Much of Sunflower Bean’s debut album, Human Ceremony, shakes with the kind of impulsive and restless energy you’d expect from a band barely out of their teens. But the Brooklyn-based trio’s modern take on psych rock veers into sedated territory at times, like when bassist Julia Cumming and guitarist Nick Kivlen harmonize on “Oh, I Just Don’t Know,” questioning their “place in this world” over a sea of guitars. It’s a hypnotizing moment, and one that perfectly captures what it feels like to be young and bored and insecure.
Riding high off Human Ceremony’s release earlier this month, the band itself is grappling with that same sort of uncertainty. New bands don’t get much buzzier than Sunflower Bean, and they revel in the excitement of living their “dream” and doing what they love. At the same time, Cumming says, “Now everything’s getting pretty serious. But that’s OK too. It’s just different.”
Two days after touching back down in the U.S. following a European tour, Cumming, Kivlen, and drummer Jacob Faber called in from New York to discuss Human Ceremony, Twitter, the Beatles, and more.
MTV News: You guys have quite the live reputation, as being a band who’s gigged relentlessly over the past few years. What was your very first show like?
Julia Cumming: We actually played under a fake name. We were called the Champagne Taste.
MTV News: Really, why?
Cumming: It was kind of an inside joke between all of us. We played the show at a really, really small venue in Brooklyn called Muchmore’s. And I think Nick broke his strings in one of the first songs.
Nick Kivlen: The last song.
Cumming: Yeah, the last song. And then he ran into the audience.
Kivlen: It was a good first show actually.
Cumming: It was a good first show! It was a lot of fun.
Kivlen: We had our first show under the name Sunflower Bean two weeks later at Death by Audio, opening for that band Viet Cong. That was our first real show.
MTV News: How have your shows changed since then?
Cumming: I think we’ve mostly developed who we are live in New York, since we’ve played the most here. We only started playing and touring outside of the U.S. last year, so that’s still kind of a new thing for us. What would you say, Jake?
Jake Faber: I think it’s just practice. Because with anything, the more you play, the more you figure out what works and what doesn’t. We still have the energy that we started with. And we’re always trying to grow as musicians too.
MTV News: I read that you recorded Human Ceremony super fast; in like a week. Is that true?
Cumming: That’s how long it took us to track it.
Faber: Yeah, we spent a week in the actual studio itself. But the whole process, we actually really took our time with it and spent two to three months writing, demo’ing, practicing. Just getting everything set before we went into the studio.
Cumming: Yeah, the seven days thing is kind of an urban legend. Because we tracked it in seven days, but that doesn’t count the demos beforehand.
MTV News: Seven days still isn’t a ton of time though. Did you like going in and getting it done in a week instead of leaving too much time and possibly overthinking things?
Cumming: I think that it’s good to do something on a timeframe because I think with art it’s really easy to kind of fuss around with it forever and never say it’s done. But with a time crunch, you have to say ‘OK we’re done’ at some point.
Kivlen: I think that there’s an easy kind of tendency some bands have to really… you know, when there’s creative people, nothing’s ever done. But there has to be time for you to stop and just say it’s finished.
Cumming: Yeah, I think you can worry all you want, but we just want to get better and I’m happy with the record we made, for sure.
MTV News: The first song I heard from the album was “Wall Watcher,” and I love it but it makes me weirdly anxious. It’s a good kind of anxious, but it’s definitely sort of tense and restless. Is that the mood you were aiming for?
Faber: We’re all kind of nervous wrecks.
Cumming: You know that song “Close To Me” by The Cure? And how it has all that huffing and puffing and stuff? And then in the video for it, they’re in like a wardrobe and then it falls? It’s a claustrophobic song and a claustrophobic video.
Faber: Did you watch that on the plane?
Cumming: Yeah, I did watch it on the plane. We all just watched a documentary on the plane about a bunch of Cure videos. But I think it’s true; that’s a song that always makes you feel kind of claustrophobic, and I think “Wall Watcher” is kind of like that in a different way.
MTV News: But then you have a song like “I Was Home,” which just reminds me of being a lazy teen. Or “I Just Don’t Know,” which feels kind of lonely. So there’s definitely that mix of moods.
