Shiny Wet Machine is the most recent project from Sizzy Rocket (Sabrina Bernstein), and is a collaborative effort between herself and Alex Fitts (The Kickdrums) that’s resulted in some of the most infectious punk tunes this side of the late seventies. I caught up with Sizzy over the phone last week to talk about the differences between SWM and some of her more pop-driven solo material, and while the sounds are distinct, her persona and stage presence bring a refreshingly spontaneous edge to both. We also talked about the Sizzy “Cult” (the nickname she’s given her ultra-devoted legion of fans) and how she navigates leading a fairly transparent online and offline existence. You can internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and I’d also recommend grabbing a copy of Shiny Wet Machine’s debut EP Lights Out RIGHT HERE, ’cause it’s REAL GOOD.
I know your publishers set you and Alex up for Shiny Wet Machine; what was the first meeting like?
We almost didn’t meet! I remember his apartment was really deep in Bed-Stuy, and it was a really hot day. I got to his house and I was sweating, had to pee really bad, and he’d just stepped out to get coffee, so he wasn’t answering the door. So I was like, “Fuck this!” and I just left. I called my manager to say, “He wasn’t even there!” But my manager said, “No, he just called me! He just got back, you have to go back!” So I turned around and went in, and we wrote this really bad pop song, and I was just like, “You know what? Why don’t we just hang out for a sec and talk, because I’m in a bad mood.” [Laughs] We started talking about the music we liked, which was seventies punk, Stooges, nineties grunge like Hole and Nirvana, and I was like, “Why don’t we try writing something like that today? I want to do that.” And the song we wrote that day was actually “Euphoria”, which is the first song on our EP. Afterwards we both looked at each other and were like, “Whoa! That was really cool, let’s do another one!” So we ended up doing five songs, because with that kind of raw rock ‘n roll, if you have the energy to do it, you just kind of have to do it and let it be what it is, whereas with pop writing there’s a lot more thought in the concepts and the lyrics and endless tweaking. With rock, you kind of just shit out the music and it is what it is. I love that shit. But yeah, we just decided to make it a thing after that, because it’s so fun and true to who we are as musicians.
Okay, so there are obvious differences within the writing process for this project vs. maybe some of your older solo stuff, but what are the differences (if any) that you notice from a performance aspect during a Shiny Wet Machine vs. Sizzy Rocket show?
On stage I feel like I always just want to rock out. My solo show, even though the music has more of a pop structure and sensibility, I still like to pour water on myself and run around and writhe on the floor, do crazy stuff on stage. I feel like as a performer, the punk essence comes out in both projects. But of course when I’m on stage with Shiny Wet Machine, it’s kind of like anything goes. At the release show, I jumped into the audience and was running around on the floor. I’ve always wanted to accidentally bleed on stage, too; I love those old photos of Iggy Pop where he’s just gushing blood from his nose because he banged the mic into his face or something. You can’t really plan that, but I want it to be a true, spontaneous rock show, whereas with Sizzy it’s a little bit more planned out. The spontaneity and aggression are still there, but it’s maybe a little bit more toned down for the pop show. You’re never going to catch me doing Beyonce choreography, though.
Hey, never say never!
I know, I’m going to get in trouble for saying that. [Laughs] But for me, performance is about not knowing what’s going to happen when you get up there, and then incorporating any mistakes or weird shit that happens into the performance. Actually, at the release show, someone threw a lollipop on stage, and I started eating it.
That’s a pretty awesome thing to have thrown at you during a gig! Beats the hell out of beer cans, anyway.
I actually saw The White Stripes at Madison Square Garden in 2007 or something, which changed my life, and someone threw a beer can at Jack White and he karate chopped it away, and it was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Like, not even missing a beat, just karate chopping! It was amazing.
I can’t remember what show I was at, but someone got a beer can thrown at them on stage and the band just stopped, were like, “We’re done!” But it was like a rock-driven show (I really wish I could remember who it was; this is going to bother me now), and I feel like that’s the kind of shit you have to just accept might happen and keep going or embrace it.
