Sweet Pill is the Philadelphia quintet of vocalist Zayna Youssef, guitarist Jayce Williams, guitarist Sean McCall, bassist Ryan Cullen, and drummer Chris Kearney. The band originally formed at Rowan University in 2018 before immersing themselves in the Philly music scene, engaging with the local community through projects such as 4333 Collective, a show-promoting venture founded by Williams. Having played their very first show opening for Slaughter Beach, Dog, the group released a series of singles in 2019, the same year they got to perform at SXSW. Their debut LP, the aptly titled Where the Heart Is, has been in the works for a while, but finally arrived last week on Topshelf Records. It’s a riveting collection that skirts the line between emo, 2000s pop punk, and hardcore, invigorated as much by the infectiousness of classic Paramore as it is by the complexity of mathy guitar lines and highly technical flourishes. This stylistic blend not only makes the music more hard-hitting but also emotionally resonant: the record’s many dynamic shifts have a powerful way of mirroring the subject matter of the lyrics, which repeatedly confront cycles of hopelessness and anxiety. Sweet Pill’s response, though, is one of blistering defiance.
We caught up with Sweet Pill for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the band’s origins, their collaborative process, their debut album, and more.
You started Sweet Pill at Rowan University in 2018 before coming to Philadelphia. How do you look back on the time when you first got together? What memories does it bring to mind?
Zayna Youssef: I remember it being very exciting because when it already seemed like people were into it. I remember our first show was to a huge crowd, we were playing with Slaughter Beach, Dog. But there was already hype, because Jayce and the other guitarist, Ian, at the time had friends in the music department at school, and so everyone was already into it. So I just remember it being a lot of fun. And then it slowly started becoming more and more like, “Oh man, people care. We should probably be a little more serious.”
Jayce Williams: Looking back on it, it was around this time where I was finally able to feel like I could get a band together. Ian and I were in the same department at Rowan, and he was a little bit older than me. And for his senior project, he was like, “I want to record an album.” So I was like, “Fuck it, let’s just write a record and record that. We’ll start a band.” So essentially, this band started off as a school project. But the stuff that we worked on then compared to what we’re working on now is like – calling it a school project, I don’t want to diminish it, because I knew from the start that I wanted to start a band and do it for real. And this was me testing it out to see if these were the people I wanted to do it with. Zayna popped in, and from the moment Zayna was involved, I was like, “Okay, this is right.” Zayna and I are the only two founding members in the band. But regardless of founding members, that means nothing to us now. Sean was with us from the start, even though he wasn’t in the band.
ZY: He knew every word.
JW: He was standing in the front singing our songs, we played with all his other bands. When we were starting off as the band, Sean was like the face of the South Jersey music scene – Glassboro is in South Jersey. I looked up to Sean, and to see that he was coming to our shows, that was like a milestone. And then one day, I was like, “I want to be in Sweet Pill.”
ZY: I know, that was crazy. I used to listen to Sean’s band [twentythreenineteen] when I was in high school. And I was like, ”Oh my god, this guy’s so cute.”
Sean McCall: I remember I was with my first band when I saw her last band with another former member of ours, before Sweet Pill was even a thing. Zayna was playing drums and singing, and I was like, “This so cool.” It was at our friend’s house and it was also kind of like a half music show half drag show.
ZY: That was my house! I put on that show.
SM: That was your house, I forgot! And then I harassed Sweet Pill until they finally let me join the band. Thank God.
ZY: College was a crazy time.
SM: That is true.
JW: But now that we’re all out of college – all of us work in music in some capacity – we’re realizing how important this band is, and we all make the time for it. And that’s how we’re able to go on this tour and fund the money to go on this tour and also be professional enough to get Topshelf’s attention. Looking back on the college times is a nice reminder that we’ve grown a lot. Because it was really cool back then, but we’re doing it for real now.
