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In Conversation With Julia Cumming, Lead Vocalist And Bass Player Of Sunflower Bean

Sunflower Bean’s recent record, Headful of Sugar, is a rush that hits hard. A psychedelic high devised by this trio of disillusioned outsiders in search of freedom, escape and meaning in an America more distorted than ever. Crystallising the agony and ecstasy of contemporary life, after a period of lockdown staleness, Sunflower Bean (fronted by Julia Cumming, the face of Whistles’ AW22 campaign) channelled their pent-up energy directly through their amps. What emerges is a sonic current of total frenzy and, paradoxically, utter focus: unapologetically twisting sounds and references to find their own singular balance. Firing shots at the GameStop stock frenzy, corporate greed and small-town predictability, in this nihilistic ode to fuck-it-and-see, Cumming lets loose: “Why not make a record that makes you want to dance? Why not make a record that makes you want to scream?”

ALEX JAMES TAYLOR: Can you talk me through the feeling behind the album? You’ve previously described it as ‘gleeful anarchy’ and it definitely has that feeling of letting loose, of letting everything out.

JULIA CUMMING: Basically, me and the band were together for the whole pandemic. We were kind of in a pod and we certainly felt similar to everyone else in that there was a lot of time to ruminate on a lot of sadness. We felt there were going to be a lot of really dark albums coming out of the pandemic and we always try to do the unexpected, so we thought it would be interesting to make a record that felt very gleeful, celebratory, and with a lot of escapism. A lot of the songs on the record are meant to be experienced in a live setting. Post Love actually came out of me djing a lot in the city before the pandemic, I used to have a weekly club night that was pretty raunchy and crazy, and I loved doing the crowd work and watching which songs – especially which indie songs – made people really move. I wanted to make a song you could play in that setting. I was really thinking about Glastonbury in particular – a song with these big synth sounds that would sound great over a large speaker. A lot of the record was inspired by those live settings and, in a way, it was our lifeline.

ALEX: So you were thinking about post-Covid, the afterwards – getting people together, getting them dancing?

JULIA: Definitely. Another big inspiration for me is guilty pleasures. I really wanted rock fans to listen to the record and fall in love with the poppier parts, or people that like our poppier stuff to end up being really excited by the harder stuff. We’ve always been compared to other artists and that’s just natural, but we wanted to go into our own lane and play with genre in a different way. When you think about what we meant with the title, Headful of Sugar, it not only makes sense in terms of the sweetness and poppiness on the record, but also the other side of sugar. I think it’s such a powerful word in art because it does have that dual meaning: as much as you want sugar and it’s fun and sweet, it’s also poison. At a certain point it’s also horrible and a lot of the record is dealing with that as well. It’s dealing with the cultural sugar, the fast entertainment, the fast pleasures. And the record itself is fast. There’s no fat.

ALEX: There’s definitely anger in there, but it’s not released in an aggressive punk way – more like you’re dancing out the frustration, which is a really cool alternative.

JULIA: We started feeling that way in some ways on Twentytwo in Blue [Sunflower Bean’s previous record] because we had tracks like Burn It. There’s always been this ‘dance on the big ball of fire’-type energy. We also wanted to make a record that was very tangible and lived in the real world, in the way it’s not a record that’s supposed to be a lofty museum, hour-and-a-half long, university record. It’s a record for us and for our fans. For you to take on the bus, when you’re running and just have with you. We’d much rather people have the chance to be connected to the record and develop a personal relationship to it than for it to feel like something that is out of their grasp.

ALEX: Let’s talk about the album artwork. It’s set in Coney Island and it’s great – it’s like a film still and you want to see the rest of the film. What does Coney Island mean to you?

JULIA: Amusement parks in general represent that kind of fast pleasure idea. And as a New York band, it is a very iconic place. We tried a bunch of different things for the cover, we had like five different concepts we fully executed, which was a lot of work. We really didn’t want to be on the cover this time.
ALEX: You almost aren’t because of the artistic direction.

JULIA: That’s what’s cool about it. I definitely wanted to show a more aggressive side on this record, but also the fact we’re on there but we’re all obscured is definitely part of the point. It’s more like being characters than ourselves.

