Mic CheckMusic

Sweet Spine Talks Grunge, Darkness and Viral Fame

Sweet Spine (from left): Brannan Crook, Fox Haynes, and Taylor Priola. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Spine)

When 19-year-old Fox Haynes founded Sweet Spine in 2020, he and his bandmates set out to do what they knew set them on fire: writing and performing. 

“When you’re in a room with people who want to be there to listen to music, it’s almost like everything else falls away,” says Haynes. “It’s a time and place to let everything go, almost like being in a church; you can feel the energy of everyone in the room. It’s addictive.” 

Fast forward to 2023, and the band has made a name for itself online with their viral single “Darkness,” a melodic yet haunting, melancholic rock song echoing the sound of some of the ’90’s greatest alternative hits. Uploaded in a 30-second clip on TikTok, Sweet Spine’s single exploded into almost instant virality, with vocalist Hayne’s lyrics reverberating dreamily on the track: “Can you see the stars burn out and die without you?”

At the time of this writing, the original clip of “Darkness” boasts nearly 973,000 views since its posting in June 2022. It’s been streamed 1,587,972 times on Spotify, granting the South Carolina band a newfound online notoriety, with fans eagerly shouting out the band from up and down the East Coast and sometimes as far away as Belarus. 

Haynes, who says he remembers singing to himself for hours on end as a young child on road trips, originally founded Sweet Spine in 2021 alongside the group’s original bassist, Evelyn Atkins. Haynes and Atkins would later go on to recruit their current drummer, Brannan Crook, after playing gigs alongside Crook’s former project, Luxx. 

Atkins would reluctantly make the call to leave the band to pursue an engineering degree at the University of South Carolina,. 

“It was a difficult decision to make”, says Haynes, “But we all knew it was just something we had to do.” Taylor Priola, bassist of both Romack (Priola’s other project) and Sweet Spine, is the newest addition to the band.

Originally from Greenville, South Carolina, Sweet Spine has in recent months taken the Charlotte alt scene by storm, proving itself a crowd-pleaser during a recent show at The Milestone alongside hardcore favorites like Jiu-Jitsu, Cosmictwynk, Encre-Noire, and Wastoid. 

While “Darkness” may have brought Sweet Spine online virality, the band contends that it’s an unwavering commitment and passion to writing and performing music for the underground scene that fuels the trio.

“I fell in love with music in middle school, and I’ve every single day only wanted to do that since,” says Haynes. “Whether it’s 10 people or 200 people, we play like we’re never gonna play again.” 

Sitting on the steps of a gothic Charlotte cathedral on a cool fall evening, I spoke to Fox, Taylor, and Brannan about navigating the ups and downs of viral success, the band’s fervor for music, and how preserved insects and biblical analogies make perfect lyrical muses. 

Queen City Nerve: How did Sweet Spine first come to be?

Fox Haynes:  Senior year of high school, I started messing around on guitar, and I got really into rock music. I’d been doing music for a pretty long while before that, but I really wanted to start a band, and I just got the idea for Sweet Spine in class one day.

What’s the meaning behind that name?

Haynes: I just pulled it out of my ass. It just was the first one I came up with, and then I couldn’t come up with anything else [laughs]. I was in math class, in the 12th grade, and I had my notebook open, thinking of band names, and I was like, “Sweet Spine, that’s it.” It was the first one. 

A couple of months had gone by, and I just kept writing music. And then one day, I got a random phone call from [Sweet Spine’s former bassist] Evelyn’s number about her jam band, and how she wanted me to come play drums for them. 

Fox Haynes (Photo by Seth Rodriguez)

Evelyn and I clicked really well; we had a bigger sense of wanting to do more with the band. I ended up asking her, “What if we do this kind of music instead, and I play guitar?” We ended up kicking out the guitarist and the other vocalist, and then the other person who was playing bass. And then from there on it was just playing shows. Then we met Brannan through some mutuals later down the road, and he started playing drums for us … I found out about Taylor through some mutuals on Instagram, too, and that’s really where we are now. That’s a brief rundown. 

