Interview: Sunflower Bean

Molly Hancock

With their third album ‘Headful of Sugar’ set for release on 6th May 2022, Molly Hancock caught up with the guitarist of Sunflower Bean, Nick Kivlen.

After being sent their new album ‘Headful of Sugar’ two months prior to its release, and giving it a good few listens prior to talking to Kivlen, I delved in by asking how (or if) it was influenced by lockdown, with a definitive switch from a more alternative rock sound to one with more pop undertones. Kivlen answered, “I think that we’re always just kind of changing in a way, always doing whatever we want. Lockdown gave us so much time in our home studio to really work long hours and not do anything else. There wasn’t really a deadline because no one knew what was going on in the world, so it wasn’t like we had to have a record turned in within nine months or something. We were allowed to explore, and we spent so much time singing and writing and journaling and wrote a ton of songs. So, the biggest influence was just having the time to write so much.” Interestingly, Kivlen shared they didn’t spend a lot of time together towards the start of lockdown due to New York being hit hard and early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. “We spent the first three months apart and then in late May, when things were finally feeling a little bit more safe, we all started living together. It was literally overnight. Exactly two years ago, they gave the lockdown order and all of a sudden it was very creepy.”

Sunflower Bean have been prominent political activists, even performing alongside The Strokes in a rally for Bernie Sanders in 2020

Sunflower Bean have been prominent political activists, even performing alongside The Strokes in a rally for Bernie Sanders in 2020. Following from this, I asked Kivlen what role he believes artist should play in enacting or inciting change through their larger platforms. Unsurprisingly, Kivlen said this was a question the band are frequently asked. “I’m not sure that music or people have to incite change within their platforms, but I think it’s always going to be a question of the context in what’s going on. People might not even realise that what they’re addressing or what they’re talking about is political. Our record, I don’t think it has any political words in it. There’s not a single ounce of anything academic about our record. It’s written in plain language, but the things that the record is talking about are directly impacted by the politics of what’s going on. Outside of our music, I think it’s important for us to do things and be engaged. It’s been very hard the last two years, but we all put in a lot of time and effort into the Sanders campaign because it just seemed like the biggest change that we had at having large, systematic change in our country.”

With the mention of the Sanders campaign, I thought it important to address the thing we’ve all been thinking since we saw The Strokes and Sunflower Bean were on the same bill: How was meeting Julian Casablancas? “Yeah, we did two shows in a row with Bernie, and The Strokes played after him on the second night. We’ve actually known Julian since the band started very early on. We met him because of his record label, Cult Records, and he’s always just been really supportive. One time we were sound-checking in LA, and we were walking outside the venue and he was just walking down the street and after we shouted him, he came in and watched our soundcheck, then left.” After expressing my awe at the fact that they are on a friendly basis with Julian Casablancas, Kivlen carried on, “Julian is a really interesting musician because he really loved hanging out with younger bands. He came to our secret show in August that we played at this dive bar in Brooklyn, and we were like ‘You came?!’ and he was like ‘Yeah! I wanted to come!’” In typical American fashion, Kivlen didn’t seem to understand my sarcasm when I jokingly asked whether he thinks Bernie sits around with his headphones on listening to Sunflower Bean. “No, no. Bernie’s not coming to our shows, he has much more important stuff to do – and he’s 80. I think he gets a lot of amazing young people that work with him to get bands to play for him.”

I directed the conversation back to ‘Headful of Sugar’, focusing in on the second song on the album In Flight, which, to me, had some serious Belle and Sebastian undertones. After expressing how much I enjoyed it, I asked whether this was accidental of purposeful. “That’s actually so funny you say that because In Flight is actually a second try. The day before we wrote a song called Sad Vibes Only (which was just the demo name) which has the same chord progression, with the capo on the same part of the guitar neck, but it was a lot faster and the melodies were different and that song sounds exactly like a Belle and Sebastian song. Then the next day we wrote this song with the same chords which made the one that happened yesterday not as important, but there’s definitely a Belle and Sebastian influence. Everyone in the band loves them. It’s so funny that it held over into the second draft.” In Flight also features a lot of harmonising between Julia Cummings and Kivlen’s voices, something that I’ve found isn’t so common in alternative music but definitely should be highlighted. I told Kivlen I appreciated being able to hear his singing voice more on this album. “I think when I was 24, all of a sudden, I went through a second puberty and my voice changed and it was just in time to start recording this record. I’m really happy being able to sing better – it was more of a struggle when I was younger.”

