Pop-songs in chaos and mayhem: Interview with Sumo Cyco’s Skye Sweetnam and Matt Drake

Sumo Cyco is a metal band from Hamilton, Ontario/Canada, revolving around the masterful vision of frontwoman Skye Sweetnam and guitarist/producer Matt Drake, supported by the bombastic rhythm section of Matt Trozzi on drums and Kenny Corke on bass. Some of you might know about Skye from her solo-efforts Noise from the Basement and Sound Soldier dating back to 2003 and 2007 respectively. The music of Sumo Cyco is the logic continuation of what she started over a decade ago, but involving more raw energy and extreme visuals. Something the band implements in their live shows as well, as well as in their brand-new album Opus Mar, released on 31 March 2017.

I had the great pleasure to meet the very nice people of Sumo Cyco during their European tour with Hed PE on 1 April 2017, and before even starting our interview I addressed an article which mentioned that when Sumo Cyco found their current drummer Matt Trozzi in spring 2016, the band thought about having him re-record the drum parts, but they never got to it. So, my first question was,‘Who did actually play drums on Sumo Cyco’s brand-new album Opus Mar?’

“Basically, I did,” guitarist and producer Matt Drake answered. “We have a studio and when I’m writing I write by playing drums and doing all the recordings.” “Matt is a mastermind producer. So, he’d record and then loop it in Pro Tools,” singer Skye Sweetnam added.

“Yeah, I do a lot of magic in Pro Tools. If there’s a spot I don’t know, a certain double-kick or something, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that, but our drummer could.’ And he’s not around, and we didn’t have a drummer at the time, so I just program it and work around it and put it all together.” I was very impressed by that statement, because the drums sound perfectly natural on Opus Mar.

Matt continues: “When we were talking about going back and re-recording it, it just sounded really good. We were really in love with our demos. So, technically, Opus Mar is just our demos handed to another producer that helped rework them a bit and remix them for us.” “I don’t think we write demos anymore. We just write songs and then they just evolve into the final project,” Skye concludes.

Another very interesting and fascinating statement, given that many bands still produce demos then move to a pre-production of the album before finally record the final piece.

Matt says it best, though: “It’s a waste of time. Bands overdo shit too much. In this day and age a song gets what, a couple of weeks notice? And then it’s time to move on anyways.”

Asked about how the band would describe their brand-new album, Skye gives me a beautiful definition of what Opus Mar is:

Opus Mar is our crazy journey through tons of social, political and emotional issues. It’s pop-songs disguised in chaos and mayhem.” For Matt, though, Opus Mar is “pop and chaos meets each other.” “And have a baby, and then a train pops out,” Skye adds, with reference to the beautifully designed album cover. And, that is pretty much how it felt when I first listened to the album, crazy awesome!

After having defined what Opus Mar is, I wanted to know why Sumo Cyco changed their release strategy from the 1-song-1-video cycles to a full album release.

Skye notes, “When we first started releasing music we wanted to go old-school/new-school way of doing it of just putting out songs and videos. Matt and I love making music videos as well. So, it just seemed very natural. Every single song got its day in the sun. You got to create something, you worked really hard on it, because you’re really excited once you finished it, and got to put it out right away.”

Matt adds, “Yeah. How many times do you hear a record and you listen to that 4-5 tunes that are really good? I’ve seen reviewers that say that the back of our record is a little less exciting to them. And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s because you just listen to six songs that are really exciting. And there’s only so much you can take sometimes the first time you hear it. Now try to listen to the back six songs. Also, so that you can start to fall in love with these songs. We kind of really want to make people understand every song instead of being like, ‘Oh, we built thirteen songs, but four are the only ones you’re going to really pay attention to.’ I like to make sure that everybody pays attention to every one of them. At least that’s how it was with Lost in Cyco City.”

Skye picks up where she left off and explains, “The main reason why we even ended up making our first record Lost in Cyco City was, because we got a lot of feedback (a) from fans, and (b) anyone in the industry kept asking when our record would come out. And we would tell them that we wouldn’t put out a record. They would always be confused by that. Then they would tell us, ‘you can’t get a single reviewed, but you can get an album reviewed. So why don’t you put an album together?’ Also, Factor [a government funding institution] helped us make both records. In the end of the day, there’s still an industry that’s still kind of revolves around the record cycle. We are very forward thinkers and like to think that we can buck the system and get away from all that, but you can’t completely.” However, Matt highlights that “the truth is, records are obsolete. We are making this CD because the fans want one, but we technically don’t want to make records.”

“We would rather, as soon as we finish a song put it out,” Skye says, and I like that attitude. Why artificially wait with the release of a song? Yes, I know, possibly marketing communication and PR coordination. But this was a rhetorical question.

Matt continues, “If Skye and I get out of the studio and are like, ‘This is awesome!’ All we think about is making that video and putting it out. We don’t think, ‘Let’s sit it there for the next year and a half, while we write thirteen more and let everybody wait. That makes no sense. That’s why we kept trying to release stuff. Even while we were releasing Opus Mar, we still had a couple of covers and did some stuff that got out there.”

