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“There’s no college course for indie rock,” Julia Cumming says. A beat, then: “Maybe at NYU.” Cumming is college age—22, to be exact—but coursework is seldom on her mind, no exams to study for, no textbooks in the back of the Ford Transit she rides around in with bandmates Nick Kivlen and Jacob Faber. For a period of time, the space was populated with trash bags full of vintage clothing. “I have a Depression-era style way of collecting clothing,” Cumming says. But for now, the van has enough space for the three musicians in Sunflower Bean and their snack assortments.
Just four years ago, Cumming was on the precipice of higher education. Kivlen and Faber were finishing their freshman year when the trio made the decision to pursue Sunflower Bean—the band that had taken them on gigs around New York City, including a successful CMJ run in 2014—full-time. Instead, this road-tested trio didn’t earn their stripes on campus but on stages all over the world. Their debut Human Ceremony, released in 2016, established Sunflower Bean as one of New York’s latest buzz bands with sophisticated sound that drew on psych, punk and shoegaze influences that proved the trio were wise beyond their years.
Now, as Sunflower Bean gear up for the release of their sophomore effort, Twentytwo In Blue, due out March 23, they draw on the learned self-assuredness they acquired in the years since their late teens and early 20s. While all three are 22-years-old, Twentytwo In Blue is the product of a more internal reckoning of the tumultuous world around them.
“I don't think we’ve gotten any less existential,” Faber says, “but just have gotten better at dealing with it and maneuvering around those feelings. It’s funny how in some ways you mature completely past some things but it’s about dealing with these feelings in a more productive way.”
The result of such productivity secures Sunflower Bean’s status as sonic chameleons. Twentytwo In Blue is an unabashed rock ’n’ roll album that doesn’t aim to reinvent or fix the genre yet excels as a masterclass of what rock could be. With tracks like “Twentytwo,” “Burn It,” “Puppet Strings” and “Only For A Moment,” the collection is an homage to Fleetwood Mac, Norman Greenbaum, Three Dog Night, even Lana Del Rey and the timeless romance and chaos of the ’70s. Cumming proves her ability as a transformative vocalist, expertly trapezing between sweet siren and spirited force. When Kivlen takes the mic (as he does on lead single “I Was a Fool”), it’s saccharine yet edgy, a call into the inquisitive, cool wonder. If Human Ceremony was fit for DIY spaces, Twentytwo In Blue is the soundtrack for stadiums and lavish tour buses.
VMP: Do you find the whole, “Wow, they’re older and more mature now” thing cliché? Julia Cumming: That’s the thing about being in your early 20s is that you think you know shit a little bit and you almost definitely don’t at all. Looking back three years is always so embarrassing, what you were into and what you liked. When you’re actually in the world making art and putting it out there as opposed to just thinking about it, you have to be OK with making decisions and making a recording of who you are. Having that mindset of Human Ceremony was who we were then and Twentytwo in Blue is who we are now.
There’s something super impactful about your early 20s and the things you create then. JC: We can all agree teens are terrible. But maybe for some people they aren’t, but for most people, they’re very existential and dramatic.
But you guys made it work by creating something. Jacob Faber: Yeah, Human Ceremony was an accumulation of all that we were feeling in a lot of the existential crises that we were going through.
JC: It’s like outward and inward. When you're a teenager, on Human Ceremony, you need to put your feelings out there and you’re screaming into the abyss. And you’re saying, “Hello, this is me and this is how I feel.” I feel like on this record more so, we wanted to go inward and look deeper into the roots of why we feel the way we do, the roots of ourselves.
Where did that mindset shift come from? JF: It’s a time and confidence thing. In a weird way, I think it takes more confidence and strength in order to look inward. It takes years of touring and practicing and getting more confidence to be able to have the vulnerability within yourself.
JC: I think it’s easy to hide behind a screen and that doesn’t make it not fun and that doesn’t make it not useful and that doesn’t make it not right any time that you do it. When you start to pull back that curtain, you need to see who you really are. It’s like wearing makeup. At a certain point, you need to see what’s underneath and what informs you. We knew how to jam and we knew how to do a show, but are we able to make the songs and the art that we really want to? A liberating part of doing this record was looking at songwriting in a different way in relation to who we are.
Lyrically, that comes through on the record. A line like “I do not go quietly into the night that calls me even when I’m alone” is a super empowering lyric. JC: It informs you because it forces you to look at it. A word that comes to mind: resilience. A lot of the lyrical content and what we’re trying to portray is a certain level of strength that we need to hear and we also want to express to the listener. Even though it’s a sad and weird time right now, even personally it’s what you want: strength.
It’s hard to not address the weird political time we're living in. Is it even possible to not touch on the politics in art? JC: Unless you’re making art inside a vacuum…
JF: It’s not avoidable.
JC: The way you interact with the world will inform who you are. The fact that it’s a tumultuous, weird time, that’s definitely informed the record. We’re wary to say it’s a political record. It’s a record made under particular circumstances and our reaction to it is personal.
JF: The last tour we did on Human Ceremony was in fall of 2016 which was right around the election. We had been in the UK and Europe before that and then going around the U.S. and seeing the physical Trump signs was pretty jarring and alarming. When we got home in early 2017 and started writing this record, it was very present on our minds. It weighs heavy.
