On The Road, For The Record: Sunflower Bean
In 2014, they were crowned the #1 Hardest-Working Band by Oh My Rockness. In 2016, they played over 200 shows. Now in 2018, after releasing their second EP, Twentytwo,which made NME’s “Greatest New York Albums of All Time” list, alongside the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, Wu-Tang Clan, and The Ramones (to name a few), NYC-based band Sunflower Bean is on the road once again.
This band is tangible proof of the age-old saying that practice really does make perfect—technically they don’t skip a beat, their shows are packed with unrecorded renditions of their beloved track list, and they know how to engage their audience constantly. As they finished up their first couple tunes, lead vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming raised her Red Bull, letting the crowd know, “We’re bringing it back—we’ve got the bull in the house!” This energy continued throughout the show, most literally with a mosh pit full of stage-divers.
As they geared up to play their track “Crisis Fest”, Cumming asked the crowd to sing along with the chorus. In true punk fashion, she exclaimed, “Think about who you want to say no to!”, as she prompted the crowd to raise their fists.
Before their show in LA, Milk sat down in the green room at the Teragram Ballroom to chat with Cumming, drummer Jacob Faber, and guitarist and vocalist Nick Kivlen of Sunflower Bean. Read below for our full conversation accompanied by photos shot by Yasmine Diba.
So, first question—what is the biggest misconception about being on tour?
Jacob Faber: I think it’s different for every band, you know? I think the general public have their preconceived notions of what it’s like. People are like, “Oh you guys are partying every night!” For us, it’s mostly just playing the shows and then just taking it easy every night and trying to get her to sleep and stuff.
Nick Kivlen: I think the most wrong misconception, it might not be the most common, but the most wrong is when people are like, “So when are you guys flying to the next city?”. It’s like, no, no, no, no.
Julia Cumming: Yeah, like “fly to the next city.” Or, it’s like “what’s the bus like?” Especially for the US, for many people at this level, it’s a van. Or they think it’s a lot like that movie… what’s it called? “Almost Famous.”
NK: You know what though, the thing I can’t fathom is when I’m home and I run into people, and they’re like, “So are you on tour right now?” And I’m like, “No, I’m talking to you in New York.” That’s the biggest misconception.
JC: Plus tours are always kind of like always starting. So when people ask, “Are you on tour currently?”, I’m like, “I’m never not on tour.”
I was doing my research, and I kept reading headlines like “Hardest- Working Band of 2014”. So for example, if you have over 200 shows in 2016 (which you did), what were you doing the other 165 days?
NK: Traveling to the shows—no I’m just kidding.
JC: Maybe writing. It’s definitely like… I don’t even know.
NK: Maybe we would say like 25 percent of the time, we’re living personal lives, and then 50 percent of the time we’re doing press or going to something or doing something related to the band, and then maybe 25 percent of the time we’re working on music.
JC: To wrap up this thought, the thing about touring for us is like you kind of have to decide what kind of life you want to have because your life is touring. We’ve been getting a lot more into exercise. You know, I’m drinking a coffee right now, instead of alcohol—which is a different kind of addiction, but you know, it’s things like that. The people that party super crazy, crazy hard every night; I don’t know how they do it. I would die.
Okay. So a few things we’re going to extract from this. Describe your van. What is it like? What do you listen to you? What is your favorite snack?
NK: These are great questions.
JF: Our van, is a modest-sized van. It’s a white van. We bought it with all of our savings.
JC: Gorgeous, stunning.
JF: Yeah. It’s a nice van that we own, which I think is really nice for us. It kind of cements it in that this is a serious thing for us and we kind of just saved up all of our money. We’re not gonna spend the rest of our lives renting something that is basically our home, you know? It really becomes our home on the road.
JC: The Ford Transit is very, very trusty. She’s a very strong beast. She’s not flashy, but she gets you everywhere safely.
JC: She’s wholesome; She’s the kind of girl you want to take home to meet your family, let me put it that way.
Does she have a name?
JC: She doesn’t have a name.
Her character speaks for itself.
JC: Yeah—sometimes she smells weird, but so does everyone. Sometimes I smell weird. She’s doing her best. We all are. We’re all doing our best.
JF: I don’t know, I feel like I’ve been trying to lay off the gas station snacks. Maybe beef jerky?
JC: My new favorite is the Propel Zero Calorie, like super crazy water—the ones that are like strawberry-kiwi. They are kinda hard to find on the East Coast. When I see them, I love them so much, that I often buy two or three to hold onto for the next day.
NK: Yeah, I actually snack on sunflower seeds on tour, which is so stupid. It’s so silly.
You could sell them on eBay.
NK: Maybe we could just sell them on the merch table?
JC: Like his used sunflower remnants…that’s disgusting.
NK: Sunflower seeds chewed by Sunflower Bean! No, well we could sell sunflower seeds at the merch table if we just had our own label we printed out—that would be really funny.
JC: You knows, some bands start labels, some bands start sunflower seed companies.
Next question, and you guys kind of touched on this, but taking care of yourself mentally, physically, spiritually? How do you do that?
NK: I have an immediate thought. I think that we listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a ton of podcasts and putting on the headphones and like having like a person you know or like a group of people you know, speak to you for like an hour and a half in silence is kind of like hanging out with other friends and when you’re on tour with like the same four people for 12 months, listening to a podcast and hearing the thoughts of someone you know really personally is very helpful and very soothing. It kind of gets me into a place where I feel like I’m hanging out with other people.
