Originally featured here on Clash.
Photo credit: Andy DeLuca
Whilst having a pit stop driving up to play a show Glasgow, New York band Sunflower Bean pass me round the tour van on speaker phone.
We discuss why artists writing music can ask different things of themselves at a time like this, because “there’s really nothing to lose when an orange reality TV star is running your country.”
Sunflower Bean’s sophomore album ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ is being played live across the UK at the time of the interview, and the band are in the middle of a world tour, which Julia says “feels really monumental” and that “every night more people know the songs from the new record.”
Julia was born and raised in central New York, in Manhattan to be exact. Where as Nick and Jacob grew up in Long Island – “just slightly outside in the suburbs, about 30 minutes,” I’m told. But how has a city with such huge musical clout had an impact on them as a band? “I think it’s influenced us as any place that you grow up in will influence you,” Jacob tells me.
“I’m from alphabet city,” Julia adds, “Which is the most East part of the East Village. Something I think is an advantage you gain form growing up in any major city right in the heart of it is that you really start to understand some of the workings of what a band might look like from a really young age. When I joined my first band, we were a band for two days before we had our first show. And I feel like that’s a very New York or major city thing – the show and the performance and the concept is ahead of the actual work behind it.”
There’s a certain belief in magic…
“I feel like Nick and Jacob being from a little bit outside of the city means they had a lot of time and a different kind of space to develop certain parts of themselves. When we came together, I was able to share what I knew about the city and they were able to share with me their ability and how to go from being a regular player to a player that you can really believe in. I think that we were lucky with our two different experiences of New York to kind of come together.”
Coming to the UK “is special but I’m not exactly sure why” says Julia. “There’s a certain belief in magic in the UK, and the ability to see magic in things that aren’t so fully processed. I feel like that’s why bands have a certain kind of success here, because audiences here are willing to look at something and see what it might be or see the beginnings of something.”
Is it because the UK embraces guitar-centric music into their streams on a daily basis? The UK’s openness to guitar music and rock seems like a national thing, according to Sunflower Bean.
Jacob says: “They allow themselves to enjoy it easier. Guitar music is still a pretty big thing in the US, it’s just the US is a lot more spread out, so you get more smaller pockets of people listening to it whereas here it feels like more like a national thing that people can enjoy together. They’re open to it.” Nick adds, “There is something universal about music and a lot of our influences are from the UK. When we were in Manchester the other day, I was blown away by the scope of how much that city’s music has influenced me.”
Thematically, this trio wanted to ensure they made something that was as honest and “not disposable”. Julia opens up saying, “What we hope for and what we live by is that if you make something that is really honest to yourself and your following that trueness then hopefully other people will respond to that. I think that we’ve been able to find that on this record by allowing a little more transparency with our work. And that is exciting for us. It’s been good.”
It’s been said that ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ sounds like a protest record, but Sunflower Bean just “tried to talk about things that are happening in our own way.” Julia continued, “It’s funny, we’ve been talking about this and I’ve been trying to understand the record in the context twe made it and it was just a natural reaction we were having. I wouldn’t call it a protest record, in those terms. But it is a way that music can work reacting to a time. I don’t think protest music necessarily has to be put into a box right now.”
Jacob adds, “It didn’t feel like a pressure for us to make a political song, it just felt like the work we’re trying to make is honest and it just felt natural. It just made sense. The music informed the lyrics and the lyrics informed the music.”
It just felt like the work we’re trying to make is honest and it just felt natural…
“Music for us is a way of communicating with the world, it is a way of reckoning with being alive and it’s a way of getting these points across,” Julia continues. “Music’s a really good place for us to talk about the things regular talking doesn’t always feel useful for. I think the only silver lining that can be found in having this situation that we’re in is that artists can ask different things of themselves and access different parts of themselves because there’s really nothing to lose when an orange reality TV star is running your country.”
Listening to ‘Twentytwo In Blue’ is an experience, the genre-bending album will have you swaying to a whimsical ballad with one track and then wanting to start a riot within 20 seconds of the next. “We tried to let each [song] exist like a little plant that you’re watering,” Julia tells me. “And they’re all different little plants. But I think that is how we marry their differences in genre, perhaps, by keeping them in a similar garden.”
Jacob adds, “We didn’t wanted to make a record that every song sounds the same because it gets a little boring. A lot of our favourite records are ones that are really dynamic and experience a lot of emotions and feelings and it’s a broad listening experiencing.” And Nick explains how he was listening to Elvis the other day it went right from ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to a ballad, “and that’s sort of it isn’t it, right there,” Nick says matter-of-factly.
Speaking of streaming, and a playlist generation, Julia says how she doesn’t like to complain because she still believes there are enough people out there that are still searching for honesty. “People still like music that is made from guitars, people still like things that are a little rough around the edges. And I think if we still like that and that’s what makes us happy, then this kind of work is a worthwhile pursuit.”
“You can’t be mad these shifts in technology you have to understand what is useful and what you can integrate and what makes sense to integrate and how to work in parallel. Where it’s helpful and where its not you just have to understand it. I think that’s really important when we’re making rock music or making anything in this kind of quote-on-quote “nostalgia”, just trying to work with the flow of the wave and use it to help make good things in the forefront of what people listen to.”
People still like things that are a little rough around the edges…
What Sunflower Bean did manage to ebb and flow perfectly with the wave was whilst in the studio, working with Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Jacob of Sunflower Bean said, “We were able to bring him in to help with production and to mix the record. That was when we really dug deep into getting a lot of the sounds for the record. It was a really cool process, he helped us unlock some things within us to build these sounds and this sonic world around the record.”
Speaking of growth since their first album, ‘Human Ceremony’, Julia says, “We realty wanted to do something different with our sound than on the first record. My singing is very different on this record and I feel like that is a big personal growth. But a lot of that development might have come from singing the songs on ‘Human Ceremony’ for so long and thinking ‘OK, I feel like I can do better, I feel like I can do different’ and the experience of going through it. We might be completely different people on the other side of the next year. But I’m excited to see who those people are because I really believe in it. I don’t know what it is, but I believe in it.”
Offering the band a chance for a leaving comment, all Nick had was an elocution issue. And this is “just for fun” I’m reassured. But… “People in the UK call our song ‘Memoria’ mem-more-ee-a but its pronounced mem-or-ia.” [Nick laughs until the phone call ends].