“We wanted to go towards something more punk”
How are you following up on your critically acclaimed second album? Well, according to Sunflower Bean, by creating something completely different. “I don’t think we could do the same thing twice, even if we really wanted to,” singer Julia Cumming said. NME of the trio’s next project. “But also, we didn’t want to.”
While their 2018 album “Twentytwo in Blue” was a tribute to the fleeting innocence of youth, delivered with an ambitious “string section and lots of percussion” according to guitarist Nick Kivlen, this time around they wanted to do something a “bit more stripped down” while having “every element be super bold”. The result is “Headful of Sugar,” a sonic sugar rush that delves into themes of disillusionment, over-reliance on convenience, and the cheap entertainment that makes up modern life.
Despite the heavy themes, the band entered the studio with what Kivlen describes as “joyful anarchy”, creating this brilliant sound by focusing on the freedom of letting go and the joy of letting go of the preconceived programming of what society deems important. “We really let ourselves be free with all the styles of songs and moods we wanted to put together,” Cumming shares. “That freedom on the record was really tied to the thought of quick fun. It’s really a psychedelic pop-rock record and it was just like that sweetness that was running through our heads.
For the last installment of NMEOn the In Conversation series, we spoke with Sunflower Bean about letting go of the past, decluttering their sound, and finding creative autonomy that led to “Headful of Sugar.”
The album’s opening track “Who Put You Up To This?” is a reintroduction to the group
Seconds after pressing ‘Headful of Sugar’, you can hear that Sunflower Bean has entered new sonic territory, courtesy of Cumming’s muffled echoing voice that quickly evolves into his questioning. “Who pushed you to do this?” over distorted guitar and synth. The question, which also happens to be the title of the song, seemed like a perfect way for the band to open the album. “It’s a question someone asks you, but it’s also a question you ask yourself and in the context of this song, it’s a rhetorical question,” she shares. “I think it makes a lot of sense as an opening and as a beginning of this record because it’s the crack in the foundation of everything that we were, and this coming in and this rebirth in this record and this new sense of freedom,” Cumming said.
In the track, she confidently cooks up some revelations as she sings: “In another life, I was a bitch/ In another life, I was your bitch/ Here’s how it happened.” For her, the song is about moving on from the past. “On the verses, there’s a lot of this loss of your old self,” she says. “It may be letting go of a lover, but it’s also letting go of the selves that no longer serve you, that hold you back.” ‘Who pushed you to do this?’ works as a sonic and symbolic warning shot of what’s to come on the album. “That’s certainly why we put it where we put it. It does a few different things for the record,” she explains. “This is the beginning of the new.”
Recording the album outside of a traditional studio gave the band creative autonomy
When covid forced the band to stop touring for the first time in five years, they took the opportunity to record at home. Cumming notes that this allowed them to experiment more, sharing, “being able to do a lot of [the record] here made it possible. Even the pandemic has made this possible.
Recording in solitude gave the band the space and time they needed to follow their creative instincts. “When you walk into a studio, the clock is ticking, you lose money as soon as you walk in,” says drummer Olive Faber. “It’s shit to record and make music like that sometimes.” It also gave Faber the opportunity to take on the role of engineer for the first time. “The fact that we have our own space now and are able to let things take the time they need and let our enthusiasm about things guide the way instead of outside pressures, really informed the release of the album,” she said.
The group’s intention with this album is to create a collective journey
Although the album shines a light on the consumer-driven society, Sunflower Bean isn’t interested in preaching to its fans. “We want people to feel that energy with us rather than telling them how to feel,” Cumming says. “My favorite art and our favorite art is the one that brings you in and takes you on a journey together. So rather than trying to say “this is what you need, this is how you should feel”, we just tried to convey the feeling that we were feeling and thinking, and having the faith that many people feel the same way.
Sunflower Bean made a conscious decision to “declutter” their sound
Although Sunflower Bean still considers ‘Twentytwo in Blue’ a central part of their identity as a band, taking the focus away from their previous record has given them the creative freedom to craft a new sound. “A big theme on this record emotionally, and I think that [it] became sonic, let go,” Cumming says. “‘Twentytwo in Blue’ was such a special and important record and such a special and important moment in our lives that gave us the chance to go around the world and really do it. At this point where we are, we really wanted to let go of the pressures that you exert [yourself], or people put bands or what you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to sound. We just wanted to take the reins.
Taking the reins also meant going back to their original recording style. “We were playing more as a group in one room earlier in our career,” Kivlen shares. “Then we started branching out more, layering and doing different tracks and then adding and building the songs more instead of practicing them as three pieces.” Not only did the band return to playing as a trio, but they also intended to take a step back from the lush orchestration they had leaned into on their previous album. “We wanted to declutter everything,” says Kivlen. “So even though it’s just bass, vocals and drums, they’re all very distinct and they all do something incredibly important. We wanted something less ornate, something more punk.
Cumming almost played with Manic Street Preachers at Wembley before Covid forced him to change plans
Last year, Cumming collaborated with Manic Street Preachers on their single “The Secret He Had Missed.” “I think the Manics have an amazing way of writing good pop and rock music, and just art songs, and I have to be a part of that record,” she says. “It was the first number one record I’ve ever been on.”
Cumming had also planned to join the Manics to sing the track live before Covid changed his plans. “It was a day or two before Omicron was announced. I had my tickets and everything, and was going to play with them at Wembley but it couldn’t happen because of the virus that won’t be named. .
Sunflower Bean are planning to return to the UK this spring and will also announce further tour dates for the summer. “I don’t know what we can share, but we have a lot more dates,” Cumming says when asked if the band has any summer festival plans. “We’re just going to continue to announce them as we can and as the world continues to allow things to happen.”