The Inevitable Rise of Sunflower Bean

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Photo by Alex & Anthony

“WHO ARE THEY?” a thirty–something year old woman slurred at me, as I stood outside of Blue Collar Burger at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. The “they” she was referring to is Brooklyn psych-punk trio Sunflower Bean, who were leaned up against a white van on Havemeyer Street having their photo taken. They are, to say the least, noticeable.

The woman from the street proceeded to follow us inside, stroking the fur coat of lead singer Julia Cumming that was slung over a chair at the restaurant. Cumming, with her ripped stockings, fringed dress and painted on eyelashes, had the allure of Edie Sedgwick–the girl you must know but can’t quite put a finger on. On both sides of her were her bandmates, drummer Jacob Faber, who seemed a bit shy but sports a confident hair style, and guitarist/vocals Nick Kivlen, who fidgeted around and picks at his nail polish in an air that is either nerves or boredom–which of the emotions he was feeling at the moment, I couldn’t decide. Either way, I was happy to buy them burgers.

The band destroyed massive plates of fries, hamburgers and chicken tenders, showing a total disregard that they were being photographed during their feeding frenzy. “This always happens,” Crista Simiriglia, the band’s manager, said. “The boys have to rush to eat their food before Julia finishes hers, or no ones food is safe.”

“That’s all I like to do aside from play music,” Cumming explained. “Eat.”

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And at 19 years old, I couldn’t imagine there being any more to life.

Sunflower Bean began the way all bands begin (but rarely finish), in high school. Drummer Jacob first met Nick while the two both attended Glen Head High School in Long Island. “We were in rival cliques,” Nick explained. “Like West Side Story!” Julia quickly interjected. Nick laughed off her comment. “No, it was definitely not that cool,” he said. “No one was cool.”

Jacob at the time played saxophone and led school’s marching & jazz band, while Nick played in a garage band called Turnip King. Jacob and Nick somehow ended up jamming together, and realized musically they were suited towards one another. Jacob too joined Turnip King, and the boys enjoyed the high school dream of playing shows on the weekend in New York City, returning to their suburban life in time for school again. After some time playing the Brooklyn scene as Turnip King, the boys started a new outfit and added Cumming into the mix. “We knew each other from shows, and I was looking for a new project,” Cumming said.

Manhattan-bred Cumming studied at a performing arts school, with a focus in voice studies, and sang in the school’s choir. Her post-high school graduation plans were originally to attend conservatory, until Sunflower Bean started to take off. “I just graduated, so to my parents, this is my ‘gap year,'” she joked. “But here we are.”

And by here, she meant everywhere. They played more than 50 shows in Brooklyn alone over the past year, and played the Yves Saint Laurent 2015 Men’s Collection after party at Paris Fashion Week. (This was no random gig: Cumming has been an exclusive model for YSL for the past two years, and has been said to be the muse for the creative director, Hedi Slimane.) They opened up for DIIV, had a music video sponsored by Nylon Magazine, and played a residency at Baby’s All Right.

With just an EP to their name, Show Me Your Seven Secrets, this blast of local notoriety caught people’s attention and soon became widespread.

“We uploaded the EP from a McDonald’s in Paris after we got snowed in when we went to play Fashion Week,” their manager, Simiriglia, explained. “They have really shitty Internet there, it took hours.”

The self-released EP caught on, allowing the band to hold off putting their six songs on Spotify. “We just put the EP on for streaming and purchase via Bandcamp, and it’s given us a lot more control. We’ll let a label handle the business aspects so we don’t get fucked,” Cumming explained.

Next on the horizon for Sunflower Bean: a single coming out this summer, and their first LP slated to be released in early 2016. The label has “yet to be announced–but we’re thrilled about it,” Simiriglia added. “This album will be better. It’s just going to keep getting better,” Nick added. “Even though I have fucking writers block.” The whole gang was quick to reassure him of his “amazing” songwriting skills. “Please, Nick writes songs all the time,” Jacob added. “And then it takes me like weeks to decode the lyrics and i’m like, OOOHHH!”

The release of their anticipated LP isn’t all that is keeping the band on their toes. The trio is gearing up for their first ever European tour, which begins 5/12 in London. The band plays four shows in the U.K. alone, including a spot at the coveted Great Escape festival in Brighton, followed by a shows in Denmark, Amsterdam and Germany. “I don’t even know if the bands we are playing with speak English, but I don’t care,” Cumming explained. “We are just so excited for this tour.” To add to the excitement, Best Coast announced that Sunflower Bean would be opening up for them in Paris on May 19th, allowing them to play for a new batch of potential fans. Gone for more than two weeks, the Brooklyn lineup of shows will feel empty without them.

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With all this work, all the time, what is life like for a 19- or 20-year old on a quick rise to fame in New York City? “I watch a lot of Keeping up with the Kardashians,” Jacob explained. “I’m on season 4 and I’m addicted. I just watched the episode where Bruce lets people bid to fight Kim to give money to charity. It’s so good.”

Moments like this one, in addition to Nick’s confession that he still lives at home with his parents in Long Island, gives the painfully cool trio an air of lightness that keeps them likable. Naturally, I had to ask Nick, and all the band members, where they like to take their parents around town when they visit. “Baby’s All Right, of course,” is the unanimous reply. “Dude, my mom partied at our welcome home show,” Jacob joked. “I saw her take shots with the security guard.”

I was pleasantly surprised with their candor; I caught myself wanting to warn them to not leak so much juicy gossip to me, an interviewer. But they didn’t seem pressed by an awkward interview at a burger joint, treating it as routine. Especially Cumming, who proceeded with the ease of an industry veteran. While I could tell they were ready to dip, they were always pleasant, even thanking me for reading up on them before I came to meet them. “People will sit down to interview us an not even know the name of our band,” Nick said. “It’s bizarre.”

Their excitement and their willingness to work hard to make it big impressed me. In a sea of bands who play coy, and act flippant about their future as musicians, Sunflower Bean is not one of them. When asked about the future aspirations of the band, Cumming replied, “Why would we put a limit on it? If we were going to half ass this, is would turn out half assed. This [Sunflower Bean] is our life, and we are going to make something out of it.”

And as my time with them comes to an end, they hugged me goodbye and piled into Jacob’s mother’s old van. They were on their way to see a friend’s band play at Silent Barn–the perfect exit.

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