Picture the scene: After more than a year of writing songs, a year in which you played more than 50 shows in your hometown, a year where you were named “The #1 Hardest Working NYC Band” — after all that, your debut EP finally hits the shelves. Where do you go to celebrate? Which environs offer the proper grandeur to match your accomplishments? Williamsburg? (You can’t be serious.) Disney World? (Not even ironically.) Vegas? (Closer.)
Try the Palace of Versailles, mes amis. You deserve it.
On January 27, the day of the release of that EP, Show Me Your Seven Secrets, the three members of Brooklyn’s Sunflower Bean were mulling a trip to Louis XIV’s decadent chateau. Stuck in Paris courtesy of Winter Storm Juno, the trio soaked up the surreal experience of being stranded in the City of Lights on one of the biggest days of their career.
When bassist and co-vocalist Julia Cumming flew to model for Yves Saint Laurent, her bandmates — drummer Jacob Faber and guitarist/co-vocalist Nick Kivlen — decided to come along to play a few shows rather than rest up for their EP celebration, Saturday at Baby’s All Right. With an extra 24 hours to kill in one of the greatest cities in the world, they weighed their options and counted their blessings.
“No way we ever thought we’d be here,” says Cumming, speaking from the band’s Parisian hotel lobby. “We’re so lucky,” says Kivlen.
Lucky, sure, but stamina and diligence have something to do with it, too. Case in point: Even with hundreds of years of history and culture to tap into outside the hotel, Sunflower Bean are in business mode. Faber had been battling slow Wi-Fi as he tried to upload Secrets, which the band is self-releasing, to Sunflower Bean’s Bandcamp page. Cumming, meanwhile, had become a transoceanic party planner, putting the finishing touches on the Baby’s All Right show — “There will be cupcakes!”
Before Paris, there was Long Island, where Kivlen and Faber grew up and began playing music together while in high school; Cumming, a Manhattan native, joined the band near graduation. The group’s style, which blends the hazy sprawl of psychedelia with a postpunk edge, came from boiling down the stew of the trio’s separate influences.
“We throw all of our individual styles together,” says Cumming. “Nick has always been influenced by certain tones, back to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.”
“We like the Smiths and the Cure,” adds Faber, “but we also love the Rolling Stones.”
Per DIY tradition, technical precision came later; Kivlen says he didn’t know how to use his chorus pedal for a year. “Once I figured out how to dial in a really good tone,” he says, “it made my amp louder and gave me more of a presence against the guitar and drums.” It also gave Sunflower Bean their expansive, shimmering sound, which became a hit in the local rock scene.
The trio spent 2014 relentlessly cycling through the stages of New York clubs and beyond. Cumming estimates they played 60 shows in New York last year. Faber puts the figure closer to 80. That frenetic pace gave the band a solid perspective on the state of contemporary New York rock venues, and they have advice for fellow artists making the rounds. The best club, all around? They all agree it’s Baby’s All Right.
“It’s the curation there,” says Kivlen. “It’s a beautiful building, it’s cheap to get in — you’re paying DIY prices, but the sound quality is amazing, and it’s the biggest stage you can play while still playing a small venue. Beautiful lighting, good monitors.”
“They care about you,” Cumming says. “They’ve been really kind to us, putting us on great bills and exposing us to a lot of cool acts we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”
The band laments missing the chance to play at former Williamsburg hype-house 285 Kent before it closed, but Baby’s All Right offers wide-open energy combined with a professionalism that appeals to them. “We played with [Brooklyn act] Fat White Family at Baby’s,” says Cumming by way of example, “and people were throwing unopened cans of beer around. Baby’s is more put together than 285 Kent was, but you can still have fun. You know it’ll get fucked up, but it’ll get cleaned up the next day.”
Sunflower Bean’s intense touring circuit in the city might suggest the band represents the zeitgeist of New York indie rock — quite the contrary. Cumming discusses how her group’s sound differs from many of the contemporaries with whom she’s shared a stage: “A lot of the bills are the same stuff,” she says. “Some bleep-bloop drum machines or four dudes in flannel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but not many people are taking risks. I think things are in a settled place right now.”
“No one has any urgency,” adds Kivlen.
Rather than bleeping or blooping, tracks like Show Me Your Seven Secrets opener “Somebody Call a Doctor” strip the dissonance from swirling Psychocandy guitars and inject a Factory Records–friendly, high-necked bassline to balance a steady groove against the stoned reverb of Kivlen’s riffs. Elsewhere, on lead single “Tame Impala,” Kivlen’s boyish croon provides a counterpoint to Cumming’s Siouxsie-tinged yelps, building tension until the band feints left, shifting into a surprisingly heavy and doom-laden finish, all delicious sludge and implicit headbanging.
That delight in pulling from the textures of heavy Seventies rock gives the band common ground with its favorite American scene, the psych-pop and garage-rock revivalism of Los Angeles’ Burger Records — “L.A. is a little bit more happening right now,” says Kivlen, citing the band’s friends in Burger act Cherry Glazerr as a particular favorite. Whatever the band’s regional affinities, “Rock & Roll Heathen” — perhaps Sunflower Bean’s strongest song — has enough soloing swagger and heady atmosphere to stand out in any scene, and it’s the strength of such a composition’s white-knuckle energy and tightly wound riffage that has led local clubs to ask the band to come back to play again and again.
And they will, just as soon as they can get a flight out of de Gaulle. Cumming, in a moment of reflection, takes account of the band’s path over the past year, from dingy Brooklyn bars to its first European shows.
“The world responds,” she says. “People react to something that’s genuine and real. Rock ‘n’ roll will love you back, if you give yourself to it.”
And with that, Sunflower Bean were back to the business of being a working band, putting off plans of wandering Parisian streets to work on setting up the next shows, with no plans to rest or snack on crepes.
Sunflower Bean play Saturday, January 31, at Baby’s All Right for their Show Me Your Seven Secrets EP release show. Also on the bill are Laced, Kissing Is a Crime, and Lightning Bug. 8 p.m. Sixteen and up. $8–$10. Buy tickets here.