Sumo Cyco – The Initiation ProcessTuesday, 4th May 2021
A band built on the DIY process and building themselves one show/fan at a time, Sumo Cyco has been an act that has put in a lot of work since their inception. With their third album on the horizon, they joined forces with Napalm Records for the release of Initiation [Pre-order HERE] and are seeing the work really paying dividends. The band’s unique take on the metal and rock genre masterfully blends a myriad of sounds into a fun and playful sound that can appeal to almost anyone. We got the lowdown on Initiation from vocalist Skye ‘Sever’ Sweetnam a few weeks prior to album release, and we discussed all angles of the album, how starting at a young age in music shaped her as a person (and what she took from it), the importance of fan connections, the Cyco City concept and worldbuilding, and much more.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking further back than just Sumo Cyco, you started really young in music business. Do you feel that helped to shape you as a person?
Skye Sweetnam: 100%. A lot of people look to their life in high school and have all of these defining moments, but if you look to that time I wasn’t in high school. I was out on the road, I was touring, I was dealing with adults every day in the music industry [laughs]. So it’s been quite a learning experience for me, and kind of an adventure being thrust into the industry so young. Especially in such an intense way, going from small town Ontario to flying to L.A. at 14 and getting signed to one of the biggest labels in the world and opening up for the likes of Britney Spears and whatnot. It was a whirlwind experience.
I learned a lot, and thankfully I came out of the other side okay [laughs]. Hollywood can definitely eat you up and spit you out if you let it. I actually feel like a lot of the things that I was able to experience definitely helped me figure out my bearings as to what I wanted to do with my future music endeavors.
Dead Rhetoric: If there was one major takeaway you had with your start, what do you think that would be?
Sweetnam: I learned things from a perspective of the business very young, so I think I approach the music industry in a different way than most musicians. I consider myself a little bit of an entrepreneur in some senses. I think in a bigger picture of building a community, building a brand, and of figuring out a way to cut corners to continue doing what I love every day and support myself doing it. I have been lucky enough that there have only been a few times in my life where I have had to take on or freelance some other jobs for other people. Most of the time I have been working on my music as the main focus of my everyday life, which is really amazing! I’m sometimes impressed with myself at how I’m able to keep afloat, because it always feels like I am always treading water and trying to keep myself above as much as possible so I can keep doing what I do.
But yeah, I do think of the industry instead of coming at it as just a vocalist and singer, I consider myself more of a well-rounded type of artist. I like to do visuals, figure out what our website and merch looks like, what our marketing plan is – I take things from all angles. So I think being in the industry since I was young has helped me to understand that – it is a business. If you want to do the music and not the business, you are totally cool with doing that. But I think for me, I have always wanted to do this as a career, so there are other elements I have to consider when that is the case.
Dead Rhetoric: With all of those other aspects, how much time and creativity do you spend figuring out different things like costumes/outfits when you are on tour or shooting music videos?
Sweetnam: Quite a bit. I have self-taught myself some sewing here and there. I am always trying to come up with ideas that are a little bit more original and kind of define my style. For this latest grouping of music videos, I have really taken more time than ever in planning out every aspect. From the color schemes and how I can bring it into my outfit and thinking about how I am going to make an outfit – how am I going to do it on the cheap? Some of my more innovative moments were buying dollar store pink rope and making it into an outfit and taking some of our merch – Sumo Cyco socks, and I turned 3 pairs of socks into a new top. To me, it’s about being DIY and thrifty, and finding kind of fun ways to reinterpret the things around them and make them custom.
Dead Rhetoric: I finally caught Sumo Cyco live when you were playing with Jinjer in NYC. I was blown away with the band’s performance in the live venue. How important is selling the whole live experience when you are on stage?
Sweetnam: Thank you! For us, it is totally so important with the live show. The show, to me, if you play a bad show they are not going to come back and see you. You have to make sure that they are so thoroughly entertained that not only do they have to leave the venue wanting more and coming back to your next show, but they are also going to tell other people about the experience. For us, it is about showmanship. I think it comes across that we really think about how to take a crowd, even a crowd that is totally cold to our music and has no idea about our songs and couldn’t sing a line back to you, and by the end of the set we have converted some of those guys with their crossed arms across their chest into headbanging and getting in the pit. That’s our goal every night.
