Interview by Aly Wicker
Images by Jan-Willem Dikkers
Video by Sophie Caby
“I think that’s the job of art, to take the time you’re in
and the things people are thinking about
and to articulate them in a way that is poetic or a bit abstract.”
— Nick Kivlen
Sunflower Bean is a New York-based band comprising vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming, vocalist and guitarist Nick Kivlen, and drummer Jacob Faber. Sunflower Bean has released a total of two EPs and two studio albums, Human Ceremony (2016) and Twentytwo in Blue (2018).
Interpol is an American rock band formed in Manhattan, New York, in 1997. Comprising Paul Banks, Daniel Kessler, Carlos Dengler and Sam Fogarino (replacing original member Greg Drudy), the band is known for its contribution to the 2000s post-punk revival in New York. Interpol has released six critically acclaimed albums, including their 2002 chart-topping debut Turn on the Bright Lights and their most recent LP Maurader (2018).
The members of Sunflower Bean have each been working at their craft for nearly a decade. As a band, Julia Cumming, Nick Kivlen, and Jacob Faber have put in five years together— long enough to contemplate their own version of being an artist, individually and collectively. Cumming, for one, has made a name for herself beyond music, as one of designer Hedi Slimane’s fashion muses during his tenure at Saint Laurent. Together, Sunflower Bean has opened for the likes of Pixies, Wolf Alice, and Best Coast—not to mention headlining their fair share of concerts and sweet slots on summer festival lineups.
Yet, in spite of the band’s cool rock ’n’ roll exterior, its members share a warmth in conversation evidently born from a tight collaborative process and singular artistic identity. Beyond their instruments, it’s hard to coax out any clues as to the individual talents of Sunflower Bean’s members. The longer you speak with them, however, the more you sense a strong undercurrent of appreciation for what each brings to “the stew,” as Cumming metaphorizes.
Soon to embark on a US tour with Interpol, Sunflower Bean discusses their latest record, Twentytwo in Blue, named for their shared age. The sophomore album, which debuted on NPR’s “Songs We Love” series, was produced by Matthew Molnar and Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. A delicious blend of rock’s many subgenres, Twentytwo in Blue speaks to the times we live in through a distinctly personal lense, that of the 22-year-old Sunflower Bean identity.
Reading and Leeds Festivals
The Reading and Leeds Festivals are annual August music festivals that simultaneously take place over three days in the towns of Reading and Leeds, England. The Reading Festival, first held in 1961 as the “National Jazz Festival,” is the older festival, having hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Pulp, and The Police. The Leeds Festival venue was added in 1999. Both festivals host a wide variety of acts including rock, indie, metal, alternative, rap, R&B and hip hop.
How was your summer? I know you guys are about to go on tour.
Nick Kivlen: We’re about to go on a US tour opening for Interpol, and then after that we have our own tours in the UK and Europe.
Julia Cumming: We just finished a run of festivals in England, and our record came out in March. It’s been a whirlwind going through that process again. You work really intensely on this thing and then the world gets to react to it.
This summer we’ve just been trying to enjoy everything that this life has to offer—seeing the world, tasting the flavors, and playing our music for people. We did Reading and Leeds, which was a pretty iconic festival to be invited to play. Checking things off the bucket list.
How does it feel having your second album done, Twentytwo in Blue?
JC: It feels really good. We’ve been musicians since I was thirteen and the boys were fifteen and sixteen. We’ve continuously made music as we’ve grown up. Hence, our album being called Twentytwo in Blue. As much as it’s exciting, it’s also natural. I don’t think any of us saw our lives going another kind of way, for a long time now.
Jacob Faber: It’s funny, you spend so much time and care making a record. And then you put it out, and you have the rest of your life. It’s good to get it out into the world and let it become everyone’s. Not just yours anymore.
What was the writing process on this album? Do you guys have different roles?
JC: Usually it starts with someone bringing in an idea, whether that’s Nick or me on guitar, or Jake on drums. But lot of it comes from Nick’s guitar style. He’s really been integral in leading us musically to where we’re going next. But it’s all our thing. It’s like a stew. I’ve been eating a lot of ragus lately.
JF: It starts with an ingredient or two from one of us, and then we kind of all cook it together.
“Reality is only as real as people perceive it, and when you are exposed to something enough you start to lose track of what is the actual truth.”
— Nick Kivlen
Your album feels very 2018, with relatable themes given the times we live in. Was that the intent?
NK: It was really natural, but a lot of people have said that. It’s a high compliment to be told that you’ve accurately captured this zeitgeist feeling people have right now. I think that’s the job of art, to take the times you’re in and the things people are thinking about and to articulate them in a way that is poetic or a bit abstract.