Exactly, that’s rock ‘n roll!
Totally. Now, what’d you notice about the audience that turned out to the release show for Shiny Wet Machine? Was it a mixture of the Sizzy Cult and Kickdrums people?
I feel like the Cult is really supportive of the project because it’s me, and also because they love the Riot Grrrl scene, Bikini Kill type of vibes that I’m doing, because no one’s really doing that right now, and I feel like they’re really inspired by that. But I also feel like if you’re a little bit older and educated about punk (because I feel like rock is dead now, and I’m trying to recreate true rock from the seventies and nineties) you’re also a fan of Shiny Wet Machine. So there’s definitely a huge age range, whereas with Sizzy I feel like my fans are young girls and that’s it, you know what I mean? Because it’s super pop. But I did an interview with someone else, and he was a super educated music critic, and he was really excited about Shiny Wet because he was like, “This is true New York punk from the seventies.” I feel like the Cult doesn’t really necessarily know about that, because they’re so young, but they know that what they’re seeing is really cool and really special.
It’s a really bizarre time to be in New York City, because everything feels a little muted. It’s kind of hard to imagine the way it used to be back in the seventies. I was actually on my way to see my therapist a few months ago, and I realized I was in the elevator with Patti Smith. I asked her how her day was, and she was just like, “Oh, you know, my allergies are acting up,” and it was just this very sort of mundane response, which was so funny to me to kind of envision a side-by-side with this image of her back in the glory days.
Yeah! I mean, I think about that all the time. I feel like I was supposed to live during that time in New York, and that’s actually why I moved to New York in the first place, just because I was so inspired by that movement. It is different now; there isn’t really a scene for rock, especially female-fronted rock, but that’s why I want to create my own scene. [Laughs]
You tweeted something yesterday or maybe the day before about how our generation kind of fucked up art with its sort of paralyzing insincerity, and that is very true; I feel that way a lot of the time, and I resent it, but I also can’t say that I’m not a participant in that attitude sometimes. Where do you feel you fit in with all of that in your creative work?
Well, I’m glad you brought up Patti Smith, because I write a lot of poetry as well. Like, super dramatic, romantic poetry, Bukowski or Allen Ginsberg, and you know, our generation is so ironic and sarcastic that it’s hard to even take myself seriously, whereas during that whole punk movement, it was like, “This is what I do, and fuck off if you don’t believe in it.” Now, someone even replied to that tweet something along the lines of, “Girl, bye, this is so extra!”
Oh my god, I saw that!
Yeah, it’s like, you’re literally proving my point; I can’t say anything or do anything without it becoming a meme, or someone making fun of it or being like, “Oh my god, Sizzy is so extra,” you know what I mean? Freddie Mercury was the most grandiose performer of all time; no one’s sitting here being like, “Oh my god, Freddie Mercury was so extra,” you know? It’s really hard to get past the tone, and I do participate in it, because that’s what Twitter and Instagram and all of that is, and you have to be part of it. At the same time, though, I take my work and my art very seriously, and I almost feel like that’s looked down upon. Like, “Oh, you’re trying to create a rock ‘n roll movement? What are you doing? You should be a DJ in a funny costume.” You know? Not to shit on EDM, but I’m just kind of sick of it at this point, you know? [Laughs]
I think a lot of people are. I mean, even going through Spotify’s indie or pop playlists, literally everything sounds like it was made by the same weird like, sad-sexy robot.
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I just want to make deep, cool shit that makes you feel like you’re alive. When did the new rock stars stop caring about what the music sounded like?
Exactly. And I think it’s cool that you do have a lot of these younger fans, because you have a platform to sort of wake them up from that and from what all their friends are maybe listening to. It’s also rad that you make yourself so accessible to them, but where (if at all) do you draw the line on that? Because I feel like even for me, I tend to be an oversharer on the internet, and that can become exhausting or weird.