We love it. That is the one thing that the four of us have in common more than anything else. Our love of performing. We all look at that as the payoff, in a way, for what we do in being to be able to travel to these places and perform in front of people. That’s our reward for working hard behind the scenes and doing all of these extra DIY moments trying to market ourselves and making crazy outfits out of socks. That’s all for the hopeful payoff that we are going to play some badass shows.
Dead Rhetoric: Coming in with such a unique sound, you have been on a slew of different touring options. It almost seems like something you have to strive for, especially coming in cold and not sure of what any reaction is going to be.
Sweetnam: I think so. We get a pretty cool response when we play live. A lot of people are caught off guard a little bit. When they see us in a promo photo, or hear our music/see a video, I don’t necessarily think they expect the type of show that they see when we play live. That’s part of the fun of it, just surprising people.
Dead Rhetoric: Initiation is the first release you have done with Napalm Records and they seem to be pushing it quite a bit. Do you see this as a bit of a restart for the band?
Sweetnam: I do, and I think that ties into a little bit of why we decided to call this record Initiation. With the reach that Napalm has, to try to find some of those people who may have not heard of us – to expose ourselves to them in a way as an introduction, that’s kind of inviting people to come into our world. I think even beyond that simple fact, I think being a more polarizing band that does mix a lot of genres into heavy music – we are what I would consider kind of a bridge band for people who might not listen to heavy music on the regular. Some of them might end up liking what we have to offer and then end up discovering more of the heavy world through Sumo Cyco potentially. Or the other way around, making people who are super into metal and heavy music realize that you can add something like a dance hall or calypso beat into heavy music and it makes it fun.
I like being the kind of connector between all of these different worlds and genres. That’s part of the whole idea behind Initiation. I give Napalm props for taking a chance on a band like us. We’ve seen it in the comments sections that not everybody agrees that our band is what everyone wants to hear in a band on Napalm, but I think Napalm realizes too that heavy music isn’t just one thing. It can span an entire spectrum of different types of bands. For them to stand behind us and support us, no matter what people say on either side, is really cool of them.
Dead Rhetoric: I think what you just said was perfect. There’s more room for these types of gateway bands where you can pull from so many different sources. It’s good for you, and its good for everyone else. Personally speaking, I will always listen to heavy, heavy stuff but I tend to get more excited about the music that is changing things and blurring lines because it feels so much more fresh and unique.
Sweetnam: I think that’s what we need a little bit, if I can say, I’d like to help the rock and heavy metal world to find more places within mainstream culture. I think that having bands that can get those young people who are just discovering music for the first time to be like, “Hey, there’s some stuff on this other end of the spectrum. Why don’t we invite you down this path and come with us and we’ll introduce some other genres/sounds that you don’t normally listen to?”
I really want to be in a future where you don’t need to have any walls or gatekeeping up in music. Where it’s a lot more acceptable to be outside the box and smashing stereotypes. In any way I can help that is kind of cool. I don’t actually mind the negative comments as it shows that we are reaching a bigger audience and getting in front of some people that normally wouldn’t see Sumo Cyco. Making some waves is alright with me!
Dead Rhetoric: With Initiation, how do you feel as your third full-length, it steps things up for you as a whole?
Sweetnam: Well, I can’t believe it’s been four years since the last one [Opus Mar]. In the last four years, when I think of what the band has been through, and the rollercoaster ride we have all been through, not just the pandemic – pre-pandemic Sumo Cyco was on quite a busy and intense tour schedule. We played some of the biggest shows we had played in our lives and did some festivals for the first time. Getting exposed to more of the world and more different/bigger opportunities has pushed us as writers to keep stepping up our game in a way.
So for me, as a vocalist, when you go on tour and you are tested every night to perform and open up for a band like Jinjer, Wednesday 13, Nonpoint, or Butcher Babies, we have to bring it every night. That means I am pushing myself harder than I ever have before. The same goes in the studio with Matt [Drake]. He’s our guitarist and produces a lot of our stuff. On this record, he was able to work with Kane Churko, who has worked with names like In This Moment and Papa Roach. Matt came out into the studio thinking that with working with someone like that, who is bringing in all of these skills, he had to bring his game up too. Matt has pushed himself to learn more about the engineering and production with each chapter in order to have us become better songwriters. Where I would have been like, “Oh, that sounds cool let’s go with it,” now I’m like, “No, that’s not good enough. It’s a B and we need an A+!”
