Sunflower Bean gets pegged in the popular press as one of those bands that wears their inspirations on their sleeves. Black Sabbath, The Kinks, Spiritualized, Jonathan Richman are all names that get thrown around when talking about this band. They’re heavy pop, grunge and glam, and a million other things. An overnight success three years in the making.
So when I had the opportunity to speak with Jacob Faber very early one morning (and it shows in my questions and when I stopped asking questions) after a short tour in Europe and before they return to their hometown with a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on October 7th, I got to ask him what he thought about all this (and a question apiece about Camus and Tarot Cards). What I found is a band that has achieved it success not by mimicking other bands, but through hard work, tenacity and love of music.
[Interview has been edited for clarity and length]
Do you accept the absurdist philosophies of the French writer Albert Camus, I noticed there was a copy of The Fall on the covers EP [From the Basement]?
Umm, yeah, we kinda, uh, yeah, yeah, we do, we like crazy things and we used whatever we could find in Nick’s room. There wasn’t too much rhyme or reason, so yeah.
And how about the Tarot Cards? Yeah, same thing. They’re fun things, they’re spooky, they can be scary. They can tell your fortune.
You’ve been a band for three years, which is a relatively short time, but I caught wind of you in the New York Times. That’s a big leap, do you see your band as an overnight success?
No, not at all. For us it feels very gradual, just because we’ve been working on it every single day. So, when you work on something every single day for three years, it’s pretty gradual, but I can see on the outside it looks pretty quick, but we just keep trying to move forward, not stay in one place too long.
It’s said that Human Ceremony [Sunflower Bean’s debut album] cements your arrival, do you think that Sunflower Bean has arrived?
Um, not really, it’s our first full record, so in the larger sense it’s our arrival in the music world. But we’ve been playing around New York City, three times a week, we’ve been part of the music scene for three years now. And me and Nick and Julia even before that.
You’re band has fallen into the inspiration-on-the-sleeve-type band. YouTube comments are typically “this sounds like X” or a person compares you to somebody else, but even Rolling Stone have you as “Black Sabbath covering the Kinks.” When you’re in the studio, or when you’re writing, is this something you aim for?
Um, this just kinda comes out naturally. We’re not trying to recreate anything. We’re trying to actively not do that. But at the same time we have a lot of inspirations to take from, and we try to blend all these things together into something that is hopefully pushing rock music forward. There’s a lot of great music that’s happened in the last fifty years, and we like a lot of it.
You have a great sound, and a lot of people hear what they want to hear. For instance, I heard Deep Purple on some of these tracks. What do you actively try to pull into the music?
Uhm, I’m trying to think when we’re recording the record, it’s weird, it’s more like a headspace thing. It’s not, we weren’t trying to make songs sound like other songs. Or even, I’m trying to think when we were recording, me and Nick were going through a really heavy Spiritualized phase. So sonically we were trying to create something really beautiful and easy on the ears almost, and Julia, for vocals, really loves Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson, so she used inspiration for vocal harmonies. It’s hard to think back a year ago.
So you’re just living your lives and recording at the same time?
Yeah, it was just kinda us recording […] I don’t want to give away all the secrets.
This one quote from New York Magazine really confused me, “the teenage rock scene has gotten a lot grungier, and a bit more glam,” and to me that sounds a bit at odds, what side do you see yourself on, the Nirvana side or the T. Rex side?
Uh, probably slightly more on the T. Rex side, but again, we love both those bands. They’re huge, huge influences on us. We wanted to try to bring the best both those things offer, the amazing over-the-topness of T. Rex, but also the amazing and over-the-topness of Nirvana, but in the opposite way, not giving a shit. You know, like…
Yeah, yeah, the absurdity. A lot of great things are absurd.
I wanted to ask about the Covers EP, it’s four great tracks, but “Harvest Moon” doesn’t really fit, it’s a little out of place. How did that come about?
I think we were just obsessed with that song. Whenever we were practicing or taking a break, we’d play it on the acoustic guitar. This was months before we even knew we were going to make a covers EP. When we made it, we were kinda pressed for time, we couldn’t take songs, recreate them or do anything like, I don’t know, be crazy with them, so we just wanted to choose four songs we all loved and kinda just like messed around with them before. I think “Harvest Moon” fits pretty well.
Yeah, it does, for a band that’s been compared to Black Sabbath.
I think the Black Sabbath thing comes from people not knowing what to do with a band that has distortion pedals, but also has clean guitar. Which I think a lot of music, a lot of contemporary music is one volume, or one sound on the record these days, we wanted to make a dynamic album.
The Nirvana, the Pixies “soft, loud, soft?”
Yeah. Or just like, even Black Sabbath records have their one folk track on them.
What’s the one on Paranoid, I always forget the name of it, it’s a great song though?
Planet Caravan? Yeah, yup, that’s a great song.
Yeah, it’s a maybe older tradition, but we wanted to make a record that had that dynamic kind of, almost like you can listen to the whole thing instead of listening to one track and getting the gist of it.
I think that might sum up how I feel about Sunflower Bean, better than these quotes that I’m seeing. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate nuance in music anymore. I think your band does that well, it’s all over the place, but in a good way, is that accurate?
I don’t agree that it’s all over the place, it’s just us trying to make a cohesive record that still has some personality. And some character traits to it, and each song has some traits to it that make it different from the song before. I think that’s more of what we set out to do.
Do you have two songs from Human Ceremony that encapsulate that feeling?
Yeah, a lot of it is in the difference between Nick and Julia’s lyrics. Julia’s lyrics are very real-life based, whether they’re about her or someone else, it’s something from real life, like “Easier Said.” But with Nick, Nick’s lyrical writing is more kind of like absurdist and impressionist, a song like “Creation Myth.”
Speaking of inspiration on your sleeve, a friend told me that Roger Ebert asked the same last question of every person he interviewed, so now I do the same thing. It’s a different question though. Mines from the Talking Heads, “and you may ask yourself, how did I get here?” So, how did you get here?
Umm, a lot of hard work and a lot of practice and being slightly crazy.
Yeah, slightly crazy.
Article: Christopher Gilson