All photos courtesy of Daily Vice
Skye Sweetnam is in control now. The current frontwoman of Canada’s fanatically fun metal group, Sumo Cyco, tells me over (virgin) Caesars about Cyco City: a fictional place with realistic elements interspersed into a rather insane and unreal world. There is a newspaper, soda, and a dark, sordid history associated with this new-ish world. Skye Sweetnam is gleefully one of its creators. The woman sitting in front of me with impossibly bright pink hair and a gregarious, saccharine temperament is no longer at the mercy of a major record label to be developed, marketed, and produced as sellable to an audience. She acts as a marketing director, art director, even road manager, to her group of “cycos,” as she calls them. Sweetnam once was the promise of Canada’s pop future or that is the story she tells. With enormous amounts of money thrown at her at such a young age after her huge hit (“Billy S.”), Sweetnam was firmly placed within the pop machine to thrive, or at least make bank for Capitol Records, until technology (MP3s) disrupted that.
About a decade after the success of “Billy S.”, she moved away from the collapse of her pop career and turned inward to find the music that truly made her happy; a fusion of metal, dancehall, and punk band. In a room full of tough metalheads usually apt to not do a single fucking thing but cross their arms and grimace, Skye Sweetnam can command them to let loose and have fun. Metal, so nominally serious, is infused with this pop spirit, her spirit, that she can make grown men sit on the floor during a hardcore performance, not allowing them to move until she says so. Ever charming, the former pop star talked about her pop past and the evolution (or natural move, as she tells it) to hardcore, guitar-driven sounds with Sumo Cyco.
Noisey: You were a very successful pop star very early on when pop punk took off in the early 2000s. So going from that (“Billy S.”) to your metal band: how did that come about?
Skye Sweetnam: I think a lot people on the outside look at it as a very stark contrast from teen cutie pop star to fronting a metal rock hard band; major label to completely independent. It seems like opposite ends of the spectrum and in a way it is. In another way, it felt very natural to me. Through the years I was always into more guitar-driven sounds. When I was first playing my pop music I had three, four guys from Hamilton who were in my band. [They] all paid their dues as musicians from the ground up playing punk. They were an unlikely pairing for myself at 14. It went from there to starting to collaborate with Tim Armstrong from Rancid and Mark Hoppus from Blink 182. I did some really cool collaborations when I was working on my second album. Some of them didn’t see the light of day, like Matt Wilder who worked on my favourite album of all time, Tragic Kingdom. So then I just started working and learning from all these people. Matt Drake played guitar for me originally when was a wee babe teen on the major label roster. We started writing together and so Sumo Cyco was born. It felt really natural to me, not at all crazy. I’m having a lot of fun doing this. I took a lot of what I learned from those days and channel it into what I am doing now. It was in reverse, I guess, from what you’d normally do. I was a major label priority artist. I had my face on the side of a tour bus. It was crazy the amount of money they were pouring into me at such a young age. And switch back into the future, you know, I’m road manager; driving the van, changing tires, and I love it. But it’s two different worlds, that’s for sure.
What does Sumo Cyco mean?
I’m not really sure, to be honest. What it means to me is when I was coming up with the band name I had an endless list and I was like “we gotta make a decision today!” And so "sumo" to me, when I looked at the words on the page, is like big, massive, strong, in your face, and can’t miss it. And "cyco" as in crazy, wild, and unpredictable. Those two words to me helped describe what we’re trying to accomplish with our band. So it just kind of stuck. At first, it was just a temporary name and now so much more than just a name. We’ve gotten so involved with our “Cycos.” I’m very much into branding and marketing. We have a bunch of different ideas: we have a Sumo Soda as a make believe beverage in our Cyco City. It’s all within the band.
Is that something you’d sell on tour?
Yeah! We’d love to. We like to think really big in our make believe world of Cyco City and hope everything can become real.
Sumo connotes men, strength, power, like you said and
I think it's an interesting word in terms of a female-fronted band in this typical male genre.
Is that a conscious choice?
