WHEN WE STAY QUIET WE ARE ALSO MORE POWERLESS – AN INTERVIEW WITH SUNFLOWER BEAN

by Rowan Gavin

Sunflower Bean are a band who know what they’re about. Sitting down with the trio of 22 year old New Yorkers ahead of their show at Norwich Open on March 26th, it becomes immediately apparent how certain they are of their musical and political convictions. Drummer Jacob Faber, guitarist Nick Kivlen, and bassist & vocalist Julia Cumming made quite a splash with 2016’s debut Human Ceremony and its fresh-yet-eerily-familiar blend of indie, punk, psych and alternative sounds.

Having previously visited the Fine City when they supported London alt-rockers Wolf Alice, they returned to headline here for the first time at Open off the back of their entrancing second album Twentytwo In Blue, which was already making waves when I spoke to them three days after its release.

“This color blue kept coming to us as not only a melancholy color but kind of a hopeful color […] a bit of uncertainty and anxiety mixed with resilience” – Cumming’s account of how the title came about could just as well be an abstract for the context, purpose and content of the album. Though it explicitly addresses politics “only once”, as Kivlen points out, this is unquestionably a record born of a distinct political moment.

 Getting to see and meet people all over the country at that time of tumult “made it all extremely real”

They began writing the album just after touring its predecessor around the US in late 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign. Getting to see and meet people all over the country at that time of tumult “made it all extremely real”, Faber remembers. And after, as young people in the States “naturally living life”, Cumming muses, “it’s like the political system is weaving its way into everything you’re thinking about, it’s wearing you down, it’s hurting you”. But rather than an explicit rant or call-to-arms, they ended up producing “a very natural reflection of what it’s like to be a person reacting to that. And that in its own way can be a protest record.”

That single explicitly political moment that Kivlen highlighted is ‘Crisis Fest’. Its near-anthemic, driving guitar would sound right at place at a protest march or a picket line, as would its core lyric “We brought you into this place, you know we can take you out”. On stage Cumming encourages the crowd to put their fists in the air to chant “No no no!” between lines in the chorus. It’s an open challenge to politicians who would ignore the power of their electorate, although as Kivlen identifies, it remains “less a song about directly reacting to the republicans and Donald Trump and more about the anxieties of people our age”.

In a time of crisis, those people are expressing those anxieties loud and clear, perhaps most significantly in the US student movement for gun control, which drew hundreds of thousands to the streets in Washington D.C. and elsewhere for last Saturday’s ‘March for our Lives’ and its 800+ sibling protests. The band are clearly disappointed that they could only support the protest from afar due to the timing of their tour – there is a weight to Faber’s voice when he simply says “I wish we could have been there”. Having all been involved in the movement, they see it as a momentous event. “To have so many people show up against [gun violence] and against the NRA, which is so powerful, is really important”, Cumming says.

“To have so many people show up against [gun violence] and against the NRA, which is so powerful, is really important”

The teenagers and young people in whom that movement consists are a major part of Sunflower Bean’s fanbase, and they try to interact with them as much as they can. “They ask us a lot of questions, anything from ‘How do I start a band?’ to ‘What should I study at college?’” – it seems like a considerable responsibility to be an inspiring young band at a time when so many young people see no place for themselves in the oppressive orthodoxy of the West. But Cumming is glad they’re doing what they can with this opportunity to “help people in that age group find a way to make a relationship with the news and the world around them – and to help us do it, we’re all in the same boat”.

This belief in the value of conversation is also evident in another project of Cumming’s – Anger Can Be Power, “an experimental activism collective” she founded in New York last October. As with Twentytwo In Blue, the aim here is “making activism a natural part of your life” – in this case by “bringing in self-education to a Tuesday or Thursday night. Instead of just shooting the shit or watching a movie, it’s a way to integrate activism or political engagement into your normal life.” Named for a lyric from The Clash’s seminal anti-establishment smasher ‘Clampdown’, the collective runs sessions which mix “having people be able to meet each other and make friends in a politically focused setting” and “a conversation with a speaker”. Cumming’s motivation for facilitating these conversations is simple but striking: “I believe that when we stay quiet we are also more powerless”. Anger Can Be Power have run three sessions so far to positive reception, with a fourth on the theme of ‘Youth’ coming up in late April.

Returning to music, I ask the band if there are any current bands that they’re really excited about right now, either musically or politically. Their first response is surprisingly pessimistic – “If you have any, let us know”, Cumming requests, straight-faced. The others laugh, but “I’m serious, it’s really hard to find music that’s good – it’s hard to be good, that’s probably why”. Kivlen chimes in: “I can only listen to music that’s like really important to me, I can’t listen to things that I’m only half-heartedly enjoying. It’s pretty selective.”

All that said, with a little prodding they divulge a lengthy list of artists that they love, from well-known acts like Parquet Courts, MGMT, Cate Le Bon, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, King Krule and their aforementioned touring partners Wolf Alice, to some more underground gems like Philly rockers Sheer Mag, Californian bedroom producer Jay Som, Austin’s lo-fi noise pop trio Pure X and Dream Wife, the Brighton punks taking the alternative scene by storm since their debut album released in January. And then of course there’s their one-time label mates, the infamous South London psych punks Fat White Family, with whom Kivlen admits they were “obsessed”. “I would’ve laid down in the road for Fat White Family”, Cumming recalls.

“Instead of just shooting the shit or watching a movie, it’s a way to integrate activism or political engagement into your normal life.”

Have any of the trio’s musical influences, past or present, had a particular impact on their political perspectives? “100%, from the very beginning”, Kivlen immediately replies, citing growing up in the heyday of Green Day’s American Idiot and Rage Against The Machine, as well as the oft-ignored radicality of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. For Cumming, the influence of music is more nuanced than the cause-effect relationship my question reduced it to: “the art that I’ve loved hasn’t always had a political touch necessarily – it’s more about the things that make you feel excited or empowered.”

Their electrifying set confirmed Sunflower Bean’s passion for creating just that – music that is exciting and empowering in a style unique to the political and artistic moment they are immersed in. Throughout our conversation I couldn’t help but be gripped by their conviction, their candour, and their commitment to building a radical understanding of their world. Have no doubt: this is a band worth staying aware of.

 For upcoming tour dates in UK, Europe and the United States, click here.

Featured image via Sunflower Bean / Facebook. Credit Hanna Hazel.


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