Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down: Sunflower Bean
On third album ‘Headful of Sugar’, Sunflower Bean are railing against the expectations of the capitalist world and digging further into their own dynamic than ever before.
There’s a very distinct reason that Sunflower Bean’s third album is called ‘Headful of Sugar’. Having been together for nearly a decade (despite all still being in their mid-twenties), the New York trio have seen enough of the world to recognise the difference between the superficial ephemera that clogs up our day-to-day lives and the rarer spiritual nourishment that comes from acting in a way that truly makes you happy. Alas, instead of concentrating on the latter, too many of us are content to be filled up with the former, but the band would like us to reconsider.
“There are a lot of things that are trying to get your attention,” begins guitarist Nick Kivlen. “There are a lot of things being sold to you at all times. You’re constantly being subjected to the algorithm of capitalism: that’s the sugar. But this record is about human connections and the ways you can make meaning in your life through your relationships with others and things that are really important, like freedom, or your ability to determine your life.”
The sentiment runs through ‘Headful of Sugar’ like a stick of rock, although the music itself remains deliciously less defined by it. Like 2016 debut ‘Human Ceremony’ and 2018’s ‘Twentytwo In Blue’, on their third the band demonstrate an enviable ability to create fizzingly fun, sunshine pop tunes that themselves have a sweet, addictive quality to them, as attested by early singles ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ and ‘Who Put You Up to This?’.
If there’s a greater philosophical depth this time around, however, then the reason for it is a fairly universal one. Nick and singer/bassist Julia Cumming spent much of their pandemic together, while drummer Olive Faber set about building a homespun recording studio and teaching herself to be a sound engineer. The enforced pause in their usually hectic, tour-filled lives allowed them to reflect on the substance of what Covid had taken away, directing them towards their most mature and refined record to date.
The band have a knack for capturing their stages of development in time capsule form. “When I think about ‘Human Ceremony’,” Julia says, “I think alot about existentialism and spirituality. We were really grappling with late teenage-hood then.” Similarly ‘Twentytwo In Blue’, as its title suggests, documented early adulthood or in Julia’s words, “that moment when you’re worrying about how your age is going to be perceived and where you fit in, and yet you’re so bombastic and confident.” ‘Headful of Sugar’, then, can be seen as being about developing a rounded perspective of the outside world and life beyond your own experiences.
“This record is about human connections and the ways you can make meaning in your life.”
— Nick Kivlen
Stylistically, however, Sunflower Bean are not so easy to pin down. Early earworm nuggets like ‘Easier Said’ and ‘Come On’ did little to prepare listeners for the cocksure, driven rock of their 2019 EP ‘King of the Dudes’, which in turn failed to predict the glossy pop sheen of 2020 single ‘Moment in the Sun’. Their latest LP continues to keep us on our toes, with tracks like the pulverising, aggressive ‘Beat the Odds’ rubbing shoulders with the breezy, optimistic ‘Stand By Me’.
“It’s completely unintentional,” says Nick about the diversity of the band’s sound. “It just has to do with how we grew up listening to music.” They certainly do belong to a generation that divided itself less along tribal, subculture-based lines than their predecessors, but rather grew up with the everything-at-once nature of streaming services and YouTube wormholes. Where Sunflower Bean were once in danger of being pigeonholed as a nostalgic reinvention of ‘60s power pop, their growing body of work easily dismisses that accusation. “I’m the least obsessed with the past that I’ve ever been,” says Nick. “I’m a huge nerd so I was always obsessed with certain records and archaic ways of thinking about records and worshipping the boomers, but now I just feel fully out of that.”
If anything, the new adjustment in their focus brought about by the pandemic, coupled with their increasing interest in incorporating a broad range of musical styles into the mix, has led the trio to their most directly individual album so far. “It’s the most Sunflower Bean record because it’s very unfiltered,” Nick continues. “And most of the time it was just the three of us in our home studio having fun.”
“When me and Nick and Olive met, all we knew was that none of us wanted a normal life.”
— Julia Cumming
The nature of the album’s conception necessitated that ‘Headful of Sugar’ arrives as more of an in-studio concoction than their previous albums, on which the band were more eager to capture the aesthetic of their celebrated live shows. Working alongside producer Jake Portrait, and taking on more of the burden of recording and engineering themselves, the trio became more interested in the potential for recording studios to accentuate individual performances and spotlight particular instrumental parts. “For the first time, we transposed a record into a three-piece band, rather than transposing a three-piece band into a record,” notes Nick.
The whole process appears to have bound Sunflower Bean together more tightly than ever. Julia confides that she went through a period of personal problems while recording the track ‘Otherside’, with Nick and Olive rallying to help when the song hit an impasse. “In that moment, that was my bandmates and my best friends being there for me in a very literal way,” she says, choking up. “That’s a very special thing that can only happen between three people who love each other a lot and who love working together a lot.”
If any track summarises the thematic tone of ‘Headful of Sugar’, however, it’s ‘In Flight’ and its refrain of “Life is short and the cliffs are high / I don’t have to close my eyes”. Invoking a giddy, Thelma and Louise-style sense of fearless abandon, it literally flies in the face of a world that often seems determined to grind you down. Similarly, ‘Roll the Dice’ climaxes with a frenzied cry of “I just wanna win win win”. “It’s about cynicism about the American Dream and prosperity,” says Nick of the latter. “Most people don’t think they’re going to be successful, rich or even just stable unless they take big risks and get lucky.”
The sugar that’s dangled before us to distract the world from these hard realities is no longer sweet enough to satisfy Sunflower Bean, although their return to life on the road certainly is. For a trio that came of age traversing the highways and motorways that link the inner-city clubs that have been their home for the last decade, the allure of the lifestyle remains indelible.
“This is a very crazy thing to do,” says Julia. “It requires a lot of personal sacrifice, [especially] from your family, who don’t get to see you. Now everyone is talking to us like we’re these grizzled old rockers, when we’re now the age that most people are when they start their bands! But when me and Nick and Olive met, all we knew was that none of us wanted a normal life…”
‘Headful of Sugar’ is out now via Lucky Number.
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