Sunflower Bean on “Headful of Sugar” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, June 16th, 2024  

Sunflower Bean on “Headful of Sugar”

"This record goes to a lot of places our other records didn’t."

May 06, 2022 Web Exclusive Photography by Driely S (Live Photos by Ian Weston) Bookmark and Share

Sunflower Bean have released their eagerly anticipated third album today. Entitled Headful of Sugar, it’s the follow-up to 2018’s critically acclaimed Twentytwo In Blue. Produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait, alongside Sunflower Bean’s own Olive Faber, who mixed and mastered the record, Headful of Sugar represents the trio’s most diverse collection of songs to date. Also featuring writing contributions from Shamir and Suzy Shinn, it’s an album that should provide the platform for the band to step into hangar sized venues in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, Under the Radar is sat backstage at Nottingham Rescue Rooms with the trio—vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming (she/her), guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen (he/him), and drummer Olive Faber (she/they). Later that evening they’ll play a career spanning set encompassing several tracks from the new record alongside some of their earliest compositions that transgresses numerous styles and genres.

However beforehand, the three band members informatively give us the lowdown on the new record, how the COVID-19 pandemic allowed them time to develop, and what the future holds for one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the U.S. DIY underground this past decade.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): Your third album Headful of Sugar comes out next month. It’s possibly your most diverse and eclectic mix of songs to date. Was that something you’d always intended the record to be, bearing in mind the length of time it took to make in the end?

Olive Faber: It was definitely how it happened. The time it took played a part, mainly because we were just demoing stuff together in our own space. The three of us had been writing for so long so it made sense for us to collaborate with other people at the highest level we ever have.

Julia Cumming: I think this record goes to a lot of places our other records didn’t, but in a lot of ways I also think we’ve gone back to the basics. It reminds me of our earlier stuff too in a lot of ways. When it gets heavy, especially. Aesthetically as well. Twentytwo In Blue was such a literally blue era whereas now I feel we’re back to our New York groove.

It’s interesting you say that because when I hear something like “In Flight” off the new album it does remind me of “2013” off your first LP, certainly in terms of the sonics and ambience.

Julia Cumming: Definitely. A lot of the record was made in New York state which Olive engineered, then we went to a few other little studios when we were able to. So, there were a lot of very special, analog moments that made it onto the record over time which do remind me of our earlier work as well.

It’s the first time Olive has been involved in the engineering, mastering, and production side. How did that come about and is it something you see yourself doing more of in the future?

Olive Faber: Yeah, for sure. It’s funny because I’ve always been someone that’s fucked around on Garage Band since I was a little kid. Then at the beginning of 2019 I started putting a lot of time into it, so when we started writing for this record, we made a decision to do this ourselves. At least at this level, demoing and getting some of the production ideas down earlier rather than just writing a whole set of songs then going into a studio to record them. It was great, and I really want to do more.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic get in the way, or did it give you more time to harness those skills?

Olive Faber: I think it gave us the time, 100%. It’s funny because we’d planned to start writing with people from L.A., which we’ve done before, but it gave us a lot more belief in ourselves at a core level and allowed us to use our instruments and our voices as our voices in an extremely coherent way.

Were the 11 songs that made it onto Headful of Sugar always going to be those songs, or did the tracklisting change over time? Were there any other songs written and recorded around the same time that didn’t make it onto the album?

Nick Kivlen: There were a lot of songs demoed!

Julia Cumming: Basically, we woke up every day for about two years and thought let’s write a song. We just wrote a lot of stuff then demoed it, mainly to see what happens when we get in a room with our producer Jacob [Portrait]. I’d almost call him our coach in the way of staying in the thick of trying to be a songwriter where it can be very confusing and daunting. Especially with a project such as an album. You just want it to be done so we can get it out there, but because of the circumstances it was really hard to find the time when we were supposed to stop. So, we’d get out there every day and keep going which gave us a big body of work. But I think the songs that became Headful of Sugar are the ones that told the most interesting stories together. Also, the ethos of those songs do relate to each other sonically in that the vocals are very prominent, while the rhythm and the bass are very distorted. A lot have a spirit in common that aligns them.

Many of the songs transgress more than one specific genre, for instance “Baby Don’t Cry.” Which could easily be a Ronettes number from the 1960s funneled through The Jesus & Mary Chain’s barbed wire noise circa 1985. Were either of those influential to that track?

Olive Faber: Unintentionally, I guess. We didn’t really realize until it was done that all the back-up vocals and harmonies were quite similar. We never intended to do that, but then it happened. I still want to make a song that’s even more like a Ronettes song.

Nick Kivlen: I got really obsessed with “Be My Baby” around that time so I did think about that when we made “Baby Don’t Cry.”

Julia Cumming: I think even the phrase “Baby Don’t Cry” is so simple and tangible that it feels quite connected to musical history. It was a good phrase to roll that song on, because that song really is about the music and experiences that make you who you really are, and have real value in your life. I feel it’s one of the songs on the new record that’s meant to be very grounding.

