The first time I heard about the Philadelphia emo outfit Sweet Pill, they were name-dropped by a friend/co-worker in a conversation about the Philadelphia punk, indie, and hardcore scenes. A few months later, Sweet Pill became one of my top artists on Spotify after I’d caught them live in Brooklyn with Ogbert the Nerd and Common Sage. Bolstered by killer noodly math rock riffs, frontwoman Zayna Youssef’s killer pop melodies with a hardcore edge, and their unmatched energy equal to a combination of Fugazi and Circa Survive on steroids, the band already won me over before they even finished tearing through their first song.
Sweet Pill released their raucous, cutting, and introspective debut album Where the Heart Is last May to high praise from blogs and respected publications like FLOOD Magazine and Left of the Dial. But their most notable endorsement came from Hayley Williams herself, who played their song “High Hopes” on her BBC Radio show in the fall and went on to say that Where the Heart Is, “already sounds like a classic record.”
A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents caught up with Sweet Pill’s Zayna Youssef to discuss the band’s recent tour with La Dispute, her love of Taking Back Sunday, her biggest hopes for the new year, and more.
To begin, how is the end of the year rounding out for you and what is the most exciting thing you’ve done recently?
It’s been great. Sweet Pill played our last show of 2022 at the Foundry for The Front Bottoms’ Champagne Jam. It was a two-day festival with multiple stages. We’re used to mostly playing the DIY stuff back in Philly, so that was a pretty big deal for us, to play in a large venue alongside bands we’ve always loved like Joyce Manor and Slothrust.
How was the tour with La Dispute and what songs have you been most stoked to play live each night?
Tour was amazing because it was our first time hitting the entire US. So this was the first time we really caught wind of how many people actually listen to us. We met so many people and it was so exciting how many of them had already been listening to us. It was really eye-opening.
From your perspective, what have been your favorite cities to play in and why?
Chicago is one of my favorite cities ever, aside from Philadelphia. My birthday show was in Mesa, Arizona and that was definitely a fun night and one of the nicest crowds ever. I also had a great time in Mobile, Alabama. It’s a port city, and it’s not huge. Once you leave that area it gets really different. Alabama and the south in general get a bad rep, but the people who want to come to shows and experience live music are always so nice.
It was nice to get to meet our listeners in person. There were folks who came to the Ohio show who ended up following us on the road. One fan brought an amazing drawing to a show and another fan changed their Twitter handle to one of our song titles. I had a memorable interaction in Vancouver with an audience member who walked up to the merch table and was like, “Why should I buy anything from this band?” It was really funny. I basically pretended I wasn’t in the band and was just a manager or something, and was like “I don’t know, man. If the band sucks, let me know.” After we played, they came back to the table with their jaw on the floor and ended up spending a lot of money on merch, so I think we won them over [laughs].
This year you finally released your debut album after a period of intense turmoil with everything going on in the world. Does it feel cathartic to get to perform them live after all that’s happened in the past two years?
It feels like time was on our side because we got started on the album in 2019. When the pandemic started, we obviously couldn’t continue, so that really forced us to regroup, improve the songs as much as we could, and really focus on getting involved in the issues that matter. For example, I’m middle eastern, and there’s so much I care about with everything going in places like Iran and Palestine. Now I’ve just been handed this crazy platform overnight, and I want to use it for good. My hope is that other little brown girls will be able to feel seen and heard. I’m not sure if that answers your question or not, but that’s just where my head’s at right now.
Absolutely. And I’m sure a lot of these young girls will be relieved to see someone who looks like them up on stage.
For real. I’ve had so many young kids come up to me on this tour and relay their stories about being from Pakistan or Egypt and how eye-opening it is for them to get to see somebody like me doing this. It’s not an easy life, especially when you’re American-born and come from a very strict family of immigrants. I couldn’t just randomly walk up to my parents one day and go, “I wanna be in a band!” It took a lot of convincing. My parents are Muslim, so there’s this pressure to act and dress modestly, which I don’t subscribe to at all and it’s been a major point of contention. For me, seeing someone like Ashrita [Kumar] from Pinkshift looking hot and doing their thing onstage is so empowering.
Knowing that young people now look to me as a role model is wild. Hayley Williams did that for me when I was younger, and I’m sure there was somebody who made her feel that way too.
Your songs have such a dynamic mix of classic pop punk hooks, hardcore screams, and twinkly math rock riffs. What influences do you attribute to your sound?
Our band listens to a lot of emo, if that isn’t already clear [laughs]. I feel like that’d be a fun Buzzfeed Quiz: “What Wave of Emo Are You?” I definitely grew up listening to the more commercial side, like Taking Back Sunday, Armor for Sleep, and Paramore. I’m an unabashedly passionate Taking Back Sunday enthusiast. Everything they did is so important to me. I don’t care how cheesy or juvenile the songwriting was, they were so fucking cool and Adam Lazzara’s stage presence is unparalleled. I’m still trying to learn how to swing the mic like he does. I love Anthony Green a lot. I’ve ripped off so many of his melodies.
Jayce and Sean, our guitar players are really into twinkly midwest emo. Jayce is really into the math rock fourth-wave stuff like Algernon Cadwallader. Ryan [our bassist] came from that scrappy New Jersey DIY world, listening to bands like Thursday and Senses Fail, and Chris likes a lot of pop music like Caroline Rose and stuff like that. I would say our biggest strength as a group is that we write everything together. Nobody writes a song by themselves and then shows it to everyone else. It’s always a team effort.
Where the Heart Is starts off with the idea of home and what it means. How has your relationship to the shifting concept of home changed throughout the years?
It’s funny, because my family is from Syria, and I visit Syria every year. But I grew up in New Jersey, so that was my first idea of home. When I’m in Syria, I’m a foreign person because I’m American, and in America it’s the same deal because people always ask me where I’m from. I never know what to answer, because if I tell them I’m from New Jersey, that might not be the answer they’re looking for, or vice versa. I was raised in a Muslim household, so it wasn’t considered normal to leave home as an adult unless you were getting married. So when I chose to take a different path and moved out anyway, my parents took that as a sign that they did something wrong. But I couldn’t go on living that way. If I’m not making progress, or moving up in the world, then I always feel like I’m stuck in one place. The song “Where the Heart Is” was written when I still lived with my parents, and now I live on my own, but I still fight these battles every day. Whenever I’m at work, I wish I could go home. And when I’m at home, I want to be somewhere else. Wherever I want to be is never where I’m at. I’m still figuring out what that means.
Something you’ve mentioned before is that life seems to present more questions than answers. How have you been able to make peace with that?
It’s funny that we’re talking about this now, because the windshield of my car got smashed the other day and I’ll never know who did it, I’ll never know why they did it, and it’s been eating away at me ever since. A friend of mine also passed away recently. She was a victim of DV, and I had the same response to her passing, which was, “Why?” I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I’ll never know why these things happen. I’m still coming to terms with accepting that the best knowledge is understanding that there’s no knowledge, which is kinda hard to say out loud, but there’s so much going on that I’ll never have answers for. So I just have to keep moving forward in the darkness, which is scary, but if I keep a good head on my shoulders, then maybe I’ll go somewhere… wherever that is.
The Philadelphia music scene has really been popping off lately. What’s it like to be in the center of all that?
It’s insane. I remember riding my bike one day and randomly saw Frances from Hop Along, and I just screeched to a halt and was like, “OMG, I love you!!!!” It’s insane that some of these local artists that I’m a huge fan of like Mannequin Pussy and Tigers Jaw have been in the same room as me, and many of them have also listened to my album, which is insane. Everybody’s in the same circle. I can catch three different shows in one night at any given time.
The bowling shirts are such a cool fashion trademark for the band. Where did that idea come from?
We might make those for the next merch run. It came about because the color palette for the album was black and red. There’s a lyric in “High Hopes” that goes, “We tried to keep an even score, but what even play the game for?” which led to the decision to shoot a Big Lebowski-esque video at a bowling alley. The concept was the idea of working so hard for these trophies, accolades, and money just to have it all taken away from you by the slimiest people. The two teams in the video were the Gutter Goblins and the Sweet Pins. We did the music video and decided to wear the shirts on stage, and just ran with it, because they look really cool. So that’s how the shirts became a trademark.
What are your biggest hopes for the new year, be it for Sweet Pill or just in general?
Sweet Pill has a bunch of tours lined up and hopefully some new music. We’re hoping to release a split before we put out our next album. We have a few months of leisure time before our next tour, and I’ve just taken up glass art in my parent’s garage, so I’m hoping to make some nice earrings or bongs or whatever. Thanks for having me!
Where The Heart Is by Sweet Pill is now available on all DSPs via Topshelf Records.
KEEP UP TO DATE WITH SWEET PILL