Every few years, a new band is declared the New York band of the moment. And yet, all rock bands that find themselves inextricably intertwined with New York are not necessarily linked to the same New York as those that came before. The Velvet Underground’s clique-y Warholian fantasyland was not the same city as the Ramones’ underworked, oversexed and drug-addled Gotham. Nor was that Gotham the same city as the inherently nihilist and stylish post-9/11 New York reigned over by Julian Casablancas and Karen O.
It follows, then, that the Strokes’ and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ New York –- and these bands were New York, even if Casablancas has since moved upstate and O has shifted her focus to lo-fi, half-baked love ballads –- is not the New York of Sunflower Bean. At age twenty, the three members of Sunflower Bean (two of whom are technically from Long Island, not unlike the majority of the under-35 population of Brooklyn) live in a different city altogether. Theirs is a post-Giuliani, mid-gentrification-crisis New York, an NYC in which Manhattan is unlivable for those not raking in millions and Brooklyn is already passé. The geographical boundaries delineating the Lower East Side have remained static in the decades separating Patti Smith’s maniacal poetry readings at CBGB from the trio’s own upbringing, but little else has. In fact, the CBGB of Sunflower Bean’s New York is not CBGB at all, but a John Varvatos store with a few coffee-table books on punk history for sale amid racks of overpriced clothing.
So while the members of Sunflower Bean draw on all the versions of New York that preceded them for both their music and personal style, they are a New York band in the distinctly 2016 understanding of the term. They cut their teeth in the DIY scene within Manhattan and Brooklyn, gigging relentlessly and catching the eye of Casablancas’ label Cult Records and Fat Possum in the process. They’ve since graduated to bigger venues and 20,000-plus Facebook fans, but their all-ages origins remain close to their heart.
“When you have a DIY stage, you want it to be somewhere that’s affordable and a little unregulated,” frontwoman Julia Cumming tells me from the band’s van as it treks through midtown Manhattan. “I think in New York right now, that’s a little bit hard. The pricing out of everybody is really hard, and I think everyone is seeing the effects of that."
Yet for all the talk of American DIY in crisis – thanks in part to the impending demolition of legendary L.A. venue the Smell – Cumming isn’t worried. “DIY in New York City is still alive; it just gets a little further and further out every year,” she insists. “DIY prevails just based on what it is as a concept.”
Sunflower Bean's debut record, Human Ceremony, saw the band stay faithful to the DIY ethos that raised it while polishing up its half-psych, half-punk sound. “We didn’t have a ton of money to be in the studio for a long amount of time,” recalls Cumming. “So we went in there and banged it out.”
Next, the hype. The record premiered a week early through Rolling Stone and was met with positive reviews. Vice’s Noisey declared the musicians to be torchbearers of a new generation of psych-rockers. They landed a support slot on Portugal. The Man and Cage the Elephant’s joint North American tour and an early-evening appearance at Bonnaroo. They now count members of DIIV and Total Slacker among their friends and mentors. (As co-frontman and guitarist Nick Kivlen tells it, they’re merely “casual acquaintances” with Casablancas.) It bears repeating: All three members are too young to legally drink. Seriously, what were you doing at age twenty?
In addition to modeling for Hedi Slimane’s Yves Saint Laurent, Cumming, Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber are searching for a united sound. They’re adamant about avoiding having one of them emerging as the real star backed by two faceless musicians. Writing and recording Human Ceremony was a vehemently collaborative effort, meant to establish an egalitarian and collective identity. “Sunflower Bean is reflective of who we are and what we go through and what we’re interested in and how we’re growing up,” says Cumming. “We’ve always been very open about the fact that this band is a matriculation of all of us.”
In concert, the members' insistence on collaboration manifests as Kivlen and Cumming sharing fronting duties from opposite sides of the stage. If anyone, it’s Faber who occupies the central focal point from behind his drum kit, flanked on either side by his bandmates.
It’s usually Cumming, however, who springs from the stage into the crowd during the set. “Moshing can be therapeutic,” she says. “The ability to be in the crowd and see the people and push them around and get pushed back is really fun. It gets things going.”
Touring will be Sunflower Bean’s norm for the remainder of the year, though they’re not ignoring their impending sophomore album. They’ve already penned a handful of songs likely destined for album number two’s track list, one of which they recently added to their live set. Kivlen insists that they won’t devote serious energy to their followup before December, and until then, they’re happy to concentrate on the present. “A year from now, our record might be doing better than it’s doing now, or people could forget about us,” he muses. “You can only keep on doing what you’re doing at the exact moment you’re doing it.”
Focusing on the now is exactly what’s keeping their egos in check, too. When I ask Kivlen if he sees the band as the voice of a generation, he is quick to decline the role. “I can’t say I feel like we deserve that title at all. Maybe four albums later, maybe when we’ve sold a million more records,” he laughs. “Maybe we’re the voice of the outsiders of our generation who live in New York right now for the next year.”
If he’s right, Sunflower Bean is in good company. Think about it: The same could be said of the Strokes in 2002. Or Sonic Youth in 1994. Or The Ramones in 1976. Or the Velvet Underground in 1968. You get the point.
Sunflower Bean performs at the Underground Music Showcase on Sunday, July 31, at 6:30 p.m. at the Goodwill Main Stage.