Sumo Cyco, a Canadian band that formed in 2011, was a fiercely independent act for nearly a decade before signing with Napalm Records in early 2020. But even with label support, its strong DIY work ethic has remained, as has its commitment to tossing aside all notions of genre and expectations. The band fearlessly blends metal, pop, punk, dancehall rhythms and electronic sounds—often within a single song—to create something that is entirely its own. With its third album, “Initiation” (May 7, 2021), finally set free to the world—its first singles were released in 2019—Sumo Cyco is reaching more eyes and ears than ever before. Three days after the record’s release, Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with vocalist Skye “Sever” Sweetnam to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the band’s genre mash-up, music videos and more.
LIVE METAL: It’s been probably an exciting few days for you lately. The new album, “Initiation,” finally came out on Friday, and I know there’s been a lot of work that’s gone into it. How does it feel to finally have it out and have people reacting to it?
SKYE “SEVER” SWEETNAM: It’s really great. It’s super rewarding. It’s exciting. It has been an exhausting few months, and yesterday was my first day off in, I felt like, months. I was just like, “I am not leaving this couch.” I’m just so exhausted from everything that leads up to that release day. You’re trying to get all those pre-orders in and everything to work OK, all the videos out. So it’s been really good, and it’s been awesome to see all the fans posting them rocking out to the songs. It does my heart really good, so I’m excited about it.
So this album, as I understand it, was partially written pre-pandemic and partially mid-pandemic. How did it all come together?
Yeah, so this record is four years in between the last record, and we’re not the type of band that really likes that idea of waiting four whole years before we put out music. But we had a pretty wild ride in between there. We started our pre-order in 2019—I think April—intending to release this record independently. We released two singles that year, in hopes to promote it coming out, and Napalm Records happened to see us at the end of the year. We were on tour with Jinjer, and they were like, “We’d love to work with you guys. We thought, “You know what, this is a great opportunity for us. We need to get in front of more people. We feel like not enough people know we exist out there.” So making that happen, once that got into our heads, we’re like, “OK, let’s get the team together, re-address the songs that we’ve written and move forward.”
Then the pandemic hit, and everyone was again very confused about how records were supposed to be released in this time, how long we were going to be in this for. So it kind of pushed things back again. We had extra time, so (guitarist) Matt (Drake) and I continued to write at our home studio here. We just continued writing and came up with, I think, about five songs that ended up making the final cut of the record.
So at the end of the day, it was a little bit of a silver lining to the fact that we went through this, because I felt like some of the strongest songs on the album were written in this time. And then once we got some more material going and re-addressed the record, then we were finally like, “OK, I think we’re ready to release this, even though we’re not quite out of the woods yet with the pandemic. Let’s put it out there because we’re tired of waiting. Let’s just get some more music out.” And hopefully, we can just keep releasing stuff, and as the world heals itself, we can keep putting stuff out for people.
Did the pandemic influence the kinds of things you were writing about?
Yes, so songs like “Bystander,” watching the world through a telescope and standing by, was definitely written with so much emotion and and just craziness in my mind. I was getting so caught up with every day following the news and everything that was happening from the crazy politics to the police brutality to the deaths and coronavirus. I was like, it feels like I’m watching a really bad movie right now, and I can’t really feel like I can do much to help this situation. I felt like a bystander, and I think a lot of people could relate to that feeling and not wanting to be that, wanting to find some type of way that we can work together to make the world a better place. Songs like “Bad News,” same thing. It’s about over and over again, everyday, waking up to some more tragedy and just being tired of it.
Then songs like “No surrender” are my glimmer of hope within at all, where I talk about not losing yourself. There was a pivotal moment for me where I was super stressed out at the beginning of the pandemic. I didn’t know how I was feeling about the world, about my career, and I looked down, I was wearing a ring that I put on my ring finger—because I always tell myself I’m married to the music—and it has “no surrender” written on it, and it kind of made me realize I can’t be so unhappy and worried about the whole world that I forget what I love to do and who I am, and that’s a lead singer of a band, and I love it, and music is what brings us together. It’s connection, and it is worth something in this time. It’s definitely worth something in this time, and I told myself I can’t surrender to the negativity. I’ve gotta keep going and keep believing that what I do is important. Yeah, so it definitely has affected me in more ways than one.
