Tank Girl with a Bulldozer – Skye Sweetnam of Sumo Cyco (Interview)

Skye Sweetnam looks like she burst out of the pages of a Silver Age DC Comic book, and sings like a pissed off, punk rock Uruk-hai. She is one of the most original and independent artists on the scene, with an eye for aesthetics that remind you why music videos were once an art to be cherished not marketing to be churned out. The videos she and her guitarist directs for their band Sumo Cyco are short films that form a dementedly chaotic narrative; they have a makeshift look and feel that only endears the viewer to her DIY philosophy, her Lloyd Kaufman-esque ingenuity, and her cheekily irreverent attitude.

She is such a joyous entertainer it was ironic to meet her on a day tinged by the tragic incident on Westminster Bridge. We talked in Camden Underworld about how the role performers play on just such occasions, working with Benjie Webbe from Skindred, and Tank Girl.

Sorry to start with the heavy stuff, but London has gone through a traumatic experience today, but lately it seems like it’s one thing after the other. As an entertainer, what do you think is the best response to such turbulent times?

I’m a firm believer that anyone who wishes to do bad things to free people to make us scared, I just want to stick up a middle finger and be like, “You’re not going to affect my life and me having a great time with my friends.”

And do you think your fans should do the same?

I do, yeah. I mean, I understand it’s tough with kids and their parents, but what are you going to do? Is that going to stop you from letting them leave the house tomorrow? Or the next day? Where do you draw the line? To me, it’s so important that we actually wrote a song about it. It’s a song called Brave II and it’s about exactly the same situation where we were about a week away from being in Paris when the Bataclan attacks happened, we had just played Orlando before the Orlando shootings at Pulse nightclub. It affects us because we can see ourselves in those situations. As a tourist I would have been walking along a bridge doing that exact same thing as they were; I go to clubs and rock out all the time, so I can put myself in those places, making it easy to get scared and think that I want to avoid that at all costs, but I would hate to let the bad guys win by giving in to fear. I just want to stand up and give them the finger and be like, “We’re still going to party fuckers!”

Courtsey of Tom Rose

I first saw you guys supporting Alien Ant Farm at Islington Academy while on their tour celebrating 25 years of their ANThology album, and you were instantly memorable because you got into the crowd, you got up on the bar, you even had an argument with a member of security. How important do you think the role the frontwoman plays is in order to grab an audience’s attention?

Prime example. We played Chester recently and our guitar player had a few too many and was having the time of his life, and he just decided to screw this guitar playing crap and swing from the rafters, running around, bouncing from merch table to merch table. So that song sonically? Urgh. No good. But will everyone walk away from this show remembering us and having had a tonne of fun? Yes. So, sometimes I do believe that if you want to listen to the perfect recording you should listen to the recording. If you want to see a show, some things are going to have to be sacrificed in order for me to entertain. I like having a party and having a lot of fun.

One of the most distinct things about the band is the music videos. How do you guys think up the visuals to go with the music?

It’s pretty easy. We’re big fans of horror movies and B-movies and we like to put what we call our Cyco twist on each of the clichés. We’ve done the clown slasher, we’ve done zombies, we’ve done haunted house, and most recently we’ve done a train theme for our new record, so everything has to do with this one train. We like to take these themes and go our way them. Go a little crazy with them. A lot of it sparks from the fact that because we are so DIY, we ask ourselves what locations can we get and how can we practically make this happen. Once we had access to this old farm house so we decided to make something to do with that and the scarecrow family that live inside it. Some of the ideas will come from a cool prop I found or a cool location. For instance, this train idea. We knew that filming these elaborate videos would be so much harder because we’ve been touring so much more than we were when we started, so we built one train interior in our studio and we just keep redecorating it for every new video, so it’s a lot easier for us than trying to hunt down multiple locations and getting everyone mobilized to different places. The train carriage set is in our rehearsal studio so we always just go there and do a day of filming.

You mentioned you’re inspired by horror films. If you could redo any horror film soundtrack which one would you choose and why?

Oooo. That’s a hard one. A lot of our classic favourites have already been done. Everyone’s doing remakes, right? I know our guitar player’s (MD13) all-time favourite, The Evil Dead, has been done, but that would be amazing. But take something like Halloween. How can you beat some of the classic horror scores that are out there? It’s tough for me to say that I want to even touch anything like that. Like one of my favourite movies and soundtracks is Tank Girl, the movie of the comic, and I always picture myself as a Rock’n’Roll version of Tank Girl, except I drive bulldozers instead of tanks. Haha.

Courtesy of Tom Rose
Courtesy of Tom Rose

How did the collaboration between Sumo Cyco and Benji Webbe come about?              

Him and I are really good friends now, which is so cool because he’s so awesome, but it really just started out with me being a complete fangirl for Skindred. I love everything they’ve done. I’ve followed them online and everywhere until I Facebooked stalked the producer named James ‘Lerock’ Loughrey who produced their last three records. I just started complimenting them all and saying how awesome everything they did, was and it just so happened that we were playing in London just a couple of months after this so I invited him to come see us play. He came to London, said we should stay in touch and that the next time we were in London we should do a song together. We had this idea to do Move Mountains with him.

At the beginning of the tour I was gushing about Benji to him, I always bring up Skindred as one of my favourite bands and he was like, “You know, you can ask us to get a hold of him and ask him if he wants to be on this track?” The fact that we were working with a producer that had already worked with him made it work out, so Benji said yes and I was floored. We were trying to coordinate this situation as we were touring so that, by the end of it, we could record together, so we were getting Benji sending us rough vocals online, so I was in coffee shops listening to my favourite singer sing like he was next to me, I was like, “This is so cool!” I still hadn’t met him at this point, he was sending everything remotely still. That was until the next tour when we wanted to do a music video together, so he took us to his hometown of Newport, he showed us around, we got to check out the Dub War rehearsal space where we did the music video and he was just the coolest guy. They say don’t meet your idols but when you get to collaborate with your idols? Yes, do that.

What direction were you looking to take the new album Opus Mar?

I think the main thing that influences the entire record is the fact that we had played a lot more shows when we wrote this record. When we wrote the first one we were just starting out so we hadn’t had the entire experience of what it’s like to go on the road and work a crowd, so these songs we wrote with that in mind, how they would translate to the stage. How do we do songs that build momentum and have dynamics so that it doesn’t feel like it’s a constant steady stream of chaos at you? But white songs so that they have ups and downs, moments to breath and to catch your breath before you get into heavier and more intense moments. That was pretty much the main influence.

Vocally, I always try to push myself as far as I can, from doing heavier screams to trying to do crazier rhythms in the raps. This record, to me, was done much faster so I feel that everything fits a little bit better. The first record was done over the course of three years, there’s a lot of things taken from the beginning, the middle and the end, so the new one, to me, sounds a lot more cohesive, especially lyrically. It fits what was going through my head at the time a lot better.

What do you prefer, do you like the creativity of the studio or the energy of the live shows? Is it a combination of both?

A combination of both definitely. I consider myself as creator/performer. Those are my two main roles. I suppose you could say artist, you could say vocalist, you could say all kinds of things, but creator/performer, to me, are the two most important things. There’s nothing like being on stage, I go into the same trance that I do whenever I start writing lyrics or melodies. Sometimes I forget. I don’t even have a memory of what it was like in that space because it’s like I’m transported somewhere else, I just zero in on my creative vision. I’m sure most creative people feel that way when they are really loving what they’re doing and they’re just so sucked into the project that they’re in another universe, almost. I love that and I get it when I’m performing as well as writing in the studio.     

Sumo Cyco’s new album Opus Mar is out now.