In Search of Meaning: Sunflower Seeds Provide Sugar and Substance
Photo: Driely S
If the world ends tomorrow, will your life have been fulfilling? Were useful links established and experiences relished? Or have you fallen prey to the less digestible side of a capitalist society that offers short-term solutions rather than long-term satisfaction? These questions and more are answered on “Headful 0f Sugar”, the atmospheric third album by 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 avoid easily definable labels.
The sequel to the critically acclaimed second release “Twentytwo In Blue”, “Headful of Sugar”, once again sees the trio continuing to move forward without the slightest hint of repeating themselves or succumbing to anything resembling a trend. Moving from glamour, post-punk revival and dream-pop to neo-psychedelic, swaggering riff-rock and ethereal Americana, the record’s raw, groove-based music is full of heavily painted moods, of indelible earworm hooks and a captivating mix of visceral confessions and socio-political concepts.
We caught up with Kivlen to talk about the sculpting of their latest album, its gripping thematic power and why, when creating album number three, they didn’t feel the need to enhance their songs using a grid. -bread.
It has been said that “the agony and ecstasy of contemporary American life” provided the fuel for “Headful of Sugar”. Can you expand?
I think it’s pretty universal in the UK too: always having a million things trying to entertain you and grab your attention, but never feeling focused or satisfied by anything. There are so many things being sold to you and told to you, constantly, and many of them do not contribute to true happiness. Even though we have more material comfort than ever before, people’s happiness is getting lower and lower.
Income inequality and all these different things like gentrification in New York, and the growing gap between rich and poor, creates this really confusing, hyper-normalized period where you take it for granted that government doesn’t work and that nothing in politics, at the national level, is going to change your life for the better. It’s hard to find meaning. That’s what it’s about.
The title also seems double-edged, as a sugar rush provides superficial pleasure that is great in the moment, but offers no lasting sustenance.
The disc also projects itself outside the situation in which we find ourselves. He has this thirst to live where he wants to be in the world. It’s about going to airports and flying and seeing people and finding meaning through all those relationships and personal experiences you may have when the world is open.
There is therefore a duality between the cynical enjoyment of sugar and the search 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 competitive. But there’s a huge part of it, especially Julia’s and mine, where we’re very competitive against the achievers and the hardliners. So it’s very funny to sing that line.
Without overtly addressing the subject, the mood and tone of the album captures a sense of what lockdown was like, in terms of the almost surreal, repetitive dream state we’ve all experienced. What specific production choices were used to create such an atmosphere?
It’s more stripped down. Most of the time, in terms of production, we focused on making sure that everything that happened was very explosive. So there’s not a lot of subtlety. There’s usually a very prominent bassline that’s super distorted, really blurry and thumping. And then a very solid drum pad and sitting on it is where we put all the vocal melodies and lyrics. Really center the vocals and melody as the centerpiece which sits on that very solid backbeat and lots of distortion and noise.
There’s also an incredible sense of freedom to the record, creating the feeling that you were completely freed to express yourself in whatever way best suited what you were trying to say. Where does this come from?
I think the fact that, especially in 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 healthy enough place for rock music or shows to have real meaning again? It just allowed us to say, ‘We’ll do what we want to do and if we do a reggae song, that’s what’s going to happen. The world may never hear it, so who cares?
We also had no time limit, had our home studio and lived together for some of that. So every day we would wake up and exhaust ourselves writing lyrics, doing vocals and making music. We wrote and recorded about 80 songs. This was the curve of experimentation. We weren’t experimenting much in terms of putting gear in crazy places or playing guitar through a toaster. It was more just singing for two hours on repeat until you exhausted all the ideas.
All of your releases are stylistically different from each other and the new one is no different. What, precisely, pushes you to venture on certain musical roads at a given time?
It’s completely unintentional. There’s probably 10 songs that are closer (to each other than) to what ended up on the tracklist, but we picked the songs we liked the best and we didn’t agree. not worried. There is no conscious decision making. This is what we love and what we are inspired by. We were never a gender band. I don’t really listen to genre music. If a band does 80s gothic or hardcore punk, that doesn’t interest me as much as a record that’s a little harder to place. All the bands we grew up with had a lot of influences from all walks of life and that’s what we’ve always done. We’ve never been part of any scene and that’s fine, in terms of not being pigeonholed.
It also means you’re not part of a trend, so never get pushed around by something happening on a large scale. We’ve always been on the periphery of a lot of different things, whether it’s psych-rock or post-punk. There are so many post-punk bands. The advantage is that, because everyone is interested in these post-punk bands, they all have this path to a career. With us, it always feels like we’re doing our own thing and if you’re careful, you’re careful and if you’re not, you’re not.
A number of tracks on the disc begin with eye-catching opening lines. It’s most striking on your song In Flight, which begins as a nihilistic Springsteen. How personal is this one to you?
It’s definitely personal and inspired by the time I had when I left touring in 2019. We completed 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 ton of gigs booked. I lived with my parents in this small town on Long Island and never saw anyone my age.
IIt was always either very young families or extremely old people, and I felt lonely because it was like I was the only twenty-something living within a 20-mile radius. But even though he has that line, he’s still hopeful. He yearns for it, and when I think about it, I think how really dangerous being comfortable can be – you can be comfortable but miserable. So it’s about getting out of comfort to try to find something more fulfilling.
I have to ask about Beat The Odds. How did this one come together, with particular reference to your riff and what you used to give it such an unpleasant street sound?
It’s drop D. When I started playing when I was eight or nine, I was really into metal. So I played drop D a lot. There were a few songs we wrote in drop D and drop C and that was the one that was recorded. It’s the kind of thing where I was fumbling around, I found this riff, and then we recorded it in four hours.
This song is, ultimately, about freeing each other. It’s imagining these two people who are strangers, in a way, going to a giant city and not necessarily having the cultural signifiers of where they’re going. In America the culture war is so bad because there is no real politics so people have no control over their lives and ended up blaming each other, or blaming half the country who disagrees with them politically.
The song says “don’t focus on all these cultural differences, all these issues that demonize the other half, when it’s really the 1% who controls everything”. It’s about trying to understand the pluralization in this country and that we’re really all in it.
“Headful of Sugar” premieres May 6 on Lucky Number.
Sunflower Bean Upcoming Tour Dates are the following:
Thu May 05, 2022 – WASHINGTON DC – Union Stage – DC (USA)
Fri 06 May 2022 – ASBURY PARK New Jersey – Asbury Lanes (USA)
Thu 12 May 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 24 May 2022 – GRAND RAPIDS MI – Pyramid Scheme (USA)
Wed May 25th 2022 – CLEVELAND Ohio – Grog Shop (USA)
Thu May 26, 2022 – TORONTO Ontario – Lees Palace (Canada)
Wed Jun 01 2022 – SAN DIEGO California – Music Box (USA)
Thu Jun 02 2022 – LOS ANGELES California – Fonda Theater (USA)
Sat 04 June 2022 – SAN FRANCISCO California – Independent (USA)
Tue June 07, 2022 – PORTLAND Oregon – Mississippi Studios (USA)
Wed June 08 2022 – VANCOUVER BC – Rickshaw Theater (Canada)
Thu 09 June 2022 – SEATTLE Washington – Crocodile (USA)
Sat June 11, 2022 – DENVER Colorado – Bluebird Theater (USA)
Compare and buy Sunflower Bean tickets at Stereoboard.com.
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