Sunflower Bean Exhume Four Covers ‘From the Basement’
2016 may have been a pretty shitty year, but it gave us plenty of great music. With critics everywhere beginning to roll out their best-of lists, we're starting to see a lot of the same names (and rightfully so): Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Radiohead, Bon Iver and the like. In the interest of diversity and due diligence — and out of respect for the underdogs — we here at CLRVYNT are taking this month to honor some releases you may have overlooked.
Back in February, Brooklyn trio Sunflower Bean released their Human Ceremony LP, an infectious slice of psych-rock heaven. Later on in the year, they followed up that debut with From the Basement, a four-track covers EP featuring new interpretations of classic songs from T. Rex, the Modern Lovers, Spiritualized and Neil Young. CLRVYNT caught up with guitarist / vocalist Nick Kevlin to chat about their 2016 tour, talk shop about these legendary artists and discuss what's next for the promising band.
What’s the craziest show that you’ve played this year?
We played the Echo in L.A. last March, and I think that was the standout show of the year by far. The energy level, the crowd and everything — it was just an amazing night. It was kind of like a pretty ideal show, like a dream show. Also, we went to China and Japan in August, and Shanghai in China was sort of a big “What the fuck?” moment. “Oh my god, we’re in a place I never dreamed I’d get to go to,” and there were 300 people who knew words to the songs and everything. Then, a few days later, we played to the biggest crowd we’d ever played for, in Japan, at Summer Sonic Festival. That was also really amazing.
They say you know you’ve made it when you’ve played Japan. It’s amazing how everyone memorizes all of the lyrics; they’re some of the most passionate crowds imaginable.
Yeah, Japan was an amazing country in general. The festival was probably the nicest festival I’ve ever walked around. Everyone had very good vibes there; and not, like, “festival” vibes.
Are you not a fan of festivals?
I am and I’m not. I think that it’s a very good way to see a bunch of artists in one day, but I also think that it can be a little bit like a “spring break” sort of thing, and I don’t think that’s very fun. It depends on the festival.
I was really impressed with these covers; you’ve got so many different genres and artists represented. Could you tell us more about how the project came to be?
Yeah, definitely. We chose the songs on the covers EP sort of out of a more personal choice of playing these four covers. Less than the thing where you hear something and you think you can do a more … like, some people pick a song because they have a big idea to redo it in a sonic way and sort of transform it, but we [didn't].
We were asked to do the covers EP by Rough Trade because they gave us an album of the month thing, and with the album of the month, they also offer an exclusive CD, so usually bands [do] a live recording, or they do a demo of the real album, but we chose to do some covers because we didn’t really have any good live recordings. We chose the covers more from a personal meaning of the songs to us and their relation to our album, and what we were listening to when we were making our album.
First up: T. Rex's "Life's a Gas."
When me and [bassist / vocalist] Julia [Cumming] first met, we always vented over music and we would talk about music, and Julia told me that her favorite artist was T. Rex. I’d never listened to him, and I had no idea who Marc Bolan was, so she showed me T. Rex and I absolutely fell in love with it, and that sort of made me think. “Life’s a Gas” is one of the greatest songs of all time. And on her 18th birthday, we all went to the tattoo parlor and she got a “Life’s a Gas” tattoo. That’s how we decided to cover it.
Next, we have the Modern Lovers' "Old World."
We got into that album pretty early on; I knew “Roadrunner,” and then I just downloaded the album and we listened to it non-stop. Like, that was a record we played non-stop in October when we were going on tour with No Joy and DIIV, and it became our absolute favorite “driving on the highway” album, and it sort of just came naturally. You know when you hear an album and it’s really tailored to your tastes and you’re almost like, “Wow, this is made exactly for me”? It just clenched really well with us, and we sort of wanted to take the driving rhythm that a lot of Modern Lovers songs have and put our own into the groove parallel. Our version is a little bit faster, and it’s a little bit more like a trance, like the drum beat.
