We talk to Antonio Cuna AKA Sweater Beats about growing up around skate culture, the special place Bossa Nova has in his heart, and hearing himself on the jukebox.
Intro: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say, where Atlantic Records talks with artists about songs they made, songs they like and songs they’d like to have made. It’s an inside look into the craft of songs from the artists themselves.
Today, we got to talk to Big Beat and Atlantic Records artist, Sweater Beats. For many that embraced SoundCloud’s early rise in the underground music scene, Sweater Beats may already feel like a household name. For the Philippines-born, Maryland-bred producer, however, he knows his next chapter as a Big Beat recording artist will be his best yet.
While he played guitar in emo cover bands during his teenage years, it wasn’t until he was introduced to the sounds of Ratatat, that he was inspired to create electronic music with Ableton. His first major success, “Make a Move,” caught the eyes and ears of Diplo, JoJo and BBC Radio’s Annie Mac. He recently released the song “Glory Days,” featuring Hayley Kiyoko. Complex Magazine said this about the song, “His latest release is arguably one of the biggest of his career. “Glory Days” is an uplifting performance that plays up a theme of worrying less about making a mistake and doing more to make life fulfilling.” While promoting this smash single, he sat down with us at the Atlantic Studios to discuss his music and his life.
Tom Mullen: Growing up on skate culture, how did that shape you?
Antonio Cuna: A lot of the music that I was into in middle school and high school was all based off of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 soundtrack, so that shaped me and 13-year-old me, I just loved rock and rolling, Millencolin, all those bands.
Tom Mullen: Yeah, NOFX.
Antonio Cuna: Oh, yeah. That was middle school me, just very punk and pop punk, and that’s why I wanted to start playing in bands with friends and starting to play guitar and-
Tom Mullen: Is that the first instrument?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah. It’s the first and last.
Tom Mullen: Then, creating a punk song, is that similar to what you’re doing now? Do you see any similarities?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, I guess so. Everything that I do is based off of like a four-chord progression, most of it, so like Blink songs (singing). Yeah, it’s all based on that really, really simple chord progression that people can latch onto and write on top of. That’s how I like to approach things and then just expand upon that with more production.
Tom Mullen: What kind of stuff?
Antonio Cuna: Drums, sound design, sparkles and sprinkles, just to make it more interesting.
Tom Mullen: And are you doing that live, electronically, or both?
Antonio Cuna: Most of it is sample-based, just log into Splice. I like to use a lot of Foley sounds as percussion and then make it sound more cinematic, I guess, but big and bassy, but everything is based off of that four chords that I learned when I was in middle school.
Tom Mullen: Four on the floor.
Antonio Cuna: Cool. Yeah.
Tom Mullen: When you’re asked to remix a song, how does it start? This is what I have. Is it the root of your thoughts? Are you listening to the original or are you trying to find things to pick out and accent and change? How does that start?
Antonio Cuna: Basically, I don’t listen to the original unless I have already. If I get a remix, I get the stems. Usually I just listen to the a cappella first, and then jam out on the keyboard and see which chord progression really strikes a chord with me. And then I sift through the percussion stems and find the cool ones, and then I make a beat out of what’s already there, whatever cool percussion thing they have, loop it, and then we have the chords and then I add all my own flair to it from there.
Tom Mullen: Cool. When you have a featured artist on the track, does it start with them or do you know, “I want this sound,” or “I want this person?”
Antonio Cuna: Usually, it’s either I work with a songwriter and we get the song written and then we have someone else cut it, or if that featured artist, or if somebody sends me a top line, I just work around the song first and then we cut it for a feature and that’s how it’s worked so far.
Tom Mullen: And then performing these songs live with all those samples and things, I think a lot of people forget all that’s involved with putting those songs together. Is there something that someone wouldn’t know, performing those songs live, that they might not?
Antonio Cuna: No. For my live set, because I usually just play guitar and a few hits on the drum rack, I take those elements out so the songs that I play guitar on are definitely on the forefront of that. And then, everything else, I just play back just my stem down masters.
Tom Mullen: You’re not messing with them?
Antonio Cuna: I’m not really messing with them. No, I’m just taking out what I’m playing when I play it live-
Tom Mullen: Oh, I like that.
Antonio Cuna: -and then play on top of it, and then that way I get a little wiggle room for some finesse, some sauce, on the guitar. That’s really the only instrument I know how to play.
Tom Mullen: Other than the computer, if you count that. Yeah.
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, Ableton.
Tom Mullen: Yeah, Ableton, yeah.
Antonio Cuna: I know how to play Ableton, barely.
Tom Mullen: Ableton, I like that. I would say, do you have a first favorite song?
Antonio Cuna: First favorite song? Ooh, that’s a hard one.