JC: The car is a little weird for me because, at this point, I’m so in tune with sleeping in the car that the car makes me a bit delirious, so sometimes I spend many hours of the day kind of dozing in and out of a sleep state. Which is not always great, it’s a bit disorienting.
I think it is a fine line because you’re so isolated from the things you have at home. When you’re being very, very strict and you’re like, “This is self-care, I’m not drinking, I’m doing all of these things.” You are constantly redefining your relationship with it based on what you need in your life. Sometimes you need to be really strict and then sometimes you need to have a little bit of fun. Sometimes that means like, I’m just gonna take a nap or I’m gonna stay out late, or I’m gonna eat some ice cream. You know what I mean? It’s like life; nothing stays one way. No matter how much you would like to solve it, and be like “This is how I’m going to be forever.”
JF: It’s like with anything. It’s trying to find that balance, and a lot of parts of tour can feel very monotonous with a lot of different variables in them, it’s a tricky thing. Like Julia said, it’s about balancing and figuring out what kind of self-care you need when. For me, if I’m feeling stressed out or not happy with myself, I’ll try to go on a run in the morning. That helps a lot. And sometimes you just need to get a little drunk. It’s all just a balance.
JC: I think one thing that’s really cool, that’s been a big shift in our lives – it’s a double-edged sword where it’s like I don’t feel like I live anywhere, but at the same time I feel like I live everywhere. I don’t feel rooted to any place. It feels like, “Oh, I could just go to Portugal tomorrow.” As long as you have enough money, it’s like none of these things really matter. Home is where I’m standing right now. I am home. This is it. My body is what my life is.
NK: Especially when America starts to feel small and you’re driving. You’re like, “Oh, we were just at this gas station in Ohio like three months ago.”
JC: Yeah and it’s just like this gas station in Ohio. There’s no reason you would ever…
NK: …go twice and we’re hitting it again. It’s like, “Oh, that’s the coffee shop that we go to when we’re in Chicago. That’s the restaurant we go to in Toronto.”
Are there specific places that you have to stop at when you’re on tour?
JF: Oh yeah, when we find something good in a city we always try to return to it.
JC: We used to be absolutely obsessed with breakfast. We knew all the best breakfast spots in every state. I feel like we’ve toned down breakfast more so. What’s that place we went to in Chicago?
NK: Toast in Chicago. Jelly in Colorado. What’s the place in Toronto with the Terracotta pancakes? The Ace in Los Angeles has very good pancakes.
JC: As you can see we’re pancake connoisseurs. The joy is that you get to wake up every morning and do it again.
I read in an interview that you that you guys really like playing in London. It’s so great. I feel like the best music always comes out of London.
JC: Well the best music fans.
What makes a good fan? What makes you excited when you someone in an audience?
JC: Energy is really funny; even within the audience. The audience is deciding the ecosystem more than they know. You kind of have the power in the audience. The ideal audience member and what we’ve we’d really want from a fan is to come to the show with an open mind and come ready to see something, and hear something, and feel something different. Oftentimes, if a bunch of people come to that with an open mind, then they’re giving a lot to you. And when you get a lot from them, you can really just ride it. It’s not their responsibility, but it’s more fun for a band.
Having opened for bands like the Pixies, Wolf Alice, DIIV etcetera—what have you learned? Did they ever give you any advice?
JF: Maybe not specific advice, but just being on tour with a band like Wolf Alice and seeing their work ethic. And seeing how they function is kind of the most inspiring thing. When we were on tour in the UK, they were spending two hours every evening after their own soundcheck to figure out their light show. It’s not just one of them, it’s all of them standing there with the playback going and watching the lights. It’s really cool to see a band put in that much effort with something like that. It’s those little things that are inspiring.
Last question. What advice do you guys have for up-and-coming bands trying to get their foot in the door?
NK: I have a really practical tip and this took me a long time to realize, but the best thing to ever do—maybe not the best thing, but a great big thing for me on tour has been having one thing I wear on stage every single night. And it seems obvious, but I used to just be like of the idea that it’s like, “Oh you just wear on stage what you wear during the day.” But you just get so sweaty and end up making all your clothes smell so bad. So if you have like one favorite outfit, that is a really good idea. And trust me, no one’s gonna judge you for it. Just wear that one outfit every night. And you’ll never have to do laundry again.
JF: Positivity and morale. I think it’s just really bringing your bandmates and the people you’re on tour with, up if they’re feeling down. And just being super aware of the moods and vibes of everything. Just being positive and compassionate. I know that’s cheesy. But if we’ve learned one thing after being on tour for so long, it just makes everything so much easier.
NK: Jules, do you have a practical tip?
JC: Yeah, I would say try to listen to your body, which also sounds like very hippy-dippy; and I don’t even fully always try to understand what that means, but it’s easy to be hard on your body and take it for granted. And your body will win. When it’s hurting, it will make it known. You wanna be on top of that. Take those vitamins. Take a nap. Don’t feel obligated to do any partying, if your body is saying don’t push it to.
Real last question—what vitamins do you take?
JF: We take Oregano oil pills, Vitamin C, mushroom pills. B-12, Vitamin D.
Stay tuned to Milk for more stories from the road.