On a chilly March afternoon in Williamsburg, Julia Cumming, the platinum-haired bassist of the New York rock band Sunflower Bean, is sorting through worn-in T-shirts and denim at the vintage store 10 Ft. Single when her own voice comes on the overhead speakers. A grin spreads across her face — this is certainly not the first time this has happened. “You’re getting old, so act your age,” the real-life Cumming croons along.
Nor will it be the last: On the heels of sold out-shows in L.A. and San Francisco, and 11 performances at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., Sunflower Bean will in a few days release a sophomore album, “Twentytwo in Blue,” named for the age its members all recently turned. Since forming in 2013, the band has been heralded as a successor to New York rock acts including Blondie and The Velvet Underground; last year, they opened for the Pixies.
Cumming, the band’s bassist, has modeled for Anna Sui, Max Mara, Rochas and Saint Laurent. While she loves fashion, she usually wears vintage on stage — it’s more practical.
Today, they’re visiting their hometown vintage spots around Brooklyn, scoping out outfits for the upcoming tour. Their sound (and look) is one part psychedelia, one part glam rock, and all parts teen — or rather, early-20s — spirit. “You look like Kurt,” the drummer, Jacob Faber, referring to Kurt Cobain, says to guitarist Nick Kivlen, who’s trying on a red flannel shirt at Bushwick’s Urban Jungle. “Maybe in a too literal way?” Kivlen replies. He settles on a shrunken Ralph Lauren button-down; Faber, on a 1970s three-piece suit. Is aesthetic consistency overrated? “Totally,” they both say.
Cumming is one dressing room over, sorting through folds of sparkly white lace. “It’s like a slutty wedding!” she exclaims gleefully, of the early-Betsey Johnson-esque dress she’s trying on. Cumming is also a model: for Anna Sui, Max Mara, Rochas and, most prominently, Saint Laurent, where her inky gaze — today accented by midnight eyeliner and untamed brows — caught the eye of the brand’s then-creative and image director Hedi Slimane; between 2014 and 2016, she walked in six shows and starred in three campaigns for the brand.
At Urban Jungle, Cumming was drawn to a dramatic black lace dress with puff sleeves. “I look like I’m going to prom in the 80s!” she exclaimed.
“I don’t shop just to shop,” said Jacob Faber, Sunflower Bean’s drummer, who headed straight for a 1970s three-piece suit at Urban Jungle. “I’m always looking for something specific.”
Unsurprisingly, Cumming loves fashion. Loewe and Eckhaus Latta are among her favorite brands, although vintage is more her speed financially and more practical for sweaty stages. She gravitates toward velvet pieces, often with puff sleeves. Today’s stores, all close to the Brooklyn apartment that Cumming, Faber and Kivlen once shared, are rummage-friendly. At L Train Vintage in Bushwick, Cumming picks out a 1950s rhinestone jumpsuit, from a rack where most things are sparkly and under $20.
Though Sunflower Bean’s sound nods to past decades, it’s not vintage: The mash-up of influences — T. Rex, the Velvet Underground, Tame Impala, the poet Dylan Thomas — makes it new. Faber and Kivlen grew up in Glen Head, Long Island, and met in high school. They picked up Cumming, an East Village native, at D.I.Y. shows — held in community-focused and artist-run spaces in Brooklyn — around 2012. “We were basically the only kids our age who were coming out to things every night,” she recalls.
At L Train Vintage, one block away from Urban Jungle in Bushwick, the band tried on almost-matching bomber jackets. Kivlen and Faber also regularly wear matching Casio watches. “It makes me look at my phone less, which is nice,” explained Faber.
Kivlen showed up to the shopping trip in a tiger-embroidered beret and head-to-toe denim accented with fringe he made himself. “My favorite thrift stores are in the South and Southwest,” he said. “There’s a lot of exciting stuff that’s not picked through,” like a women’s floral blazer he bought recently while on tour in Arizona.
Coordinated looks often happen serendipitously on tour, the band explained. “When you spend so much time together, you know what everyone’s feeling,” said Kivlen.
Leaving L Train Vintage, the band made their way to the store 10 Ft. Single, in Williamsburg, to rifle through the shop’s impressive collection of band T-shirts and Americana.
Rock music has historically been a way for kids to dissent, but the D.I.Y. scene which incubated the group just a few years ago has largely dispersed, says Faber. “If you’re a new band who isn’t from here, you probably can’t afford to get started in New York.” One song from “Twentytwo in Blue,” “Crisis Fest,” considers dissent in multiple locales: “There’s a coup in our country / It’s happening now / A coup in our city / It’s happening downtown.” Sunflower Bean shot the video at a show they played at the music venue Alphaville, in Brooklyn, last year. In an interlude, audience members answer the question “What’s it like being young in 2017?” “Weird,” says one. “Chaotic,” says another. “Great,” say three. At 10 Ft. Single, I pose the same question to Kivlen. “We’re the same as them,” he says, referring to his fans.
At 10 Ft. Single, Kivlen and Cumming tried to guess the songs playing overhead on the speakers. “I can’t be in McDonald’s without wanting to know what’s playing,” Cumming joked. Not long after, the band’s own song, “Easier Said,” came on.
Which is true — to an extent. For a moment, the trio disappears into the crowd of stylish Brooklyn shoppers, before I spot them thanks to Julia’s gleaming glam-rock boots: They’re silver leather and stitched with crimson lightning bolts. “I see style and music as part of the same thing,” she says. “It’s a way you express yourself.”
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