Although NME abandoned critical grace yonks ago, they still occasionally manage to point you in the direction of a joyful racket. Flicking through the pages of one depressing issue picked up out of habit more than loyalty, my bile duct was unexpectedly cowed by the description of Sunflower Bean’s debut Human Ceremony. Impressed, I bought what can only be described as an early contender for album of 2016. Androgynous harmonies nestle alongside Seventeen Seconds era Cure, C86 homages and riffs so dirrty they cause music journalists to misspell simple words. I tracked down Julia Cumming (bass, vox), Nick Kivlen (guitar, vox) and Jacob Faber (drums), the miscreants responsible for such musical impropriety, and learnt about their lack of reverence for rock’s pompous past, duels with religion and their passion for Talking Heads.
Hailing from Brooklyn, the trio exude a reassuring gang mentality suggesting their relationship goes well beyond music. Julia’s answers are sprightly and engaging; Nick’s observations convey louche wit; Jacob, last to speak, is affability personified. The their carefree demeanour is ostensibly at odds with conflicted lyrics like “I want you to give me enough time to help me figure things out” and “I want you to stay here, / I feel so much better on my own”, making them a curious proposition. A mix of wryness, not immediately apparent on record, and thoughtfulness characterises their responses.
A recurring topic on the record is the interrogation of Christian faith on tracks like ‘Creation Myth’ and ‘Space Exploration Disaster’. Mockery of religion in rock and roll is nothing new, but something more ambiguous graces Human Ceremony. Occasionally, their lyrics appear to represent disillusionment with religion. “A little bit”, Julia agrees. “Besides disillusionment with religion growing up, we’re playing with religious imagery in rock music. We hope it didn’t come across as a Christian record” she adds worriedly. Images of Evangelical audiences wildly contorting infect my vision and I assure her it doesn’t. “Even if you’re not religious you still say ‘oh my god’, stuff like that. God and religion are still a part of the lives of the non-religious. It’s something we have a lot of feelings about.” From an outsider’s perspective music has acted as a useful repository for their uncertainty. Most strikingly, Human Ceremony is innocence tempered by experience; it’s the sound of young people not simply revelling in unbridled hedonism but demonstrating an early awareness of mortality.
When I ask Nick about the meaning behind Human Ceremony’s artwork, I catch a peek of Sunflower Bean’s vision and his dry humour. I suggest the glut of clocks symbolises a preoccupation with the inescapable effects of ageing. “The cover’s a little bit playful, tongue in cheek and joking around about the seriousness and mystique of rock music”, Nick responds, shaming my undergraduate level analysis. “We really wanted to be on the cover. In Brooklyn at least, a lot of people don’t put themselves on their album. They usually have some graphic design art or something that’s a little bit forgettable.” Sunflower Bean’s lack of deference for rock and roll’s frayed tapestry reframes my impressions. What can be described as their nonchalantly sardonic expressions on the cover reveal a playful side their bruised lyrics.
We wanna just convey how to be human and how it feels to be alive in this day and age.
Scrutinising their taste more closely, I uncover a devotion to bands who don’t necessarily influence their sound, namely Talking Heads. “I’m new to Talking Heads, but I always think of Remain in Light and it was like listening to The Ramones for the first time,” Nick gushes. “The first song, ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ doesn’t sound like anything made before or after. It’s one of those unique albums. Talking Heads are one of those bands who defined an entire era of music in the mid-eighties.” It’s safe to say he’s a fan. Jacob is also part of the Talking Heads appreciation society. ‘They’re just incredible. Fear of Music is such an amazing album and it gets so, so weird.” He also reveals the band ‘bonded over production of (Fleetwood Mac’s) Rumours while making the album in the studio.’ “The engineer who recorded our album is a huge fan and he helped us get this idea of clarity”, leaving me to wonder how such an overrated shambles, responsible for birthing televisual monstrosity Glee could inspire one of the most promising modern guitar bands around. Apologies to Prince are in order. Neither Nick nor Jacob have listened to the late diminutive eccentric.
Human Ceremony is an astral roar into the inky blackness of space, a raucous mess of emotions jostling for position. The band’s mission statement, founded on a combination of shiny melodies and gritty confusion, is to celebrate the joy and confusion of life, Jacob says. “We wanna just convey how to be human and how it feels to be alive in this day and age. Living is a very dynamic thing and we don’t want to be just one sound. We don’t want to be boxed up into one category. You could be feeling a lot of things at once and I think that’s what we’re inadvertently trying to put across.” These sonic dabblers are intent on inspiring rock and roll fans to expand their emotional palettes, and invite you to immerse yourself in an album simultaneously anxious about and in awe of life.
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