I think it’s still possible to improve ourselves with each release. When some bands reach a certain level, sometimes they think ‘ok, people like what we are doing, now we can coast.” We have always thought, the more people that are watching the harder you have to push. Now you have to break the next ceiling and the next ceiling to keep moving forward in the industry. So it’s a personal kind of mindset that we have always wanted to always take things up a notch.
Dead Rhetoric: So the question is then, with trying to take things up a notch how do you continue to advance a sound that is already pretty unique to start with?
Sweetnam: For instance, if I think about this record, we have written more material than we normally have written for any other effort. We kind of reimagined every element of Sumo Cyco in every way we could. We went to the table and looked at it from a birds eye view and asked how we could make the record feel most balanced in an overall way. I think before it was like, we would write a good collection of songs one after another and we’d stick it on a record.
This time, we really thought about the full picture of the record. Sometimes we took out a song that might have made the tracklisting because it’s a great song, but we felt like there were too many songs leaning in a certain direction so let’s put another song on that gives people a taste of something different. That’s how we approached it. We actually even had a few moments where we thought we had a final tracklisting and then something would happen and we had to put the record off. Instead of just sitting around and waiting for the record to drop, we decided to write more material to see if we could beat out the other songs. So it was that mentality of not sitting on our butts and thinking it was good enough. We are always trying to do better, even if the label is happy and we are trying to release this, we are always thinking about how we can excel further.
Dead Rhetoric: You have put out two acoustic sessions in the past. Can we expect that some of these Initiation tracks will eventually get an acoustic reworking?
Sweetnam: Yeah, I actually did for the second single [“No Surrender”} I pulled out a piano vocal cover that people can watch on YouTube and that was a new thing for me. Matt actually got me this old, antique stand-up piano he found online for Christmas for me. I hadn’t played piano since I was a teenager really, and just decided to learn one of the Sumo songs piano-style. I am always down with taking songs down a different style. The fans, in the past, have always enjoyed the acoustic versions. They show a different side of the same song. We will definitely do more of that stuff.
Dead Rhetoric: The last time we had spoken a few years back, you had discussed that with the Cyco City concept was something you might like to pursue as a graphic novel or story. Is that something you are still interested in?
Sweetnam: Definitely. For the new record, we have some fun, new ways to get people excited about buying physical copies. Two of those ways – you have cds and you have vinyl. But we decided to do an album book. It’s a 28 page, hardcopy 8”x8” book that has lots of images of the band and these four factions/gangs from Cyco City that our new album Initiation has as an underlying theme. If people want to go to our website. Not only can you order our cool limited bundles but it will also give you a quiz you can take to see which Cyco City gang you belong to and give you a direction on what package you should buy.
I was literally working on this until like 5AM today so that’s why it’s on my brain but we have these limited edition USBs that are like credit cards. Each one belongs to the different factions. One looks like a credit card, one looks like a student id card, one is like a baseball card – it goes with each theme. On each USB, there are these little skits of me trying to string together some of this behind the scenes story of our four gangs. We have, or at least I have, as some of the guys don’t enjoy the geeky stuff the way I do [laughs], but I have been threading together a few easter eggs in the videos we have released recently and into the artwork and USBs. So there are some fun ways if fans want to dive in a little deeper into the world and get into my head – there are a few ways that they can do that.
Dead Rhetoric: You have your own photographer that has been a part of the band for a while now [Francesca Ludikar]. Do you feel it helps in having a uniform vision for your visual representation?
Sweetnam: I do, I think that it has always been very important for me. I think I get it from my mom, to be honest. She was always the type of woman that if she has some sort of collection, she needed to finish it. For example, if we went to McDonalds – I grew up in a family with a brother and sister – and if the three of us got three of a four piece set, she would waltz into McDonalds and be like, “I need that other Happy Meal toy to complete the set!” So for me, it’s almost like an OCD thing that I feel like everything that Sumo Cyco does has to have a similar feel as far as the art and music videos. I like the idea of it being one cohesive project. I think a lot of bands, there are some out there like Avatar or Ghst, that really create that universe that fans can live in. That’s how I have always thought about Sumo Cyco.
I don’t enjoy the idea of letting a new music video director or someone who has never followed the band come up with an album cover. I feel like it isn’t as authentic to what we are. I think about that stuff so much. I feel like it really needs to come from the mind of the band, because that’s where the music is coming from. Why wouldn’t the art come from there too? It just so happens that Matt and I are both super into film and love art. Francesca has been a longtime collaborator and has gone through many a time about how we work, how we think, what we like and what we don’t. it makes the process go a lot faster than if we work with a brand new person taking a stab at things from an outside perspective.
