New Yorkers manage to pull an impressive show from a set plagued with difficulties.
The New York trio battle the technical gremlins in London. Can they prevail?
When they first visited London back in 2016, New York threepiece Sunflower Bean had just released their debut album, Human Ceremony, a retro-flavoured pick’n’mix that lurched from sun-bleached psychedelia to ’ 90s- inspired grunge and classic rock riffing. Looking like they’d walked in from a 1970s- themed fancy-dress party, in both image and sound, the group felt unapologetically out of step with current pop trends. In fact, when being interviewed in Q at the time, then- 19- year-old singer Julia Cumming admitted that she’d never even heard a Kendrick Lamar song. Today Sunflower Bean are sat deep within the Victorian rabbit warren of Camden’s Koko, where they’re set to play their biggest headline show to date in support of second album Twentytwo In Blue. The trio – Cumming, guitarist Nick Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber, who still sports a handlebar moustache despite shearing off his shoulderlength, heavy metal dude curls – are all dressed in white. Cumming laughs when her earlier ignorance is brought up. It seems she’s spent the intervening two years playing catch-up. “The people right there at the top are actually doing something really innovative and special, and that’s
how it should be,” she says. “Look at Cardi B. Kendrick is doing the most innovative stuff. If rock musicians aren’t, then they shouldn’t be the most successful artists.” Newly plugged in to the world around them, the band have even been including a cover of Childish Gambino’s Redbone in their recent shows. Cumming does admit there’s one modern pop star who is still off her radar though. “We didn’t know there was a Taylor Swift song called 22 until we released this record. People keep quoting it, but I still haven’t heard it.” It’s an engagement that’s apparent throughout Twentytwo In Blue, which shakes off its predecessor’s more anachronistic trappings for a glossier, more coherent sound. Songs such as Crisis Fest tackle the political climate in the US, reflective of Cumming’s own activism setting up DIY organisation Anger Can Be Power to educate and organise young creatives. “When we started out we were rebelling against shoegaze bands in Brooklyn. We were doing guitar solos,” notes Cumming of the change. “Now I feel like we’re rebelling against the old version of ourselves.” The band have spent the last few years gigging near-constantly. Kivlen jokes that the night he slept in their van in a Taco Bell carpark to save money was the low point, but for Cumming there were more serious personal issues. “For years I suffered from crippling depression. I was struggling before writing this record and always will,” she says. “It was manifested on the album as resilience.” That resilience will come in handy later tonight.
With Kivlen sniffling away with pre-show lurgies, Cumming admits to being “terrified” about how her not “vocally awesome” throat will fare in front of a crowd of 1500. These will prove to be minor concerns, however, as Sunflower Bean are faced with the sort of technical difficulties that would make even the most tourhardened veterans crumble. Things start promisingly with a fistpumping FM-rock double header of Burn It and Come On. Kivlen hurtles across the stage, turning to eyeball Cumming as they spur each other on, thrashing up Come On’s melodies to become ever more frantic. When it ends, she salutes the crowd and thanks them for nudging the album into the UK Top 40 that week. Then, things stall. “Let’s give it up for technical difficulties,” Cumming offers nervously, as their tour manager bolts onstage to try and resuscitate Kivlen’s temperamental pedalboard. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them on what should be a triumphant occasion. No amount of creativity, practice or even luck can save a band from technical problems, but the hush from the stalls is deafening. Pedalboard seemingly restored to health, they continue with Twentytwo. Cumming is on spellbinding form as Faber and Kivlen recreate the song’s richly textured sound. On Crisis Fest, meanwhile, they’re all fired up with Cumming imploring the audience to sing along to the refrain of, “if you hold us back you know that we can shout – no, no, no”. The tech gremlins soon rear their head again, though. Cumming fills the gap by talking about first coming across her bandmates, relaying a tale of meeting the then two-piece at a now-shuttered Brooklyn deli and deciding to join their band. She’s clearly playing for time, but it’s a nice touch. Unfortunately, the fits and starts continue. After Easier Said, Cumming’s glass-breaking falsetto allaying any of her pre-show vocal fears, they grind to a halt again, with Faber improvising on the drums to kill some time. The frustration onstage is palpable and Kivlen has to sit out the next song altogether, a cover of Neil Young’s country slow waltz Harvest Moon. However, now retooled as a simpler bass, drum and vocal rendition it actually works better. Stripping it back has brought out the song’s gentle poignancy and the crowd are enthralled: swaying, singing, some snogging along. Finally, it seems that whatever has been plaguing them onstage has been resolved. Kivlen and Cumming’s calland-response role play as divided lovers on I Was A Fool serving as the perfect palate cleanser, its Fleetwood Mac-like harmonies transporting an appreciative crowd back to a more even keel after such choppy waters. It’s been an emotional journey and before the final track, Kivlen declares
that it has been “both the best and worst day of my life”. It’s a difficult moment to watch. Of course, the band had had other ideas about how tonight was going to play out, but impressively they’ve managed to pull a transfixing show out of the potential rubble. For closer Space Exploration Disaster, Kivlen and Cumming get lost in their own swirling riffs, headbanging their way through mantra-like repetitions of “float away from the planet”. Finally letting loose after all the setbacks, Cumming even ventures out into the crowd with her bass. Anyone walking in for the final stretch would have had no idea what a torturous journey getting there had been for the three individuals onstage. Against the odds, they’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It feels like a fitting tribute to the new-look Sunflower Bean. More confident, resilient and turning bad situations to their advantage.
“It’s been both the best and worst day of my life.” Nick Kivlen
Technical gremlins, be damned! Kivlen and Cumming “finally let loose after all the setbacks.”
“We’re rebelling against the old version of ourselves”: Sunflower Bean (clockwise from top, Nick Kivlen, Jacob Faber and Julia Cumming) strike a pose.
“Swaying, singing, snogging...” – the Koko crowd are enthralled.