Skye Sweetnam, also known as Sever, is the front woman of SUMO CYCO, an alternative metal band that pushes the envelope and bridges the gaps between genres. We had the chance to chat with Sever about creative outlets, making music videos, musical gatekeeping and SUMO CYCO’s highly anticipated album “Initiation” set for release May 7th, 2021.
MG: SUMO CYCO has been on fire lately! Having released three absolute bangers back to back, how have you felt about the reception to “Bystander”, “No Surrender” and “Vertigo” so far?
Sever: Yeah, it’s been awesome. I mean, it feels really good to get music out. It feels like a breath of fresh air a little bit, having one hell of a year… I’m sure everyone can relate to that. Putting myself into the focus of releasing these songs and being a little bit more active on social media with the fans has been great. It’s been an interesting reaction.
I feel like it’s been really polarizing, especially since we’re coming out on Napalm Records, which is known for amazing metal and super heavy music. And we’re one of those bands that I consider a bit of a bridge band – where we love bringing together all different genres. So, there are some people who are like ‘I’m only into the metal’ or ‘this isn’t doing it for me’, but then there are some people who understand that we’re mixing a lot of different things together, and it’s not just straight up one thing. We are really trying to diversify what we do.
But it’s great. When you get an awesome label like Napalm, who has a lot more reach than we’ve had so far, you’re bound to have a bigger net, which means you’re just going to catch some people in that net that don’t like what you’re dishing out. But to me that’s a good sign that you’re reaching more people and finding those true fans who are going to stick with you through it all.
MG: “Bystander” was the first release of the recent songs. It really couldn’t have come out at a better time, as fans felt such a connection to it. Certainly a song that has helped people cope with the times. Was creating this song a big part of processing the current state of the world, for you?
Sever: Yeah, I mean, writing and using art to express how you’re feeling is obviously one of the best ways to kind of channel those feelings, and what I consider a more healthy, productive way. So, for sure. Doing that song and the video and stuff, it kept me, like I said, in a way – feeling focused, that – ‘I feel this way and it’s okay to feel this way. Let’s just process it in the best way we can’. And I think a lot of people can relate to that.
At the beginning of the pandemic I was in such a weird state, as I’m sure everyone can relate to, where you just didn’t know what was up, or what was down, or what the future held. It was almost like I couldn’t focus on doing anything because I was just processing the world, and just watching everything through a screen just kind of unfold, and just waiting to see what’s going to happen. And so it was kind of a very unproductive, very confusing time for me, just feeling like I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.
So, once that kind of sunk in and we realized… okay we’re in this thing for a while now, that’s when I started writing more. And eventually… a year from then, now that it’s been over a year, we finally get to release that.
MG: As a band you are very DIY. From filming and designing your own music videos, to even sometimes making your own custom clothing pieces.. Is it important for you to remain very hands-on in the entire creative process throughout the growth of your success?
Sever: 100%. Yeah. I mean, the reason why we started SUMO CYCO was to have an outlet for our creativity. For me, a band is a lot more to me than music, and songs, and performing live. This project that we’ve created with SUMO CYCO is my entire lifestyle. I integrate all the different things that I love to do into this project. Even in lockdown, I learned how to custom mold my own candles and I figured out a way to brand it SUMO CYCO style and sell it in the store. So, every single little hobby or interest I have I figure out a way to integrate it into the band.
So, like you said with clothes design, and doing our own videos… all of that stuff, all of the different arms of my creativity that I try to use and enjoy, kind of putting on those different hats. One day playing business woman who’s trying to run the store properly, and one day being super creative, so it is really important to me to be part of that. Basically, it’s what I need to be doing with my life, I cannot handle any other types of jobs, so I will figure out a way to use whatever skills I have to keep me going… to keep surviving in this weird industry.
MG: Your most recent video, “Vertigo” features a beautiful, sparkly, golden bath water scene… which I read that you filmed outside in September… in Canada! First of all, props to you for that, it looks amazing.., And secondly… Was that the worst?
