Sweet Lil: Spooky Storytellers
By Garrett Bower, Copy Chief
Combining intriguing lyricism and intricately layered sound, Athens-born gloomy drone rock band Sweet Lil has proved itself a powerful force. The blend of styles makes for rich storytelling accented by a dark instrumental mood.
The duo formed when guitarist and vocalist Hannah Cook reached out to drummer and producer Harold Bon about solo show opportunities at Athens' DIY space The Lodge. Cook expressed interest in playing her material with a band and the project took off from there.
“Originally, I thought it was just going to be like acoustic guitar with soft drumming, brushes and stuff,” said Bon. “Then we jammed, and we did it with electric and eventually just kept getting louder. It just worked really well.” The band name comes from this initial vision as a more stripped down acoustic project and the playful approach Cook and Bon try to take with the band. "It’s easy to look at a band name like Sweet Lil and assume that there’s not much density to it, much like it’s easy to look at a shitty bro…and think 'God, do you have any thoughts beyond this,'” said Cook, “But I think that everyone does and we forget that…[It’s an attempt at] understanding and trying to be less judgmental because we all are, and I know I am.”
This take on inquisition shines through on songs like the band’s first towering release, “Scitzo.” The track opens with upfront drums and a slow, crashing guitar riff. The song rips out of the gate in full form, sounding massive. Cook’s vocals lay on top like a fog, cascading into itself while being pulled at the edges by the instrumentation. From the haze, Cook sings of a vile figure, damning him as she sings, “And I hope he knows his soul / Is nothing but an empty, burning home.”
“'Scitzo' is… my idea of the ultimate evil. As evil as it gets, someone who finds joy and comfort in hurting others. Lacking control over your thoughts," said Cook. "I would say I’m more inspired by specific people than general ideas of love or heartbreak or something.” This fascination with individuality leads to songs that are uniquely personal, enriching arrangements with a character so that songs take on a mentality all their own. “A lot of the things that I write about kind of deal with goodness and badness,” said Cook. “Everyone has their own ideas of what that is and what that looks like. Then what that looks like from your eyes to someone else and then from their eyes to you.” “Scitzo” also lands as the closer on the duo’s self-released debut EP, Words of Dying, released in April. The recording process for the album was done entirely by Bon, an audio production graduate from Ohio University. “I create the foundation, and then Harold expands them,” said Cook, who writes the skeletons of the songs on an acoustic guitar and then brings them to Bon to flesh out together.
“She’ll send me an acoustic demo and I can pretty much immediately hear in my head how it’s going to sound,” said Bon. “Sometimes we’ll work with structure a bit, with songs.”
The band keeps things loose for the most part, allowing songs to build into whatever they are naturally, cultivating and guiding the music rather than carving it outright. This approach leads to a sound that blends genres innovatively and leaves Sweet Lil with a great deal of stylistic freedom. For instance, moving easily from the jangling blues of “Faithfully Empty, Thankfully” to the more ethereal lightness of “Truly Aligned,” a song that approaches the theme of death with a certain sense of whimsy. It is from a lyric in “Truly Aligned” that Words of Dying gets its ominous name, although this is another example of the band playing with perception.
“On the album cover it says [Sweet Lil Words of Dying]. Like there’s no separation between our band name and the album title,” said Bon. “It captures both sides of what we are.” While the line might seem somewhat morose, in context Cook sings, “And there are words of dying / That we don’t see ‘till we’re flying / I’m alive, but I am blind.” This turns the line from a condemnation into something more wonderful, the idea that death can’t be known until it is experienced, suggesting what’s beyond could be as much a journey as mortality. Since the release of its EP, the band has uprooted from Athens to relocate to Cincinnati, where Bon is searching for his own studio space and Cook is pursuing a career in teaching. “Nothing’s concrete aside from shows in the future. I mean, I’m trying to be a teacher. This is awesome, and I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in it because I could see myself, especially with the frustrations of being a teacher, being like, ‘Screw that!’” said Cook, “It’s funny to think of what my students would say. I mean, they think I’m weird.” Work on Sweet Lil is in full force for the immediate future, however, with the band having already gone on two short runs since early April, first a four-date trip around Ohio and the second on a handful of dates with another local band, Megawave, on its two-week run of the Northeast.
The duo hinted at more recorded work to come in the future with a handful of songs already written, no doubt prepared to ensnare the Cincinnati scene with the same refreshing intrigue brought to Athens.