Tom Mullen: No one’s going to judge. Don’t worry.
Antonio Cuna: To be honest, it might be “Dammit” by Blink 182. I just remember listening to that in middle school and it would just get me super amped, and no fail, I would just be really amped after listening to that song. I’ll take that one, first favorite song.
Tom Mullen: Nice. I think that’s a good one. Do you remember the first song you memorized?
Antonio Cuna: “Dammit.” Yeah, that’s the first song-
Tom Mullen: No, answer the question. I’m joking.
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, that was the song. That’s probably why it was my favorite.
Tom Mullen: You knew every word, knew every chord progression?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah.
Tom Mullen: Were you figuring out the song on guitar?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the first songs I learned how to play on guitar, just noodling around. Yeah, I still know how to play that.
Tom Mullen: Do you remember the first song or album you bought with your own money?
Antonio Cuna: It was the Pokémon soundtrack to the first movie.
Tom Mullen: iTunes, a little iTunes download action or a CD?
Antonio Cuna: No. I went to either Tower Records, when it was still around, or Best Buy, whatever. I bought the CD with my own money because I was like, “I love this. I love these songs.” I think Vitamin C was on that. It was a really cool soundtrack.
Tom Mullen: That’s a good soundtrack. I think that’s a good first purchase. I’m scared, when I keep doing these, as these go on, that someone will just be like, “I never bought something. It just magically showed up,” so I’m glad you bought something.
Antonio Cuna: I bought something, a tangible thing.
Tom Mullen: I know. Was there a specific song of yours that you felt you took to the next level and you realized that, “I could do this”?
Antonio Cuna: Ooh, I’m still figuring that out, but, I think, I remixed “Drop the Game” by Flume and Chet Faker and I was like, “I kind of hit something, I think.” I was like, “This feels good. This feels right,” and I think it was one of the more popular streaming songs on my SoundCloud during that time.
Tom Mullen: Cool.
Antonio Cuna: So I was like, “I can do this, I can make some bursts.”
Tom Mullen: You talk about Weezer being one of your favorite bands. Hell, yeah. Is your favorite Weezer song “Sweater Song”-
Antonio Cuna: Oh, yeah.
Tom Mullen: Or is there another one?
Antonio Cuna: Before I was Sweater Beats, I think “Say It Ain’t So,” same record, but “Say It Ain’t So” is probably my favorite record, aside from “The Sweater Song,” for the namesake. But, Say It, there’s something about that song that’s, really hit me when I would listen to it on the school bus and just look out the window and I’d just feel a lot of things, very angsty.
Tom Mullen: I remember that record. It still sounds new. It’s clean. When you hear it, it doesn’t sound dated.
Antonio Cuna: I don’t know who produced that record, but that’s it. Vic Butch? No. I’m not sure who produced that record.
Tom Mullen: Butch Vig or is it?
Antonio Cuna: Butch Vig?
Background speaker: Ric Ocasek.
Tom Mullen: It was Ric Ocasek.
Antonio Cuna: Ric Ocasek, yes.
Tom Mullen: You’re right. I think so, yeah.
Antonio Cuna: It’s still an amazing record.
Tom Mullen: Yeah, he knows what to do.
Antonio Cuna: Still a very classic.
Tom Mullen: Are there any other artists that people would be surprised as a musical influence of yours?
Antonio Cuna: Okay. Ooh, I talk about Ratatat all the time and emo music, but I think Antônio Carlos Jobim.
Tom Mullen: Tell me about him.
Antonio Cuna: Growing up, my dad was super, super into Bossa nova, especially Jobim, and I think there’s something about just Bossa nova that has a special place in my heart, and it’s definitely influenced just the melodic and more chill parts of my music-making process.
Tom Mullen: Very cool.
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, there you go.
Tom Mullen: What other music was your dad playing?
Antonio Cuna: Mostly that. A lot of jazz. It was just really a lot of jazz stuff.
Tom Mullen: Did you like it at the time? Were you-
Antonio Cuna: I didn’t understand it at the time. It was a lot of smooth jazz, smooth.
Tom Mullen: Oh, wow. Dad.
Antonio Cuna: It was Bossa nova and then Chick Corea. Let me see, Diana Krall, just a bunch of mellow stuff, and I think that played a big part-
Tom Mullen: Is your dad a laid-back guy?
Antonio Cuna: He’s a pretty laid-back dude.
Tom Mullen: It sounds it. I like that. When you’re recording a song, are you picturing anybody listening to it? Is there an audience that you’re looking or thinking about?
