It can be difficult to place Sunflower Bean. They’ve managed to generate huge buzz in certain circles on the back of a vigorous touring schedule and a breakthrough Bandcamp EP (this year’s Show Me Your Seven Secrets), but if you were just reading the hip publications — for which a new “Brooklyn band” typically means salivating track reviews and line-by-line updates on edits to the group’s tour rider — you’d still have no idea Sunflower Bean even exist. That’s not to say, of course, that any band deserves so much as a nod from any publication just for selling tickets and exciting NME and NPR (which Sunflower Bean have done) — just that, hey, here’s a group of young people making music that sounds virtually nothing like most of the Red Bull–sponsored, thoroughly blogged strains coming from their borough, and that seems notable in and of itself. So what’s the story?
Let’s back up. Sunflower Bean are a rock ‘n’ roll band. This is the salient fact of their biography. Actually, it’s pretty much the only thing you need to know about Sunflower Bean. Julia Cumming (nineteen; vocals/bass), Nick Kivlen (twenty; vocals/guitar), and Jacob Faber (also twenty; drums) make rock music in a mold largely eschewed, for decades, in indie-rock territories. Pre–Dark Side Pink Floyd’s stoned suppleness, Led Zeppelin’s more groove-centric moments, Black Sabbath’s dips into dark sludge — these are some of the tentpoles holding up Sunflower Bean’s upcoming, dynamic debut LP, Human Ceremony. True, classic stoner rock has had its own revival lately, with acts like Ty Segall and Tame Impala (name-checked on Seven Secrets) infusing stadium-size scuzz and blacklight-ready psychedelia into the punk palette. But Sunflower Bean seem to wink less at their influences, and they make almost no overtures to the hallowed Nineties college-rock canon that still serves as the foundation for the vast majority of guitar-minded indie bands today.
The band view the release of their first album, too, in something of a throwback manner. In a world of one-off streaming singles, the LP format matters to Sunflower Bean, both as a means to release a cohesive artistic statement from front to back and as a clear, physical marker in their career. As Kivlen puts it, speaking about wrapping work on Human Ceremony: “It’s surreal in the amount of work it took, and now that that experience is finally over, it’s just a huge relief to have it finished. It’s a pretty special time.” In a nod to his band’s core audience, Faber adds, “Young indie-rock kids are still really excited to buy a record and listen to it in full.”
Human Ceremony has plenty to keep those listeners’ headphones plugged in, from the title track’s gorgeous shimmering guitars to Cumming’s captivating, confident performance on the pogoing “Come On” to the way the hazy swirl of “Creation Myth” leads into the fuzzed-out groove of “Wall Watcher.” As a whole, these songs feel more cohesive than the band’s longer, more jam-centric EP material, while retaining Sunflower Bean’s appealingly eclectic range of updated Seventies touchstones. “We really worked on pulling it together as a whole,” Cumming says, “and I think working with Matt [Molner, producer] really changed the process. We’d never worked with a producer before, and he helped us achieve a sound we weren’t able to do without him.”
Cumming often seems like the band’s center of gravity, both with her dynamic onstage performances and in the way her disarming poise bounces off her bandmates’ more reserved personalities. She’s gotten attention — some positive, some dismissive — for her other career, as a fashion model, which has taken off in quick parallel to Sunflower Bean’s rise. By most accounts, she’s achieved remarkable success as a new face in the industry, most notably when she was tapped by designer Hedi Slimane, the creative director of the venerable Saint Laurent label, to appear in a series of campaign ads. She credits her takeoff in the industry to a simple decision: “I think a lot of it was circumstantial, because I dyed my hair blond,” she says, laughing.
Her modeling work has drawn ire from the predictable corners of the internet, where holdover purists view an independent musician — especially a woman — actively participating in the fashion industry as anathema, a shallow pursuit that casts doubt on whatever indie bona fides they suppose Cumming should have. But she reacts to those accusations with sharp criticism of her own, saying, “There’s a different side to the fashion industry — modeling is the only industry where women make more money than men. In music, sometimes I feel like it’s actually easier [for a woman] to be commodified. Women are almost more celebrated in fashion. And that’s something the music industry needs to look at.”
It’s a clear-eyed view from an artist in the beginning of her career, and Kivlen and Faber share Cumming’s stance, offering her nothing but words of support. Wherever Sunflower Bean fit in amid the current climate for no-frills rock bands, they’ve already experienced enough to handle life as a band in a professional, self-aware manner. That’s admirable enough. But, as they’d tell you, that doesn’t matter as much — just listen to the record, and loudly.
Sunflower Bean play the Bowery Ballroom at 8 p.m. on February 25, 2016. Tickets available on the Bowery Ballroom’s website.
[This is part of the winter 2015 edition of The Seen, a quarterly style supplement by the Village Voice devoted to exploring and sharing the most dynamic elements of New York City’s fashion and design worlds, from the iconic to the as yet undiscovered. Check out the rest of The Seen’s featured stories here.]