Sever: So, our crazy video ideas…they start in ways that we almost think way too ahead for those types of things. For instance, that tub that I use in the video, way back in 2014 we filmed a video in a house that was going to be demolished. And because I had this house to use – we used it for a music video, but they had also left these fixtures and this beautiful cast iron tub, and I just felt like leaving it there to be destroyed… like ‘we need to take this’. So we had this old cast iron tub that we never brought into our house or anything, that was just sitting in our back shed and I was like… ‘man, I should use this for something’.
So years later, cleaning it up …set it outside and conned Matt into filming me dancing around in this really freezing cold, glitter bath. That one part of the concept was done back in September, and then we filmed the rest of it a month ago. So, the way I think about our art and our video is really long-term. I think about all these things and I collect. Matt calls me a little squirrel, because I’m always collecting random things and then hiding them until one day when I’m gonna need it… so, that’s the way I work.
MG: With the new album, “Initiation” set for release May 7th, what can fans expect for the rest of the album?
Sever: This album is different for us because of how many stops and starts we had with it. To be honest, our other records we would write ten, eleven songs and we’d be like ‘great, we just finished those songs, let’s put out a record, let’s put it out into the world’. Whereas, with this record, we had a pre-order for it start way back in 2018. We thought we were going to work on it 2019 and finish this record up, and we ended up just getting swamped with touring, which isn’t a bad thing, but left less time to be in the studio.
And then the Napalm deal came across, and then we kind of stopped our touring and thought ‘okay, what kind of songs do we want if now we’re getting a bigger label debut, do we have everything we need for this record? Let’s rethink things, what styles do we want to represent of our sound, how does this record feel as a whole?’ And then we were ready to put it out… and then the pandemic hit, and then things get delayed even more, so then we’re stuck around the house and Matt and I are like ‘let’s write some more songs’.
So then we write more, and it just kept getting more curated and curated, and the amount of material we had just kept getting larger. But we had to keep narrowing it down to the best of the best. So with this record, it’s definitely thought through as to making sure that all of the sides of SUMO CYCO are represented. We want to take the listeners on a ride through the emotional rollercoaster I think we’ve all been through. But from writing songs in Vegas with Kane Churko in 2019, which was super awesome party vibes… to being stuck at home and feeling completely depressed and not knowing what’s going on in the world.
So, so many emotions are jam-packed into this thing. Lot’s of different styles. And I consider Matt, who is our guitarist/co-writer and co-founder of SUMO CYCO, he also produces most of our music… I just have to give him major props for stepping up the level of production and polish on our mixes. Just bringing everything from a songwriting perspective and a production perspective all up a notch. I think as writers and as collaborators we just keep learning more and more about our process and about our music. As we go along we always hope that we keep improving, and I think we have with this record.
MG: Your music videos are next level and it’s always so fun to watch one for the first time because it’s a wild ride every single time. If you had unlimited budget and access to any location you wanted, what would your dream video shoot look like?
Sever: Oh my gosh…I would totally take a rocket to the moon, because I know that’s coming around the corner, we are going to travel around the moon… So, I would want to film a music video in space. That would be so sick. If there’s no budget that is probably the most expensive thing I could think of, but I am a big space geek and I love exploration. So, that would be super, super cool to me.
MG: Is there a music video so far that you can say was your favorite to make, or one that was especially memorable to work on?
Sever: Well, I always say it’s not a SUMO CYCO video until somebody gets tortured, because every video seems to have something that happens in it that is just like ‘how did I convince these people to do this?’. Everything from me getting hit in the head with a ceiling fan that ended up becoming a viral sensation of ridiculousness, to us finding a really cool location and then realizing it had been some sort of dumping ground for dead animals… and we start looking around and we realize that somebody has literally thrown in all these carcasses into this pit. And then we start realizing that we have lowered all of our gear into this location and now we’re stuck in this pit of death. Really horrible smells, and it was super hot that day. So I really apologized to my band for putting them through that.