Sumo Cyco, spring 2017, www.albumsthatrock.com, photo 1
Yup, we had fun 😀 at Z-7 in Pratteln/Switzerland, 1 April 2017

And following Sumo Cyco online proves the band’s commitment to their fans and community. This is also underlined with the launch of a PledgeMusic campaign to crowdfund Opus Mar, to which the fans responded very well to and helped reach 260% of the requested goal. “$15,000, I think, was the pledge-goal that we were trying to hit, and it came up way more, which helped us get to tour, helped us get the record done and put all the art that we wanted to put into it,” Matt explains. “Money goes anywhere in this kind of business. It’s crazy. Even our flights over here to Europe: We were $10,000 in the hole even before we started the tour. So, the pledgers have been really good. They helped us to get here. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to tour. The record is 100% for them, not for us. That’s for sure.” And we appreciate that a lot.

Skye jumps in and elaborates on the things that she would do differently, if she would have to do it all over again: “So much of the creative ideas that we had for everyone that could get packages, calendars, cards, and all this exclusive stuff takes a lot of time and energy to make.” Skye elaborates on the challenging task of managing the expenses of the entire Opus Mar project, which not only included the recording of the album, but also the conception, production and shipping of all products that the band actually didn’t make any money that went to the recording costs. “There was only a very small portion at the end of it,” Skye says. “But we didn’t have to spend. It still paid itself off,” Matt weighs in. “With this pledge campaign, no matter how much we were excited, it paid for the record and our mixing and all the extra work. But, Skye had 500+ packages she had to ship. What we averaged probably being $1,000 to $2,000 in shipping was more like $7,000 to $8,000. It all counts.”

At that point I started understanding the magnitude of the band’s do-it-yourself efforts and wanted to know more about their independent artist approach. “We have a cool agency and a good manager, but no label. We are our own label,” Matt notes. And I seem to have poked a nerve there, when Skye adds that there is no need for a label unless they can offer a band some major cash or some major connections. “Right now, we are coming up with the videos, coming up with the promotional strategy, doing all of the artwork…” and Matt weighs in, “Exactly. Half of the time label call us now, because we are doing it all ourselves. They just want to put the record out. They don’t even want to talk about all the other stuff. They want us to keep making our own music videos, they want us to keep making the fucking records ourselves, but they just want put it out for us. Well, then that makes no sense, because your taking a bunch of percentages that we can just do by ourselves.” “Right now distribution is so easy to do because of online. You can get it out there so quickly and so easily. So, to me it really doesn’t make sense,” Skye concludes. I completely understand the point Skye and Matt are making and see parallels to opinions of other musicians I had the pleasure to talk to like John Schafer of Iced Earth or Justin Hawkins of The Darkness to name a couple.

Skye explains, “I’ve been on a major label before, when I was younger, and I realized how crazy it is, how many levels you have to go through in order to get anything approved.” “How much time it fucking takes to get anything done!” Matt expresses visibly annoyed by the thought. Skye agrees and continues, “Even the fact that we have to do a full album and wait that length of time to have all the artwork done, all the songs finished, we’re too impatient for that.” She then addresses the feeling and importance of instant gratification from the audience, a factor that has slowly been disappearing in the music world because of digital media, but it seems as if Sumo Cyco has been able to find it through their business model. “If the audience says, ‘Well, give it to me now! If it’s ready now, why do I have to wait for it?’”

Matt agrees, “Yeah. Skye and I finished writing [for Opus Mar] in October/November [2016] and James Loughrey in the UK, a producer who worked with us, had it done by Christmas, and we literally tried to release it two months later. If we would have done that with a label, they’d be like—enter dramatic but effective gesticulation by Matt—‘Okay, so, the next year we’re going to strategize and to this. And we’re going to hold you here. Oh no, there’s this record coming and that record—we can’t put you out right now.’ And we would sit around doing nothing, where I’m like, ‘Screw that!’” Skye nods, “I had my record postponed maybe six or seven times when I was a pop artist. So, you’d have a release date and it’d be on some posters here and there then they’d pull it back.” “And, granted, I understand it. They’re spending tons of money. They want to make sure it’s in line,” Matt clarifies. “[But] in this day and age it is too easy to get to kids. We don’t have to wait for [the labels]. So, we just move forward. And we’ll grow organically and slowly, but we’ll get exactly where we need to get without [the labels]. That’s how we’ll do it.”

A concrete statement that finds its justification in the achievements of Sumo Cyco and neutral observations of what has been happening in the music business since the Internet challenged the industries business model. Sumo Cyco radiates the highest possible level of professionalism in the way they run their venture, communicate with their fans and create a holistic music experience on- and off-stage. Their energy-laden and immersive live-shows, visually appealing videos and phenomenally absorbing music makes the heart of this rock music lover smile at any given time – what else can one ask for? I can highly recommend you go see Sumo Cyco live and pick up their brand-new album Opus Mar if you like good hand-make rock music.

Sebastiano Mereu

YouTuber + host of the #FHTZ online music show with co-producer @simonkurt + marketing & digital content producer + university lecturer