SM: I feel like I learned much more doing what we’re doing now and actually being involved in the scene, but somehow Rowan University’s music program brought us together in a weird way.
ZY: It’s like the least creative school you could ever go to, and all these music kids were there…
SM: Playing classical music, and we were like, “We want to play, you know, some punk shows. Some rock n’ roll.” [laughs]
ZY: Rowan’s like an education school. People who want to be teachers go there.
JW: It’s also a really big party school. So instead of, like, going to frat parties, we would just do basement shows. That was the alternative to going to a frat party. And people paid attention to that. There was no one else doing it, so we got a lot of attention.
Obviously, what then attracted you to Philly was the fact that it’s home to so many artists that you’re inspired by. But what was the most rewarding part of actually becoming a part of that scene?
ZY: I grew up in Cherry Hill, which is like a 10 to 15-minute ride to the bridge of Philly. I grew up going to shows in Philly. The first time I saw a show in Philly, I think it was in seventh grade. And the first time I went to a show at the First Unitarian Church, I was like 15 or 16. So I was always seeing cool stuff, and my brother would take me because he was older. And then my friends started getting into the music, so I always was hopping the PATCO train, which is the train from Jersey to Philly, and we would see shows. So I always knew I wanted to move to Philly, regardless of Sweet Pill, regardless of whether I was in a band or not. I knew I always wanted to be here. And I ended up here with my band, and it’s even better because every day is something music-related. I feel like I could hop my bike and go anywhere and see someone doing something music-related.
SM: There’s always something going on.
JW: I kind of have the opposite of that. Where I grew up in New Jersey, I was two hours away from New York City and also two hours away from Philly, and there was no music scene where I was at. I would have to drive with my friends an hour and a half just to go see some bands play in a basement at the college town that was closest to us. And those few times that I did that were truly inspiring for me, because wherever I ended up at college – I didn’t know where I was gonna end up – I wanted to do that. And when I ended up at Rowan, I was really given a huge opportunity because there was no one doing it, but everyone would go out on a Friday or Saturday night. So when we would start doing these basement shows – I run a music collective called 4333, that’s how I started booking shows around Rowan University. And so, we provided that alternative, and Sweet Pill was a huge part of that beginning. My goal with that was, when I graduated from college – Rowan is only 25 minutes outside of Philly – I just wanted to bring what we had at Rowan into the city, which has such a huge music scene that is constantly growing.
From 20-year-old’s standpoint, it was very closed off. You needed to know the right people in order to be a part of the music scene in Philly. There’s a lot of gatekeepers and not a lot of opportunity for new people to step in, especially if you’re some young kid. And when COVID hit, that was right when I moved into Philly, and what I was told and what I thought was, “when COVID ends,” if I come out swinging with the band and with booking shows at the same time that everyone else does, we’ll be at the same playing field as everyone else. And that’s exactly what happened. Sweet Pill played a show in May 2021, right before it was honestly okay to be around people. It was outdoors at the FDR skate park, and we played in front of like 1000 people.
SM: That was our first show as a group.
JW: Yeah, that was our first time playing with Sean and Ryan. And that was like a new beginning. Because everything before then was just, like we talked about before, we were college band. And don’t get me wrong, I’m really proud of those moments, but when we played this first show last year, we were a real band. And people noticed that. Instead of being welcomed into the Philly scene, I’d say that we created more of our own. And now that we have our place here, people kind of give us the time of day or treat us with the respect that other, more seasoned Philly people in the scene get.
That show is the one that’s on YouTube, right?
SM: Yeah, on Cemetary Tapes.
JW: Our friend Connor Rothstein recorded it.
I was watching that the other day, it’s really cool. Where the Heart Is starts with this feeling of wanting to go home, which also puts the album title into context. Is the idea of home something you’ve been thinking about, either individually or collectively?