What about Spiritualized's "Shine a Light"?
Spiritualized is a band that are like the Grateful Dead, where their fan base are totally dedicated, and I’ve only really listened to live recordings of them, except for their last record, which is great. I usually only listen to live Spiritualized recordings, like Live at the Royal Albert Hall, and they have that song, “Shine a Light,” which was recorded in the early '90s, and I’m not really a fan of the album version, so we sort of recorded it more towards how they do it live, and we really love that song. Spiritualized, you know, like me and Jacob [Faber] especially, it’s one of our favorite bands, and I think that J. Spaceman is sort of the second wave of “super songwriters” in the line of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and all of those people. Plus, I got to play slide on it, and it’s one of my favorite slide guitar parts, and that was really fun.
The last cover is Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” Young is super political. You mentioned changing up the idea of a song earlier, and I was wondering if you think there’s a certain obligation when you cover another artist’s song to sort of respect the song? Do you think there’s any politics to doing a cover in that sense?
I think for some songs there is, and for some there aren’t. I think it has to do with the age of the song, and how much it’s just become a part of the musical climate. I think there’s a big tradition in American music, folk music and rock music — of sort of like the American songbook — and they’re kind of like these things that are written by people, but they belong to everyone.
Of course. That’s the whole tradition; the whole point of folk is that the songs don’t really belong to anyone, and that they kind of gradually find new homes.
Yeah, I think that if you’re doing your thing, I don’t think you’re hurting anyone. I think that there are bad covers of good songs, but it doesn’t do anything to distract from the original for me. I didn’t really feel nervous doing any covers that we did; maybe if there was a band that was a contemporary of ours and we covered one of their songs and they knew I’d be seeing them in person, then maybe I’d be a little nervous. One time we played a cover of a Spacemen 3 song, “Walkin' With Jesus,” and we used to do it ... really energetic, almost like a punk cover of “Walkin' With Jesus,” and we performed it in front of some of the members of Spiritualized. Not J. Spaceman himself, but we were opening for — we didn’t even know it, that this band we were playing a show with at Secret Project Robot had touring members of Spiritualized, so that was pretty funny.
What’d they think?
We didn’t know. We didn’t talk to them about it, and they didn’t mention it. It’s not their song anyway, but it was kind of cutting it close.
It’s interesting talking to you about covering bands. As part of the Brooklyn scene, you guys kind of run with bands like DIIV, Total Slacker and Beach Fossils. Would you ever consider trading covers with one of those bands?
I don’t know. I think that DIIV is a band that sort of influenced me a lot because … when I was in high school, they were some of the first people I met in Brooklyn. I went to all of their early shows and sort of watched them, so I think they have a special place in the development in this band. So, I’m not sure with them, but we also have maybe more than a few things in common with them, so I think it would be cool if we did it with a band that we don’t have something in common with. I definitely think that’s a cool idea, and I like when bands do that. I remember when Total Slacker and Friends did a split that worked out very well.
If you could put a fifth cover on the EP, what would it be?
Right now, we’re talking about doing a cover of a song that, I don’t know who it was written by, but it’s called “Streets of Baltimore,” and it’s more famously performed by Gram Parsons.
Another folk song! The songwriting credits are hazy on that one, too.
Exactly, and one of my best friends just learned how to play lap steel guitar, so I thought it would be really funny to do that one song with him. So, maybe that would be the fifth song, but who knows? There’s so many songs out there; I’ll always hear a song and write it down.
So, as far as non-covers go, what’s next? Any new recordings in the works for 2017?
That remains to be seen. We’ve been on the road so much since the album came out in February ... and we stopped playing shows in December, so we’ve allotted ourselves [the] winter to work on new material. We have a bunch of ideas that we have to flesh out more. It just all depends. It’s a gradual process, so we’ll see how quickly things start materializing, and our next release definitely isn’t too far away, but I don’t think it's too safe to say any sort of timeline yet.