Antonio Cuna: I don’t really, I think that messes with my head if I-
Tom Mullen: Think about somebody?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, I think about someone listening to it or a general audience listening to it, because that would be like, wait, would people really like this? I just ask myself if I like it and then I show it to my mangers and my A&Rs and be like, “Do you guys like this?” If they like it, if Big Beat likes it, I’m cool with it. As long as I like it, everyone likes it, cool. We’re golden because I trust their-
Tom Mullen: And there’s the fan base for Big Beat that would be appreciative of it?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Tom Mullen: Good. Is there a recent song you discovered that you had to share with your friends?
Antonio Cuna: Yes.
Tom Mullen: Which one?
Antonio Cuna: “Say My Name” by Tove Styrke. I love the production on that song, and I love that song.
Tom Mullen: How’d you find it?
Antonio Cuna: Spotify.
Tom Mullen: Was it a recommended or was it playing after you were done [with] an album and it popped up a different song?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah. I don’t know who I was playing before, but it was just after that record ended, it was just going to that radio station, and then this popped up and I was like, “Whoa, this song is amazing, production, songwriting, and just her voice is awesome.”
Tom Mullen: Cool. Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs in public?
Antonio Cuna: Yes. Actually, someone just tweeted at me that they’re playing “Did You Wrong” with Max Schneider at a Forever 21, and I was like, “That’s very, very cool.”
Tom Mullen: That’s pretty rad. That’s cool.
Antonio Cuna: Hey, I like that store, so shut up.
Tom Mullen: People are trying on rad shit and they’re hearing your song, that’s cool.
Antonio Cuna: Oh, yeah. But the first time, I think, was I don’t know what store, but I remixed “The Buzz” by Hermitude and I heard that at a store. And also, whenever I go to bars, they have the digital jukeboxes and I always search my name-
Tom Mullen: Just to make sure it’s in there?
Antonio Cuna: Just to make sure something’s in there and just to see if something’s in there.
Tom Mullen: I like that.
Antonio Cuna: And it’s usually an Alesso remix or “The Buzz,” so fun fact.
Tom Mullen: That’s a good feeling.
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, it’s really tight and I put it on and then leave the bar.
Tom Mullen: Watch people go, “What is this?”
Antonio Cuna: “What is this? You guys are killing the bar.”
Tom Mullen: Or there’s a bunch of people Shazaming. That also could happen.
Antonio Cuna: It’s never happened, but.
Tom Mullen: You mean people have never Shazamed your music? Of course, they have.
Antonio Cuna: Probably. I’ve never been around to-
Tom Mullen: Well, you have never seen someone.
Antonio Cuna: I’ve never been around to witness it.
Tom Mullen: Got it. Are there things in other songs that, not yours, are there things in other songs that you connect with first, like the lyrics or a guitar line or…
Antonio Cuna: Yeah, something quirky in the production is usually the first thing that grabs me. Like in that “Say My Name” track, it was that guitar line, (singing) and it’s a super pipey and plasticy production, and that’s the first thing, and then I just kept listening to it and then I gravitated more even to the lyrics. But, usually, the quirky things in the production is what I listen to first, and then over and over.
Tom Mullen: And then, do you have a musical dream?
Antonio Cuna: As in, what I want to do for-
Tom Mullen: It could be, I think of, sometimes, when I wake up from a dream and, I don’t know, I’m on stage and I’m doing this one thing, or it’s a daydream, where you’re like, “I can’t wait to be able to do that,” or it’s something small like, “I want this girl to like this one song,” it could be like that.
Antonio Cuna: I want my parents to like the music I make. They do. They do. I think they do.
Tom Mullen: But you want their approval.
Antonio Cuna: Yeah. I do this to make my parents happy. They worked very hard to raise me right and support me, and I just want to make them happy with the music I make, and I think they are.
Tom Mullen: You think?
Antonio Cuna: Yeah. I never know. You never know, because your parents are always like-
Tom Mullen: Are they stone-faced? They’re like, “That’s great.”
Antonio Cuna: No. I think they’re pretty into it, because they’ve gone to two shows, two Sweater Beats shows.
Tom Mullen: Were you nervous?
Antonio Cuna: Yes. And they’ve gone-
Tom Mullen: Did they stay?
Antonio Cuna: I think they like it now, but I definitely know that they did not like it when I was in screamo bands. I’ll put it like that.
Tom Mullen: Yeah, I’m sure.
Antonio Cuna: I think they like what I’m doing now more than, yeah. Apart from that, I just want to be a studio head and just keep writing songs for me and for other people, just be a studio rat, is my dream.
Tom Mullen: Cool. I like that. That was it.
Antonio Cuna: That was it.
Tom Mullen: Thanks. Great job.
Antonio Cuna: Be a studio rat.
Outro: Thanks to Sweater Beats for coming on What’d I Say. Find more about him at SweaterBeats.com. Our theme music is by Max Frost. Be sure and catch up on all the Atlantic Records podcasts at AtlanticPodcasts.com. Thank you for listening.