JF: Music is our way of coping with life, and so it’s natural for it to come across in that way.
JC: Also, a big part of our identity as a band has been a preoccupation with chaos and the confusion of life. On Human Ceremony, we took a spacey approach of looking at the sky and space, looking at religion, and sort of watching those things go by.
On Twentytwo in Blue, we look at that more so within ourselves as we’re entering early adulthood. Instead of looking everywhere to find out who you are, you can just look at yourself and say, “This is who I am, and I’m living in the United States in 2018.” In my case, I’m a woman, that’s my experience. The boys have their own experiences. We bring it together to try to show what that is.
I’m interested in the lyrics for “Sinking Sands” (Chorus: “I got this feeling / It’s a feeling I don’t know / And when you start believing / It’s a fear of the unknown”). What inspired that song?
NK: That song is funny because it’s upbeat and lighthearted, but it warns about the dangers of propaganda and messaging. It was inspired by the allegations on different sides of the political spectrum of fake news. Whether it’s Hillary’s emails or whatever. It’s about how reality is only as real as people perceive it, and when you are exposed to something enough you start to lose track of what is the actual truth.
I listen to a lot of podcasts, and there was this one about the paranormal. It’s funny how you can be a complete skeptic, but after listening for a couple hours it starts to normalize to you and you believe it more and more.
“When you’re in the middle of it, it’s ‘this is how I’m existing, and this is my outlet for everything.’ And then afterwards you kind of look at it like, ‘Woah, that’s what we did.’”
— Jacob Faber
How much individual experience went into this album? Is there any aspect where one of you thinks, “This part pertains to me”?
JC: There’s so much of each of us in every song, but I’ll say “Only A Moment” was inspired by a relationship with a friend of mine that I was trying to talk to. Even “Twentytwo” is a bit more personal and full of these mantras that I was trying to say out loud to others but also to myself.
So much of each of us personally went into Twentytwo in Blue. Not just the lyrics, but the actual creation of the music. I have memories of Jacob doing drum tracks really intensely and thinking about his growth as a drummer. My bass playing on “I Was A Fool” was more ambitious than anything I had done before—and I consider that personal. We were really trying to show who we are as players too.
JF: We really put our hearts into the playing. I was trying to make people cry just from the drumbeat on “Twentytwo.”
How was it being in the studio again working on this album?
JF: With this one we took a lot more time in the studio, which was cool. We got to really take time with getting the sounds. Then we had even more time in a separate studio, doing production work and building out the songs. Just the fact that we had two different studio experiences, instead of a one-and-done, really let the songs grow into what they needed to be.
As artists, what do you feel your responsibility is in terms of what you’ve got inside of you? When you set out to make this album, what did you expect of yourselves?
NK: It’s a way of living. When you have this sort of outlet, you’re constantly taking things in. Whether it’s writing notes or recording bits of instrumentals, it’s an ongoing process. The reflection more happens at the end, when it’s finished and you’re doing press and people are asking specific questions. But when you’re in the middle of creating, it’s sort of just instinct more than anything else.
JF: When you’re in the middle of it, it’s “this is how I’m existing, and this is my outlet for everything.” And then afterwards you kind of look at it like, “Woah, that’s what we did.”
Musician Daniel Johnston is an American musician and visual artist with a cult following in the outsider, lo-fi music scenes. His music is characterized by use of a chord organ, simple guitar and childlike lyrics recorded on homemade cassettes. Johnston has recorded twenty studio albums, including the popular Hi, How Are You (1983) and Space Ducks (2012). In 2005 he was the subject of the award-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
JC: You always want to be doing better, right? But music is not like a lot of other things, in the way that it’s like a dark art. You can take someone like Daniel Johnston, where their recordings are almost unintelligible and they’re just making sounds. You hear it, and for some reason, it’s good.
The art that’s “good” is really hard to put your finger on, and I think the responsibility that I have to myself—that we all have to ourselves—is following the process and the idea of good music. “Good,” meaning in a very deep, very strange way. A way that will mean something to us for a long time and hopefully to other people.
That process is not up or down. It might not be for a bunch of records. You might make a record when you’re ninety-years-old, and that’s your best work because you don’t have anything to hide anymore. So I think it’s just not giving a shit, not being afraid, and wanting to make things that are real. I think that’s what’s important to us as artists.
We’ve been out here enough to see a lot of different ways that being a musician can go, and you have to know why you’re doing it for yourself. I think that I’m doing it, and we’re doing it, for the sake of good music. That’s just how we want to spend our lives.