Brannan Crook: My first band was a band called Luxx, and we came up in the same scene as Sweet Spine, so we would be put on bills together, and play the same sort of shows. And then, that sort of ran its course, and there was about a week when I didn’t have a band. And Fox was looking for another drummer at the time, and I played that Sweet Spine Milestone show [in July]. They weren’t necessarily looking for me to fill in yet, but that was sort of like a live audition.

Taylor Priola: You should explain that story. 

Crook: So, I got a call at five or six in the evening — it was late. Sweet Spine had a show in Charlotte, and I was in Greenville. Fox called me and was like, “We’re on in three hours,” and the drive [from Greenville to Charlotte] was three hours. And I didn’t know any of their songs. Like, I had never played with them before. And they said, “Can you learn the songs on the way [down], and just play them?” and I was like, “Yeah … let me get back to you.” So I paused for five minutes off the phone and just freaked the fuck out, and I was looking at the setlist thinking I might be able to manage it. So, I called them back and told them I could do it. 

On the drive down to Charlotte, I was listening to their songs, and my partner was writing down notes for me to have onstage while I played the set. And we just listened to the set list twice, and by the time that was over, we got there and I played the set, and there were no fuckin’ problems at all.

Haynes: It was one of my favorite shows. 

Crook: It was insane, there were people crowd surfing, and I was like: “Oh, this is what a show could be. I don’t want to do anything other than this.”

So, Brannan joined Sweet Spine after that show? 

Haynes: Immediately, almost. The way I kind of put it to Brannan after that show was like, “That was a very in-your-face first interview.” We kind of just threw him out there; it was a live audition, and he fuckin’ killed it. The chemistry that I felt that night was like, “Yeah, this guy’s got the drums for it.”

Crook: I’d say Luxx was like, the only sort of comparable sound to Sweet Spine in that [South Carolina] scene. It was a smooth transition for me creatively.

Priola: I kind of knew Brannan because Luxx and my other band, Romack, played a show together. I vividly remember at that show, during Luxx’s last song, Brannan was wearing these overalls, and he did this really sick thing during the last song where he stood up and like, slammed the cymbals. I was like, “Oh, this guy’s cool.” And then Fox messaged me about playing bass: it was more of like a fill-in position, but then, things worked out. I’m feeling good about it.

Well, you guys definitely look like you belong in a band together. 

Haynes: After our first ever practice together [as a new lineup], I just walked away with a feeling of hopefulness because I saw so much potential, and at the same time, I thought: “It’s time to start busting my ass again for success.” 

“Darkness” made me very comfortable with where we were, and that’s a dangerous thing, it’s dangerous to get comfortable. But, with the addition of Brannan and Taylor, I’ve really started to feel, like, heated for it. I’m driven again, and I’m really thankful for that. 

Priola: Being new [to the band], it’s super inspiring to have people as equally as motivated and driven, or even more so in some aspects. I feel like at the end of practices and at the end of hanging out, I’m inspired to do better, I’m inspired to do more. I’m ready for the next thing, it’s all exciting, it’s never exhausting. 

Taylor Priola (Photo by Seth Rodriguez)

Who or what were the inspirations musically for Sweet Spine when you first started the project, sound-wise or lyrically?

Haynes: Rock was still really new for me at the time [in high school], I wasn’t super into anything heavy, I was still getting into it. I started listening to Nirvana, Deftones, and just the basics of what was kind of popular during that time, which I guess was old ’90s rock music. That’s kind of how I first started writing, it was just what I was influenced by the most [at the time]. 