Cumming: Yeah, we don’t want to make something that sounds the same the whole way through, but we also wanted it to be cohesive. And I think a lot of that is track listings and stuff, and trying to create art for the album that really pulls it all together.
Faber: People feel a lot of things all of the time. So I think for us, we just wanted to put a lot of moods on the album because it’s a weird thing to be a human.
MTV News: Where did the title Human Ceremony come from, besides being the name of the first song?
Cumming: We just thought that it summed up the album really well. We always describe a human ceremony as if an alien had a textbook and it has a photo of someone walking a dog. That would be a human ceremony. Just small things that are normal but are also little ceremonies too.
MTV News: Besides your own, of course, what are some of your favorite debut albums of all time?
Cumming: The Velvet Underground’s first album is perfect. Led Zep.
Kivlen: Mortal Orchestra’s first album.
Cumming: There’s so many good ones. Debut albums are fun because there’s not too much pressure in a way.
Faber: Is This It.
Cumming: Is This It by the Strokes! Most perfect debut album of all fucking time.
MTV News: You know how the Velvet Underground’s first album was limited to like 5,000 copies? I’ve heard some saying like “all of those 5,000 people ended up starting a band.” Is that the kind of impact it made on you?
Cumming: Totally. That album makes everyone want to start a band, it’s a great album.
Faber: For me, it was probably The Who’s Live at Leeds, just because it was probably the heaviest thing I’d heard when I was a kid. It just seemed so cool and raw and had energy. It just left a big impression on me.
Kivlen: For me, it was The Ramones.
Cumming: I don’t know if I could say just one album, but I have a very strong memory of being on this playground and thinking to myself, “I want to be in the Beatles. I wish I could be in the Beatles. I wish that there could be a new Beatles that I could be in.” I also remember asking my mom why all of the songs were about girls. I remember singing all the songs and being like, “Why do I have to sing about girls all the time if I want to sing the Beatles’ songs? I wish I could sing about boys.” I have a lot of strong early Beatles memories.
MTV News: What’s the hardest part of being a band in 2016?
Kivlen: It’s impossible.
Cumming: I’d say the hardest thing is that every month a new app comes out and every month you have to adapt to it. Like, I don’t want to have to learn how to use Twitter, but I don’t really have a choice! Maybe that’s just a problem for me because I don’t like Twitter. I just got a new phone because my phone was really messed up before and I had to delete Twitter all the time to save space. So I just don’t have any relationship to Twitter.
MTV News: What don’t you like about it?
Cumming: I try, I just don’t understand the format. It makes me feel scared in a way. I’m scared about what to say. Instagram’s a lot easier, with the imagery and the artistic aspect of it. That’s a little easier for me. But I don’t even mean just social media, I mean like Spotify and streaming services. I feel like… I don’t think that records are going to be for sale in the future besides vinyl. I think all those sales on records are going to go away and the only thing that’s going to be left is streaming services.
MTV News: Does that make you anxious?
Cumming: It doesn’t make me anxious because you can’t stop the future. Everything’s constantly changing. I just think the nature of the whole industry has to change. And I think we’re at one of the last moments where there’s still digital sales and streaming, because it’s like, why would you buy something online when it’s free on Spotify? You can’t really have a market where the product is free. It doesn’t make any sense. So there’s going to have to be a giant shift in order for musicians not to be fucked over, because they are right now. Because you don’t make a reasonable amount of money from streaming, and so many people use streaming that you don’t make enough sales. I think that there has to be a radical shift, and I think that’s really hard because you just feel like you’re trying and trying and trying and trying and it’s just a different climate for music, and especially rock music in general. But I think the bottom line is that if you love music and it’s what you want to do, you’re not going to stop doing it because it’s hard. You’re just going to keep trying.
MTV News: What about the most exciting part about being a band today? What do you love about it?
Faber: Everything. It’s just an exciting thing to do.
Cumming: It’s definitely worth any of the harder moments, a hundred times over. And we get to travel the world and play the music we want to make. It’s just a dream. It really is.