Yeah, if anything, music is worth more during these kinds of times, I think.
Yeah, it can definitely affect people in ways that, unfortunately, I will never really know, because people are listening to it in their own corners of the world, wherever they are, having their own feelings and reactions to it that sometimes they’ll tell me about and sometimes I’ll never really truly understand. But that’s what’s so powerful about it, to just gift it to the world and be like, “Do with this as you will, and hopefully you can find something that helps you within the lyrics or the melodies.”
How do you fit these real-life events and influences into the Cyco City concept that you have for the band?
I think, in a way, it’s almost a distorted reflection of every single thing that happens in the real world in the Cyco City world. So I’ll make a video like “Bystander” or “Bad News” that are referencing the same events happening, which is kind of like how we’re all witnessing the same things happening from different perspectives, and I’ll use something like a giant spider invasion instead of coronavirus. But it is an analogy for something big and ugly that’s coming to our doorstep and you don’t know when it’s going to arrive, and just not knowing how to deal with it all is kind of foreign and strange, and you’re just like, “We’ve never been through this in our lifetime before.” So I think that’s a really good example of all the different threads that I pull through this world.
There’s also things written in there like my personal journey, as someone that’s gone through my own struggles in life and how I use different characters to portray different things that I’ve gone through in my life, whether it’s a journey through somewhere—like one of my favorite movies, “Neverending Story,” is about the real-life version of your struggles mirroring the fantastical world. I love that space in between reality and fantasy. It’s my favorite place to live. So that’s kind of what Cyco City is.
I wrote in my review of the album a lot about genre and how your band basically defies that completely. How does that come together? Are different influences coming from different people in the band, or are you all just kind of all over the place?
It’s very deliberate, and it’s more planned than I think people realize. Matt Drake, who’s the co-founder of the band and our guitarist, is also a producer. So he’s produced everything with the exception of two songs on the record, and he looks at the music in a way of how to fuse different things at simultaneous times. So a lot of the time, we’ll get in the booth and I’ll be doing vocals, and a part will seem like it should be the heaviest chorus, but he’ll be like, “Skye, try this like you’re doing dancehall,” or “Try this like you’re doing like a lullaby,” and just throw these things at me as I try to sing and adapt on the spot. It can really inspire some creative, out-of-the-box type of ideas that aren’t necessarily what naturally feels the most obvious decision. That’s what I really love about how we work together, is we’re very much polar opposites in some ways when we work together, because he’s coming at things from a totally different angle than I am, and then you’ve got to find that sweet spot where we both agree on the song.
There’s a reviewer in New Zealand. We played a show and I don’t think they liked us very much. But I thought it was genius. The way they described it was it seemed like everyone was from a different band (laughs), everyone in the band should be in a different band than where they are—because it’s like you’re taking one bassline that’s like a reggae bassline, you’re playing blast beats to it. It doesn’t make sense to some people, but that’s what I think pushing ourselves and pushing music is all about. It’s about seeing how far can we take this until it’s just too weird, or will it get too weird? Like, let’s just go for it, and we love that. From a marketing perspective, I can see how being confusing isn’t really the best thing, but for me, I get a lot of personal joy out of being confusing.
Have there ever been any times when you’ve been putting ideas together for songs where you thought maybe it was too much and you had to kind of pull back a little bit?
That’s an interesting thing to bring up, and as I was talking, I was like, I wonder if there was ever a point where we thought we were too weird. But I don’t think so. I think as long as it feels like something that Matt and I can both get down to, whether that’s rocking out or dancing to, to us it makes sense. I think that obviously there is going to be some people that aren’t going to understand it or not even willing to want to jump in and try to understand it. Because it needs a little bit of listening to and decoding a little bit in your own brain to be like, “How do I move my body to this? How does this fit in, in the context of all the music I listened to?” And I think that when people are really willing to dive in, that’s when they get really pleasantly surprised that the songs keep unfolding themselves and you start discovering new layers the more you listen, which I think is really fun. Even to this day, there’s production things that Matt’s done that he’ll play through a different stereo and some sound will pop out in a different way and I didn’t even realize that it was in there. So that’s what I love about it, is the multi-layered kind of idea.