But favorite to make, I’ve got to say, I know it’s a more recent video, but “Vertigo” was one of those videos where we had done more set building then we have done before, and I had this very ambitious idea to take all of these lights and computers and bullhorns that I had collected, my little squirrel side, over many many years and it all kind of came together in one piece of artwork in itself. Matt really took my idea and ran with it, because I was so busy in the past few months constantly trying to edit all of our videos and get everything ready for this record release. And I said ‘you’re gonna have to take on the construction for this video and I need it to be a 15 foot tall, massive piece of art, and you need to do it for me’. Thank goodness he was cool enough, and I felt like it really was a fun video to film with all the different looks. So, I really enjoyed that one.
But I will slip in one more, if anyone wants to check out the video for “Fighter”, it was the video that has taken us the absolute longest. It was six months of cutting out cardboard boxes into buildings and we made an entire cardboard city so that I could look like the 50 foot tall woman, walking through this paper city. Our living room was an absolute disaster for six months…that one took the most time and the most effort to do. So, hopefully some more people will check it out now that they are discovering SUMO CYCO.
MG: SUMO CYCO is notorious for putting on a mind-blowing live show. As an energetic front person, you are right at home on stage, has this always been second-nature to you? Or have you had to work at that connection to the crowd?
Sever: I do work on it, but it is a very natural thing to me as well. I grew up in musical theatre, so I really got my legs on stage very young. In musical theatre you’re always taught that the show must go on at all costs, and even if something goes wrong you’ve got to keep flubbing your way through it. I think those lessons have really carried me through my musical performing career. I was lucky enough to have a lot of amazing teachers in my youth, a lot of encouragement.
I remember one specific moment when I was young where I had signed up for a singing competition and I had worked on my song for months. And it was the first time I remember really feeling stage fright – that I just did not want to perform it. I was probably around nine or ten years old, and I remember my mom just giving me a pep talk in the car being like ‘you need to go out there, everyone wants to hear you sing, no one is going to care if you screw up’. Just giving me all those words of encouragement. I think that was the moment, after that I overcame that fear, I never looked back.
I get nervous before shows but I never get to the point where I don’t want to perform. I’ve always had this hunger and desire to be on that stage. As a performer I’m always trying to learn, always trying to be better at what I do. I look at a venue when I walk into a room as the entire room is my stage, not just the stage is my stage. I always think about ‘how can I creatively approach this from a new direction. How can I integrate the crowd to make them feel like they are part of the show, not just watching the show.’ That’s kind of my goal every time I walk into a venue, so it is a life long learning process to become better, but definitely I feel comfortable up there.
MG: Your vocals are always so impressive, flipping between countless styles flawlessly and blending them into these wicked songs that could only be described as SUMO CYCO. As a vocalist, what are your favorite ways to keep up your expertise?
Sever: For me, it’s always about experimenting. One of the main reasons I started SUMO CYCO was to feel a little more freedom when it came to expression as far as vocal styles. I feel like having metal and punk and heavy music lets me explore so much. Screaming and different types of tones in my voice, as well as rapping. One of my favorite little tricks that Matt always brings up when we’re recording is what we call “the record skip”, where I basically make my voice sound like it’s a record skipping when it’s just me. So trying those new things and practicing how to do things in different styles, to me it’s almost like you start seeing the entire palette of colours you can play with when you’re a vocalist, versus just honing in and being super good at painting in black and white, or painting in reds.
For me, it’s all about trying to integrate every single colour I can. Most recently, I did a piano/vocal version of my song “No Surrender”. Matt had gifted me an old antique piano for Christmas. It’s been a while since I’ve played, but it’s also been a while since I have performed without a full band. Now, when you’re on stage with drums, and bass, and loud distortion and guitars, there’s a lot of nuance in your voice that you almost lose in a way, because you’re trying to project over top of all of this music. Whereas when you break things down to a super acoustic style every breath is heard, every nuance is heard.
