Watching Sunflower Bean bewitch and amaze the large outdoor crowd during their headlining Waking Windows set, it was surreal to think we had just gotten to sit down with the New York rockers in the festival’s V.I.P. space for an in-depth music discussion a few hours beforehand. It was not only a long and descriptive chat when we connected with them in Winooski, Vermont, but one of those truly open and invigorating ones; a special glimpse into their creative process, group dynamic, point of view from the stage, feelings on politics, plans for the future, and more. We were also honored to catch Sunflower Bean at a time when their thoughts were really overflowing; they surprised us when they mentioned they hadn’t taken an in-person interview in a while.
Unsurprisingly, Julia Cumming, in addition to being one of the most badass bass players and lead singers around, is honest, eloquent, witty, and insightful to a razor-sharp degree, and she didn’t hold back; nor did guitarist Nick Kivlen or drummer Jacob Faber. The band was lounging on couches in the large, secluded space, the fun sounds of the festival humming in the background and crescendoing whenever someone opened the door. Cumming dove right into a thoughtful analysis comparing the creation of their latest EP, King Of The Dudes, to the process behind Sunflower Bean’s prior releases. “When we went to make our second record, we didn’t feel nervous about it in the way that I think people were almost projecting onto us to feel about it. But in turn, we spent so so so so much time analyzing every single note, and every single moment, and delving really deep into this thing, which I think we’re all really proud of, and love a lot. But I think we also always are really attracted to the opposite of what we last did – not in a corrosive way, but in a way where we’re moving forward and learning about ourselves.”
“I think we were also even inspired by artists like Cardi B and Ariana Grande – I’m speaking for myself here,” she said democratically, though Kivlen audibly agreed. “But the fast pace in which music can be released now; it seems like one of the benefits of technology is being able to get your music to people so quickly. I think that we wanted to be a part of that, and wanted to show that in rock and in indie rock, you don’t always have to listen to the labels and everyone’s idea that you need this big two-year roll-out plan. And of course that’s helpful, and there’s a way to do things,” she said rationally, “but it also is like – we’re going to be dead one day, and you should get the music out.” Kivlen added, “Yeah, it was very much like, ‘Well, we have this feeling; we’ve got to go.’ We met with Justin once,” he said, referring to producer Justin Raisen, “and were like, ‘Wow. This energy is really intense; really different from anyone we’ve ever worked with. So I think when we went to do it, we just totally went for it with him, in that aspect, and just kind of let it happen, in a way. We really focused and buckled down and just got it done.”
When asked how much they bounced ideas off each other while recording that killer EP, the band looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing all at once. “Two of the songs – we had parts of them done before. I think if we went in for like approximately a week and a half of recording without any kind of concept, we would have been a little bit screwed, but…” Cumming paused and laughed again, her tone implying how quickly the creative process had moved. “We kind of knew where we wanted it to go and we had been jamming. And I think that Justin is a really cool producer in the way that he’s very energetic, and he’s not like cool in the way that some people are cool. And I don’t think that we’re cool, you know what I mean?” “Yeah, we’re not cool either,” Kivlen affirmed. “So it’s a good match of people who wanna make the music they wanna make,” said Cumming. “And not be afraid.”
“At least, for me,” said Kivlen, “it was very much about…if something makes you feel very excited – like air-punching excited, like karate-kicking, you know? – then that’s what you go with. Just noticing that and following that.” On that note, Cumming shared Sunflower Bean’s current plans and mindset without hesitation. “Right now, we’re in the rebirthing stage. We’re trying to understand what we’ve done and appreciate it, and learn from that, and have it inform what we’re going to do next. Because we’ve put out fourteen songs between 2018 and 2019, and it’s like, let’s let those breathe. Let’s play them. You know, it’s fun to be spontaneous, but let’s not rush anything either.”
It was a funny coincidence that we ended up getting to know Sunflower Bean way out in Vermont, given that we’re all based in New York, and we’d covered their hard-rocking performances in the city several times. We wondered if they were excited about any specific aspect of playing for the Winooski (just north of Burlington), Vermont crowd – and Cumming made an observation that was definitely striking if you weren’t from the area. “Well, so far I’ve noticed that there’s an astounding amount of people within the festival that are picking up trash in a way that is extremely thoughtful and sweet. I think we’ve noticed that all through Vermont, driving; all of the solar panels and just the way that it’s taken care of. And we’re big Bernie supporters, so we’re excited and honored to be here. We haven’t played Vermont in years, so I think we’re maybe a little bit out of touch with what peeps are about, but I’m excited to get right up in it,” she said with a smile. Kivlen also noted, “The last time we played Vermont was in Bennington.” “In 2014,” recalled Faber. “It was like…a room. It was just like a college house we played in,” said Kivlen. Cumming added with a laugh, “So this is our first real show in Vermont.”
