Sugar rushes and doom metal: NYC trio Sunflower Bean isn’t what you’d expect live, and that’s a good thing

In 2014, before they recorded any music, Oh My Rockness named Sunflower Bean the hardest working band in New York City for playing 50 hometown shows that year, although the indie-rock trio claims it was closer to 100.

“50 were just the officially listed shows,” singer/guitarist Nick Kivlen told me this past Saturday outside of Zanzabar, the first stop of a tour supporting their recently-released debut full-length, Human Ceremony, that stretches into the fall. “We played a lot of house shows, and a lot of DIY shows, that didn’t get listed. We were really going for it, and I think it’s really important to go for it like that because it’s great practice, it gets your name out there, and it creates a fan base in your city.”

“And, when the numbers came out at the end of the year, of who played the most shows, we didn’t even know that was a thing that happened,” singer/bassist Julia Cumming added. “People just kept asking us to play, and we were really excited about it, and then at the end of the year, we were like, ‘Oh my god.’”

Sunflower Bean at Zanzabar (photo by Nik Vechery)
Sunflower Bean at Zanzabar (photo by Nik Vechery)

Formed from other NYC bands and projects, which gave them a solid starting point from carried-over connections, the trio’s initial focus on being a solid live band first was on full display during this past weekend’s Louisville show. Within a minute, it was apparent we were in for something heavier than the album: The songs still held those signature dreamy elements that defined the early-’00s Brooklyn scene, but the sludgy metal-ish riffs find a lot more room when they get to the stage.

Sugar rushes are replaced by walls of sound, and an evil bite replaces carefully-constructed experimental elements of the record — it’s like Beach Fossils produced the album, and the ghost of Lemmy Kilmister directs the live shows. And it’s a great juxtaposition — Human Ceremony is for listening to by yourself with headphones on, taking in the interesting ideas and angles that they apply in the studio, and their concerts kick up the sort of energy needed to make a live show memorable.

photo by Nik Vechery
photo by Nik Vechery

While the dual experiences is exactly what you want as a listener — no one wants to spend their time and money hearing an album being played verbatim — it’s not completely on purpose, although it’s something the band is aware of.

“Live, we can nail really heavy doom metal tone, but, for some reason, it was hard to translate our indie rock into a doom metal-y sort of sound on a record,” Kivlen said, back before the show. “Our 7-inch had two Sabbath-y sort of songs that came out really weird. They came out sounding like a soft holy mountain or something. And, we’re like, we’ll do it live — we love going into some heavy grooves live, but on [Human Ceremony], we wrote more song-y songs.”

Kivlen continued: “You wouldn’t necessarily think we were a band that people would mosh to, if you just listen to the album …”

“…but, it happens,” Cumming added.

“Maybe not tonight, but…” Kivlen trailed off, seemingly concerned about the possibility of a light crowd on the tour’s first stop.

“Hopefully,” drummer Jacob Faber, finishing Kivlen’s sentence.

“If you guys start the pit,” Cumming said, looking at me and LEO photography Nik Vechery.

We didn’t start a pit, but she kind of did. Halfway through the show, Cumming jumped into the crowd, bouncing around with them for a solid minute, while in the middle of an extended jam. Not too much longer after, she said, “We’re going to cool things down, if that’s even possible,” referring to both the tempo of the show to that point and because small venues basically become saunas in the summer. What followed was the night’s first swing into the pop part of their spectrum, and, as Cumming sung “Easier Said,” she seemed genuinely humbled by the people packed in the front chanting the chorus with her. Later, the crowd asked for an encore, and although they seemed a little surprised by it, they obliged to the call for “one more song.”

photo by Nik Vechery
photo by Nik Vechery

For as much buzz as the band has around them — Rolling Stone calling them NYC’s coolest young band, being a name that seemed to fight through all of the South by Southwest noise, having a highly-anticipated debut full-length that delivered — they seem to not let any of it go to their heads. Instead, they are just really focused on moving themselves forward, and continuing to find ways to build something that is always morphing.

“Since rock music isn’t what’s going on right now — at the Grammy’s or whatever — it almost makes the option to be really experimental, because there’s not any kind of precedent in what rock music really is now,” Cumming said. “It almost feels like you’ve seen it happen and there are so many different cool parts of it you can kind of … it’s cool to look through all of the stuff that we like and try to make something really special and different from all of those places instead of one exact thing.”