Bassist and vocalist Julia Cumming talks us through Headful of Sugar ahead of their April UK tour
“Nightfall takes the land”, sings Sunflower Bean‘s Nick Kilven on ‘Beat The Odds’, the menacing, grunge rock climax to their forthcoming record, Headful Of Sugar. It’s a declaration that sets the tone for much of the rest of the New York band’s third full-length, with its towering production, late night aesthetic and search for quick and ultimately meaningless pleasures that seems to define modern life.
But as bassist and vocalist Julia Cumming tells us ahead of the trio’s UK tour at the beginning of April, the last couple of years have served as a reminder that there is a freedom in accepting that however muddled by society’s superficiality, the only importance is our shared human experience.
This freedom was felt by Sunflower Bean both personally, with drummer Olive Faber learning to accept their trans identity, and as a band, as they adapted to circumstances and produced most of Headful Of Sugar out of a studio and on their own terms.
In your recent Rolling Stone article, your first major one as a band since the pandemic, Nick seemed to admit that he’d given up on the idea of the band or at least a touring one. Were you all really thinking you might not carry on?
I don’t think that there was any thought that we weren’t going to carry on as a band, but I think there were a lot of very real fears about our future in general. Everything was so different than anything we had ever experienced; we had so much time at home. More than I ever would have expected, getting to develop this whole, homey kind of life. We never lost faith that the band was going to continue, I don’t think anyone knew what anything meant at that time.
We ended up joining a pod together, we pretty much did the whole pandemic together, living upstate together for six months writing and working. We’ve been living and working together for years now, so it’s very comfortable to be with each other. We just kept working and writing and did everything we could to stay away from everyone else. We used the time to write everything that we could.
As you mentioned, you moved to the Catskills in Upstate New York for a while, a place steeped in music history. What does that part of the world add to inspiration?
It’s like two and half hours from the city, which in US terms is nothing. It’s so different, it’s such a mountainous, glorious and gorgeous region and it is kind of hard to live in, so it stays untouched. It’s obviously been developed over the years, but there’s a huge musical history up there and I think a lot of people from all over the world want to go up there and escape. It’s great for writing because it’s a kind of suspended reality.
Each of your albums has gone in a different direction, which I know is something you relish, but I wonder how much you approach a record with a vision, how coherent you want it to be?
I think that the way we were writing all of the songs was in a particular mindset, which especially because we were doing it ourselves a lot of the time, it was very experimental. We were really focussing on big vocals, big bass, big drums, really trying to get a modern sound that was maybe more inspired by hip hop rather than the typical kind of old studios – although we did get to go to some of those too really briefly. The ethos of the way we wrote those songs was similar, and we used that as a through-line when we were picking which songs were going to become the record.
You’ve called Headful Of Sugar hedonistic in its search for fast pleasures, but is the overall message of the album nihilistic do you think? If the world’s gonna end, we may as well party kind of thing?
I think that that’s part of it, but I think that we always try to use our own humanity as a grounding force. As much as the record is about hedonism, I think the other side that brings it all together are the very human, heart-breaking moments – like the song ‘Otherside’ – that are scattered throughout the record to bring it back home, you know? I think that’s really big for us, and for how we do everything; we’re a family, and part of being musicians for us is our relationship with each other, and I think we’ve used that as inspiration and a way of understanding the world. So even though it is very hedonistic, rather than nihilism, we’ve tried to replace that with the idea that all we really have is each other. The really beautiful, messy experience that is being a human, within all of these systems.
There definitely are a lot of tender moments throughout. Even ‘I Don’t Have Control Sometimes’, which lyrically seems to be the most carefree or rebellious, but sonically you turn it on its head a little bit…
Yeah, I think one of the things I love about that song in particular is that the chorus, “I don’t have control sometimes”, is a very simple admission of truth, you know? There’s no judgement there, it’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just what it is, and I think that’s a big part of the record as well — coming to these conclusions, bringing them into light and accepting them rather than placing moral judgement on them.
You mentioned earlier that big, invasive pop sound to the record, but you utilised a lot of humble, bedroom production tactics, right? What was the idea behind that?
Well, in a real way it was very practical. We didn’t have the capability, nobody did, to go into these studios, even if we spent a day with our producer we had to get tested. He had a new-born baby. I would wake up at 5AM and go wait on the line in the dark outside to get tested to go in one day with out masks on. So in our pod when we were together, we would use some of these digital or ‘bedroom’ ideas; we were actually able to utilise them in the writing, because we could play with these sounds as we were writing the songs and it definitely informed them. It was something that came out of a need to get it done, but I think it also really helped us develop and think in new ways as writers.
There are some really playful sounds on it amongst hidden amongst some of the more towering rock moments, like that synth sound on ‘In Flight’.
Yeah! Well for me that’s also a big part of the record. As much as the big decisions are big, there’s a lot of stuff that was done with these little layers over time that could never be recreated again. Little moments that we caught because we had the time to catch them. So I think there’s a lot of production on the record that’s meant to be sort of indiscernible and hard to place, and a lot of my favourite songs that I’ve heard in my life have that mysterious quality where you don’t know what instrument is making what sound, or you don’t know why they left that vocal in, you know? You get to make that decision yourself and then ultimately the record gets more personal to you, so I’m glad to hear that that’s coming across.
A lot’s changed since you signed a record deal at the age of 19, and you’ve said the different approach to recording this time around reflects that change and freedom. Does much feel different from when you three started out?
In a lot of ways, everything has changed and nothing has changed. Our circumstances are different, and we’ve all gone through big changes. Especially Olive; a lot of beautiful, big and exciting changes. But at the same time our heart is still the same. All of us got into music because we loved it and believe that being people and writing songs together alone and going out there and doing it will always be the coolest thing. And that never really changes. So I think yeah, to have the opportunity to put out a record and get this stuff heard, all of that is still as exciting as when I was 19 years old. We’re just very happy to have survived and to be able to share this record with the world, it definitely feels like a triumph.
Headful Of Sugar is out 06 May 2022. Catch Sunflower Bean on their UK tour from 04 – 11 April.