We were joking that when people hear the band name they don’t know what to expect. The last thing they expect is this little tiny girl to come out and be like, “yeah! we’re gonna rock you people!” I like the idea of sounding powerful and a lot of what I do is channeling as much power as possible into this little body while I’m on stage. To compete with macho, hardcore fronted bands as well as their fans. A lot of the time when we’re playing music it’s about winning over the tough guys with their arms crossed that don’t know if you’re tough enough to be approved by them. My idea is to kick so much ass they can’t deny it.
You appeared at a time that was pretty interesting. We didn’t yet have such a digital revolution in terms of music but it was happening. Do you think that contributed to why you didn’t continue as a pop star?
It’s exactly why. I remember the intern at Capitol Records busting in the door of a meeting and talking about MP3s and talking about how a song can be compressed into such a small file size. And the A&R guy I was with was like, “yeah yeah yeah yeah” pushing him out of the room, like “you don’t need to worry. This young girl will be the next” you know, all their jazzy words. They used to tell me all the amazing things that would happen in my career and [the intern] is coming in being like “but you gotta pay attention to this. It’s going to change everything!” It did. And the whole reason I slowed down doing pop was because of the big merger at Capitol Records and the cutbacks. They had to lay people off. I lost everybody who I was working with on my project: who signed me, the marketing director, the A&R guy, the president of the label who really believed in me. They were all gone in the span of two-three weeks. And I was left as an artist in limbo with all my songs owned by the record label. Luckily had some friends in Canada and I came over the border and had EMI, the partner of Capitol Records here, help me release the record so the songs saw the light of day. But because I was working exclusively with Canada budgets were a lot smaller. It didn’t have the international reach. My first record was released in 15 countries; my second one was released in Canada and Japan. I just wanted to make sure I was doing what I really really loved and I checked myself. I wasn’t totally down with this platform I was presenting myself on. I wanted to change it up. I took a bit of a break. Thought I would go back to school, go into film, directed a few music videos.
Now you’re more in control of everything with Sumo Cyco. Back then you had a whole team of people. How did it feel being a teenager having this whole team promote and generate and create this person; this pop star life for you versus what you’re going through now?
It started off so honest. My first record I wrote all myself with my buddy (who was 21 and I was 13) in my parent's basement—with the exception of two songs that the label had helped us out with. I called it Noise from the Basement because it was pretty much our noise from the basement. Never knew it would see the light of day. I remember the first photo shoot I ever did and they had flown in makeup artists and hair stylists and it felt like they were treating me like I was some Vogue model at 14. This is so not me. It looks too mature for what I even thought at the time. There were moments of feeling uncomfortable like that; trying to balance, you know, doing what I really wanted and choosing my battles with the label that has that much of a machine, you know, who has an art director and this and that. But I had a lot of good times there. It is a stark contrast because now I have my hands in every little thing. I work really closely with a graphic designer and photographer and she and I work really well to do the social media and online stuff. It’s important to slowly build that time but people who really understand your vision and get where you’re going. It’s tough when you’re in a big, big company like Capitol Records for everyone to be completely on and have the same wavelength or vision.
Did you find that they wouldn’t really listen to you?
Well, this is funniest story I have [from that time.] I thought it would be really cool if I drew over top of these photos [from the photoshoot I didn’t really like] and made myself have angel wings or whatever. I made this prototype that I wanted to show the label for my album cover. The cover ended up just being a drawn heart around my eye. My idea was a bit more elaborate. But the funniest part is that I was at home watching 20/20 and they had a focus group of 12-year-olds at a slumber party and marketing people will take these products to sleepovers with 10/12-year-olds and [these kids] will tell them what they like and don’t like about a product. I’m watching this on tv and they pull out my album and they are like “which one do you like better? A or B?” I was like “nobody told me that these 10-year-olds were picking my album cover.” It was weird because I was never told that. I really didn’t think about it like a girl at a slumber party was choosing the fate of my album cover.
