Interview: Skye Sweetnam On The Evolution Of Sumo Cyco And The Journey To ‘Initiation’

GID: Yes, it’s all about breaking boundaries! So, similar to Lost in Cyco City and Opus Mar, Initiation takes place in the dystopian world of Cyco city. Where did this idea for Cyco City come from?

SS: The first inkling of this whole concept was through our music videos. We wanted to do an Alice in Wonderland idea for our videos where they kind of connected; you’d end up in one world and meet these characters. Then the next video picks up where the other one left off, transporting you to the next world. Matt found these skull heads one Halloween at our local drugstore. He came home and said what do you think if we cut a hole in the bottom of these and stick them on our heads for music videos? And I was like okay, that’s kind of interesting. We joked around and thought what if they’re weird gangster skull guys that come from outer space, but they have these massive skull heads so they’re kind of human? We’ll call them the Terrornauts because they’re like astronauts, but they impose terror upon the world. And it kind of stuck.

It’s a fun way of expressing these storylines that are our own Cyco brand, but it also gives us that separation from reality a bit. I like to think of us as a band that takes our music seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously when it comes to the videos and having fun. In Cyco City we can be wild, we can be weird, we can be crazy. But when we come back to the studio, we’re super hard workers and love putting our all into everything we do with the band. This new record is themed around the different gangs in Cyco City. We have a quiz on our website you can take to see which Cyco City faction you belong to. You can belong to one or all of them, it’s really up to you. Wherever your imagination takes you.

GID: I actually took the quiz and got the Anonymous 9 team. So, what should I know about this gang?

SS: With the Anonymous 9, there’s never the same 9 at one time. So, it’s basically under the guise of a sports team. They’re a bunch of friends who love to hang out and guzzle Sumo soda in the parking lot and cause a little bit of mischief. They are very much fun-focused, so they love to have a good time. They’re a little bit crazy and wild like most people in Cyco City. They actually appear in our “Run with the Giants” video and they’re gonna be referenced in a bunch of other videos too. You can see my [Anonymous 9] character in “No Surrender.” Some of the stuff I’m really excited about will appear in the Initiation album book I put together with my longtime collaborator Francesca Ludikar. She and I have put together a 28-page photography book that will have the CD included and has photos of the different gangs and all the characters. It’ll give a behind-the-scenes look at the characters we’ve developed.

It’s been fun and ever-evolving. In some ways, we love to plan things out and in others, it’s a very fly by the seat of our pants type of scenario. Things like the “No Surrender” video was a concept we put together pretty fast. Originally, my idea was to have my friends come in and play different characters in our music videos. As the pandemic hit, I realized getting a large group of my friends together wasn’t quite in the cards. So, I had to do some different ideas for the videos to keep the theme of the record alive but deliver it in a way that’s COVID safe. How I was going to represent each of the four gangs [in “No Surrender”] was a fun last-minute thing I threw together.

GID: Looking at your videos, they’re very vivid and colorful. They really pop. And the Cyco City concept sounds like it would be a great graphic novel.

SS: Yeah! I would love to do a graphic novel that explains how all the albums are connected, but I’m really the one leading the pack on this idea. The rest of the band just loves playing music. There are two threads going on: my weird crazy mind that loves stories and fantasies and syncing that up with the real world of playing music and writing songs. To me, they work in perfect harmony, but sometimes the guys don’t get it as much.

For instance, we had one show in Toronto where I conned my brother into dressing up as one of the characters called The Ugly. Unbeknownst to the audience he comes out during that song and chases me around the venue. And some fans got a bit too intense and thought he was a bad guy and started hitting him. My poor brother, trying not to break character, was grabbing me from the stage and one girl started swatting him with her purse! So, sometimes things can go a little awry, but we have a lot of fun with it that’s for sure.

GID: You’ve been doing music for a while and actually started out in pop music, which makes sense because there are a lot of pop elements in Sumo Cyco’s sound. When you were on that path, what inspired you to transition to rock music?

SS: From an outside perspective, it seems like a major shift as if I just wanted to rebel and try screaming for the first time. But it felt like it was in me the entire time just coming out in different forms. I really enjoyed heavy music throughout my teens to the point that on my second pop record I wrote songs with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Matt Wilder, who produced No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. I even wrote a song with Mark Hoppus of Blink-182, so I was seeking out those types of people who could write really great pop hooks and melodies but also had guitar as part of their repertoire. As years went on there was this big rush of EDM music and guitar took a back seat. That’s when I first started developing Sumo Cyco.