All of the singles that have come out so far (“Baby Don’t Cry,” “Roll the Dice,” “Who Put You Up to This?”) show very different sides to the band and the album itself. Was that a deliberate way of introducing Headful of Sugar to people by saying it will take them on a lot of different journeys?

Julia Cumming: I think so. I mean, it would do that anyway. Just with what it is. You don’t want to be misleading, so I think we’ve used the singles to tell a story as well. “Who Put You Up to This?” opens the record. It has that slow intro and was also the first song written for this record so I felt that made sense as a natural way to crack open ideas about what this album was going to be. Show my voice differently and show rhythms we were interested in differently. Whereas “Roll the Dice” is a very abrasive track that has an unplaceable sound which is really interesting, so I feel we’ve made some subversive choices with the singles and it’s been cool watching people in the crowd react to them on this tour. Because “Roll the Dice” we can really dig into.

Nick Kivlen: When we play them live, they sound more together sonically because we’re all using the same gear. Obviously, we don’t have that much stuff with us so it’s just the same instruments playing the songs, which makes them more cohesive in a way than on the record where we have complete creative freedom to do whatever we want. That’s another influence of the pandemic which is just how much time we had to write so many songs. Instead of going with the cohesive or whatever sounded alike, we went more with what was getting us excited. So, when it came to selecting the songs from this giant body of work, we went with the ones that got us the most excited. It was the same with our producer Jacob, too. I think we’ve made the classic Sunflower Bean album in a way that it’s just a very different bunch of songs all together, and it’s completely unintentional. If we really wanted to push ourselves, we’d make something that was more cohesive, and I hope that’s what we end up doing in the future because it will be interesting trying to do that instead.

Do you think one of the reasons people keep coming back to Sunflower Bean’s music is for exactly that reason: That your music goes way beyond any specific genre and is almost impossible to pigeonhole?

Nick Kivlen: I think we’re a little bit like The Smashing Pumpkins where there’s so many different traditions rather than plug into one specific thing that can only be classified as alternative rock or whatever. With us, there’s bits of punk, bits of shoegaze, bits of metal, bits of dreampop, indie rock and all that stuff. We’ve never been part of a trend or had a scene that we were involved with. So, we’ve never been pigeonholed to one specific period or trend that was happening for a year or something.

With such a large body of work to choose from, how do you go about putting together a setlist for the live shows? Will all 11 songs off the new record make an appearance in the live set over the coming months?

Julia Cumming: A bunch of the new songs are in the live set right now. Initially when this tour was booked, we hoped the album would already be out. So, I think we have to take what we’ve learned from this time and realize that tomorrow isn’t promised. No tour is promised. Suddenly there could be a big disaster tonight and the show might not go on. We didn’t want to wait any longer to get this record out, so there is a lot of stuff that we’re not playing but we will do once the album comes out. We’re just trying to be true to ourselves in the moment with what we want to play. Also, what the fans want to hear from our discography. But then I also think our fans know they’re in for a lot of surprises at the shows as well. We came out of a DIY scene where having a powerful live show is so important. We’re very eager to preview the new songs and see how people feel about them.

What kind of reaction have the new songs been getting so far on this tour?

Julia Cumming: It’s been really good. We try to make sure our sets last no more than an hour, even for our own attention spans as much as everyone else’s. When you’ve seen a lot of music all night you don’t need a big navel gazing headline set as well. So, we always try to keep it to an hour, maybe an hour and five minutes, but no more than that. I do wish there was always more stuff we could put in. I do think the shows are rocking a little more than people might be expecting.

Nick Kivlen: We’re playing most of our popular songs from the first two albums and EPs because I actually think the most popular songs from that body of work are also the best songs.

Julia Cumming: Yeah, they are.

Nick Kivlen: It also gets the crowd excited and they’re the most fun for us to play. So, we’re not just playing a bunch of B-sides. We’re playing all of the songs that people have really responded to.

Has your approach to writing and recording songs changed over time? If you had the benefit of hindsight and could change anything about your first two albums or early EPs, would you and if so, what would it be?

Olivia Faber: I wouldn’t change anything. It doesn’t really matter if we can do those things differently now because I’m really proud of what we made back then. That was the reality in those times. So, I think it’s good to find the things you really do like in those earlier bodies of work and let them keep inspiring you.

Nick Kivlen: It was really hard for me to write songs before I was 24, so when I think about the band it’s as if the songs were vehicles for us to do parts and have musical parts happening. During the pandemic we were able to grow incredibly so nothing was too precious or strangled. I used to feel when I wrote a song that I’d have to really hold on to it because I didn’t know if another one was going to come. Then we were all working on this record, and afterwards it just felt a lot easier. I had a lot more confidence that something else would happen. I was also feeling better at having the angle and the objective of saying what I wanted to say rather than really struggling with it like I did when I was younger. I think that’s just a maturity and an age thing. When you’re 21 or 22, your songs are going to sound like poetry that a twenty-year old would write. There’s a lot of youthful ambition and fun stuff that comes from being so young and absolutely enamored with the world. Then once you reach 24 your brain’s fully developed and you can start being profound in a nonchalant way.

