“Rock is a weird sort of music,” says Nick Kivlen, guitarist and vocalist for Brooklyn three-piece Sunflower Bean. “You don’t make your best work when you’re 60. All other art forms, – classical music, great painters, especially directors – usually make their best work well into their careers. But there’s just something primal and youthful with rock music. People can be 50 and cut a great record, but I think there’s a sweet spot where you’re the right age, and you’re young yet mature enough to make your best work. I think we get at least two more tries! I don’t know how I’ll look at this album in five years.”
Kivlen doesn’t have a whole lot to worry about. He and his bandmates (Jacob Farber on drums and Julia Cumming on bass and vocals) are all hardly out of high school, and they’re already near the height of the powers an indie rock band can achieve in this day and age. They’ve taken their native Brooklyn by storm, toured with DIIV and No Joy, been written up in Rolling Stone and now can say they followed up last year’s Show Me Your Seven Secrets EP with an equally impressive debut LP, Human Ceremony.
“The EP we put out last year is long,” Kivlen says. “So it almost feels like our first album, but [Human Ceremony] is definitely the culmination of the last two years.”
The new album is one that’s as comfortable with classic rock influence as it is with the kosmische music of Germany that’s inspired everyone from David Bowie to Zach Cole Smith. Talking to Kivlen – as confident as he is in rock and youth’s interwoven partnership – he seems like the kind of person who’s still a bit of an old soul. Human Ceremony sounds very current, but the contemporary is very informed by the classic.
“It was really important to us to make an album that has a wide range, a depth of sound that captured all the different things we like to do,” he explains. “The heavier riffs to the sweeter pop songs are all sounds we like to work within. We were really inspired by the first Velvet Underground album and [Led Zeppelin’s] Houses of the Holy, too: records that have a lot of dark in them but also a lot of light in them.”
One of the most interesting things about the band is how their diverse palate of influences causes their listeners to hear different things in their music. To the Captured Tracks junkies of today, they’re easy to classify as edgier dream pop. To those sworn to the school of days gone by, there’s plenty of Pink Floyd and even Black Sabbath to pick out of their sound.
“We’re just as influenced by bands that came out in the last few years, like Beach House and Tame Impala and Thee Oh Sees,” Kivlen says. “I love all those bands. Older people were writing to us saying we didn’t sound a thing like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and I was like, ‘we’re not really trying to be.’”
The experimental music of ‘70s Germany also made a dent on Kivlen’s musical psyche, although it’s something he’d qualify given how broad that classification is.
“The thing with Krautrock is, it’s a term that means a lot of things,” he says. “Amon Düül and Can sound like very weird, experimental ‘70s hard rock where Neu! sounds like nothing that’s ever been done before. I think Neu! is the Krautrock band that influenced our sound the most. When I was in high school, one of my close friends was super into Tago Mago. I never was really that big a fan of Can until after taking a few months to listen to them. With Neu!, it was pretty much an instant thing. The second I heard “Hallogallo,” I identified with it and knew it was something I’d want to draw influence from. The drumming and the repetition of the basslines are pretty big parts of Sunflower Bean’s sound.”
Ultimately though, what Kivlen and his bandmates hoped for the most was to make music that’d stand out from the pack. All these swathes of influence aren’t meant to inspire callbacks to other bands so much as a unique take on the sounds of then and now.
“Our band was kind of a reaction to the music scene in Brooklyn around 2012,” he says. “I was really sick of all the post-rock and noise rock, this shoegazey grunge, that was really popular in Brooklyn at the time. I wanted to start a band that was more comfortable with a classic rock sound. Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, bands like that.”
The lushness of the band’s sound also taps into the rock tradition of inculcated propulsive riffs with lyrics about spirituality. Kivlen laughs about how he was the first among his friends who stopped believing in God, but he’s made something of a journey home in terms of at least appreciating the ancient spell religion and spirituality still casts over the world. It’s something he really thinks came through on the record.
“It’s hard to grapple with that kind of thing in this synthetic 2016 world we live in,” he muses. “The album talks about technology, medicine and all those things as much as it talks about spirituality and religion. I just love how ancient religion is, and I like juxtaposing it with the future and modern times. I love old sci-fi books, dystopian novels and just thinking about the end of the world.”
It’s a style of writing championed by bluesmen up through the shoegazey spirituals of Jason Pierce. The latter actually directly inspired Kivlen in his own approach to writing.
“People were asking [Jason Pierce] about his use of religious figures in his music, and he said, ‘When you ask God to send you an angel, you’re not asking about fixing your fucking car,” Kivlen relates. “Just like how it’s so ancient and so much a part of who we are as humans. I like using the language to surpass religious meaning and really get to the root of what people are saying when they ask for help from the universe. All those old songs from Bob Dylan to the Byrds to the Stones have religious icons in them.”
Still, making music of lasting spiritual import doesn’t necessarily translate to a band being successful. Luckily, Sunflower Bean’s innovation is directly translating into publicity and what could end up being staying power. Their current degree of success isn’t something that goes unnoticed by the band either.
“There’s a niche culture of people who pay attention,” he says. “It’s really, really exciting, and I’m really, really grateful to be at the point we are without having an album out. It’s kind of a leg up since we’ve already done two European tours and two American tours before it was released.”
Sunflower Bean doesn’t really seem like something that’s going to be slowing down soon. It’s probably part and parcel with Kivlen and company’s desire to make their best work now. For fans of Human Ceremony, the wait for its follow-up doesn’t seem like it’ll be one plagued by much delay.
“We’re already working on the second album quite a bit!” he says. “I usually write a ton of material, take it to the band and then we flush it out in the practice space into actual full songs. We’re gonna have one song on this next tour that isn’t on the album and we haven’t played before that we’re all super excited about. I think it’s the best song we’ve ever written. So you can tell we’re already excited about the second record!”
SB is band of youths who are looking to the past, present and future for inspiration. At the end of the day, isn’t that what the best rock music has always been about?