I’ve always enjoyed it when things are super hooky and make you want to dance and party, but I also love the raw energy from heavy, aggressive sounds. Sumo Cyco’s my answer to all of this. Let’s have a space where we can have so much fun. We can dance, we can be sexy, we can sing hooks, but at the same time, we can be raw, aggressive, and really let our emotions explode in a way that’s freeing. Sumo Cyco was a way to express myself. I felt I needed to take things in an experimental direction, which mainstream pop doesn’t always allow. As an artist, I needed to do this.

Starting pop music and getting thrown into the industry so young was intense. There were so many weird things and different adult problems I had to think about very young. I was 16 years old opening for Britney Spears and not even going to high school. It was a lot of success really fast. It was also about learning the business and how people will pretend they like you, but when your record’s not selling, they don’t like you anymore. It was such a learning experience for someone so young.

With Sumo Cyco I felt I was able to start a band the way you normally would: get together with your friends, write some music, play some local shows, and keep going. You build from the ground up rather than get rushed into Hollywood at a young age. In some ways, it was really cool because I had this insight into the industry that really helped me and I got to do some of the things I wanted to. It’s a combination of a lot of things that got me to start Sumo Cyco, but really it was just a need to artistically explore who I was and what I liked musically.

GID: That’s quite a journey. To be thrust into the industry at such a young age and then start over and now you’re here with Sumo Cyco, which has been around for 10 years. You guys are still fairly underground but have amassed this cult following largely in part because of your live performances. What’s it been like looking at the evolution and growth of Sumo Cyco?

SS: It’s been amazing. It’s been so great to see fans take the band under their wing as if it’s really important to them. I always say you gotta focus on the fans and not the numbers. So many times, people look at number of followers or how many streams they have. Those are people you have to create relationships with because that’s really what’s gonna get you the furthest. They’re gonna be your word of mouth. They’re gonna be the ones showing up at your shows, buying your merch, creating the experience for you. Without the fans, a band is really nothing.

One of the things we take pride in as a band is communicating [with fans], texting back, trying to be a little more available online. There are lots of times we’ll just hang out with fans after the show. I  think it’s so important and I get so much out of it as well. It really takes you away from feeling removed from the situation of throwing your creations out into the world. When fans come up to you and tell you a story about how a song affected them or how they discovered your band, it really humanizes the whole situation. It’s so important for bands to remember that. Behind every single view, there’s a person that has their own story. We always try to remind ourselves not to take any of this experience for granted and really thank our fans at every opportunity because they have really paved the way for us to survive in this industry. Even during COVID, they supported our merch drops and really did everything they could to spread the word and help us. We love them so much. I hope they know it.

GID: What’s something you hope to achieve with Sumo Cyco in the future?

SS: Once the world starts healing from what we’ve been going through the past year, I really hope there can be an explosion of fun and joy and people realizing the little things they may have taken for granted pre-COVID. One of those things is getting together with people you love and rocking out to some live music. We always look at a show as an invitation for people to have a lot of fun with us. There’s been a lot of seriousness and I think the world needs some light-heartedness, a bit of technicolor fun and that’s what we hope to bring back. If we can have some more awesome shows with our fans and keep spreading the word of having a good time and be a light in this crazy dark world, that’s what we can hope to achieve. Obviously, we’d love to get on some more shows, tours, and festivals – that will all come down the line, but I hope people really enjoy this record. I hope they can relate to the ups and downs in it and I’m really excited for some of the visuals we have coming out next.

We try to stretch that dollar as much as we can to create cool content for everyone out there. Our fingers are in everything. In the last few weeks, I’ve been sewing outfits for videos and photoshoots and editing and learning special effects so I can achieve the looks I want. If people can get something out of all the crazy art we’re putting out there, that does my heart good. It’s hard to say exactly what you want to achieve but I’ve learned in the few years that I’ve been on this planet is you really have to be grateful for every moment you have. If COVID’s taught us anything it’s that things can change in an instant. Life can take a crazy turn at any point, so you have to enjoy the moment. Enjoy the people in your life, enjoy the good times, and try to make the best out of any situation.

Sumo Cyco’s new album, Initiation, is out May 7th. Grab a copy here.

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Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

Ashley Perez is a freelance music journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared on AXS, The Crypt 1331, Chicago Innerview, New City, The Millions, and Reality-Comics. She also runs her own music blog at Radio Not Found. Some of her favorite bands include Nirvana, The Cure, Muse, Creeper, and Green Day.

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