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Sunflower Bean on the grown-up uncertainty that inspired Twentytwo in Blue

The N.Y.C. trio discusses its open-hearted new rock record.

March 16, 2018

On the surface, Sunflower Bean’s sophomore album is about entering your early 20s. The title, Twentytwo in Blue, sounds like a straightforward nod to the semi-permanent sadness that comes with adulthood, when the world’s realities and your struggles to conquer them force you to face your flaws. And then there’s their age; all three members of the New York rock & roll group — singer and bassist Julia Cumming, drummer Jacob Faber, and guitarist and singer Nick Kivlen — will be 22 years old by the time their record comes out on March 23. It’s about much more than a number, though.

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Instead of puffing up their chests, the members of Sunflower Bean are trying to help their generation by speaking honestly about how scary the shift from teenagerdom to self-sustenance is. When they answer my Skype call, they’re sitting on a couch in the basement of Faber’s mom’s house, all dressed in comfy sweaters and simple slacks. This has been their practice space for a while, a free alternative to other astronomically priced New York options. For a while, we talk about the stresses of the country’s governmental shitshow, the meeting point of personal and public expectations, and the ways in which the three of them feel prepared to take on adulthood.

At one point, a horn instrument sings freely from somewhere. Faber’s little brother is having a trumpet lesson, the drummer tells me, laughing. That’s when it becomes clear to me: Sunflower Bean have matured, but they haven’t totally grown up. Their evolving in bits and pieces, facing new challenges while also preserving elements of their youthfulness. That balance might be what gives their new sound — a bolder, sturdier, and more intoxicating blend of classic rock, new wave and Americana-style pop — such a specific authenticity.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned after leaving your teens?

JULIA CUMMING: When you’re a teenager, you always think those years will be the best, but turning 21 and ditching the chaos of being a teenager felt way better. Honestly, a lot of that has appeared in the record, too. There’s a lot of strength and resilience that was always there, but I just didn’t know how to access it. We’re writing this music to solidify the mantras going through choruses of “Crisis Fest” or “Twentytwo.” Hitting that age definitely was a turning point.

JACOB FABER: There’s not a hard difference, but I think you’re able to think more about where you’re at in the world. You realize you can do something, and accessing that confidence feels refreshing.

NICK KIVLEN: Yeah, like part of it is when you think about something and wish you had the insight to be more mature to not do that dumb thing. But really, I think the number one thing from the last record to this one — so from being 20 to 22 — is being more open with songwriting, to approach things in complete earnesty.

CUMMING: Something I’ve noticed about getting older, at least with myself, is accepting people and being able to comment on the world more. “Human For” [out today and streaming above] is urgent to the point of desperation and not needing someone else’s idea of religion or whatever you need to protect yourself. You can make that yourself. You can find reason in your own meaning.

You met dozens of people while touring, too, which adds another layer of conversation and growth to this. Who did you meet and did you learn anything from them?

KIVLEN: You know how people say there’s supposed to be a slump when you reach your sophomore record? I think we found inspiration in the fans who came to the shows and the people we met at the merch booth afterwards. We started talking about their lives, aspirations, and this feeling of uncertainty and anxiousness over the future of our country and the world. We could relate to that. We didn’t go to college. We don’t have a future laid out for us.

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CUMMING: We’ve had so many interesting conversations, ranging from “How do I play bass?” or “How do I start a band?” to “What do I study in college?” or “What do you think of the laws being passed?” We were inadvertently taking in everything people are going through. So what we’re saying in our music is as much a mantra for them as it is one for ourselves, because we need to hear it, too.

Did the recurrent nature of these conversations make it easier to get Twentytwo in Blue out of your system as soon as you stopped touring?

KIVLEN: Getting it out of your system is a great way to phrase it, because these songs and ideas had been building up for a long time. It was like suddenly all this material was pouring out of us. We got some new gear and guitar pedals and had too much anxious energy to create to give ourselves a break.

CUMMING: When you make music, it’s a particular art form in that it’s like a psychosis. Sometimes there’s things you can’t actually say. I wouldn’t go around saying, “We brought you into this place! You know we can take you out!” But I needed to say that, so I put it in a song. It’s insane to speak, but it kind of needs to be said. There’s all of these feelings we had to get out. While you’re writing it, the song informs you of what it needs to be. You just have to listen to it and support that.

