The Evil Genius of Zach and Kota’s Sweet Life

In Music Stories by Will Warrenleave a COMMENT

Explosive guitars ring while a hyperactive drummer bangs away, threatening to go off the rails at any moment. Earplugs aren’t required, but maybe you should consider them; it’s loud, and the mood is getting rather sinister. But feel free to dance—it’s just another rollicking episode of Zach and Kota’s Sweet Life, and there are many more to come.

The name, a pun on the mid-’00s Disney Channel sitcom The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, is eye-catching, eye-rolling, and evil genius, all at once. Drummer Zach Gilleran, guitarist Dakota Smith, and recently added bassist Thomas Bigwood play a fluid, high-octane brand of rock that resembles the best parts of your favorite garage bands, one that can shift styles with ease and gets butts out of seats. It’s boisterous and exciting, making them one of the most recent additions to a list of must-see Knoxville acts.

Smith and Gilleran started playing together in college. “We would just find each of us playing late at night, doing jangly, loud guitar rock stuff,” Smith says. In 2012, they decided they wanted to play in front of audiences, and the Sweet Life has been rolling ever since, with frequent gigs at Pilot Light and Preservation Pub.

Gilleran brings an intense, frenetic style of drumming to the forefront, while Smith’s guitar chugs and twists rapidly to keep pace. It’s all very thrilling, even when they drop the pace and breathe for a minute. With new member Bigwood, the band wants a fuller sound—Smith says the trio is working on a full-length album in the near future.

Sweet Life currently has two tracks available online, but the band is releasing a six-song self-titled EP this weekend at Pilot Light. The EP contains remastered versions of the two Bandcamp tracks and four other songs, staples of their live set. All six songs were recorded before Bigwood joined the band, with just Gilleran on drums and Smith on guitar—an unusual setup for a guitar-rock band.

“We were fascinated with the idea of a two-piece, but I didn’t want to do anything super riff-based, like blues,” Smith says. “We wanted it to be more free-form.” The music reflects that, changing directions and moving at high speeds.

While the band’s reference points are scattered about, their taste for hooky melodies recalls garage contemporaries the Soft Pack. They aren’t afraid to let the waves of guitar and drum noise crash loudly, either, like Chapel Hill bands from the ’90s like Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. Sweet Life keeps their songs interesting and concise, with few of them longer than three minutes—a welcome change in an increasingly verbose world. Smith, Gilleran, and Bigwood know their boundaries and seem to be comfortable with them.

“Our songs are very earnest, almost to the point where you’ll cringe—and then we try to change directions,” Smith says. “I think that we’re like a profile of a dead Facebook friend, where there’s this smiling face and a collection of images and recollections on top of a morbid reality.”

Smith says that the band’s Disney-inspired name has gotten them attention, but it’s also had some unintended consequences. “I get a lot of people that call me ‘Kota,’ which I had never been called before,” he says. “I also have people ask me about the show—I don’t think we’ve seen an episode, to be honest.”


Zach and Kota’s Sweet Life play with Ex-Gold and Joseph Allred at Pilot Light (106 E. Jackson Ave.) on Saturday, May 23, at 10 p.m. Admission is $5 and 18 and up. 

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