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Looking For Meaning: Sunflower Bean Deliver Sugar and Substance

Wednesday, 04 May 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Driely S

If the world ends tomorrow, will your life have been a fulfilling one? Were purposeful connections made and experiences savoured? Or did you fall prey to the less digestible side of a capitalist society that delivers short-term fixes over long-lasting satisfaction? These questions and more are tackled on ‘Headful 0f Sugar,’ the atmospheric third record from genre-smashing American trio Sunflower Bean.

Formed in 2013, and hailing from the streets of New York, Brooklyn and Glen Head, Julia Cumming (bass/vocals), Nick Kivlen (guitar/vocals) and Olive Faber (drums) are proud outsiders who, with a wealth of influences under their belts, and an impressive work ethic to boot, nonchalantly eschew easily definable labels.

The follow-up to critically-acclaimed sophomore outing ‘Twentytwo In Blue’, ‘Headful of Sugar’ once again finds the trio continuing to push forwards without a hint of repeating themselves or succumbing to anything resembling a trend. Spinning and twisting from glam, post-punk revival and dream-pop to neo-pyschedelica, swaggering riff-rock and ethereal Americana, the record’s raw, groove-based music is full of sharply painted moods, indelible earworm hooks and a gripping blend of visceral confessions and socio-political concepts.  

We caught up with Kivlen to talk about sculpting their latest record, its captivating thematic potency and why, during the making of album number three, they didn’t feel the need to enhance their songs by using a toaster.

It’s been said that ‘the agony and ecstasy of contemporary American life’ provided the fuel for ‘Headful of Sugar’. Can you expand on that?

I think it’s pretty universal to the UK too: always having a million things trying to entertain you, and trying to get your attention, but never feeling focused or satisfied by any of it.   There are so many things being sold to you and told to you, constantly, and a lot of it doesn’t add up to real happiness. Even though we have more material comforts than ever, people’s happiness is lower and lower and lower.

Income inequality and all these different things like gentrification in New York, and the widening gap between the rich and poor, is creating this really confusing, hyper-normalised time where you take for granted that the government isn’t functioning and that nothing in politics, on a national level, is going to change your life for the better. It’s hard to look for meaning. That’s what the record’s about.  

The title also feels double-edged, because a sugar rush provides a superficial pleasure that’s great in the moment, but doesn’t offer any lasting sustenance.

The record is also projecting outside of the situation we’re in. It has this lust for life where it wants to be out in the world. It’s about going to airports, flying and seeing people and finding meaning through all these personal relationships and experiences you can have when the world is open.

So there is a duality of the cynical enjoyment of the sugar while also searching for well being. Roll The Dice, part of the ‘win, win, win, win, win’ chant is very cynical. Capitalism makes us all competitive and makes your life into a competition. But there is a huge part of, especially Julia’s and my personalities, where we are very competitive over achievers and strivers. So it’s very funny singing that line.    

Without overtly tackling the subject, the album’s mood and tone captures a sense of what lockdown felt like, in terms of the almost surreal, repetitious dream-state we all experienced. What specific production choices were employed to create such an atmosphere?

It’s more stripped back. A lot of the time, in terms of production, we were focused on making sure that everything that was happening was very bombastic. So there’s not a lot of subtlety. There’s usually a very prominent bassline that’s super distorted, really fuzzy, and pounding. And then a very solid bedrock of drums and, sitting on top of that, is where we put in all the vocal melodies and lyrics. Just really centre the vocal and melody as the centre piece that sits on top of this very solid backbeat and a lot of distortion and noise.          

There’s also an incredible sense of freedom to the record, eliciting the feeling you were completely liberated to express yourself in whatever way best fit what you were trying to say. Where did that come from?    

I think the fact that, especially during the summer of 2020, it was like ‘maybe this record will never come out?  Maybe we’ll never go on tour again?  Maybe the world will never be in a place where it’s healthy enough that rock music or shows will have any real significance ever again?’ That just allowed us to be like ‘We’ll make whatever we want to make and if we’re doing a reggae song then that’s what’s gonna happen. The world may never hear it, so who cares?’   

We also had no deadline, had our home studio, and were living together for part of that.  So everyday we’d wake up and exhaust ourselves writing lyrics, doing vocal parts and making music. We wrote and recorded around 80 songs. That was the curve of experimentation. We weren’t experimenting a lot in terms of putting gear in crazy places or playing guitar through a toaster. It was more just singing for two hours on a loop until you’ve exhausted every idea.    

