk to people, to kind of hear how the songs made them feel, hear what they’re going through, to just feel that connection. I feel like to have more work that goes deeper is the most rewarding thing for me as an artist. It’s beyond this moment, or this live thing—which is not to be understated, but I feel like we’re reaching a better understanding of what we can be, and what we want to be, and getting closer to that. So that feels like progression to me.

Sunflower Bean’s Twentytwo in Blue is out Friday, March 23. Their North American tour begins April 26 at New York’s Bowery Ballroom.