“I’ve been listening to Porridge Radio”

With his mention of Belle and Sebastian, I decided to ask Kivlen for some more music recommendations, which he admitted “is always a tough question, because I feel like people are listening to music all the time so when you’re asked, ‘What have you been listening to?’, it’s a lot harder to answer.” He then opened his Spotify to give me a rundown of his current music favourites. “There’s actually a UK band that I really like that I just discovered; I’ve been listening to Porridge Radio. A friend made me a playlist and their song 7 Seconds was on it and I thought it was an actual song from the 80s. Like a classic dance track – something that was actually from the UK 80s music scene.”

‘Headful of Sugar’ sees a shift in Sunflower Bean’s sound, with a lot more of a pop undertone than their first two albums, ‘Human Ceremony’ (2016) and ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ (2018), something which I commented on to Kivlen. “Totally. It’s sometimes jarring to listen back to old albums, but I really do appreciate and love it. It’s kind of like looking back at old photos where you might be like ‘Ugh, why was I wearing those shoes? But at least I like the way my hair looked! Or at least I look like I was having a lot of fun that day with all the people I was with!’. It’s fun to look back on such great memories. That’s kind of how listening to the old music is. There might be one thing that makes me cringe, but overall, it’s a really happy memory.”

Although Kivlen didn’t seem to have a concrete answer when I asked about his favourite song on the new album, he did divulge that he was especially fond of the first four tracks. “I feel like we didn’t try to overstate the importance of this album in a way, you know what I mean? It’s something we want people to listen to when they’re waking up, to get the day started or when they’re making coffee or cooking dinner or whatever. It’s an album that can be very lived with and you put on in the background.” Thinking that it was funny he should mention waking up to Sunflower Bean’s music, I decided to tell him an anecdote, admitting that their 2016 song Wall Watcher was my alarm for years. If you aren’t familiar, the start of that song is particularly lively and punchy – as Kivlen described it himself, it’s like being “kicked out of bed in the morning”.

“We’re actually playing Wall Watcher for the first time since 2016 this tour!” he laughed. “This is our first time playing all the new songs on this tour and it’s been so much fun. I mean, we had to like, recreate them because they were recorded in a way where they were sort of more ‘pieced together’ than we’ve ever had before. Our writing process in the past had been us playing as a band, but our writing process for this record was more just piecing things together. So maybe looping a drum part and just jamming over it on guitar, then picking up the bass and getting on the piano or doing some sampling. It was different than what we’re used to, so in order to be able to play them live, we had to really rethink them. There’s a harder rock edge to the songs when we play them live and that’s really fun.”

“I think we’re living in the moment right now and trying to not think too far ahead”

Coming to the end of my prepared questions, I was interested to know the direction that Sunflower Bean were going to take after their album, or whether they were just focused on enjoying the present. “I think we’re living in the moment right now and trying to not think too far ahead. Every single day we’re waking up with the next show in mind at this point. It’s been really nice just getting back into the routine of taking things one day at a time. When you’re on tour, you don’t really think about two days from now, you’re just thinking about the next ten hours. I went into a gas station and the woman was like ‘Where you going? ‘Cause you’re not from around here, are you?’, and I was like ‘You know what? I don’t know.’ The answer was Bloomington, Indiana, but in that moment, I was like ‘I literally don’t know where we’re driving to!’”

“It’s a big difference, yeah”, Kivlen answered in relation to whether there was a difference in touring the UK and America. “In America you’re changing climates and cultures and regions. Deserts and mountains, to marshes, forests and hills. It’s such a big country that a day’s driving might be ten hours, like yesterday. In the UK, the longest drive is usually like two and a half hours – it’s like, what, six hours to go from Brighton to Scotland?” In terms of UK cities, Kivlen said that they always have a great time in Glasgow. “And London, we love playing London,” he adds, “it’s one of the only cities that is comparable to New York in size and meanness. It’s always fun to go to London ‘cause it kind of feels like being in the only city as insane as New York.”

Sunflower Bean’s new album, ‘Headful of Sugar’, will be released on 6th May 2022.

Molly Hancock

Featured image courtesy of Driely S. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @sunflowerbean via instagram.com. No changes made to these images.

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