I remember saying to Matt ‘man, I haven’t practiced singing just to a piano in such a long time, and it feels like there’s a side of me that needs to keep practicing that.’ Because when you practice with a full band you don’t hear every single little nuance of your voice like I was saying. Whereas when you practice acapella, or just with one instrument really softly, it’s a whole other dynamic, I feel. That is something I used to do when I was younger but I haven’t done as much. So now it’s definitely something I try to practice and keep up all of the time on the piano.
MG: As a band that is willing to push boundaries and create with total abandon and badassery, you inevitably sometimes face elitism online. What is your take on musical gatekeeping?
Sever: Yeah, it sucks! To me, I always try to think that it comes from a place of people trying to protect what they love. And if they love a certain style of music, or are a little bit stuck in the past, or they remember when they heard this one band and they don’t want their genre to feel infiltrated by other things. I think they need to realize that just because someone is taking a piece from the metal world, and a piece from the pop world, or this world… it doesn’t mean it takes anything away from you and your favorite bands.
To me, I have grown up with the internet, I’ve embraced the changes of the music industry. When I first started out, I was a part of that industry where CDs were booming and the music industry was making tons of money that way, and there were those rock stars. Things changed when the internet came, but I jumped on the bandwagon, I started posting on Youtube and tried to embrace every social media. So for me, I’ve learned to enjoy change, and learned to enjoy how to evolve. Things don’t need to stay exactly the way they’ve always been, and we can learn new things from each other. And I think that’s something that I wish more people were accepting of… is that things are going to evolve, the industry is going to evolve, music is going to evolve.
I really enjoy creating those bridges that bring someone who maybe has never realized the appeal of heavy music and they hear a pop melody in one of our songs and go ‘Oh, okay, maybe I could like this’. And then they go down the rabbit hole and start discovering a whole new universe of bands, because there was a band that was inviting them in some way to come into that world. And to me, I’m all about inclusivity and gatekeeping feels really shut down, closed-minded. It feels like you’re not inviting the world in, and I’m all about that.
It sucks when I see so many people feel like we’re not welcome in their world because of the fact that we add other elements to our music and we are not afraid to try different things. But yeah… I try to feel sorry for them more than get mad, but at the same time sometimes it is frustrating when I get comments about being a manufactured artist, or that we are just doing this for the money… I’m like ‘you guys have no idea what I’ve been through the past 10 years.’ You know, I’ve been in those vans, sweating my ass off like every other band you guys know and love, and it’s not about that.
I think that’s a misconception – just because you do certain things that means you must be manufactured. Because I like to wear more theatrical outfits or whatever. And I mean, come on, metal is the king of being theatrical. Just because it’s not a black, metal, leather corset doesn’t mean it can’t still be fun and interesting to watch. I’m all about breaking those boundaries, and in a way, the gatekeeping almost motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing because I realize how it is needed in the industry right now.
MG: So, lastly, I know we are all itching to get live shows back, so which song off “Initiation” are you most excited to play live?
Sever: Oh… so many of them. I mean, “Bystander” is going to go off so hard live, I’m so excited to play that one live. There’s a new song coming out soon from SUMO CYCO called “Bad News”, and that’s one of my favorites on the record. Super high energy, which I love. Live it is going to be so much fun. I’m also curious to see if maybe we can incorporate some of these broken down versions like I was telling you about with the piano version with “No Surrender” and see how we can play with more dynamics live, as well.
We would normally describe our show as a bit of a freight train, just barreling down, like, can’t stop it – it’s in your face and linear. Whereas I’m all about with this record just more of the ups and downs, rollercoaster of emotion that, I think, I’ve at least been through in the past year and I know a lot of people can relate to. So if we can kind of dynamically show that in the live show, I think that would be really a good reflection of what the record is all about.
MG: Thanks so much, Sever. Stay well, can’t wait to rock “Initiation” on repeat!