In an era where heavy music has become more than stereotypical, the Santa Clarita California trio known as Smile Empty Soul comes off as a breath of fresh air… a revelation, actually.
“Just because we have heavy songs doesn’t mean they are typical headbanger songs”, says Sean Danielsen, Smile Empty Soul’s 21-year-old singer, guitarist, and lyricist. “We want our songs to be real songs first– something that will work on just an acoustic guitar. We may like different styles, but the one thing we are all influenced by is a good song. We like heavy stuff. Nirvana is something we all agree on, but we also like the Beatles–that stuff is timeless. A great song never gets old, no matter what the trends are. I even like James Taylor and music like that.”
Smile Empty Soul initially formed while attending rival high schools in the bedroom community of Santa Clarita. The diverse trio came together four years ago through a “mutual love of music.” Drummer Derek Gledhill played in bands throughout his high school years; bassist Ryan Martin was in his first band at the age of 12 and Danielsen began playing in a rock band at age 11. Smile Empty Soul slowly evolved and perfected its sound over the next four years, regularly playing the two small clubs in Santa Clarita and making the trek to the Sunset Strip. Their demo came to the attention of Todd Parker, an A&R man for ThroBack Records, and the band eventually hooked up with producer/songwriter John Lewis Parker. Parker worked with the band for almost 2 years, and signed them to his ThroBack label before subsequently signing a deal with Lava Records.
Indeed, the band’s music is full of memorable hooks and melodies, while Danielsen’s lyrics eloquently speak to a new generation of disenfranchised youth as well as — or better than — any group’s words have in years. “Everyone goes through depressed times in their lives,” says the charismatic singer, whose lyrics often explode with anger and angst. “I’m actually a fairly happy guy, especially right now. But no matter how happy I am, there are still a lot of problems in everyday life — and I just want to write about those things because it helps me. And hopefully, people can relate and it might help them, too.”
Not that there’s a lack of humor there. Sean’s publishing company is named God Hates Me Music. But Danielsen’s anger also seems like a natural progression — and like most such things, his resentment of authority figures, and societal hypocrisy can be traced back to childhood. At the age of 7, his “very religious” mother and stepfather took him to live in an abandoned summer camp in Maine. “It was strange because we were basically alone for three years; I didn’t see any other children or, really, anybody else in all that time,” he recalls. “We were living in the middle of the forest, and in the winter, we had snow blowing inside and no indoor ventilation. Of course, now I’m against the whole idea of organize ed religion.” He eventually moved back to California to live with his dad, but those childhood memories are reflected today in songs like “Every Sunday” and “The Other Side.”
Other tunes hit closer to his current home, including “Bottom of a Bottle,” the first single, and “Nowhere Kids,” a genuine modern successor to anthems like the Who’s “My Generation,” the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” and Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave.” Says the lyricist: “I was just writing about our friends back in Santa Clarita. Nobody there thinks about their future. When most of my friends graduated from high school, they didn’t do anything. They didn’t go to college. Some of them got lousy jobs and are just barely surviving. And those same kids, all they do is get fucked-up. That’s all they wait for; they live for that. But there can be another side to it. Instead of drugs, it could be something else that you live for as a person — your own personal high. I didn’t intend ‘ Bottom of a Bottle’ of to be a party song. Basically, everyone has something that makes them feel alive and that’s what the song is about.
Smile Empty Soul have also created an anti-war anthem for their generation with “This Is War,” which, of course, is about as timely as a song could be at this particular moment in history. “I’m just against war in general,” says Danielsen. “And we should do everything we can to avoid war. No one really seems to be writing about it, but I couldn’t help it. I wrote it from the perspective of someone who isn’t really for or against it — someone who just goes along with whatever and ends up over there. I think that’s generally what happens. I have a friend who joined the Army because he thought it would be good for his future. And now he’s going over there, but he never stopped to consider it might end up involving killing people or being killed.”
Thoughtful heavy music. Melodic heavy music. Smile Empty Soul proves that the terms don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But, please, don’t mention the term “metal” around them. “We just don’t like the term,” protests Gledhill. “If anything, we’re more alternative rock. But I’d just call us rock,” adds Martin.
“It’s rock ‘n’ roll,” concludes Danielsen. “We try to keep it as raw as possible and under produced. A lot of our songs are recorded live in the studio. We think bands do too much overdubbing now and everything’s a computer. So we just try to keep it as real as possible.”
Sean Danielson – vocals, guitar
Derek Gledhill – drums
Ryan Martin – bass