Smile Empty Soul's Sean Danielsen: "Our Songs Have Elements of Anger That Live On"

The members of Smile Empty Soul.
The members of Smile Empty Soul.
Courtesy Photo

Let's trip back through time to yesteryear, specifically 1998. Grunge was dead, and from the ashes rose the alternative rock wave of the late '90s and early Aughts to fill the void. The music industry was flooded by a generation of youths with chips on their shoulders and a knack for carrying on the dirty, distorted and deep rhythms to channel their angst.

Flash-forward to the present, and many of those bands have become a "who's who" of "Where Are They Now?" They never adapted their music as they grew older and found a way to channel the "Father of Mine"-style perspective, into equally angst-filled and passionate music about the pitfalls of adulthood.

However, a select few of the elite do know the recipe for stability and career longevity -- namely, Smile Empty Soul.

The California based trio -- consisting of Sean Danielsen, Ryan Martin, and Jake Kilmer -- was pieced together in the late 90s and came of age in 2003 after the release of their self-titled debut album featuring the charted singles "Bottom of a Bottle," "Nowhere Kids," and "Silhouettes."

"I'm 31 now," Sean Danielsen laughs. "I'm in such a different place [in my life] at this point that there is less of that teenage angst. At the same time, our songs still have moments of anger that live on."

Last October, Smile Empty Soul released its sixth studio album, Chemicals. The record is a hard-hitting and powerful display of passion with Danielsen's tight lyrics and the kind of strong, blood-pumping instrumentals that the band long been been credited with. Prior to Chemicals, Smile Empty Soul formed its own record label, Two Disciples Entertainment, and released its album. Now, the band tackles the promotion, advertising, and sales of the record itself.

Smile Empty Soul is scheduled to perform at Rockbar in Scottsdale tonight, and with much to talk about, Up on the Sun tracked down singer/guitarist Sean Danielsen in the days leading up to the band's performance to talk about always staying busy, its new album, and kick-starting its own label.

So Chemicals has been out for a few months now. How has the fan and critic reception been in your opinion? It's been really good. The fans have been digging all the different songs that we play live. As far as the response online, it's been incredible. I'd say it's the best response we've had from any of our last few albums.

What is your favorite track on the album? Umm, it kind of moves around; when you write the material, record it, and play it every night, there is kind of an evolutionary process that happens. At the beginning, you'll like a couple songs the most. Then it will change, and it goes through different cycles. Right now, I'd have to say I'm liking the song "Chemicals" and the song "Sitting Ducks." It's a nice, softer kind of moody piece that builds into something heavy at the end. It's a lot of fun to play live.

Your earlier records are known for capturing a certain level of teenage angst and rebellion against authorities and parents. Do you still try to craft music from that same perspective now that you have gotten older? I don't really try to purposefully do this or that -- I kind of just let whatever is naturally coming out come out. I think, because I'm so much older and I'm in such a different place at this point, that there is less of that teenage angst. I'm 31 now [laughs]. At the same time, our songs still have moments of anger and elements of anger that live on. The rest of it, we've gotten away from it a little bit, but there will always be that element to our band.

Can you describe what you try to accomplish in a live show? With a live show, we let things happen the way they're going to happen. There's not a lot of bells and whistles with us. We're not flashy; we're not all done up in crazy makeup and costumes and light shows. We're just three regular dudes that come up there and play our music with as much heart as possible. Sometimes, depending on the mood, it feels right to just play song after song until the shows over and not even speak. Then, sometimes there will be little parts of speaking in between, or stories explaining this or that.

We try to let each night be its own night, and each night dictates its own destiny based on the vibe. As far as song selection, we always try to play a nice mix of old stuff and new stuff, and songs people have probably heard on the radio over the years, combined with some new material.

Can you try to describe the Smile Empty Soul fans to me? They're an awesome group. They've supported us through thick and thin. They are so dedicated, and we owe them a lot. Typically, they're the type of person that can relate to our lyrics, and have had struggles and hardship in their lives.  

Can you tell me about Two Disciples Entertainment? Well, on this record [Chemicals] we actually released the album on our own label, which is called Two Disciples Entertainment. We started our own label with an old friend of ours, and now business partner, back in the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, it started coming together. We basically decided to create this label, and we went and met with some friends at Pavement Records, and we got a distribution through them for our label.

Then, we went in the studio and popped out a record and released it. So, now we've been working on the radio, and doing the record company side of things ourselves.

Do you plan on signing any other acts to Two Disciples? That's a possibility, but as far as right now is concerned, we're just focusing on this one album that we released. We're taking it one at a time. If things go well, that's something that we could consider in the future.

You and Ryan Martin have been playing music together for 16 years now. Can you tell me how that bond was made to form Smile Empty Soul? We actually started playing together when we were 16. I was in a band in this town called Santa Clarita, in Los Angeles county, and he was in another band in the same town. We were just playing in the local scene. When we lost our bass player, it turned out that at the same time he had quit whatever band he was in. The timing was right, so he auditioned and it clicked, and now here we are 15 years later still jamming together.

Last year you released a solo EP called Enjoy the Process. What can you tell me about that? That came together, because I had these songs that I'd been working on that were extremely different than what a Smile Empty Soul song would typically be. They're real soft and real delicate little songs. I just wanted to get them out there and get them recorded, and it just didn't seem like the right fit for Smile.

I did them myself with the same producer from the last three Smile records. We went in for about three days, and recorded with an acoustic guitar and vocals. I released it on iTunes in April of 2013. That record is completely independent; it's not even on a label. I just put it on iTunes myself. It's more of a word of mouth kind of thing.

Are you still working with World Fire Brigade as a side project? We haven't done anything for a little bit. I've been so busy with Smile. Brett Scallions is the other singer in World Fire Brigade, but he's also the singer for Fuel, and they have a new record coming out in March. So, he's been extremely busy with that.

World Fire Brigade kind of came together because there were moments of down time for both him and me. So, we just decided to throw a project together, and it worked for the time being, but we've both been so busy in the last couple of years that we haven't been able to do much with it. The World Fire Brigade record is called Spreading My Wings, and it's available on iTunes.

What kind of guitar are you using today? I've always used Schecter ever since we started. Right before we released our first record, I was introduced to the people over at Schecter. They're all great people, and a great company. They've been really cool to me from the beginning, and have hooked me up with guitars, and treated me great. I've played them the whole time, and to this day I still play mainly my C-1 Elite from Schecter, that they actually don't make anymore, but they're pretty good guitars.

Who is your ultimate guitar god and why? Let's see . . . that's a tough one. [I'd say] probably Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains or Kim Thayil from Soundgarden. Those guys are great -- they're just innovative guitarists.

Since you were 16, when you started, is there something you know now that you wish you knew when you were that young? Overall, even though there are a lot of things that I could have changed or done better and made different decisions that probably would have had positive outcomes on our career, I'm pretty happy with where we are right now. We're doing music still, 11 years after the first record. We're still touring constantly, and making music for a living. That's what we love to do. The industry is very crazy this day in age, and it's gone downhill since we started doing this, but you can't complain.

Smile Empty Soul is scheduled to perform tonight at Rockbar in Scottsdale.

Find any show in the Valley via our extensive online concert calendar. Find any show in the Valley via our online concert calendar.

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