ALEX: And what are your memories of Coney Island?

JULIA: I went to Coney Island a lot [as a child]. I’ve ridden on the fucking Cyclone a lot. Oh, my gosh, you should go. It’s horrifying. It’s terrifying. It’s the most rickety, crappy coaster. Truly the scariest part about it is that you think you might actually die because it will fall apart [laughs]. Coney is a very real summery experience for New Yorkers. A lot of New York landmarks were definitely a [key part of the album], we shot a lot of the other press photos at the World’s Fair globe, where they held the World’s Fair and now it’s just this big, cool silver globe. We wanted to use a lot of the backdrop of the city.

ALEX: And how does New York come into the album? The mix of genres and sounds in could certainly reflect the cultural mix of New York.

JULIA: Absolutely. I think New York will always be a part of our history and it’s a key part of who we are. It’s influenced everything about our band. Our video for In Flight was shot in Harlem and we were just bringing the gear out into the street and playing. That was really, really cool. I think New Yorkers are very tough and the city has persevered through a lot, and that’s definitely made us who we are. The Headful of Sugar album release show was at Webster Hall in New York, which is on 11th Street and 2nd Avenue, and I was born and grew up on 14th Street, three avenues and three blocks away. My whole life I just dreamed about what it would be like to see my band’s name on the marquee. And it finally happened. I feel so close to the neighbourhood and so close to the city, any time stuff like that happens it does have a very special feeling.

ALEX: Was that your most memorable gig?

JULIA: I think so, yeah.

ALEX: Your most personal gig?

JULIA: Definitely. Webster was really special.

ALEX: You’ve worked in the fashion industry for a while now, I’m interested to know what that experience has taught you?

JULIA: It’s funny, when I was a kid I wasn’t someone who thought a lot about what I wore. My mom took me to KMart twice a year and that was it. Like we had the winter KMart and the summer KMart. I wasn’t one of those kids with style. It was only when I joined my first band when I was thirteen that I started thinking about clothes. We used to sew our own clothes and I got into vintage. So my whole relationship to clothing and style is related to music, it’s always been part of the story. When it comes to music and bands, so much of the experience is like a fantasy. Bands and art exist for people to lose themselves in and to hold onto. One of my favourite bands of all time is Devo because I really think of them as a project that was able to fully execute an artistic concept, with style being such a big part of it. Over the years [fashion] has been something I’ve had the pleasure of being able to work with a lot. I have to hand that to Hedi [Slimane], who really brought me into a higher level of understanding. Watching him work allowed me to open me up and be around a lot of the greats in the industry from a young age. I’ve learned a lot by being around people who are masters of their space, like Steven Meisel and Pat McGrath.

To me, style and fashion are inherently a way that music and the story of your music can be told. It really is your calling card – when you walk into a room, when you live your life, and also a way for you to change your life. You can change the nature of every day by how you look. You can change the way you’re perceived, the phases of your life. I think style is the everyday artistic expression people are allowed. People aren’t allowed that many ways to express themselves, but style, however you choose to approach it, is one of the easiest ways to bring more art into your life and get closer to your identity.

ALEX: Have you had any fashion disasters?

JULIA: I’ve had a lot. I remember I used to try to wear spaghetti strap halter tops on stage. I did two shows and it would just fall apart while I was playing and my manager would have to come behind and like hold it up. That actually happened at Glastonbury, my shirt fell off but I held it on with my bass. Recently I tried to wear low rise pants because I saw some teenagers do it on St. Marks Place and I was like, “Holy shit.” Not for me. So I’m going to stay out of the low rise.

ALEX: Lastly, any upcoming New York bands we should keep an eye on?

JULIA: You should listen to Hello Mary, they’re one of my favourite bands. I’m sort of mentoring them a little bit. I tried to produce them earlier in the pandemic, but it was when, you know, you couldn’t be in the same room as anyone. I couldn’t even turn on the amps or change the mic – all that shit. So it didn’t really work, but they opened for us at Webster and they’re awesome.

TEAM CREDITS:

Photographer: Harry Clark
Talent: Julia Cumming
Stylist: Peghah Maleknejad
Feature Writer: Alex James Taylor

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