While growing up in New York in the early 2000s, the members of the indie act Sunflower Bean absorbed the DIY mentality that typified the city's music scene at the time.
“When we were really young and going to a lot of shows — it was a great experience,” says singer-bassist Julia Cumming, who played in a “Syd Barrett-inspired acoustic girl group” before joining Sunflower Bean, about coming of age in the Big Apple. Sunflower Bean performs on Tuesday, May 25, at the Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights. “There were a lot of DIY venues, and we spent a lot of our time at DIY venues. That’s essentially how we met. We were kids who loved DIY, and we found each other and paved our own way from there. Music and going to shows was always a big part of our experience of the city.”
In the early days, Sunflower Bean mostly played at small spaces in Bushwick and Williamsburg. At a South by Southwest showcase, the band caught the ear of Fat Possum Records, who signed the group to its first record deal and released its debut album, 2016’s Human Ceremony.
At the time, the band christened its distinctive sound “neo-psychedelia for the digital age.”
“It was definitely psychedelic, but it wasn’t very ’60s,” explains singer-guitarist Nick Kivlen, who was on the call with Cumming. “We had more a cyber punk-aware kind of sound. You have to make a buzz word. I remember bands in Brooklyn calling themselves 'shit gaze' at the time. Now, it sounds so antiquated to say something about the digital age. That sounds like something from the ’90s because we are so far into the digital age. At the time, it was the perfect way to describe our sound. It had influences from Pink Floyd, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, but there was newer influence from electronic music and No Wave and Sonic Youth and more contemporary Captured Tracks bands.”
The songs for the band’s new album, Headful of Sugar, retain the psychedelic edge found on that debut album and the follow-up LP, but many tracks have a poppier sound.
“We were just writing what we wanted to make on to see what would happen,” says Cumming. “It made for a more experimental and exciting and ambitious record than if we had done it over six months in a more normal situation.”
The group collaborated with Shamir, Suzy Shinn and Jacob Portrait (who also produced, mixed and co-engineered the record).
“Jacob Portrait co-produced [2018's] Twentytwo in blue, and we started working with him a little bit before the pandemic started,” Cumming explains. “Once the pandemic started, the world became very small, and some of our ideas about going to L.A. and traveling were just not possible. We trusted Jake, and he is a special and interesting artist in his own right. I think he brought a lot to the table, and he pushed us a lot to keep writing and keep going and not stop until we turned [the album] in. That pushed us as artists. Suzy Shinn is one of the coolest producers out there. She did the last Weezer record. She can do it all. She has this energy of wanting more women in the field. Shamir, is an artist I really love and respect, was really cool. It’s a very earnest group around the record. There’s not a lot of different players. It’s pretty tight.”
The album opener, the shimmering “Who Put You Up To This?,” features a nice mix of synths and guitars, and Cumming expands her vocal range on the tune.
“It started out in the very beginning as a wistful, existential song about wanting to be an animal and be a part of nature,” says Cumming when asked about the track. “We wanted to make a song that was more about this breaking free energy that is on a bunch of songs. It’s about stepping into this new world and this new life. The tones we used on it and the vocal performance were different for us. It’s a different sound, and that’s why we wanted to put it at the top of the record. It kind of opens the whole thing up and says this is a new world for us, sonically.”
With its hiccuping vocals and snappy percussion, “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” possesses a Cure-like vibe.
“We love the Cure,” says Kivlen. “They’re one of those bands that have put out so many albums that are masterpieces in their own right. They have singles too. I love the Cure when they’re being really moody and the early stuff that’s more stripped down.”
The band embarked on a short promo tour before the record came out just to test out some of the new tunes. Things went well, and Cumming and Co. look forward to the longer jaunt that brings the band to the Grog Shop later this month.
“It’s the three of us, so it’s back to the basics,” she says. “It’s a rock trio. I think [the live show] is similar to the record. [Fans] should come in with an open mind, and we’re going to bring the New York energy.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]