All of your releases are stylistically different from each other and the new one is no different. What is it, specifically, that makes you venture down certain musical roads at any given point?

It’s totally unintentional. There are probably 10 songs that are closer to (each other than) what ended up on the track listing, but we picked the songs we liked best and didn’t worry about that. There isn’t any conscious decision making to it. It’s what we like and are inspired by. We’ve never been a genre band. I don’t really listen to genre music. If a band is doing ‘80s goth or hardcore punk it doesn’t interest me as much as a record that’s a little harder to place. All the bands we grew up loving had a lot of influences from across the spectrum and it’s always what we’ve done. We’ve never been part of any scene and that’s been good, in terms of not being pigeonholed.  

It also means you’re not part of a trend, so never get that push from something that’s happening widely. We’ve always been on the periphery of a lot of different things, whether the psych-rock thing or post-punk thing. There’s so many post-punk bands. The benefit is, because everyone’s interested in those post-punk bands, they all have this path to a career.  With us it always feels like we’re just doing our own thing and if you’re paying attention you’re paying attention and if you’re not, you’re not.

A number of tracks on the record begin with attention grabbing opening lines.  That’s most striking on your song In Flight, which begins like a nihilistic Springsteen. How personal is that one to you?

It’s definitely personal and inspired by the time I had when I got off tour in 2019. We finished this tour opening for Spoon, Cage The Elephant and Beck. I think we had six months off and it was the first time in our entire career where we didn’t have a tonne of shows booked. I was living with my parents in this small city in Long Island and never saw anyone my own age.

It was always either very young families, or extremely old people, and felt lonely because it was like I was the only 20 something living in a 20 mile radius. But even though it has that line it’s still very hopeful. It has aspiration to it and, when I think of it, I think about how being comfortable can be really dangerous—you can be comfortable but miserable. So it’s about taking that leap out of comfortability to try and find something that’s more fulfilling. 

I have to ask about Beat The Odds. How did that one come together, with particular reference to your riff and what you used to give it such a nasty streetwise sound?

It’s in drop D. When I first started playing when I was eight or nine I was really into metal.  So I played in drop D a lot. There were a few songs we wrote in drop D and drop C and this is the one that made it to the record. It’s the kind of thing where I was fumbling around, came up with that riff, and then we recorded it in four hours.  

That song is, ultimately, about letting each other off the hook. It’s imagining these two people who are outsiders, in some way, going to a giant city and not necessarily having the cultural signifiers of wherever they’re going to. In America the culture war is so bad because there isn’t any real politics, so people don’t have any control over their lives and have just ended up blaming each other, or blaming the half of the country that doesn’t agree with them politically.

The song is saying ‘don’t focus on all these cultural differences, all these issues that demonise the other half, when it’s really the 1% who are in control of everything.’ It’s about trying to understand the pluralisation in this country and that we’re really all in it together. 

'Headful of Sugar' is out May 6 on Lucky Number.

Sunflower Bean Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu May 05 2022 - WASHINGTON DC - Union Stage - DC (USA)
Fri May 06 2022 - ASBURY PARK New Jersey - Asbury Lanes (USA)
Thu May 12 2022 - NEW YORK New York - Webster Hall (USA)
Sat May 14 2022 - PHILADELPHIA Pennsylvania - Foundry (USA)
Thu May 19 2022 - DEWITT Michigan - Loving Touch (USA)
Fri May 20 2022 - CHICAGO Illinois - Bottom Lounge (USA)
Sat May 21 2022 - MINNEAPOLIS Minnesota - Fine Line (USA)
Sun May 22 2022 - MADISON Wisconsin - High Noon Saloon (USA)
Tue May 24 2022 - GRAND RAPIDS MI - Pyramid Scheme (USA)
Wed May 25 2022 - CLEVELAND Ohio - Grog Shop (USA)
Thu May 26 2022 - TORONTO Ontario - Lees Palace (Canada)
Wed June 01 2022 - SAN DIEGO California - Music Box (USA)
Thu June 02 2022 - LOS ANGELES California - Fonda Theatre (USA)
Sat June 04 2022 - SAN FRANCISCO California - Independent (USA)
Tue June 07 2022 - PORTLAND Oregon - Mississippi Studios (USA)
Wed June 08 2022 - VANCOUVER BC - Rickshaw Theatre (Canada)
Thu June 09 2022 - SEATTLE Washington - Crocodile (USA)
Sat June 11 2022 - DENVER Colorado - Bluebird Theater (USA)

Compare & Buy Sunflower Bean Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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