Halloween is not a haute topic for Sunflower Bean. The difficulty of dressing up while on tour meant that the New York trio’s only costume options were “slightly space-themed,” singer-bassist Julia Cumming tells me when I ask what she, singer-guitarist Nick Kivlen, and drummer Jacob Faber opted for this year. “Jacob was an alien,” she says, “and I was sort of an alien. Nick just had white face paint on, so he called it Dead Bob Dylan.”
Cumming gets more opportunities to dress up than the rest of Sunflower Bean, and not just because that’s usually the cross to bear for frontpeople — it’s also the cornerstone of her work in the world of high fashion, most notably with photographer and designer Hedi Slimane. This has manifested both in how she regards her role as lead singer, and how she regards other women in positions of high visibility, including our apparent up-and-coming first female POTUS.
“It’s that fine line, even with how you represent yourself — oh, I’m a girl, I’m a woman, I want to wear lipstick, I want to do this, I want to be the person that I am inside,” Cumming says. “But I’m going to get all these questions from the press about what I want to wear on stage. That takes a while, to understand how to react to those things, and also try to figure out what being a woman means to you.”
We spoke with Sunflower Bean before their performance on tonight’s episode of MTV’s Wonderland to find out what being a woman — or a human, as you’ll find out — means to them.
So you’re playing the last episode of Wonderland before Election Day.
Julia Cumming: Oh Jesus Lord.
What is it you’d like people in the Wonderland audience to consider before they go and vote?
Jacob Faber: Just the future.
Cumming: We’re all standing behind Hillary.
Nick Kivlen: I’m very optimistic. I think we’re going to have two amazing presidents in a row, and I think that’s an exciting thing for U.S. history, because it’s not usually that way. Usually you’ll have 8 years of progress, then you’ll go backward. But I think we’ll have a solid, at least 12 more years of progress.
Cumming: I’ve been acquiring a lot of vintage suits — skirts and dress suits and power business suits. And I’ve been onstage a lot. I said the other day that I’m going to wear a suit onstage every day until Hillary gets elected … and that’s just a small, small thing, if I could inspire a girl to put on a business suit, a sassy little business suit, and fuck some shit up.
What advice would you give to any kids who see you on Wonderland tonight and decide they want to start a band?
Cumming: Start it. Especially with rock and roll, there’s no better time than today. You don’t have to be the best right away, you just have to start. And it’s always easier when you have friends and people who feel the same way that you do. So find some friends, pick up that instrument, and give it a try, because you don’t get that many chances in this world. If you feel like you’ve got it, go out there and shake it. One day you won’t be around to shake it anymore.
Earlier this year you put out a great album called Human Ceremony. And whether we’re talking about fashion, or making rock and roll, or running for president, those are all things that kind of fall under that header of the human ceremony.
Faber: It just is, you know? It’s a product of existing as a human. I think it’s a little bit ambiguous, in a way.
Cumming: There’s a few ways you can look at it. It’s like if an alien had a textbook ...
Kivlen: … simplifying all our cultural norms and all of our societally constructed stuff like that.
Cumming: Like the ceremonies that you have to be a part of as a human, holidays that are religious when you’re not religious.
Things like birthday parties, or the rules for crossing the street.
Kivlen: The time period you’re born in and the things you take for granted as being true.
Do you find that people still assume rock and rollers and young people aren’t as aware or informed politically?
Cumming: Since Sunflower Bean is each of us, it’s not one of us, everything we do we have to all completely stand behind. We’ve definitely been outspoken about this election in the places where it counts. Every day is a new disaster, and you have to figure out the right way to handle that — because we are public. I think there is a responsibility to do the right things, and try to talk to people who like our music about what’s really important.
How has it felt to play the songs from Human Ceremony live?
Cumming: It’s good. We’ve been known as a live band for a long time, so making the record was kind of proof that we could. But there’s a lot of space that we leave in the set for improvisation or jamming, and since we’re all super close to each other as friends and also as musicians, we try to anticipate each other’s movements. I think by the end of this year we’ll have done about 200 shows, maybe a tiny bit less. That’s a lot of shows, so you have to have a way to keep it fun. It’s been really good. I think we’re really happy with how it’s been going.
There aren’t really rules for how a band is supposed to do things anymore.
Cumming: I think in the age now where every computer has GarageBand, and it is the age of home recording, it’s just so different. There used to be, like, Fleetwood Mac — you’d have to be in the studio all the time. And now there’s a lot of options, to kind of give an artist a different kind of freedom. We’re still learning a lot about ourselves in the studios. We grow a lot.
You guys are often dog-eared as a psychedelic band, but if you had to describe Sunflower Bean to the aliens the human ceremony textbook was intended for, well … how would you describe your band to aliens?
Kivlen: I don’t know.
Cumming: We always get the question, “Describe your sound in three words.”
That’s a bad one.
Cumming: The worst question, and Nick and I have been answering it as “guitar-bass-drums.” But I think that if we were talking to aliens that we didn’t exactly know how to communicate with yet, that would hopefully be the easiest way to let them know what we were up to at Sunflower Bean’s deepest core, especially when you’re seeing us live.
Kivlen: We’re a power trio.
Cumming: We’re a power trio. That’s what you're seeing. You’re seeing guitar-bass-drums, there’s no tracks.
Kivlen: We’re humans.
Cumming: We’re humans.
Human power trio. There’s your three words.
Faber: Oh my god, that’s it.