Lyrically, there’s an artist called Bright Eyes, who I really, really, like. Melody-wise, I took a lot of inspiration from  The Tallest Man on Earth. He’s a folk artist, he does crazy guitar folk stuff, I love his sound. When it comes to my influence on guitar, I took a lot of inspiration from finger-picking folk music. The tunings that they use are very open, and when you learn how to use them correctly, you can make a lot of really cool, beautiful melodies and chords out of that. I kind of took a lot of influence from folk. But overall, it was just a cultivation of all the different genres that I was into [when we first started].

When did you guys first start playing your local scene [in S.C.]? 

Haynes: It was mainly due to [Sweet Spine’s previous bassist] Evelyn going to the University of South Carolina. When she went to USC, it was really easy for us to kind of integrate into that music scene, and then once we did, most of the people in Columbia already knew who we were. We played a couple of house shows; our first ever show in Columbia was a house show at this stinky house — like, it was stinky and hot and sweaty and gross, but it was fucking packed. The floor was wobbling in, and people were crowd surfing inside the house, it was crazy. After that show, we just kept playing Columbia, ‘cause it was so fun. 

Crook: I’d say our fanbase in Columbia is even bigger than the one in Greenville, at this point. Just because the student life there is just so big since it’s a college town.

What has been your favorite venue to play overall?

Haynes: I would say our first headliner at Radio Room in Greenville is probably my favorite show so far … To us, Radio Room was one of the bigger venues in our area. So, to headline that, and to even get to that point, it was a big accomplishment for us. It just kind of spoke to me in a way that was like, “Just keep working. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working, just keep going. You’re headlining Radio Room now.” 

Were you guys nervous about playing such a large venue?

Haynes: Yeah, of course. I’m always nervous, I get nervous for any show honestly. In the five to 10 minutes leading up to a show, I feel like I need to shit my pants. So that kind of [feeling] is always there, I think the day that that’s not there, I’ll be a little worried. I want to go up there and do good, but then the second we start playing, it’s like: We’re in our zone. 

Crook: Performing is my favorite thing. Recording is cool, but it’s almost like… to me, it just feels like a necessity. If I could just play live music, without recording, I’d do it. Recorded music is more of a product, live music is more of an interaction, and I always appreciate that interaction with fans. That’s the coolest part of it. 

Haynes: In all honesty, that was kind of my first intention when starting [Sweet Spine], was to just play live. We had been playing music for almost 3-6 months before we had even recorded anything. It was just fun for us to play, and we were just passionate about it.

Priola: Even for me, before joining, stalking Sweet Spine on Instagram, I thought their music was good, but seeing videos from their live shows made me think: “I wanna do that!”

Crook: We never have anything left when we get off stage. We’re always just like, hanging on by a thread, hyperventilating and shit. But if you don’t give it your all, then I don’t understand the point, honestly. 

Tell me a bit about your first album, C-section, from 2022

Haynes: We had been a band for either three or six months at that point, and all the songs on C-Section, we had been playing live before they were released on the album. Our old drummer kind of did some studio stuff, and he was just like, “Let’s just record it on our own,” so we did.

And we just recorded the album in two weeks and released it. I’m really proud of it, in a way, but I wish we could have gone back and done it properly. Not so rushed, and like, sounding better to be honest [laughs]. I guess locally, C-Section did pretty good. It was a good little album. 

What did your songwriting process look like for the album? 

Haynes: Overall, there wasn’t a theme. My writing process for music anytime is [intuitive]; I will just listen to whatever I write, play it on the guitar, and start saying stuff out loud. I think the vibe for C- Section sound-wise was definitely grungy and ’90s rock, but writing-wise, lyrically, it kind of just made itself. My writing process is never very intentional, I more so get in the zone, and just sort of let the creativity channel itself. And then by the end [of writing a song], you’re like, “Oh, that’s what it was about.” 

Is there a story behind “Wet Specimen” off the album? The lyrics are very visceral: “I keep it in a jar, I dress it in synthetic hair, its eyes are filled with rot.” What was the inspiration for that song? 