Even though the digital revolution collapsed Capitol at the time and your career, too, would you say that being able to stream music with your new band has helped your career?
Yeah! For those of us without a big budget, to get your music on the internet, to reach an audience, and that doesn’t cost anything is amazing. I love that. I love being able to create something and then put it up a day later.
You think it’s a stark contrast between pop and the kind of metal that you’re doing now. But it is really fun. The way that I look at your videos and the songs you have there is a really cool pop sheen to them. Do you think there is a place for pop in metal?
Oh yeah. I love melody and harmonies. That to me is taking those pop elements and inserting in into heavy and aggressive, wild drumming. I love that. I love experimenting with this band. It gives me a lot more freedom to express things from screaming to rap to singing really pretty. I feel so much freer with this genre for some reason. When you get too locked into that “gotta write a song that’s gonna be a hit for radio” then you’re locked into that into that framework of “oh would you hear this on the radio” which is what every pop music writing session always was. How do we make a hit? How do we make a song that will blow up? It wasn’t about letting expression happen. It was trying to compare it with what was popular at the time. A few writing sessions I was in they constantly had music videos being played. They would bring up YouTube videos and say “we should take that element” and “we should break it down in the song.” For me, it becomes too much of doing what’s cool instead of what’s honest. It’s so tryhard. I like when you’re trying not to make it sound like that; making it completely different.
You can sort of see that when you first started. It was like a pop punk…phenomenon? Avril Lavigne, Fefe Dobson, Ashlee Simpson, maybe, Simple Plan. Everybody wanted to emulate that because it was fun and you could listen to it on the radio. Now the radio doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Do you feel a bit more “AH HA I can succeed without this!"
[laughs] We were just talking about how now, especially in Canada, there aren’t outlets to get Sumo Cyco’s music out there. There are very few places, especially radio, we found it very hard to get radio play because we’re not doing what is out there now. I love being online and being focused on people who do dig what we do. To put out a live stream for people whose country we haven’t been to but they can still watch that. I love when you can succeed against the odds.
You guys started around 2011 and you didn’t release an album right away. Your debut, Lost in Cyco City, came out in 2014. You released singles and videos to go with that. That’s an interesting decision to make to create these songs to be standalone and then have a video. What made you decide to do that?
We were just starting out and I wanted to test the waters. It was fun. We’d write a song and then put it up and see what the kids thought. They could download it on iTunes right away or watch the video right away. It was going really well. I liked the idea that our fans would get something new every couple of months. The only reason we did an album was because people were like “where’s your album?”
It sounds like you take such care and attention for your singles, for your videos. The videos are so theatrical and fun. What makes you want to insert the kind of fun you have branded for your band?
It is weird and wacky.
The clowns scared the shit out of me.
[laughs] Yes, there are clowns and scarecrows. Matt and I are such suckers for B and C and D horror movies. Our favourite movies are the bottom of the bin at a truck stop somewhere that you think is gonna be awful but it’s actually entertaining. We decided we want to keep that in what we do with our videos. We build characters and they reappear in different videos. We started branding ourselves, we have the Cyco City Citizen, which is our newspaper. We started building this creative side. It’s more than just music. We build this world. I would love to do a theme park one day. The possibilities are endless. I love building everything that goes beyond building music. I love creating communities.
So you have this alter ego. One is you, Skye Sweetnam, but then you also have, Sever. What is the connection between either of them? Do you want them to be separate?
It’s really silly. People ask me “should I call you Skye or Sever.” But, as I was describing our Cyco City world, that’s where Sever lives. That’s a character or nickname. She lives in a cartoon, graphic novel, horror movie world. I play with it and the fans love it. I did this video where Sever kidnapped Skye Sweetnam and put a body double in and made it look like I locked myself in because I’m not doing solo music anymore. It was my own way to play with the fans in a fun way for everyone who really liked my solo stuff to say “okay so that’s gone for a bit and this crazy maniac character kidnapped her and turned her into a rock and roller.” It was my way of explaining to them in a fun way what was going on.
Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer for Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.