New York trio Sunflower Bean steamroller over anything that could be considered a sophomore slump on the politicised glam-rock stomp and post-adolescent pop of Twentytwo in Blue, released this week. Speaking to Static’s Chris Berkley, Nick, Julia and Jacob of Sunflower Bean talk about making the album, and stretching out their influences and ideas.
I was equal parts amazed and horrified to realise that all three of you are still only 22, as evidenced by this album’s title Twentytwo in Blue, so you’ve carbon-dated yourselves on this record.
Julia: Yeah, 22 is a funny age. You’re still young enough to make a lot of mistakes and know that you have a lot to learn, but old enough to be able to start accessing some deeper parts of yourself. I think that’s what we tried to do on this record.
I also feel like you’ve probably done a lot of growing up in the last two years since the debut album came out, and the world’s changed a lot too.
Nick: It’s a weird time to be alive. It’s a weird time to grow up. We’ve been on tour so much. We’ve grown more by tour and songs we’ve written in a year sometimes. It’s hard to differentiate the years when you’re on the road so much.
And as young, early twenty-somethings finding your way in a city like New York some of the songs on this album really seem to reflect the tension of current times. There’s tracks like the rip-snorting opener “Burn it” and especially “Crisis Fest” which feels like it could only have come out in the last 18 months with those lyrics, “2017 we know, reality’s one big sick show”.
Julia: I think that something we’ve always really wanted to do and has been a big part of who we are as a band is to think about rock in terms of something that’s really current, because that will be important to the present and to the future. I think there’s this kind of balance of reflecting on the environment you’re in, but also making sure that it’s hopefully timeless. There’s a difference between using cell-phone sounds or referencing emojis in a song, which maybe in a few years won’t make any sense. There’s stuff like all major cities in the world are struggling. Changes in population. Changes in zoning. Changes in where people want to live, and the fact that the United States is a real crazy place to be right now, and that all creates an artistically urgent environment.
Also you have to balance up not being too heavy handed with also wanting to, as you say, reflect the times that you live in. I think historically, the best rock has always represented the moment that it’s come out in.
Julia: Yeah, absolutely. I think, for us, we really just wanted to make a record that people could fall in love with. They don’t have to have a personal reaction to it. It doesn’t feel like a crazy pop record. It doesn’t feel completely obscure. We just wanted to make music that someone can find some solace in, whatever that meant to them, and something really artistically interesting.
It also feels that the anxiousness of some of those songs is also balanced on this record by some of Sunflower Bean’s prettiest moments. There’s the country lilt and harmony of the almost-title track, “Twentytwo”. That was one of the biggest curveballs ahead of this album’s release. I don’t know if it’s too short-handed to call it your Fleetwood Mac moment.
Julia: I think that’s something that relates to this age and being able to be more comfortable with yourself and be more comfortable with being vulnerable, because I think that it can be really easy to be really outward, and it can be really fun to be really outward, to put on a big flashy show and headbang and create this live moment which is something we absolutely love doing and is a huge part of us, but we realise there was another part that might sound a little bit different and maybe for me, my voice felt stronger to me, and felt more real to me as something that’s being perceived as country a little bit maybe, but to me feels like myself. I feel like we’re getting a lot closer to who we are and we had the chance to make this record and the time to see some of those vulnerabilities through.
It’s been amazing to watch the different styles of music incorporated into Sunflower Bean over the years because your earlier stuff was such sky-scraping riff-rock, was it easiest to shred and scream early on to cover up any inadequacies?
Julia: I would not say to cover up any inadequacies. I think that it’s really freeing to scream, and everything we’ve done at the time we’ve always been reacting to our environment and wanting to do something different. When we started as a band in NYC, everything was very, very, shoegaze and there was no getting on the floor and whiling out. I think a lot of bands do that really well, like King Gizzard, and so much psyche that we really, really love. We still have to honour that part of ourselves, it’s just that there’s a little bit more. I think that the world is really afraid of things that are multi-faceted because you can’t put it in a box. I think we’re trying to fight against that box.
You did win some big Aussie points early on by naming a song “Tame Impala”, so I am wondering why there is no “King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard” title track on this album.
Nick: The Tame Impala thing was more of a homage to them because they had a song called “Led Zeppelin”.
Julia: Absolutely, and them being one of the greatest modern rock bands of our time. It felt inadvertently being close to them in that way by naming a song after them has been a really funny experience.
So by nature of that fact then, someone else should be paying it forward and naming a song “Sunflower Bean”. That’s what you’re really saying, right?
Nick: A couple of bands actually already have.
To be honest, as you were saying, Julia, it is great to rock out a lot of the time and there was still plenty of noise and grit on Twentytwo in Blue, particularly the reverb and megaphone sampled voices and downright urgency of a song like “Human For”, which feels like it could fall apart at any moment. Are they still fun songs to commit to record?
Julia: Yeah. I think that it’s just thinking about the record as a whole and how it’s going to flow and creating something that’s dynamic. I think that there is this trend also of music that’s just on in the background and all of that completely has a place, but I think something we were definitely interested in with this record, and probably always be interested in, is the concept of an album as an album and having lots of dynamics. I think that’s why so many genres get thrown around when people talk about our sound. I love to indulge that from time to time.
Did you all have this figured out yourselves or did you call in some help for this record? Jacob from Unknown Mortal Orchestra has worked with you on this, what did he bring to the table to the three of you?
Nick: It was really exciting. We did a lot of initial work with Matthew Molnar who also helped us with Human Ceremony, and then from the beginning we knew we needed some outside ears, someone new to the situation to bring in something extra. So with Jacob, we just started to mix the record with him and fix some things here and there, and it kinda ended up almost like open heart surgery on the songs. It sounds drastic and it kinda was for some of them, but he helped us really dig deep into the production side of things and with him we got to create the really interesting sounds that you hear all over the record and really gave all the songs a lot of depth. It was really cool bringing in someone from the outside and him being just as crazy as us. From the first time we played him the songs when they were totally not done, we could see a twinkle in his eye of just crazy. It was great working with him.
You might have to go back to him for the next record. Are you already throwing around titles? Are we gonna have Twentyfour And So Much More in two more years? Is this gonna continue?
Julia (laughing): How did you guess that? We must have some ESP. Twentyfour and Still Poor, the Sunflower Bean story.
I’m glad to hear it’s gonna keep working, up until you have Eightyseven and Now in Heaven. It’ll work, right?
Julia: It would be the greatest pleasure of my life to be making records at 87. I couldn’t imagine what they sound like. All of us with hearing aids and in wheelchairs banging stuff. It’s gonna be madness.
Interview broadcast on Static on 29th March 2018. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).