Sunflower Bean: NYC's Coolest Young Band Talks Classic-Rock-Inspired Debut

How the trio channeled their passion for Pink Floyd, Zeppelin and the Velvets into the killer 'Human Ceremony'

Up-and-coming New York trio Sunflower Bean talks classic rock, gentrification and "poser doom metal." Credit: Photograph by Christaan Felber for Rolling Stone

Growing up on Long Island, Nick Kivlen and Jacob Faber barely knew any other kids at their high school who listened to rock & roll. "You don't know that rock music exists in this age unless someone shows you," says Faber, 20. But they found it: Kivlen, also 20, obsessed over Metallica and Minor Threat before discovering Obama-era indie ("The first Beach Fossils album changed my life," he says), while Faber, a talented jazz saxophonist, realized it was more fun to drum along to Nirvana and Foo Fighters records at home. 

By the summer after they graduated in 2013, they were gigging around New York as Sunflower Bean, with Kivlen on guitar and vocals and Faber behind the kit. "We were naively serious about the band," Kivlen says. Sunflower Bean took off after they added singer and bassist Julia Cumming, a kindred spirit from Manhattan who was studying classical singing at a performing-arts high school but preferred Seventies glam and lost-years Brian Wilson. "I like Smiley Smile better than Smile, to be honest," says Cumming, 19. "I know a lot of Beach Boys fans would want to fight me about it."

Sunflower Bean's full-length debut, Human Ceremony (out February 5th), reflects all those influences and more, whirling with glee through decades of sweet riffs and psychedelic thrills. When I meet the band at Brooklyn's Baby's All Right, they debate their favorite debut albums (Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground and Nico and Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn are all in contention). Later, Cumming points out her T. Rex T-shirt. "I have a T. Rex tattoo, too," she says with a laugh. "It's, like, levels."

Baby's is the band's favorite New York venue, partly because they've played here more than anywhere else. "Maybe 40 times?" Cumming says. "No, like, 25," Kivlen says. "Definitely at least 30," she counters. Witness the work ethic that led local listings site Oh My Rockness to name Sunflower Bean the hardest-working band in the city in 2014, a year in which they played 50 hometown gigs. You can hear the band's dedication, too, in the way they've steadily evolved their sound — from the bluesy garage-rock that Kivlen and Faber started out playing, to a short-lived doom-metal phase shortly after Cumming's arrival, and beyond. "The metal world is super-elitist, and we were definitely poser doom metal," Kivlen says with a laugh. Cumming shrugs: "Metal is still fun. But we have our whole lives to be a doom-metal band."

Sunflower Bean's members are old enough to have picked up the true New Yorker's pastime of lamenting the city they knew when they were young. "When I walk around the neighborhood, the post office is gone, the stationery store is gone, the pizza is gone. It's just bombed-out scaffolding that's going to be a big building," says Cumming, who lives in the same Alphabet City building where she grew up. "I can't help but feel nostalgic about it."

Every once in a while, they marvel at how fast the band's fortunes have risen. "You know how Facebook has that memory thing?" Kivlen says. "They showed me this night from two years ago where we were the first band on a five-band bill."

"Oh, man," Cumming says. "Was that the night I broke the bass?" All three of them smile at the memory. 

At the same time as playing in Sunflower Bean, Cumming has built a second career as a model, appearing in shoots for Yves Saint Laurent and more. (She's one of two members with a day job: Kivlen works at a movie theater back home on Long Island, which has been very generous with vacation time during the band's tours.) "I've been extremely lucky," Cumming says of her fashion work. "It's a time-sensitive job, so I have to try to save what I make from it.  But ultimately, that isn't my dream. I've wanted to be a musician ever since I saw the glam-rock VHS tape my dad put in for me when I was a baby."