FABER: It’s funny because we didn’t go into the record with that notion, but the more we worked on these songs the clearer it became that’s what was happening. When we looked back at the songs, we realized just how much they’re communicating what we were feeling.

Because our political climate has become so horrible, a lot of musicians are commenting on it in songs or in the overarching mood of their releases, including you. How did you avoid the cliches that traditionally come with political rebuttal?

FABER: That’s a good point, because it’s hard to write a song addressing politics without getting corny because there’s only so much you can say. We tried to change the viewpoint so it’s less about the specifics of what’s happening in our government and instead focuses on our generation. These are our ideas on what the future will be like. “Crisis Fest” is less about fuck the power animosity and more about the difference in societal values across generations.

CUMMING: There’s two points within that. One of my favorite lines in “Crisis Fest” is “You’ve been in school for 10 years now / 80 grand indebted down,” which is a problem that us in the United States are super used to. You don’t hear about that in songs, though, because it’s somewhat awkward to do. In a poem, it may look intense and weird. But songs can become a comical, sturdy way to address those things. The most important way to say things that are easily perceived as cheesy is to do it with the most heart that you have. That’s why I love glam rock. You see musicians with power do something earnestly, even if it’s campy, and you fall in love with it. When you give your whole being into something like this, like how we’re saying we’re uncertain but we’re resilient and here, I don’t believe that it’s misconstrued as cheesy. If the world hates it, we’ll be like, “Wow, shit. We really fucked up.” But when you know you’re doing something at the most you can, then I don’t know how it can be generic.

KIVLEN: “Crisis Fest” is a bit of an anomaly on the record because it’s the only song outwardly dealing with stuff that, on the surface level, can be perceived as political. A lot of the songs have a personal viewpoint that has an underlying effect from the political sphere we’re in. I think of “Burn It” being a personal song to Julia while being in the context of a story about wealth, as “Sinking Sands” is a personal song to me about the relationship of information, propaganda, and fascism.

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Julia, your voice sounds stronger this time around which I think gives these topics extra weight. Why did you want to change your vocal style? What helped you feel more confident in embracing that?

CUMMING: It took a lot of learning to be comfortable being vulnerable. I didn’t know how to sing like this. It just started. It felt closer to who I actually am instead of a breathy falsetto that never quite fit before. Having my bandmates believe in me created a better creative cycle. Especially on songs like “Memoria,” I tried to get into the song and figure out what it needed. I did a ton of takes, but I feel like I’m a lot closer to who I am, which is a very nice feeling.

The songs feel more personal, which is refreshing to hear given press often pushes artists to accept an image or personality they may feel doesn’t fit them. How did all three of you avoid letting media coverage shape you while transitioning into young adulthood?

KIVLEN: Whenever we meet people after a show, people always want to put a filter on you and the performance because of the reference points they have. People compare us to things like grunge-like Sonic Youth sounds or hard rock from the ’70s or British shoegaze. We’ve always been strongly opinionated and rooted in who we are. That’s helped us avoid an identity crisis. We’ve been lucky to avoid being stressed about labels pressed on us.

FABER: You can’t reject someone’s comparison that we sound like the Replacements or whatnot, so it’s been a process to learn how to listen to alternate opinions without letting them isolate you or alter you.

Did you ever have a moment where you realized you were changing and we're proud of that?

FABER: Yeah, I think going into the studio and working on these songs with Jacob Portrait [of Unknown Mortal Orchestra] was a moment where I realized there’s a lot to do but there’s also a lot that can be done. On the last record, we did what we had the time to do. That was it. This time, if something didn’t feel right, then that meant it wasn’t done, and it was really incredible getting to experience that.

CUMMING: For me, it’s still happening. Being on tour with the Pixies, playing these songs for the first time to people, and understanding what I could do while performing to make them stronger made me feel like we were approaching something different. Even the release of “Twentytwo” and seeing the reactions to it has been very strong. People are telling us this song made them cry, that they’re listening on repeat, which is what you hope for. We aren’t sitting here waiting for a number one hit. We want to make music that’s meaningful to people, and to be able to share what we were feeling with people who hear that and understand it means we’ve done something different for ourselves.

Twentytwo in Blue comes out March 23 on Mom + Pop.
Posted: March 16, 2018