Q&A: Sunflower Bean

The Brooklyn “night music” band talk psychedelic rock, fashion, and the postmodern future

Photographer: Ben Cope Photography

Photographer: Ben Cope Photography

Sunflower Bean is a misleading name for a band that taps into technology’s darkness for lyrical inspiration, that describes themselves as “neo psychedelic for the digital age.” Amid a sprinkling of singles and an EP, “Show Me Your Seven Secrets,” over the past two years, the 19 and 20-year-olds—Julia Cumming (bass, vocals), Nick Kivlen (guitar, vocals), and Jacob Faber (drums)—are a product of their time: a skeptical youth holding their smartphones at arms length, staring into the empty void of cyberspace and seeing how it’s changing not only how people think, but what it means to be human, for better or worse.

On the mindless information overload in the Twitter-sphere: “You always say what’s on your mind,” Cumming hisses on “Tame Impala.” On the gloomy prospect of digital immortalization in the Facebook era: “What if I told you you’d live to be 10,000 / Baby, would you like that?” she prophesies in “2013.” Their debut album, “Human Ceremony,” is set to release in February 2016 through Fat Possum.

The Wake: It feels like there is a bit of a psych-rock revival in the scene—and I’m sure you guys get this all the time, the comparisons to Tame Impala—but I’m sure it doesn’t help having a song named after them.

Nick Kivlen: [Laughs]. It really doesn’t.

Photographer: Brad Elterman

Photographer: Brad Elterman

Was naming the song “Tame Impala” a conscious decision—is it a direct reference to the band?

NK: It is a direct reference to the band, because when we were first playing that song, and it didn’t have any lyrics yet, the pause in the main riff kind of reminded us of [Tame Impala song] “Elephant.” We just called it like, “Oh, that Tame Impala song.” That song goes back to like two years ago, like to the very beginning of us being a band. When we were playing basements, we didn’t know how the song would shift in the public eye and end up being the most popular one. We didn’t know like, two years from then, we’d be on tour with a famous band, opening for them every night and playing to a roomful of people with a song called “Tame Impala.” We were in a different place in our career, and we thought it’d be funny to call a song “Tame Impala.” At this point, it’s almost become a joke that’s gone too far—but it’s not a big deal. [Laughs].

It takes on a life of its own when it’s in the public eye. But I think it’s a great title!

NK: It’s a little gimmicky. But also, Tame Impala have a song called “Led Zeppelin.” Hopefully when our album comes out, people will forget the song.

Have you ever heard from Tame Impala about the song? Have they ever listened to it?

NK: I have no idea, but I hope not. I’m sure they have almost. And their manager came to see us at SXSW, and he’s probably mentioned it to them. But I hope they haven’t gotten around to listening to it. I saw them at Baby’s All Right, in the crowd, maybe half a year ago, and I was so nervous they would be like, “Hey, you’re the band that wrote the song with our name.” [Laughs].

Photographer: Takayuki Okada

Photographer: Takayuki Okada

I think more bands are trying to reshape their sound after the ‘70s, around psychedelic rock. Do you see that, and how is that genre changing in 2015?

NK: I think a lot of bands are taking a lot of inspiration from the ‘70s, and I see our sound as being pretty collective of a lot of different times, though. We’re definitely playing off of a ‘70s hard rock kind of vibe, but I honestly think overall our music is more inspired by the ‘80s and the ‘60s than the ‘70s. I just think that when we do the ‘70s, the ‘70s hard rock sound is way more in your face. When we do the ‘60s/‘80s influences, they’re a bit more hidden with a modern twist. When we do the ‘70s, it’s straight up heavy riffs—Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin—all of that.

I definitely saw that in your live show. There were those segments where you guys were just jamming—it almost seemed improvised.

NK: A lot of our live show is pretty improvised. There are “song” songs where we play them the same every time, but maybe like half of the songs with the jams in them never quite come out the same. It keeps it more fun to play them like that, but sometimes fuck them up a bit. [Laughs].

We were talking about how your take on psych-rock is modernized, and it seems to incorporate this weird element of technology, too.

NK: On our EP, a lot of the lyrics relate to an almost existential crisis brought on by living in such a weird time. Like, the 2000s and the postmodern future and all that. There’s a lot of “lyric-ness” that comes from living at this time where the biggest boom is technology, the biggest change in how people are living and receiving information, the disconnect from being organic humans to having all this technology around, like we’re becoming cyborgs. I always think of our creative lyrical inspiration as being Kurt Vonnegut. “2013” reminds me of that, although I don’t want to compare ourselves to Kurt Vonnegut. [Laughs]. I love his simplicity. I’m actually wearing this great shirt right now that I bought at this sci-fi and comic book store in Denver called Kilgore Comics—

Oh yeah, like his character Kilgore Trout!

NK: Yeah! It says “Kilgore” and there’s a picture of a trout on it.

Would you say you’re skeptical or cynical about technology? Or optimistic? I feel like a lot of young people don’t view technology as a bad thing like many older people do, just in that it changes the way we process information.

NK: There’s good and bad. I’m not optimistic or pessimistic when I think about it. It’s definitely making our lives more absurd. I’m constantly on the Internet, it’s like the world’s biggest library. It’s an amazing thing. But there are also evils that come with the amazingness it brings. On one hand, you’re disconnected from people, but you’re also connected to tons of things you may have never found before. It’s a double-edged sword.

A lot of the lyrics relate to an almost existential crisis brought on by living in such a weird time.

Julia, I’ve noticed you’ve been doing some modeling work with Yves Saint Laurent. What’s different between expressing yourself in that medium than through music?

Julia Cumming: When you’re making music, you’re in control of it. We’re writing the music, we’re figuring out how it’s going to be presented, when it’s going to come out, what we’re trying to say. It’s our whole lives, and it is the art form we have chosen for our expression. Control is a really big part of it. When you’re a model, you are certainly expressing yourself, but in certain confines that have been decided by other people. You’re part of it, but it’s a very different thing. Obviously, music and imagery go together, but there are very different ways those things are consumed. I think music and style have always been super intertwined, and it’s different for every artist in how they want to touch on that.

I think there’s more agency in making music than being a model.

JC: Music will always be the first thing I’m doing, it’ll always be what I wanted to do. Modeling is something that I have been lucky enough to be able to do based on things that I had no control over. Like how tall I am, things like that. It’s very different than the work that you want to make, but I’ve been lucky enough to work with Saint Laurent or [photographer] Hedi Slimane, who is the closest to making music and fashion work together in a genuine and authentic way. It’s not always that way.

When we do the ‘70s, the ‘70s hard rock sound is way more in your face. When we do the ‘60s/‘80s influences, they’re a bit more hidden with a modern twist.

Saint Laurent has many musicians modeling for them, but it feels like an extension of the artist’s voice, rather than something manufactured, like what other brands have been known to do.

JC: Yeah, it’s definitely the closest thing to a collaborative relationship that I think that you can find. I’ve been beyond lucky. But a lot of my close friends who are models have had a lot of other experiences that are so overwhelmingly negative that it breaks my brain. I think the whole fashion industry has been moving in such a positive direction, also by the work that Hedi Slimane is doing by working with real artists who are a little fucked up, a little ugly, and a little weird, that don’t fit in the mold.

Fashion is starting to include all types of people, rather than a certain image. I agree with you, I don’t think it’s there yet, but I do see ripples in the industry that are shaking things up.

JC: I think the Internet is making fashion look at itself, and start to address the problems with it that have been going on for so many years.