Sunflower Bean often draw inspiration from traveling to other locations too, including some special spots abroad, as we learned from Kivlen. “We toured Asia in November and that was really fun, because we had never played in Thailand before and that was really amazing. I think it definitely made us feel inspired to keep on traveling and keep on seeing new places. ‘Cause we’ve toured America and the U.K. and Europe a lot, but we had never done an Asia tour as extensively, and that was probably the highlight of our year,” he said, Cumming and Faber agreeing with wistful “Yeah”s.
As Cumming shared, however, they don’t need to venture far to find ideas. “I’ve been feeling inspired by New York lately, in a different way,” she said. “It’s funny, I think ‘cause in the music circle, you just think of how many people have moved to L.A. and feel kind of sad about it, and sad about all the things that have been happening within New York that have just made it less accessible to artists. But I was walking around – I went out last night, just really quickly to see what was going on – and I saw so many kids; I saw so many college students, and so many people who were excited about New York. And I was like, it’s just perspective. It’s just everyone living in their own bubble and being upset with their surroundings for whatever reason. So I’m feeling newly inspired about being home, out of all the places.”
As the conversation grew even more contemplative, we were excited to learn about Sunflower Bean’s songwriting process, which is “kind of different for each song,” as Kivlen explained. “We don’t really have a procedure we do every time, but a lot of the times, it’s something that one of us worked on by ourselves, and then we bring it to the group and we flesh it out together. So we start with an idea from one of us individually, and then the rest of us take that idea and sort of see where we can bring it as a group.” “Yeah,” agreed Cumming. “It’s kind of the belief and the faith that what each of us have as individuals gets stronger when we’re doing it together, and always having a team around to make your ideas happen. So we can always take something to each other and see how to bring it into real life, which is really cool. But it comes in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s a word; sometimes it’s a vocal line; sometimes it’s a concept; sometimes it’s guitar.” “Or it’s out of another song,” noted Kivlen. “Like ‘I Was A Fool’ was actually written when we were trying to finish ‘Sinking Sands.’ We were just jamming on something out of that and were like, ‘Oh! This should be its own thing,’ and kind of took that and separated it.” “We’ve definitely jammed with each other enough,” Cumming paused with humorous suspense, as if she might end her sentence right there and walk out. “…to know what we’re gonna do,” she said, finishing the thought with a laugh.
Right then, Cumming announced, “This is our friend, Danny,” motioning over to newly-added keyboardist Danny Ayala, who had recently entered the room and was chilling on the adjacent couch. “He has his own band called Dr. Danny. He was also in The Lemon Twigs, and he’s a bit of a savant legend rockstar.” “In Long Island, he’s a legend!” Faber cut in playfully. Cumming argued, “All over! You’ll see, you’ll see. And we’ve convinced him to hang out with us and play some stuff with us, so that’s been really fun too, being able to perform the songs with him. There was always this tiny little feeling where, while we all love what we can do just as us three, there’s so much other production stuff that we love that’s on the record that we’ve never been able to execute live, so that’s been really cool.” “Danny’s playing keys, guitar, bass, vocals…” listed Faber. “He can play drums too!” Kivlen noted proudly. Cumming said of their headlining slot at the festival, “We’re actually thinking of letting Danny have the set tonight, and we’ll just go right home.”
This spurred the topic of Sunflower Bean’s powerful synergy and vigor when they’re rocking together in the live setting, and we were interested to know what’s on their minds as they perform. “It’s so different every night,” said Kivlen pensively. “I don’t know. I feel like, on a good day, at the best times, you’re just focused. You’re enjoying the songs; you’re just kind of listening. Like when we played Red Rocks a couple of days ago in Colorado, I just felt really comfortable, just looking up a little bit, and very centered. But then other days, it’s like my brain is just going crazy, you know? ‘What am I going to eat? What’s the drive like?’ It’s always changing.” Cumming also commented on their recent Red Rocks performance. “It was raining. And it was like thirty-five degrees. But it kind of made it more special – by the last song, all of our instruments were soaked; very very slippery. But it just felt really cool. I like shows like that, ones that kind of have this adversity that you have to overcome. That’s why it was fun playing in China, just because, since they don’t often get a lot of foreign acts, it’s kind of hard to play there. And we’ve been lucky to play there four times now, which is amazing! We’re so lucky. It’s like being there and trying to understand how people there find out about music, and just knowing it’s kind of a foreign situation was really exciting. So that’s kind of what Red Rocks was like; just different things to overcome.”
