Nine Songs: Sunflower Bean
As revitalizing and fresh as their name suggests, the pivotal songs in the lives of the Brooklyn trio perfectly summarise their sound and influences, all of which can be heard throughout their latest record Twentytwo In Blue.
Between the three of them their chosen songs encapsulate their different roles within the band. Drummer Jacob Faber has opted for innovative songs that push the boundaries of music in different ways, something that he feels is most certainly the way forward for their beloved genre of rock. “You’ve got to really dig deep into the sounds and excavate something new, I really do believe there’s still a lot to be done and I don’t believe that rock is dead by far.”
Whilst guitarist and singer Nick Kilven’s selections are based on the idea of what’s influenced him sonically over the years, he also excitedly reflects upon the realisation of what these songs actually delivered to him, “Yeah, look where I am now, Ten to twelve years later!” Singer and bassist Julia Cumming’s choices hold a depth-filled emotive weight about the passing of time, a trait well honoured amongst all songwriters. “I don’t know if it’s about growing up but that’s one thing I like about getting older or being 22, I feel a lot wiser than I was a couple of years ago, or even a year ago. It’s not that I’m any less existential, it’s just that I have a different way of dealing with it.”
This amalgamation of approaches is what gives Sunflower Bean and the songs they write an unmistakable power. Twentytwo In Blue is a perfectly timed record, a record that feels like a call to the past and brings the past steaming straight up to date.
Jacob: “The story I have with ‘Ffunny Friends’ is from when me and Nick first started playing together in what would become Sunflower Bean, when we were living in Long Island and playing in a band called Turnip King. We were teenagers and we’d go into Brooklyn up to five times a week to play shows and our friend Christian in Long Island was starting to set up a little recording studio in his basement.
“When me and Nick started doing our own thing together we would mess around down there and I remember specifically the drive from wherever my house was to his wasn’t actually that far, but you had to go around a harbour. On this drive I have this specific memory of us listening to that first Unknown Mortal Orchestra record and it really opened my mind to what modern rock music could be. I just remember loving the production and loving how it sounded, the pop and hip hop beats aspect of it, everything about it had a big impression on me. It was an early inspiration for going into the studio and just messing around with stuff.
“Unknown Mortal Orchestra are one of my favourite bands in the world and I think it’s because they’ve somehow figured out how to make guitar-based music sound almost like it’s come from another planet, but still sounds familiar in ways, because you can still hear the guitar and drums. It sounds almost otherworldly, like an alien heard rock music and then beamed it down to earth.”
Jacob: “Live At Leeds is one of my favourite records, but honestly, The Who are funny for me. They were one of my favourite bands as a kid because my Dad loved them and he turned me on to them, but the only three Who records that I’ve ever listened to are their Greatest Hits, which has a lot of their hits but also a lot of weird ones like ‘5:15’ and Live At Leeds and Tommy.
“It always hit me in such a heavy way that they were a power trio plus Roger Daltrey, but at the core of it it’s a power trio. It’s just this pummeling energy throughout the whole thing and ‘A Quick One…’ especially. I was talking about this the other day, that when you listen to certain songs as a kid it doesn’t even matter if you don’t really understand the lyrical content, it’s the overall feeling that a song will give you and that’s what happened with ‘A Quick One…’ Later as an adult, I’m like ‘Oh man, that’s some serious subject matter they’re talking about’ but as a kid I just liked the opening a cappella harmony stuff and how it moves through so many different moods and emotions throughout the whole thing. It feels like this journey.
“It’s inspiring to us, because we like to have some differences from the record to the live show and this record really holds a big place in my heart as an example of a band just ripping it - being beautiful and tender and having precious moments - but still being heavy.”
Jacob: “This song holds a big place in my heart because Pleasure is also one of my favourite records of all time. I think it goes in that line of feeling like it was beamed down from outer space and it’s an interpretation of the rock-pop canon of music, it’s so emotive. It’s weird but it’s another one - and this is a theme with me - but when I initially listen to music, the lyrics aren’t the first thing that come to me.
“My friend turned me on to this when we were on a high school trip in Spain. The music department in the school went on a trip to Spain and the choir and the band performed in these old churches. It was this really amazing trip where we got to do some hiking and stuff and I remember my friend shoving his headphones on my head and saying ‘Listen to this.’ It was another moment that kind of blew my mind and I was hooked on it.
“The lyrics to ‘Dream Over’ are really hard to understand on first listen but you can feel that they’re heavy, they’re super emotive and they’re sad at times, like gut-wrenching. But because they’re so buried it goes along with that sometimes as a teenager you can have this fog feeling around you, where you can’t figure out some of your emotions. I think that record felt like something I could sink in to and just let my brain and heart breathe for a second. This record always felt like a warm pool to jump in to.