ZY: For me, when I’m using the word home, it’s figuring out what is home. What makes you feel good? Where’s your comfort, something or someplace that you can go to that is yours and you have control of? That’s what home means to me. So when I’m referencing home, I’m quite literally trying to find out who I am and what is home. In ‘Where the Heart Is’, the first song, my home – I am literally talking about going home from work, the stressful part of work and then coming home where you can relax. But then, home can also be this place where it’s like a prison because people don’t leave home and people don’t branch out. So it’s like, I want to go home but I’m also bored of home. Home is such a strong thing for this whole album, and that’s why it’s where the heart is, because it’s where your heart lies, where your home is at. And you create your home.
JW: To give my own two cents on that, because I didn’t bring in the word home into the song or the album, but I think of Sweet Pill as my home. Because especially over quarantine in the transitional periods from being a college student to being an actual adult, my home got moved around so much – I physically moved like seven times in the past three or four years. I didn’t really have any sense of stability with my actual home, but something that was constant throughout all of – me moving physically or going through relationships or whatever it may have been – the band was always there. And I have such a strong connection to the songs because of that. So, like, these songs and playing in this band, that is my home. Not to be all sappy… [laughs]
No, that’s what we’re here for. But yeah, home is such a strong theme on the album, and the title track – I don’t know when it came in the timeline of the record, but it works great as the opener.
ZY: It was early. It was one of the first couple of songs written for this album.
JW: We wanted to write a fun song when we started this. We wanted people to have fun. And I remember right after that, or even before that, we were like, “We want to write an angry song.” And that is what ‘Blood’ is, which comes right after that.
How much does your process vary from song to song? Has it stayed more or less the same over the years?
JW: It’s been diff –
ZY: It’s pretty similar. [laughs] Were we about to say something different?
JW: What did you say?
ZY: I was gonna say it’s been pretty similar. I mean, very rarely does someone write a full song and show somebody. We all just pretty much jam. That’s all it is.
JW: Yeah, it is similar in that sense. But I think that because we’ve written with different people, and also, every song is like: one idea is brought to the table and then everyone puts their five cents into it. I think this is an opportunity for Sean to talk because half of the songs were fully written when Sean joined the band, and then he kind of put his own flair on it, and then also had the opportunity to write his own song. That is where I felt like it was a different writing process. It was ‘Diamond Eyes’, which was one of our singles and one of the strongest songs on the record.
SM: I feel like I agree with you both individually. I’m sure it hasn’t changed too drastically, where it’s like, we bring an idea to the table and then as a whole we just work out the bumps and add our own little flair to it. And that’s pretty much what I did for ‘Diamond Eyes’. I just had this song idea, no vocals, nothing on it, just a song in a very bare-bones kind of way. And then it was cool to be on the opposite end of what I’m used to doing on this album, which is like, here’s seven or so demos that Sweet Pill was already working on that I’ve totally heard at shows before. It was cool to be able to take an idea that was already half collectively written and then be able to add to it with everybody in the band. I can’t wait to do more for the next, you know, whatever we do, because we’re kind of more so starting from scratch and bringing ideas to the table from square one.
When did the flute enter the picture on that song?
ZY: Well, I am a huge Great Time fan, and Great Time is the band that the flutist [Jill Ryan] sings in. They’re also a Philadelphia band, and I just love them so much. I was like, I need to find a way to have our worlds collide. So I reached out to the singer who is a very talented musician in many ways, plays the saxophone, plays the flute. And I sent her the track and I said, “Just do something.” And she sent over a couple tracks and we pieced together the parts that we liked, and thus, the ending was created. She was super stoked on it, so it was a cool little collaboration.
There are a few surprises like that throughout the record – one of my favourites is ‘Dog Song’, and I thought it was interesting how it evokes this unending cycle of anxiety, and then the pace suddenly slows down. How do you arrive at these kinds of transitions musically?
ZY: If I had a dollar for every time Jayce was like, “What if the song just suddenly changes?” or “What if it turns into another song?” [laughs] And he does that for every song, but the tasteful parts stick. All his suggestions are usually good and right, so go ahead, Jayce, keep going!