In terms of her thoughts while playing, though, Cumming said, “I’m not sure.” She paused with a very introspective expression. “I think I was happy. I can get nervous, but usually, if it’s a good show, I’m not thinking about how I look, or if I’m in pain, or any of these kinds of things around.” She motioned her hands as if gently swatting away invisible distractions. “That’s real life. The stage is like a comfortable place, in a weird way.” Kivlen said, “At its best, it’s like a meditation. You’re not really thinking at all; you’re just kind of being in the moment.” “Yeah, what do you think?” Cumming asked Faber, always ensuring her bandmates got to speak too. “I felt relieved,” he said. “It felt like a torture was ending, because we hadn’t played a show in like two months.” She agreed, adding, “I think also, sometimes, when you play as many shows as we’ve played, or when you like playing shows, you get a taste for it that you don’t really know how to describe. Like sometimes, you just feel a little bit off for a while, and then you play a show and you’re like, ‘Duh. I had to play a show. There it is; that’s the answer.” Kivlen said with a grin, “I need the attention.”
Being that their music can be so impactful and even comforting, it was interesting to hear Cumming’s perspective on that facet of Sunflower Bean’s work. “I think if you write thinking about impacting other people, it’s never going to work; you know what I mean? It’s like when a band tries to make a song for radio and then you hear them trying, and you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck that.’ I think it’s just like, trying to reach people by trying to reach into yourself, and finding common humanity. It sounds really lofty, but that’s the only way that I think I know how to do it, or that we know how to do it. And everytime we hear that it reaches someone, it’s a gift, because I think music really is communication, and the musicians that make it have some sort of odd need to think in songs, you know? Like I was feeling really, really horrible and sad yesterday, and I was in the shower, and I was trying to deal with it – and then all these parts of this song were coming together. And I was like, ‘Why am I like this? What does this mean? Why do I have to think of a song in order to deal with this day? But I think, for some people, that’s how it is. And as long as you’re not trying to do something to get something from other people, I think you can be true and people will like it.”
Of course, being P&W, we had to inquire about the whiskey preferences across the band. “I was hoping you’d ask about pancakes,” Cumming said with passion. “Have you been to a place in New York called Clinton St. Baking Company? The blueberry pancakes from there – I could snort them. Let’s just put it that way.” “We usually get Bulleit on the rider,” said Kivlen, who then treated us to a fine whiskey story. “During our Interpol tour, we would get a bottle of whiskey every night, so at the end of the tour, we had like ten or fifteen bottles of semi-drank whiskey.” Faber chimed in, “Because we’re not heavy drinkers.” “We’re not,” Cumming said, clearly amused. “So then I had it all underneath my dresser,” said Kivlen, “hidden from my mom, because it was like, a shit-ton. And I kept on filling up my flask and filling up my friends’ flasks.” “Before you all go to Chess Club,” Cumming quipped instantly.
Discussing what’s next, Faber said coolly, “We’re going on tour with Beck, Spoon and Cage The Elephant in August.” Cumming seemed as pumped as we are about it. “Who knows what that’s gonna be like? That’s gonna be wild-town!” she said excitedly. We urged them to exchange some digits while on tour and make a few collaborations happen. She then reassured us, “We’re around. Maybe after this, some things will be solidified. But I would say, tell Sunflower Bean fans of the world that we’re not going anywhere. We’re just recharging and turning into, I don’t know. I’m thinking in like Pokémon terms. We’re really losing it,” she laughed. “I don’t think we’ve done an in-person interview in a while.”
In a final twist of the conversation that was very energizing, we were grateful to have time to catch up on Cumming’s political involvement and latest community efforts. “We just went to a Bernie campaign meeting in the city, and we’re trying to figure out some ways to combine what we do with what they do, and be a part of it in a powerful way. I definitely do a lot of activism stuff,” she noted, telling us about Meditation for Mobilization. “One of the main things I try to do with the group that I’ve started is help people figure out how to express their activism in ways that work for them, in order to make it a bigger part of their lives, and not something that’s like, ‘Oh I could never campaign for something.’ So we’re not always supporting exact political causes; we’re often trying to help find ways for people to find it for themselves. One event was at Baby’s All Right and it was like a fair of different groups and speakers; it was cool, we’d have a speaker and then people would come and sign up. We had an environmental group, and a lot of different stuff. It’s been good. It’s been a great, important part of my life. I can’t imagine it any other way now, which is great.”
“I think with the election on everyone’s mind, and especially for people who are liberal-leaning and trying to figure out who they’re going to support, there’s so much stress and so much nervousness that we’re going to fuck it up. And I’m trying to help create a little bit of space to help think about those options, and not just be a part of this Facebook fear cycle of commenting and stress. It’s amping up.” Her tone was not angry, but calm and empathetic. “I was in a meditation when I came up with the idea. I was like, ‘Why don’t we host a different kind of meditation?’ It’s cool because it’s obviously spring, so there are a lot of tie-ins about the new growth that we’re seeing. And how anger shouldn’t exactly be taboo, because you can think of it as an energy, rather than thinking of it as something that you’re doing,” explained Cumming. “I like thinking of it as potential. There’s so much potential in spring. There’s so much potential in growth. There’s so much potential in your anger to actually create the world you want to live in.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley