Until recently, Glassboro in South Jersey wasn’t much more than Rowan University, a destination for 21st birthdays (Landmark Americana) and farmland. But now, thanks to the 4333 music collective and several local bands, it’s becoming an epicenter of music in the region.
It’s from this musically fertile ground that Sweet Pill emerged. While attending Rowan, Zayna Youssef (vocals) mentioned to her friend and former Chill/Hilarious bandmate Jack Meidel that, “she wanted to get more involved in the music scene.” Meidel recommended Youssef reach out to Jayce Williams, who helps run 4333. The two eventually met during the collective’s second basement show in Glassboro.
That introduction wasn’t much more than a few hellos, but the two met again at the next 4333 show, and Williams, who was impressed with Youssef’s musical abilities from Chill/Hilarious, approached her about wanting to jam. Meidel had told Williams, “Yo, Zayna can play the drums and sing,” and Williams was hooked.
But the band ultimately congealed because of a very collegiate experience: the group project. Williams and Youssef were both the type of students to actually do the project while the rest sign their names and collect the grade. So principled were Williams and Youssef in this structure that they offered to help a friend finish their senior project, an album.
“Zayna and I were the only dedicated ones in that group of people,” Williams says (their friend got an A for what it’s worth). “It wasn’t until recently when Chris (Kearney, drums) joined the band a year and a half later that we became a unit. Back then, we were just doing it to make music. Now we are a group of people that have a goal in mind, and that goal is to play in front of a lot of people and see what music brings us to life.”
Kearney, a Delco native, was a natural fit in the band, and for Youssef (Cherry Hill) and Williams (Newton), he was the piece that took the band from the school project to a bona fide South Jersey-born musical outfit. At first, they were worried that Kearney would be spread too thin because of his involvement in two other projects, and worked a full-time job, but Youssef and Williams say the band took precedence.
“We got so much better,” says Youssef about Kearney joining the band. “We got better at organization skills, and we got a clearer focus. We had band members who would say no to tours, would miss practices, and Chris was like, ‘No, I want this to be a career, and I would quit my job for this.’”
Kearney did not quit his day job but Sweet Pill (rounded out by Sean McCall on guitar and Ryan Cullen on bass) was committed to taking the band to the next level. And after a successful 2019, they had reason to double-down on their pursuits.
Sweet Pill released four songs in 2019, got to play SXSW, and played shows with Tigers Jaw, Oso Oso, and Slaughter Beach, Dog (in Gloucester County of all places). But unlike the hit song of one of the bands they shared a stage with, Sweet Pill did not simply bask in the glow.
“I hate when people call music a hobby,” says Williams. “I put everything I have into this.”
Sweet Pill recorded their first couple songs in 2019, and the music and lyrics for those songs are focused on the “two halves” of college: having fun and having anxiety.
The recording of songs like “Miss This,” “Tell Me,” “Lost In It,” and “Doubt” took place during a time when Williams was having fun, partying, playing shows and booking shows with 4333, while Youssef had anxiety about the future.
“Is everything that is solid gonna stay solid?” Youssef remembers thinking of the future after graduating from Rowan.
Like many bands, Sweet Pill thought they were entering 2020 on solid ground; so solid, in fact, that they purchased a bus and had plans to tour the South and play at SXSW. The tour started—they made it to Texas via Asheville, Nashville, Birmingham and New Orleans—but come March, COVID shut everything down. To make matters worse, the band’s bus broke down in the middle of Louisiana en route back to South Jersey.
On tour in a pandemic, the band wondered, “Are the states gonna shut down their borders?” COVID was scary for many, but it was even scarier for the young band being so far away from home and without means of transportation to get back to the Garden State.
Sweet Pill posted about their situation on social media, and it sparked attention. The band received numerous donations on Venmo, and people were buying the band’s merch and their music. They were able to make it back to the Garden State, but when they got home, they found a ghost town. Youssef was laid off from her graphic design job due to the pandemic.
“One moment everything is normal and you’re playing shows, and the next minute you go home and you’re laid off,” said Youssef. Turns out everything that was solid can crumble pretty damn quickly.
But for all her questioning of the stability of the future, Youssef is no stranger to change. Both her parents were born in Syria, and Youssef has taken trips over the years to visit. She describes the town she visits as “very trendy” with growing tattoo parlors, and she often feels underdressed when going there.
“Syria spends a lot of their time in the arts,” says Youssef. “They have a lot of famous poets and philosophers. … They value creative things.”
Her mother was an art teacher in Syria, and supported Youssef’s passion for music. When Youssef didn’t know what she wanted to go to school for, she says her mom said “art, duh.”
While her hereditary inclination toward the arts has propelled her musical journey, Sweet Pill draws from its own pool of influences: Mannequin Pussy, Hop Along, Circa Survive, Tigers Jaw and Modern Baseball. Youssef was also heavily influenced by Paramore and more specifically Hayley Williams. Youssef worked shifts at Qdoba as a teenager to save up money to attend Parahoy, a cruise that features performances by Paramore and other bands.
“As a young girl you see this badass woman (Williams) kicking her legs around you’re like, ‘Crap, I can do this too,’” Youssef says.
The result of all that is a band with a unique sound, one that makes you want to bop to the music, but rage at the same time.
You can hear it on Sweet Pill’s new album, which it recorded at the Gradwell House in Haddon Heights and is set to be released later this year. They recorded the album in six days, and they said the theme and lyrics for the upcoming album is about pain—indeed, many of us got a master class on that topic in the last year and a half.
And, the band’s back to playing live. In May, they performed at FDR Park in Philadelphia, and are scheduled to play at Love City Brewing in Philadelphia on July 30 with Ali Awan, Great Time and Mandala Ticket. Get tickets here.