There’s a break in the music video for Sunflower Bean’s song “Crisis Fest” where the New York City trio ask their 20-something fans what it’s like to be young in 2017. The interviewees are a cross section of the crowd at Brooklyn DIY venue Alphaville, and their answers span a broad spectrum. There’s “scary,” “confusing,” “chaotic” and “stressful,” but also, “great” and “inspiring.” Many cast glances outside the camera’s frame, looking for words.
When asked what it’s like to be her exact age, 22, right now, Sunflower Bean’s lead singer and bassist Julia Cumming has similar answers. “Exciting,” for one. She also searches for just the right words. Parked in a chair in the Manhattan offices of Mom + Pop Records, Sunflower Bean’s label, she muses, “I think 22 is a biologically strange age or a historically strange age,” unsure, for now, how to explain further. She is joined on a nearby couch by her two bandmates, singer and guitarist Nick Kivlen, dressed in a rumply suit that goes well with his messy head of dark curls, and Jacob Faber, the mustachioed drummer. Cumming is half of a glammy matched pair with Kivlen, a pale pink lamé suit setting off her platinum blonde bob.
“I don’t like to blame situations. I don’t like to blame Spotify. I don’t like to blame the radio. I think that if we make good work and write good songs, it will stand the test of time, and we will be fine. And rock will be fine, if more people adopt that kind of urgency in their work.”
Even if Cumming is having trouble summing up the moment she’s living through just now, she and her bandmates have drawn a decent sketch of it on their sophomore album Twentytwo in Blue, which is out March 23. (The title references the fact that Cumming, Kivlen and Faber have all, by now, turned 22.) “Crisis Fest,” a Thin Lizzy-ish anthem, is the album’s youthful rallying cry, touching on student debt and, in general, the anxious times we’re all living in, where “every day is a missile test.” It’s about what it’s like to be young in this political and economic climate.
By contrast, “Twentytwo,” a swooning mid-tempo soft-rock tune, is also about being young, but it’s thornier, more enigmatic, and closer to the album’s heart. “Busted and used, that’s how you view your girl / Now that’s she’s twenty two, twenty two / If I could do it I would stay young for you,” Cumming sings in the second verse. The lyrics sound world-weary and could be read as nihilistic, as being about actually wanting to stay young forever, or preferring death to getting old in time-honored rock ‘n’ roll tradition. It turns out, they’re not so simple.
Cumming and Kivlen both write lyrics, with input from Faber. These ones Cumming happened to write. “It’s more like a rejection of that,” she explains. “It’s the idea that my femininity or who I am as a woman and who I am as a person is beyond my age. It’s beyond people liking me for being pretty or my age at this moment, that I’m more than that.” She also says, “I think it resonates with people and it resonates with myself, in this way of going against beauty standards or the standards that people put on you, or that your parents put on to you.” Cumming, who has been playing in bands since middle-school and modeling from an early age as well, has had plenty of opportunities to confront and grapple with these standards.
But there’s still more to “Twenytwo,” she says. It has to do with what it’s really like to be 22: “I think it has this other side, which I’ve been trying to understand as I talk about it, which is that it’s an age or a time in which you blossom or don’t blossom. You don’t have a choice over it and it’s very brief.”
This sense of precariousness and pressure is a feeling many of Sunflower Bean’s young fans will be able to relate to, but the band members themselves needn’t worry. With Twentytwo in Blue, it’s safe to say they’re out of the bud.
Read: Paste’s Review of Sunflower Bean’s Twentytwo in Blue
In place of college, the trio have been releasing music and touring the world for the past four years, so, while Twentytwo in Blue is their sophomore album, you could also count it as a senior thesis. As such, it’s outstanding: 11 glittery tracks, with a Fleetwood Mac-like ratio of rockers to tenderly crafted ballads. The songs meditate on love and youth and changes, always with one eye on the clock. It’s a shift away from the dreamy psych rock of Human Ceremony, their 2016 debut. Psychedelia still lingers around the edges, but it’s been supplanted by an updated yet distinctly ’70s-inspired mix of power pop, new wave, and folk rock. Melodically, the songs are more developed than on previous releases and the slow songs show off more of Cumming’s vocal range. It’s the kind of album you can return to and find more in each time, which is more or less what they were going for.
“I think one of the goals for this record was to make songs that are very lovable and that can grow to be your friend and companion, because that’s how we listen to music. Our favorite songs, I think we consider our friends,” says Faber. “I Found a Reason” by the Velvet Unground is one such song for Cumming. VU is an important touchstone for the whole band, and Faber gushed over the band’s entire discography. “Some of those songs literally feel like a best friend. They’re fucked up but you can just relate so hard for some reason.”
In addition to blossoming artistically, Sunflower Bean are seeing their efforts pay off in terms of career milestones. “Were going to be traveling the world and touring for the next year pretty heavily, which we’re really looking forward to. I think we’re really going to enjoy this sort of celebration of what we’ve been working on,” reflects Kivlen.
They might have the aura of a newly minted buzz band, but it’s been a relatively steady progression for them. The band formed in 2014 and put out two EPs and an album on Fat Possum before making the move to Mom + Pop. “We work on this every day, and we have been for the past four years. People always say ‘You got popular so quick,’ but it doesn’t feel like that at all,” Faber says.
Like most millennials, they know they will have to run hard for an indefinite period of time and think carefully if they are going to survive. Their strategy? Making rock music that matters. Or maybe making rock music matter, because it’s not exactly a growth industry in 2018. When asked if the band would care if rock music disappeared from the radio or music venues, Kivlen responded, “I think right now, in the mainstream culture, it almost is at that point. There’s very little rock ‘n’ roll representation on the radio or on TV, and when there is it’s usually a very watered down version of what we would consider rock music.”
Read: Can a Great Young Band Survive the Industry in 2018?
Fortunately, they have help in their endeavor from Jacob Portrait, the bass player for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who co-produced Twentytwo in Blue with Matt Molnar, of Friends, who produced Human Ceremony. Kivlen is proud to call Portrait a mentor to the band, and Faber elaborates on his impact on the album, saying, “He has such a good ear for finding really unique and kind of odd sounds and putting them into songs, but doing it in a way that really pushes them forward, where it might otherwise have taken up space that’s already pretty crowded in the music world. So I feel he was able to nudge the songs into their own space, giving them a new purpose, which is to push the genre forward.”
It’s a mission they take seriously. If rock is becoming a cultural backwater, maybe that’s because rock musicians are too complacent. As Cumming theorizes, “If you want to be heard and you want to be responded to, you have to try harder. I feel like we try to make work that feels like it has a reason to exist.” At any rate, she’s not going to use the hegemony of poptimism as an excuse—or let it hold her back: “I don’t like to blame situations. I don’t like to blame Spotify. I don’t like to blame the radio. I think that if we make good work and write good songs, it will stand the test of time, and we will be fine. And rock will be fine, if more people adopt that kind of urgency in their work.”
Cumming does seem to have a sense of urgency about what she’s doing. “People ask me, ‘do you ever see yourself doing something else?’ I’m like, ‘I need to make six records that I believe I can do and then maybe I’ll feel differently, or then maybe I can die,” she says. Hopefully, there will be time enough for that, with plenty more growth and changes along the way.