“And then later on, I swear to God, after two years of listening to it every single night before I would fall asleep, the lyrics became more apparent. I looked at them and I was like ‘These are even more gut-wrenching than I could’ve imagined!’ It’s such an emo record and I don’t really like emo music, so it’s a weird anomaly, but it’s been such a good friend to me over the years. I think my favourite records are ones that if you listen to them you can feel better when you come out on the other side, it’s almost like a therapeutic thing.”
Nick: “The songs I’ve picked really impacted on me sonically more than anything else and The Ramones were my first love. I remember I went to a garage sale with my parents when I was around seven or eight years old and they got me a stack of CD’s, which were all classic rock. The one that stood out to me the most was the Ramones one, just solely based on the cover, it was a yellow collage with lots of different Ramones memorabilia and on the back cover it said ’Punk Rock’ and I had no idea what that meant!
“I remember being really drawn to it and asking my parents for it. It pretty much only took listening to that one song ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, which was the first song on the record, and I became completely obsessed with the album for the next year. Just hearing that one song really turned me on to rock music for my entire life.
“It’s perfect music for young people, especially pre-teens I think. It’s super poppy, raw and stripped down, aggressive, loud and energetic but without being too gritty or too scary. Even though the subject matter of a lot of the lyrics on Ramones songs can be awful and scary, sort of debaucherous and even fucked up beyond imagination, they also have this really, really juvenile sense of humour that I think really relates to people who are eight to twelve. And the recording itself is loud, fast and stripped down, it sounded like nothing I’d been exposed to before.”
Nick: “You can say what you want about Wavves - and I haven’t really followed them recently - but when I first heard ‘So Bored’ I was in tenth grade, so I think I was about fifteen or sixteen years old, and it was another one that hit me sonically. The first time I heard it I didn’t think it even sounded like music, it sounded like this weird distortion with this really alien Beach Boys’ singing from fifty miles away. It was another thing where it was a guy in his bedroom home recording it and that was a big revelation, that you could make an entire album on your laptop and have it be really super amazing and super poppy, but also completely bizarro, weird, innovative and loud.
“In a lot of ways it was really mysterious because who is this guy? What is this record? How did he get the guitar to sound like that? Why does his voice sound like that? What are all these things? It was this digital garage band experiment and the hooks and the pop sensibilities were so strong it just grabbed you. King of the Beach was a great album too, because it brushed away all the stuff that was clouding the first two albums and it was such a big record when I was fifteen or sixteen. That was the indie record of the year and I loved it, I thought it was amazing.
“It’s hard to be in a rock band and not be a little bit entrenched in the past. So with all these songs I feel they really got outside of the box of what it meant to be a band with guitar, bass and drums and do something new with it sonically. That Wavves recording really expanded my understanding of what pop music could sound like and it showed me that I could make an album on my laptop too.”
Nick: “This is another song that reiterates that experience of the first time you hear a song, you’re like ‘Wow, what the hell is this? What is that instrument? How did they get those sounds?’ I was a freshman in college when I really got into Remain in Light and I think it was the last time that I heard music and got completely knocked out by it.
“It’s fascinating to hear David Byrne talk about all the different things that go into a record in his book How Music Works, where he and Brian Eno were basically making loops. The way they’d orchestrate tracks was that they’d turn up the faders and turn down other things, so even though the groove and the beat would stay the same, the way the music would shift from the chorus to the verse would be through the instrumentation.
"That was super inspiring because it had that Kraut-rock continuous thing and that was something that really resonated with us when we first started writing songs as Sunflower Bean. There’s also the glitchy electronics and sampling, that little keyboard solo at the end that starts off as a guitar, then it transforms into a keyboard sound and then it has a super rigid kill-switch cutting the signal in and out, it’s just crazy. It’s a great, great album and when I first heard ‘Born Under Punches‘ it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before or after.
“It’s funny, but I don’t particularly care for the Talking Heads popular songs and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Where I usually look at a band that’s massively influential and their most popular songs I’m like, ‘Yeah, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is probably the best Nirvana song’, which is really funny because I spent so much time with their entire discography. I’m such a hardcore fan but I can still see why their biggest hit is their biggest hit. But with the Talking Heads I don’t really get why people like ‘This Must Be The Place’ so much when they have so many better tracks.
“David Byrne has always been an artist that did exactly what he wanted to do and he always wanted to do something new, which I think is super important. He was ambitious and the Talking Heads followed suit in terms of what his creative impulses were, going from a stripped down acoustic - he was originally playing an acoustic twelve-string and it was just him, Tina and Chris and then the ex-guitarist from Modern Lovers joined - to become a four-piece for their second album. By the time they were doing Fear Of Music they were a full band, with Eno producing them and an entire big rhythm section, with horn players and synth players. They’re a really incredible band.”