What’s the significance of the album’s title? Nick Kivlen: When you make a record and you have all these songs and you have to give them one defining title and call them something when they’re their own thing, it’s hard to pick one title to summarize them all. We were thinking about what the overall mood of the songs and what the songs really mean to us. Twentytwo In Blue was a pretty abstract but tangible name to give to all the songs collectively because it's something they all share together. It’s the age we were when we were writing them and making the record and the mood that we thought permeated the mood of the album.
JC: We had been collecting a lot of blue imagery for a long time. When we were trying to think of naming this album, we came to Twentytwo In Blue and we thought, “Is blue too sad? Is this going to make people think this is something that it’s not?”
NK: I think with colors it can emote a lot of different things. It’s a classically melancholy color, but it can represent a big blue open sky, or a big blue ocean or a hopefulness. I think that encapsulates the record: Us being 22 feeling this blue.
How important are aesthetics? JC: We were talking about this to someone recently and they were like “What about synesthesia?” I would not classify us in that sense, but an album is a really funny and a really visceral piece of art. It has a few elements that are repeated over and over. When you think of yourself as a musician, you're the performer, you’re a lyricist. You’re musical, you’re writing poetry but the poetry is put in song. Collecting these thoughts and collecting these ideas is part of the way one has to hold themselves as an artist right now and probably always, curating who you are. I think there’s a lot of little ways, like me looking at photos of Cher and all these women that are empowering and exciting and mean a lot to me and how to do my own style in a way that’s glamorous and fun and cool and different but still touching on people that I love. It’s like that: just curating who you are.
What was going on in the larger scope of your lives when you were writing this album? NK: The milestone I thought of was when we first got together to play back in December of 2016 after finishing our tour and we had a couple weeks off from the band. We started playing and writing and it was like a faucet turned on. We had so many different ideas and different songs. It had been so long since we were able to play just the three of us in our practice space without touring or doing anything other than trying to create songs. That’s when we all got really excited and went into hyperdrive trying to work on the record.
JC: The first song we worked on in any incarnation was “Burn It.” It’s always those first steps where you’re trying a new sound and challenging a different part of yourself that you’re growing the most is the most exciting. For me to try different vocal styles on this record and Jacob trying different drumming styles.
The album sounds like a collage of various styles. JC: That’s a review that we’ve gotten: it sounds like a different band song-to-song. Something about Sunflower Bean that’s perhaps different from other bands is it’s not just one songwriter. Even when we have an idea, our band members are our trusted humans as we work together to create something that was better than how it started. Each of us have our own influences that go into what we want to do. What you end up with is something that’s pretty dynamic because it’s covering a lot of different styles. Hopefully working with Jacob Portrait from UMO who co-produced and Matt Molnar, I think that all the songs feel like they’re in the same world. That’s the most important thing. If they were in different worlds, that would be a bit hectic.
It feels like it’s definitely coming from a certain time and place. JC: Something that we’ve been also talking about is we want to see each song through to what that a song should be. You have a song like “Twentytwo” or “Any Way You Like” where you’re writing it like, “I think this needs violins! I think this needs to be Phil Spector lush.” That doesn't’ mean that every song on the record is going to have strings but in order to let each of them breathe and be the best version of themselves, they’re going to come out a little different than each other.
What is your self-editing process? JC: It totally depends per song. We bring in what we’re working on in various levels of done-ness. Sometimes it’s a riff, sometimes it’s words.
NK: It feels like rearing a child. We all get close to this idea of whatever it is and we have to raise it.
JC: You naturally and respectfully have to trust the people you work with to be able to open up your art to them. I think that we’re lucky to trust each other so much and have worked together really closely for a while. I know when Jacob has an idea for the drums that’s different from mine and Nick and we should trust them and try everything to get to the most special outcome.
Nk: Sometimes you have to move on though and put an end on something. We’re finished toying with it, let it go. I think that’s also important.
Then it comes to a point where you wonder what you were trying to do in the first place. JC: It’s easy to become paralyzed by your ambition or by what you think you can do. That’s so much different than actually putting the things that you love out there to be heard and loved or hated. I think that music is really communicative. When you make it, you have this urge to say something or do something and also the urge to share it with people. Trusting yourself enough to know where the end is and accepting that.
Sometimes we get too ambitious about things and it ends up being paralyzing. JC: I love ambition and I think we’re all super ambitious and it’s a great thing to be but it’s one of those things why rock is so cool. One of the most liberating things about punk is you didn’t have to be technically the greatest to start. That's’ something we try to tell kids every time they come up to us and talk to us at shows about wanting to start a band: Go start it. Pick up a guitar, pick up a bass, find your friends and just start it. It’s liberating and everything else will fall into place.
That’s the push that people need to hear from someone who’s actually doing it. JF: It sounds easy but I think until you hear that or someone shows you that it’s actually possible, it can really feel impossible. I had a rock ’n’ roll bug in me since I was a kid and deep down wanted to do this and didn't think it was possible at all. It’s important to find people you can relate with and like the same music and can go explore and find these things.
JC: There’s a difference between learning about [music] in a classroom, even the best informed classroom, and actually doing it.
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia who shares a birthday with Beyonce. She enjoys sad music, desserts and long distance running.