Haynes: “Wet Specimen” was actually influenced by my girlfriend, Madison. We recorded C-Section very early into our relationship. She’s obsessed with bugs and wet specimens, which is a process where you can put any animal, or anything, really, in a jar of formaldehyde, and it keeps it fresh forever. I just thought that process was so interesting: it was a really cool idea, keeping something in a jar just to admire it after it’s dead. “Wet Specimen” is about that, creating something that’s ideal to you, and then keeping it. 

Tell me more about how your viral hit “Darkness” came to be.

Haynes: “Darkness” has done great things for us as a band. It was probably very early 2023 when I made the demo. I showed the members of Sweet Spine at the time, and I said, “I think this is really good, what do you guys think?” They liked it, but they wanted to save it for the next year. I was like, okay, it’s good, I saved it to my phone, whatever. 

And then, like midway through that year, around May, I started getting this feeling of like, “We need to get to the next step.” So really, I just started taking our presence on social media more seriously. Some people think that’s not cool, and we’ve always kind of gotten hate for that, but honestly, it’s done great for us. It’s literally like having a billboard on the street that every single human being uses, why not put your face out there? 

Long story short, I had started making silly little TikTok content to get our name out there. All of the songs we had posted so far were from C-Section, and I thought, “This stuff is so old that it doesn’t really speak for the band now.” As I was going through demos, “Darkness” stood out to me. So I selected it, edited a video with lyrics while driving home from work, and then I posted it. It’s funny because when I posted that clip of “Darkness,” in my head, I was like, this could blow up. I was thinking, this is either gonna be good — like really, really good — or not good at all.

The next day I was at work, and I was checking my notifications because my phone kept buzzing, and the band’s account had 9,000 new followers on TikTok, just overnight. After that, it was just literally an uphill of new fans and new interactions, almost immediately. People were reaching out to us who we could only dream of talking to. Starting a small local band, you never expect to one day be talking to someone like Warner Records, y’know what I mean? I was just talking to so many people that I was shitting my pants. 

Crook: Warner, Interscope, Sonic…

Are you guys signed to anyone currently?

Haynes: No, not right now. We didn’t want to receive anything yet, it just didn’t feel like the right time to do something like that. We had a cool moment, but we didn’t want people capitalizing off of just that quick little success, and then dissipating, which is what happens for a lot of artists. I didn’t want that for us. 

Like every good thing, it came with its cons. I think “Darkness” has been a blessing for us and everything that’s come from it, and I’m never going to complain about that. But, there was a point where it got very stressful, I didn’t even want to check my phone anymore. It was kind of like the saying: “Be careful what you wish for.” There was one point where we had four deals on the table with bigger labels, and it was like “Damn, should we take these or not?” It just got so stressful at one point, that I was like, we’ve got to get a manager. We were so new we didn’t know what these people were saying when they were like: “5 percent of blah, blah, blah.” We could be getting screwed over. 

Crook: Labels especially will try to take your soul. 

Haynes: There’s a thing in the industry called sharks, and those kinds of people were the people reaching out to us. They’re looking for fresh meat. There was one deal that we got from this label in L.A., that was like, “We’ll give you 20 grand for ‘Darkness’ and your next album,” and that was cool, but then you go to the bottom and it says, “We also get 75% of merch, if you’re in a movie we get that, if you’re in a book we get that,” and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” There’s a lot of shady stuff that goes on in the music industry. 

Priola: I feel like from the outside perspective, we look like the perfect target for that because we’re so young. 

Haynes: Which is why I’m glad that we already had a good head on our shoulders when it came to that, and we didn’t immediately say yes to stuff just because it happened. But, our manager has also been a big help with that. 

Crook: The reality of the music industry, at least right now, is that younger bands don’t need a label, and that’s nice. You don’t need anyone. The only help we’ve needed is booking shows because that’s just not our specialty. But, if we record our own music, and we have our manager, we don’t need a label to give us restrictions and rules. 