Yeah. I’m kind of figuring that out. I feel like I’m lucky; my fans are smart, and it’s Cult behavior because they’re like, “Sizzy, I love you!” and it’s mania, but they also are aware of how they’re acting. So I haven’t had any boundary crossing fan experiences yet, because they respect me so much. I mean, I’m sure as my career goes on and it gets bigger, there’s going to have to be a line drawn. But it’s really funny, because I’ll usually do a Cult meetup before shows, and usually I’ll come out very high energy, like, “Hi guys!” and they’ll be like, “Oh my gosh! Sizzy!!!” and they kind of match my energy. But I was on vocal rest before the show at Webster, and I came out and was quietly like, “Hi, nice to see you,” and they were all quietly like, “Hi, Sizzy.” So they match what I give them, and they listen to me and respect me, which is why I’m so open, I think.
You know, I bet that has a lot to do with it, too. The fact that you’re blatantly so open with them and give them so much of yourself, I think you likely come off as a real human, you know? I think some people who aren’t as accessible somehow become a little less real in a lot of ways, and there’s maybe less of an inclination to think about how they’re feeling.
Yeah, it’s really cool. I’m not afraid to talk about my exes, my sexuality…when I meet them in person, it’s not a different person from the girl they’re watching in music videos or interacting with online; it’s literally the same person. And it’s impossible to hide now, you know? Pre-internet, as an artist you could have the persona and hide everything else, but the internet gave us access to everything and all of this information about everyone, so I can’t have a persona online and be different in real life, because you just can’t hide anymore. Which is weird, because when I originally created the Sizzy Rocket persona in 2010, I wanted it to be this kind of superhuman, inaccessible, mysterious persona like Ziggy Stardust, but as I’ve been building my fan base and the internet has become more and more of a way to consume music, I made the decision to make myself completely accessible in every way. And so now I think I’m more of a big sister to them, to my fans, rather than an untouchable figure.
Do you feel that’s made you more conscious of the personal decisions you make at all?
Yeah, I mean, I think I realized that I was going to affect them, because they’ll give me letters at shows or make me little zines for my birthday and they’ll be like, “You changed my life. You being open about my sexuality made me want to come out of the closet, and I feel so much relief now.” So it’s like, “Okay, this is worth it to put myself out there, because it’s inspiring young kids to do the same, and to be comfortable in their own skin, too.”
It’s so chill, because I feel like when I was a teenager back in like, the early 2000s, the internet was just sort of starting to be in people’s houses, and there weren’t a ton of people in the public eye who were very open about anything that might’ve been seen as controversial. So I think that it’s amazing that now kids have all of these people to look to, whether it’s musicians or online communities or whatever, to be like, “Wow, I thought I was a weirdo, but there are a ton of people like me,” and a lot of that isolation has gone away.
Now, there are a ton of “Sizzy As…” accounts on Twitter…
Oh my god.
[Laughs] Do you have any favorites? Or any that are super weird that you’ve seen?
There are so many. That became a thing last year, and some of them are still really active, which I love. Obviously they know me so well; I love the Sizzy As Iggy Pop or Sizzy As David Bowie, but the weirdest one I think is Sizzy As Dildos. That one really threw me off. [Laughs] Because I was like, “What…is going on? Is this degrading? Like…no, but it’s just so weird!” Like, it’s like a sixteen year old girl looking up pictures of dildos…
That match you!
Yeah, that match me! [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m like, “You do your thing. Do whatever makes you happy.” [Laughs]
Oh my god that’s too funny. Alright, and so what else are you working on kind of immediately that you want to talk about?
I write a lot with other artists, so I have a song on the new Hey Violet record that I co-wrote with them, which is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I also have my EP coming out either in May or June, and that’s called LA Boys. So new Sizzy music, doing a lot of writing, and then new Shiny Wet Machine music coming out. We’re working on that. (Never not working!)