Although there are some things that make we wonder if I should be more open to other collaborations. The fact that on this record we worked with Kane Churko and came up with two really great songs makes me think I might be, “Oh man, I’m closing myself from other great people to work with because I’m so self-involved with my own world.” Maybe some people could bring some other awesome elements in. But maybe it’s a combination of survival as well.
It’s expensive to do the music videos and artwork. To me, I’d rather pay for something I know is going to be good with Francesca that I know will be good than take a chance on maybe collaborations that maybe work but don’t know. So it’s an important part to us and anything we can take on our shoulders we do. I am a bit of a control freak to the point [laughs] where it could hurt me instead of help because I’m up until 5AM editing videos because I won’t let anyone else edit them since I know exactly what I want. But that’s the mad scientist artist that is inside of me.
Dead Rhetoric: That passion pours through into the videos, music, or just being on stage. As we were talking earlier, it helps to sell the whole thing, because it feels entirely genuine.
Sweetnam: I love the idea of little easter eggs making sense. I don’t know if anyone out there knows this, but our first record cover is a city being burned by a skull-looking creature. That image is in the background of our second album, which shows the train in the foreground but the city in the background. Our new album shows the city from above. It’s all kind of thought about in ways that I don’t know that people even know all the little details that to me, make the difference. But some of it I might just be too anal about and no one really cares [laughs]! But it’s all good, it’s part of the beast.
Dead Rhetoric: It does seem to come across – one thing that I’ve noticed is that the band does put a high bar up for fan connections. You have the Facebook group, you are very active on social media, you’ve had YouTube chats lately. I think it ties it all together in creating a community.
Sweetnam: I always tell anyone who ever asked me about starting a band and what they need to do or think about – not only do you need to be talented and have the music, but if you want to grow a fanbase, you need to treat people like people and have relationships with your fans. To me, the way that we have always grown is fan by fan. It’s getting into a show and letting those fans walk away with memorable experiences. It’s about feeling accessible – they can come up to the merch table and ask me a question or take a picture on social media and we will get back to them. That’s how we have grown and I think people can also use the ‘mystery’ side, but to me I have always preferred the side of being just as much of a regular human as everyone else. I honestly, sincerely appreciate the support.
I have been through this past year without releasing music and wondering how we would survive without live shows. Because we have those relationships with fans and I can say, “Hey guys, it means so much if you could support my candle making project during quarantine [laughs].” I was floored by the amount of people who came out and cared enough to support this band by buying some stupid candles if that would help Sumo Cyco survive the pandemic. I don’t think that would have happened if we didn’t have those connections with fans and they didn’t understand what we are going through. They are just as much a part of this journey.
It’s really cool to see fans that we have seen us at venues with like 30 people at the front of the stage at like Download Festival in the UK and I am still seeing those same people that were there at the first show still at the front row and supporting. That’s really an emotional experience for me, it reminds me of how far we have come and that they have been a part of this the whole time. That’s important.
Dead Rhetoric: Outside of the album, are there any plans for other things be it online or what-have-you?
Sweetnam: If you are referencing a live stream concert, that’s one thing we have kind of toyed with a little bit back and forth. I think we have kind of agreed as a band that we are going to put all our energy into making some music videos and some cool live streams and content, but we want to save the live show for the real thing. I think it’s a little bit of a heartbreaker. I have talked to a few other friends in bands where they play a venue and they are trying to perform their hearts out but there is no one in the crowd. It reminds you of the situation we are in, which kind of sucks, but the fans have asked. They would love to see us, and they understand it’s not the same. But for us, me crowdsurfing or going to the bar and grabbing a shot, those are things that make the show what it is. Without doing those things, it just kind of hurts my heart [laughs]. I would have to crowdsurf on an invisible crowd, or take a shot with no bartender behind the bar.
So we thought that since we really enjoy the process of videos, we don’t want to leave our fans in the lurch, so we will do live videos and chats and other stuff. We are working on those live shows, fingers crossed by the end of the year. Then we will record those live shows and it will feel a bit more like the way we like it. So long story short, we will work on some live stuff, fans will be getting a bunch of content from us, but with the live stream stuff, we are going to try to hold out until we can play a live show.