Brannan Crook (Photo by Seth Rodriguez)

Haynes: We’re lucky because right now, we’re not on a label’s time or schedule. That’s a blessing that many artists don’t have. So, I’m grateful for that right now, and until something comes along that is worth taking, I’m fine where we are. 

Crook: Everything that’s given us success up to this point has been D.I.Y., so we’re not going to change that until it’s worth it. If a label believes in us, then that’s great, but if they just believe in the product we can create, then that’s not what we’re looking for. 

Haynes: I guess the next steps for us right now are just to release more music and show people what we’re about, because “Darkness” brought us a lot of new fans, but that song is the only taste of us they’ve had. I think we’re heading in a direction where we’re eager to show people, “This is what we can do, stay.”

What was the inspiration behind your more recent singles, “Dream Eater” and “Anathema”? 

Haynes: “Dream Eater” is another one of those songs that I wrote intuitively. The only song I can say 100% that had a meaning as I was writing it is “Anathema.” To me, “Dream Eater” is a back-stabbing, revenge, kind of song. Y’know, like a “dream-eater” is an asshole, someone who literally eats your dreams. 

The word “Anathema” is a Greek word, it’s biblically used to describe a community or group of people that is hated by everyone around them. To touch on what we talked about earlier, like, “Darkness” creating so much hate for us, we got a lot of shit from people that I considered friends, and even people that I don’t consider friends, and I think that’s a given anytime you’re gonna have something that’s doing well. It’s kind of like the famine mentality, no one wants to see other people doing better than them, to put it bluntly. 

“Anathema” was just an outlet for that feeling, like the lyrics: “Isn’t it funny how people change, how the town starts to talk when they know your name?” I think that experience [ultimately] has brought us closer together as a band, but I knew when people listened to “Anathema” that they would get what I was talking about. I was a bit nervous at first [about its release], but it’s like, when everyone else is against you, you don’t have anything else to lose. 

What do you want people to take away from Sweet Spine’s music? 

Haynes: I think that’s open for interpretation to anyone, music is very subjective as an art form. I’ve always believed in creating music that’s for anyone who needs to hear it. When I’m writing music, I do hope it touches someone. 

Crook: Once you release a song, realistically, it’s not yours anymore to keep. It’s everyone’s.

Haynes: You’re presenting it. Like, it’s almost like a gift in a way, it’s like, “Hey, I made this, and now it’s yours to do what you want with it.” It kind of sounds corny to say that, but I just really hope that our music finds people when it needs to find it. 

What’s next for Sweet Spine? 

Priola: We have a new single, “888,” that’s releasing Nov. 24. The band’s also going on an East Coast tour in December, and a California leg at the end of January. 

Do you have any advice for other young musicians who are looking to pursue music?

Haynes: It never made sense to me to slave away every day trying to just scrape by when you could be doing what you love. And obviously, it’s not easy to do what you love and live in this world. So it really just comes down to making that decision: you’re either going to do what you’re passionate about, and take a big risk, and make it work, or you don’t. 

Crook: It’s never not gonna be scary. There’s a reason why so many musicians talk about taking a leap of faith.

Priola: With that comfort [of not taking risks] comes a lot of resentment, whether it be sooner or later. I’d rather be uncomfortable and thinking about my next move than in 10 years, being like, “I’m so glad I just sat here.” 

Haynes: It’s easy to get caught up in decisions. Looking back on the past few months, it’s like, the decisions I thought were going to significantly make my life harder or worse a year or six months ago, don’t matter to me now. You can’t get too caught up in things, because at the end of the day, the sun is gonna set, and it’s gonna rise, and life goes on with or without you, whether you’re happy or unhappy. So do what makes you happy. 

It’s always the hardest decisions that become the most transformative. 

Sweet Spine’s new single, “888,” releases on Friday, Nov. 24.

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