Yves Tumor is an elusive musician signed with the WARP record label. Popularized as a noise artist, his music combines genres such as ambient, hip hop and R&B. Tumor has released three albums: When Man Fails You (2016), Serpent Music (2016) and Safe In The Hands of Love (2018).
From Berkeley, California, The Motels is an alternative rock band best known for their 1980s Billboard tracks “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer.” Lead by musician Martha Davis, the band changed its name in 2013 to Martha Davis and The Motels.
Mitski Miyawaki, known professionally as Mitski, is a Japanese-American musician. She has released five studio albums, including this year’s critically acclaimed Be the Cowboy (2018).
Alex G, the stage name of Alexander Giannascoli, is a musician from Philadelphia who came to attention via his bedroom recordings on Bandcamp. His 2014 album DSU was ranked one of the year’s best albums by Noisey, Time Out and The Washington Post. His six albums include Beach Music (2015) and Rocket (2017).
The Nude Party
The Nude Party is a New York-based band comprised of musicians Patton Magee, Austin Brose, Connor Mikita, Alec Castillo, Shaun Couture and Don Merrill. Originally from North Carolina, The Nude Party has notably been mentored by Oakley Munson (drummer for the Black Lips) and toured with Ty Segall, Twin Peaks and The Growlers. The band has two albums out, Hot Tub (2016) and The Nude Party (2018).
Brian Wilson is an American singer-songwriter, instrumentalist and co-founder of the classic California surf rock band The Beach Boys. He was the first pop artist to be credited for writing, arranging, producing, and performing his own music. In addition to his Grammy Awards and an induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Wilson has been hailed for his innovations in music production and for being an originator of California Sound. He was the subject of 2014’s acclaimed film Love & Mercy.
Mark Mothersbaugh is an American singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, composer, producer, author and visual artist. He rose to fame as co-founder and lead singer of the ‘70s and ‘80s cult new wave band, Devo. Mothersbaugh is also regarded for his television, film and video game scores, as well as his solo career which includes four studio albums. He has won awards for his contributions to TV and film music, as well as an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Kent State University.
“The responsibility that I have to myself—that we all have to ourselves—is following the process and the idea of good music.”
— Julia Cumming
Your band is part of the very broad rock genre. How do you feel about where rock is going and how it’s evolving?
JC: We all have different thoughts on this, but our general feeling is that we love music that feels like it’s pushing things forward. I mean, we just saw Kendrick Lamar at Reading and Leeds, and it was incredible because he’s a really incredible artist.
I think if the art is stale, it’s the responsibility of the artist to do something about it. A lot of the talk about rock being boring or unpopular is boring to us. Like, “Cool. That’s a cool thought.” So now we’re going to do something about it, you know what I mean?
There’s no point sitting around whining about Spotify and Apple Music or whining about the fact that rock music is not what the kids are listening to. Because if it’s not, then there’s something wrong. And if we believe that guitars and weird music should be popular, then that’s what rock musicians should be doing. If you don’t want rock to be dead, then don’t let it be dead.
“If we believe that guitars and weird music should be popular, then that’s what rock musicians should be doing.”
— Julia Cumming
What are you listening to as you get in the headspace for tour?
NK: There’s a few songs that we’ve all been listening to a lot, like Yves Tumor’s new track “Noid” and the song “Total Control” by the Motels. There’s a new Mitski song called “Nobody” that’s really amazing.
JC: It’s been cool at festivals to catch glimpses of everything that’s happening. I’ve been listening to Alex G because we saw his full set at a festival. I’m seeing him again tonight, which is perhaps excessive, but I’m excited. When we’re talking about the search for something real and good—music that you can’t always explain—Alex G is a really good example of that.
What other bands have you rubbed shoulders with who you thought, “These people are great and so is their music”?
JF: On our tour in June, we made a lot of new friends. One was The Nude Party. They’re from North Carolina, but they live in upstate New York. We were a little sketched out at first like, “Oh god, six boys. It’s going to be really bro-ey and dude-ish.” But they were so cool, so nice and friendly, and no shitty attitudes. It was cool to be around such a high-functioning group of guys. Really love ‘em.
Who is your dream to collaborate with?
JC: A lifetime dream of mine is to just be near Brian Wilson. Just eat at the same restaurant. Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo is also an artistic hero of mine, in a different direction. Both are a bit old school, but nonetheless, meeting them would be unbelievable dreams come true.
I’m rooting for it. Have you guys started talking about the next album?
JF: We’re always working on stuff and brainstorming. Never not looking forward.