Sunflower Bean are defining a new generation of cool

Sunflower BeanIn pursuit of a modern conception of cool, most of our references are in dire need of an overhaul. Dick Hebdige’s eternally beloved Subculture: The Meaning of Style has been compromised, to some extent, by the dissolution of hard markers between mainstream culture and its feisty undercurrents – or perhaps the dialectical process outlined (hegemony begets protest begets moral panic begets popularity begets absorption begets hegemony) simply happens so fast now that we barely notice it. But in visual terms at least, rock’s iconography hasn’t really changed since the 70s; maybe Lizzie Goodman’s oral history of the New York scene in the 00s, Meet Me in the Bathroom, updated the key players, but the leather jackets remained. Sunflower Bean, the city’s latest bright young things, have come up in a culture that seemed unimaginable half a century ago – but in almost every other aspect, they remain classically cool.

The trio met at high school, growing up together on Long Island, and soon discovered a shared love for Floyd, Zeppelin, glam rock and, of course, The Velvet Underground. Fast-forward barely a few years to 2016, and the band had already marked their own entry to the canon with debut Human Ceremonies, an irresistible spray of melodic psych-rock that shoved them firmly into the limelight. Since then they’ve become friends with Julian Casablancas, toured the world, and singer Julia Cumming has even become a star model for Saint Laurent. Now at the grand old age of 22 and with a hotly anticipated second album about to land, Cumming is pretty chill about the whole thing in conversation.

“I think we’ve been really lucky because we’ve had lots of exciting moments,” she tells me, over the phone from New York. “But for the most part, everything has happened by increments. I think that’s been good because you see some people blow up crazy fast, and then it’s hard to build a career out of that. We’ve just been really lucky to have the start of our touring career that we’ve had, and meet all different kinds of kids.”

If it’s looked like a whirlwind from the outside, there’s a lot of credence to what Cumming has to say. She’s a classically trained soprano, having studied at school; guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber also spent their formative years developing an extensive musicianship, with the latter playing jazz saxophone from the age of five. Like all teenagers, they’ve experienced a raft of awkward struggles getting to where they are now, but Cumming maintains that those moments are vital.

“Being a teenager is horrible: it’s chaotic, messy, tearful, stressful. But all those things made me myself, even made me who I am as an artist. If I didn’t have those experiences, I think my writing would be really different.” It certainly seems to be paying dividends. “Every year gets better. Every year I feel a little smarter, a little more grounded, a little more in control of what I can be in control of. And that’s really cool.”

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The result is their extraordinary sophomore Twentytwo in Blue, a reference to the band all reaching their twenties more or less intact. At turns impressively mature and delightfully playful, it was recorded with Jake Portrait (bassist in Unknown Mortal Orchestra and producer of EMA’s latest album, among others) and Matthew Molnar (formerly of Brooklyn band Friends). Each brought their own style to the Sunflower Bean sound, it seems. “We really wanted every moment on this record to be special, and I think that’s what Jake and Matt were able to bring – they're really good at creating tones where at first you’re like, ‘What is that?’ But it grows on you until you can’t really see it any other way.”

As an album, Twentytwo in Blue represents a personal growth from their fizzing debut – not just in musical terms, but also the way in which they address the world at large. Across the board, American artists who might not previously have considered themselves political are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore what’s going on in their homeland. “There’s a lot of songs, and music, and art that you use as an escape, that you use to decompress or get away from what’s going on. There’s a lot that you need there as your friend, music that you need to help you define who you are. And I think that, unless you’re making work completely in a vacuum, you’re going to be affected by everything happening, especially in the United States.”

Lead track “Crisis Fest” is particularly uncompromising in its look at the daily bombardment of media yelling (“Reality’s one big sick show / Every day’s a crisis fest”), and Cumming feels it has become unavoidable. “It feels impossible to be as complacent now, as people have been able to be. Why not just address it? We had a lot of different lyrics for that song, and we eventually just boiled it down to what we felt was needed the most.”

“It’s a really interesting time, and every artist, every person, should be looking at themselves: what they do, what they have to offer, and every potential point of privilege. It’s a really new era of self-reflection.”

Increasingly, a significant amount of that self-reflection has come on the way that women are treated, from everyday sexism to the slew of abuse scandals that have rocked both the film and music industries – and of course, masculinity’s painfully slow uptake of the way the former fosters environments that engender the latter. While Cumming is acutely aware of these issues (“The only thing that really affects me, which a guy might say sometimes, is something like, ‘She’s really good at bass for a girl.’ That didn’t hurt me, y’know!”), she’s not about to let any of it hold her back.

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“At this point, I don’t think those kinds of labels would actually stop me from doing anything. I know who I am, and I know what I’m gonna make. It’s obviously something that women in this field deal with, and I think everyone comes to their own way of dealing with it. And mine, at this point, is just like… I don’t really think it’s going to touch me. It’s not like nothing will hurt me, but I won’t let it hinder the work we make.” Listening to Cumming articulate this duality – to acknowledge the damage caused while fighting past it, confident in her own artistic output – it’s hard to see anything standing in the band’s way.

If subcultures have been mostly subsumed by the proliferation of media channels in the internet age, do we still have subcultural heroes? In a recent interview with Vulture, the aforementioned Casablancas argued that, conversely, artists’ ability to transcend subculture and move into the mainstream has diminished (“Everyone knows David Bowie now, but I bet he was pretty underground in the ’70s,” the Strokes singer argued). Sunflower Bean’s guitarist Nick Kivlen recently lamented that there were no more rock ‘n’ roll heroes. What does Cumming think?

“I think it’s damn well worth trying,” she tells me. “With rock music, especially in the US, it’s not just that it feels old, like your parents’ music – all of us need to see what we can do to give it a reason to be there. There’s no point in making covers, otherwise, it should go to the past, you know? But if guitars are as important as we think they are, then we need to look at how to do that and make it really special and make it cool, so it has a reason to exist. And I think the more people that are making things that are really original and special, that are leaning on songwriting rather than flashy crap…” She pauses. “I think that’s what will prevail, and ultimately make the new Bowie.”

If she’s right, the next generation of superstars may not take the form of their predecessors. Sure, they might still rock the same skinny jeans and dark shades, but if everything else is just a rehash of former glories, the kids won’t buy it. It’s going to take something new, something special. It might just be right in front of you.

Twentytwo in Blue is out 23rd March 2018 via Mom + Pop Records. Come back soon for our album review!

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