Julia: “Elliot Smith was one of the first musicians that I really nerded out on by myself. I remember going to Barnes and Noble and getting all the books, any book that anyone had written about him. I feel that’s a big step in a young music nerds life, when it goes to your own obsession rather than the obsession of the other people around you. I used to make my Mum and I listen to this song on repeat when we were eating dinner, which I was thinking about recently, and I was like ‘What an awful kid I must’ve been?!’ It’s so depressing to make us listen to this song.
“I could’ve picked so many different Elliot Smith songs but this is a fun one to mention because it’s the accumulation of so much of his pop, it’s really upbeat and even for a kid that really gets you. Elliot Smith is as close to The Beatles as you can get - just mixed with emo - and that’s what makes it hard for me to listen to it now and what places it in time for me. I loved it so much as a kid and as an early teenager that when I listen to it now I don’t feel the same way because I’m not in the same headspace. I have a different way of reckoning with what reality is and a different way of finding meaning, so when I hear Elliot’s songs sometimes they’re so much that it’s just not how I feel right now and that’s OK. I felt that way once and I still honour that part of myself, but I’m in a different place now.
“On Twentytwo In Blue songs like ‘Twentytwo’ and ‘Only A Moment’ are approaching a certain kind of sadness. There’s a kind of bitterness with a different attitude, which I think is based much more around resilience, standing through something and making it through something rather than being consumed by it, which is how I feel right now. Who knows how that will change, but that was what I needed to do, that was what I needed to hear and that was what I needed to write.”
Julia: “I thought it might be fun to mention a little Fleetwood Mac as we’re getting that reference a lot on this record, which I don’t always agree with in certain senses, but I will say that we took a lot of inspiration from Tusk - which this song is on. This was the first song I ever heard from Tusk, I used to listen to ‘Walk A Thin Line’ obsessively and I listened to it obsessively when we were writing this record because I was really obsessed with the double drums.
"On this track there are two drums, it’s obviously Mick Fleetwood playing but the kits are almost doing completely the same thing, it’s like he did two takes and they’re sitting on top of each other. They’re not matching each other so you have all these beautiful moments that don’t match up, they’re kind of reverberating and me and Jacob worked on that a lot. I was really obsessed with that idea and I kept trying to get him to do all these double drums. We tried some of that before but I really wanted to see how we could do it and I think we took some inspiration from that, probably on ‘Puppet Strings.’
"It’s a song that I used to listen to obsessively, definitely during hard times and it’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful song. That’s the thing about songs right? You can try to talk about them and you can try to put them into words but it’s impossible to do, which I think is why we write songs. Sometimes I think that trying to talk about the magic of a certain song is like trying to fit a circle in a square, because the song is such a magical mix of a poem that’s not suitable to just be poetry on paper. Music might be a little bare without the words, but you can put them together and you have this little masterpiece that takes place in a moment.
“For people that write songs, that’s how they communicate with the world. So ‘Walk A Thin Line’ is a song that I would just say ‘put it on and let it wash over you’, rather than try to discuss what makes it beautiful.”
Julia: “Oh man! Plastic Ono Band is one of my favourite records of all time. I remember when I was a freshman in my first year of high school and I was 14 and I got a cassette player Walkman. I was getting all these tapes and I used to listen to the Plastic Ono Band at lunch at school. It was a new school and I didn’t really have many friends yet, so I was kind of leaning on this tape to be there for me and my first band was breaking up. It was a band I’d started when I was 13 and we tried really hard on and off, but starting from freshmen year and a little bit onward I really leaned on this record to get me through the breakup and entering a new phase of my life.
“For anyone who suffers from deep sadness in any sense, I think with ‘Isolation’ - that’s literally the title! ‘Isolation’ - there’s no other way to put how you feel when your band is breaking up, or you’re by yourself at lunch, and I love that record so much because it’s John Lennon, obviously one of the greatest artists we’ve ever known, being so raw on that record. With ‘Mother’ he’d been doing that scream-therapy and you have this really raw artwork and sometimes that’s what you need. You need that when there’s really nothing else that would satisfy that, like food, or there’s no book, there’s nothing beside this song that can fill that space for you.
“I’m not even sure how I got to that record. It might’ve been a couple of tracks that were waiting around and then I was ‘I guess I’ll give the whole record a listen’ and then I heard ‘Isolation’. I can’t remember who the bass player is on that record, but it has some of my favourite bass playing of all time. It really showed what I feel it is to be a bass player; which is that often you have to pull back. It’s about doing what’s right for the song and what’s right for the mood. Sometimes it’s about being imperfect, but it’s about understanding your setting rather than showing off. That record has some of the most beautiful and pointed bass playing I’ve ever heard.”
Twentytwo In Blue is out now via Lucky Number.