JW: When we’re writing as a band, an idea that we were floating around that is present in the album is that we wanted songs to be written in succession where they would almost bleed together. And I think the original idea was to have every song do that, which was a little ambitious and I don’t think makes sense. But with ‘Dog Song’, we didn’t have anything else on the record that sounds like that. We wanted something a little more mellow, because it’s really abrasive and in-your-face. The end of that song, for me it was like, we need something very different for the end of this because this we’ve already been abrasive. But in terms of the end of the record, which is ‘Feet’, ‘Red String’, and ‘Cut’, those three songs blend into each other. And that was very purposeful. When we perform that, it will be those three things back to back to back. And it kind of feels like one big song, but the feel changes so much between that seven minutes of music.
SM: As a former fan of Sweet Pill, I think a lot of it has to do with what Zayna was talking about earlier, where you have this idea of home, this idea of anxiety, and then this relief or relaxation. I feel like those themes change naturally throughout the record, regardless of what the order would be. So I feel like it was pretty simple in terms of what should flow into the song or what should flow into the next song. Obviously, ‘Dog Song’ is one kind of aggression and then relaxation by the end, but I feel like the songs, in the order that they are on the album, it was pretty simple to figure out because those themes were all there. It almost made sense where they should go without even thinking about it in the first place. At least that’s my perspective when I heard the songs initially.
ZY: We talked about us being like a college band, and the whole album is about – me, I was in a codependent relationship that I was leaving, I was also leaving college. I was also entering work-life and like, What is my future? So, the whole album is basically about the transition from college, and you’re talking about musical transitions, too – even though we might not be thinking that hard about that stuff, we were all going through something similar in our lives, so it translates to what we’re doing.
What excites you most about the future – of Sweet Pill, or just in general?
Ryan Cullen [who had just joined the interview]: Short-term future, we have this tour coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m super excited.
SM: Yeah, getting to experience the Sweet bus is going to be awesome.
JW: We’ve been working on this record for so long that now that it’s kind of the release process is almost over, I’m really excited to see what opportunities come from that. I think that we’re gonna get a booking agent, and I think we’re going to start being the support for some bigger tours. And I think that when we’re given opportunities like that, we’re going to show them that they made the right choice. We’ve done shows where we’ve played in front of our crowd and people sing along and they enjoy themselves and they move around, but there have been shows where we’ve played in front of people that, like, no one knows us, and we’ll have a similar reaction. We’ve been able to win over a crowd, is what I’m trying to get at. And I think that if we are given that opportunity on a daily basis on a tour, that’s just how you expedite your success as a band. And I think we’re ready for that.
SM: Yeah. I really love DIY touring, I think it’s really fun, I think it’s really cool. And Jayce, I think you’ve been absolutely killing it with booking this tour and making the routing all work and everything. But I’m hoping that, eventually we’ll be starting out as the opener for a bigger band, and that’ll bring us places until we can do our own headlining tour again, where it’s in actual venues. And I think that’s not too far off.
JW: I love DIY, but I don’t want to do it anymore. [all laugh]
SM: Yeah, exactly.
RC: I’m excited to do this again, like write another record. Once we’re finished with the release process and playing these songs through until we’re sick of them. That’s going to be an experience, because we’re all going to be in such a different place. I’m excited to see what that’s going to look like or sound like.
ZY: I don’t really have an answer. [laughs]
Do you have any thoughts? It doesn’t have to be a direct answer.
ZY: When you first asked the question, I thought about things beyond the band. I was like, am I gonna have kids? What’s going to happen? [Ryan laughs] I was thinking of, like, the future. And I guess what I’m excited about is not knowing what’s going to happen. I have an idea, but like, it’s never what you think it is. So, I’m just here, figuring it out. And I guess that’s exciting in its own way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.