Another thing that really sets your band apart is that you’ve made a ton of videos over the years, and it’s obvious you put a lot of thought and imagination and work into them. How important is that for you and your band?
It’s very important. For us, we started from the ground up, basically saying, “How do we get out there as a band? We’re just going to make music videos, and we’re gonna put them on YouTube.” That was our strategy, just point blank of like let’s make music, put a video to it, put it on YouTube to see what people think. And slowly but surely, the people started getting attracted to what we were doing, and I think it was helping us find those real fans that really understood what we were after. I felt like the vision for the videos really needed to come from us, and it needed to reflect what we were trying to do and the mash-up of aesthetics and styles and the femininity that I can bring in, but at the same time that weird, kind of strange faces that are smiling at you but also want to kill you at the same time. I think that is a really good visual representation of what we’re trying to do musically. So I felt like it needed to come from us.
Then the more we got into it, the more we started to really love it. And then I started to get really obsessed about connecting all the videos. I really liked this idea of having these Easter eggs and every different video having these threads of storylines that might not even make sense for years until another video comes out that explains the backstory of a certain character and you have those aha moments like, “Oh my god, that character was in all the videos from the very beginning! I can’t believe that that’s how they were created!” I love those feelings of taking not only our fans on a journey musically but also with this visual storyline of a little bit of an insight into my crazy brain, because everything is an analogy for something that’s happened in this in this world or in my life. So as long as I’m here, it’s still an ongoing story. I hope people enjoy the little bits of effort I put in. Sometimes I’m like, “No one’s gonna notice this,” and then someone takes a screen grab and posts it, and they’re like, “Did you see that this pill bottle was made out to that character?!” I’m like, “Yay! You found my little Easter egg.”
You’ve made five videos for this new album already. Do you plan to do more?
Yeah, for sure. We’re in lockdown still here where we are, and we thought, “You know what, if we can’t be out there touring, might as well just keep exploring this side.” And it’s fun, too. We’ve been doing for this record cycle, since we’ve been with Napalm, it’s been a video a month, which is a very big challenge. I don’t think people understand how much thought and effort goes into the videos. A month is a very short time to go from conception to completed, edited, special effects project in one month, especially on a super limited budget. I’m hoping that we can keep up the pace, but my thoughts are that it might be more like a month and a half, two months before the next music videos come out. I was starting to get burned out there, but we’re still going strong. We’ll still be working on it, for sure.
Do you have a favorite video from the ones you’ve made?
I think my favorite is “Love You Wrong.” The reason why I say that is I had the most time to really plan out the storyboards for that video. In many cases, because we’re under strict guidelines, I’ll pick a date and I’ll just make sure everyone’s free that needs to be in the video. Sometimes I’ll get around to all the costume design I want, but then when it comes to the storyboards, I only have my sheet of written notes, and I’m like, “Oh man, I wish I could have done the storyboards, but whatever. We’ll just keep filming, we’ll keep moving.” And then some days, it’s the other way around where I get to the storyboards but didn’t finish all the costumes exactly the way I wanted and had to cut corners there or the sets or whatever. There’s always something that has to give. So with “Love You Wrong,” I think I actually had all the time I really needed to do all the elements that I wanted to, as far as the costume design, the makeup, the exact shots that I pictured in my mind. That one really, to me, feels like I was able to have the time to complete it in the way that I wanted to.
I don’t think anybody was really in a good position to weather the events of the past year-plus, but being such a DIY band over the years, do you think that put you in a little better position than some others out there?
A hundred percent. In a weird way, it was almost like we’ve trained for this moment by being like, “Let’s keep our circle as small as possible” even before you had to keep your circle as small as possible. So for us to be able to continue writing, recording within our home, doing videos within our home and having the band members—some bands may not even have band members in the same city as them, so I can see how this type of thing makes it a lot harder to do what you do.
Even the junk that we collected that appears in our music video for “Vertigo,” that stuff I’ve been collecting for years, knowing one day I’m going to use it for an awesome music video, and it just so happens that I had all this stuff and now all the stores are closed, so perfect! I have everything I need to make the video. So sometimes happy accidents like that worked out in our favor.