Julia Cumming: Hopefully!

Nick Kivlen: Or expressing yourself in a way that isn’t just about your enthusiasm. Or isn’t just about writing rhymes.

Julia Cumming: In hindsight, its crazy to me that we wrote 15 songs for Twentytwo In Blue then chose 11, because we wrote so many for this record. Which is cool because now those songs exist, and it gives us a lot more freedom to figure out how we want to get them out. I think we were able to do a lot of development that we would not have been able to do without this time.

What advice would you give to a new band just starting out? What pitfalls would you tell them to avoid?

Olive Faber: Do it all yourselves. Always be true to yourself through your creativity.

Nick Kivlen: Play a ton of shows. As much time as you can spend on stage, the better. Having the right musicians around you—even if you’re a solo artist—is insanely important. You can’t just have any drummer, or any guitarist and think that will do. Also, just letting go of any anxiety around your creativity would be really important, and not being afraid to be embarrassed. Because you have to embarrass yourself a lot!

Olive Faber: Failure is not an option.

Nick Kivlen: Also, surround yourself with good people to help you.

Julia Cumming: I think it’s a bit different in the UK at the moment as there seems to be a lot of current excitement around guitar music. There’s a real vibe. You can feel it with the bands we’ve got on tour with us over here, Prima Queen and Lime Garden. There’s a lot of good stuff happening but in general, I think the climate is really, really difficult. It’s just very grim. Everything has to be done on TikTok so I guess the only thing I would say is do not lose hope.

There are a number of collaborations on the new album. How did they come about? Was it always your intention to work with Shamir and Suzy Shinn?

Julia Cumming: We like writing with people. We just like writing songs and there were a lot of people we’d met and things we’d probably have done were it not for the pandemic. Shamir is someone we’ve known and admired for a long time. They’ve always had a really interesting career and started around the same time as us. They’re always trying new stuff with their sound and always making really cool music. So, I think that’s the kind of artist we really respect. Someone who goes out there and continually tries to make interesting art. I think that’s a really great quality about Shamir. We had this song we were trying a bunch of different ways and I was just texting them about the verse on it. I was actually ready to give up on it and then Shamir came through with this really cool melody and phrasing which really helped us get that song over the finish line. So, it definitely couldn’t have been done without them. I do think there could have been more collaborations but at the same time it does make me really happy that Shamir is the only other voice on the record. Because it is very unexpected and I think it adds a really magical quality to that song. I think that song has a very interesting sentiment as well because it’s kind of forward. For me it’s a very heterosexual song, and Shamir’s latest record is called Heterosexual and it’s all about heterosexuality so the whole timing of it is very cool. I feel like we were in weird sync there so it’s cool.

You also contributed vocals on the Manic Street Preachers song “The Secret He Had Missed” off their latest album The Ultra Vivid Lament. How did that come about?

Julia Cumming: We’ve just had a really lovely relationship with them around Twentytwo In Blue because they’re big fans of the record and they’ve talked about it in the press a lot. We learned more about them as a band through the UK because they don’t have as much of a presence in the U.S. so it’s been a beautiful unravelling of their history and importance. We did Cardiff Castle with them and 10,000 tickets sold out in 10 minutes. Getting to be a part of their world for a little while was really special.

Nick Kivlen: It was like seeing Willie Nelson on his ranch. It felt like a visit to this awesome cultural bubble of significant importance to a specific part of the world.

Julia Cumming: They were recording the album, sent me the song and told me what it was about. The Welsh painters Augustus and Gwen John. I thought it was such a special story and concept that really highlights who they are as a band. Making rock music, pop music, indie music, alternative music that all intertwines so naturally and is so intellectual. Getting to be a part of that and sending the vocals back and forth was really fun. Olive engineered it. Then that record went to number one which is the first number one record I’ve been a part of. I had my ticket to sing with them at Wembley and then Omricon was announced so that was a no, but I’m still hoping it will happen again. So that was a special highlight, and I sang on the Yves Tumor record as well which came out during the pandemic. So, I’ve had a couple of cool feature moments in the past couple of years.

What are your plans for the rest of 2022?

Julia Cumming: We’re definitely going to come back to the UK after the record is out, so that people know it and we can actually celebrate with them with that experience. We do have a couple more singles. “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” is the next one, and we’re gonna keep going. We’re feeling very grateful to be back doing what we love in a country that we love so much and ready to get this record to the people. That’s the real final step. Everything we’re doing now is just leading up to people actually getting an album. So, we’re going to keep doing our thing.

Do you feel a connection with UK audiences?

Julia Cumming: Definitely. We’ve grown from the first time we came over here and seen our fans grow with us. It’s been really interesting.

Nick Kivlen: Even when our first record came out with Fat Possum, it was the British people who worked at the label meeting us in Texas.

Julia Cumming: Obviously the musical history in this country is impeccable, so I think there’s a certain understanding, ability and interest in growing with artists that I think is very priceless. We’re very lucky to have the fans that we have here.

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