But it is such a tragic thing what’s going on. So, if I can just say to anyone out there to try to help the small guys, help the bands that are struggling right now and the fundraisers for the crews and venues. It’s really important that we help this industry get through this tough time, for sure.
How are things where you are right now? Are there still pretty strict restrictions in place?
Yeah, we’re still in a full lockdown until May 20. But there’s thoughts that it may still be extended from then. So yeah, we’re just hanging tight, hoping that these vaccinations come through. It’s been a little slower here in Canada than I think we wanted it to for vaccinations. I know that I’m still not eligible in my area to get one yet. So I just signed up. Mr. Guitarist (Matt Drake) over there, because he’s a few years older than me, he made the threshold. But yeah, we’re still, unfortunately, not out of the woods just yet here.
Since things are starting to open up around the world, are you starting to look ahead, later in the year and next year, for touring plans?
Yeah, we’re definitely making plans behind the scenes, for sure. It’s just more of the practicalities of making sure that we can get all the work permits and everything’s gonna be done safely and figuring it out. I’m sure everyone is still learning, and as the first few shows and tours start rolling out, I’m sure there’ll be lessons learned pretty quickly about how things need to either be regulated more or are people being safe. Different aspects will get figured out. So yeah, we’re just waiting and seeing, and we’re looking towards the future 100%. I just want the fans out there to know that we’re definitely wanting to get out there again and get to everyone’s cities, but it’s just doing it in the right way. We’re definitely excited about that, though.
I know you’re very focused on the new album, but now that you’re with Napalm Records, is there any chance of doing a re-release, on vinyl or anything, of the first two albums?
Yeah, that is something that’s kind of been in the back of my mind, but we’re not sure what the plan is just yet. I know that we’re going to talk to them about the potential that we want to keep releasing more music. I want to release some extra bonus songs as we go along. I have some ideas for what I could do for Halloween. So there’s some ideas in my brain of other things that we’re going to release, and then we’ll see how they feel. But right now—I don’t know—as someone who’s been in the industry for a while, it’s kind of nice to also know that the first two records are 100% owned by us. So we do have the power to decide whether or not we want to give them to a label or still hang on to them, which is kind of nice to have that option. But, yeah, we’ll see how things go.
Has that been a big adjustment going from being independent to working with the label?
There are adjustments, 100%. Like any new relationship when you’re working with people, you have to figure out how the other people work and what things you’re doing that are completely annoying them—like me showing videos really late and giving them to them last minute or trying to search for the type of press that I’m really interested in getting sometimes, or the ideas of “our song needs to be played on this radio station” and then it’s like how do we get there.
It is like a chess game sometimes, but the really great thing with Napalm that I really have to thank them for is for letting us be who we are, encouraging us to be who we are. There was no talk of “Well, you should be more metal,” or “You should change the way you look.” All the videos, all the music was 100% exactly how we wanted it, as a band, to be. So that’s really awesome.
And then on top of that, just the audience that they’ve helped us capture. There’s still people, obviously, that don’t know who we are and the fact that we’ve had hundreds of thousands more views on our videos and more press than ever with people like yourselves helping us out and covering the band, it’s been really, really great as far as an outreach to try to initiate more of those Cycos out there. Honestly, it would have taken me years trying to figure that out on my own, and it really is taking a big stepping stone forward to get in front of the amount of people we’ve been able to get in front of with this deal.
Whenever we get to the point where most of the restrictions are lifted, what’s the first thing you want to do?
I just want to see my friends and family again. There’s been so many people that I feel like I’ve missed all this time in their lives where their kids have grown up or they’ve changed jobs or they’re just evolved into different people that I just want to catch up with them and talk with them. I miss being around the live show atmosphere 100%. I miss walking into the venue with sticky floors and seeing like five people I know at the bar and taking shots with them. I miss all of that. So, yeah, can’t wait to get back to it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Just thank you for paying attention to our band and helping support and get the word out there. It means a lot to us. We’re all about trying to push those boundaries and to make music a brighter, more fun place to be in the heavier genre. So if anyone wants to jump aboard the Cyco train, we’ve got our album sold at sumocyco.com, and all of our social medias are just sumocyco, so anyone can find us there.