It was just another brief stop on a long and winding nationwide tour. Before a recent show in Springfield, Ill., members of the alternative rock trio Smile Empty Soul were about to pull their van into a Wal-Mart parking lot, prepared to shop for a few necessary items.
Along the way, singer-guitarist Sean Danielson, bassist Ryan Martin and drummer Derek Gledhill were listening to a demo tape given to them by a fan.
“The demo was awful,” Martin said recently. “Sean was like, ‘Dude, let’s put on the radio. They’re gonna play us.’ Sean turns on the radio, and I shit you not, two seconds later our song comes on. It was No. 2 on that station’s Top 10 countdown.”
Lady luck is smiling down on the threesome. Their anthemic single, “Bottom of a Bottle,” is No. 10 on Billboard’s modern rock tracks chart, and the accompanying video is in heavy rotation on MTV2. Their debut self-titled Lava/Atlantic album, released on May 27, sits atop Billboard’s new artist and new alternative artist charts.
And the buzz continues to build as they crisscross the country with Trapt and Three Days Grace.
“This album has a lot of integrity,” Martin said. “I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve done in my entire life, and it’s something so personal for us.”
Listeners are latching onto Danielson’s powerful vocals and thought-provoking lyrics, particularly “Bottom of a Bottle.” In it, he tells of how he drinks “just to feel alive.”
“He’s an incredible lyricist, especially for how young he is (age 21). He speaks to a whole generation,” Martin said. “He’s been through a lot, as a kid growing up. … We all have had our own drama. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a household with both my parents, who were hard-working and made a lot of sacrifices to make sure myself and my twin sister had everything that we needed.
“Sean didn’t have that. He was going back and forth between his mom and his dad, and he was raised in a very religious atmosphere. It’s different for everybody.”
Martin had the stable home life, but he had his share of angst on the streets of his native Santa Clara, Calif.
“My dad’s black and my mom’s Russian,” he said. “I was the only mixed kid at our school, and there was only one black kid, so I would get into fights and all that shit growing up.
“Where we were living, there was a lot of prejudice. I remember when we first moved in when I was 5 years old. We were looking for a house, and we walked into this model home. We were looking around and these three people came up and said, ‘You have to leave. We don’t have anything here for people like you.’ I remember that like it was yesterday. That stuff sticks with you.”
Elsewhere on the album, Danielson explores organized religion (“Every Sunday” and “The Other Side”) and disenfranchised youth (“Nowhere Kids”), and he’s at his most gripping on “This Is War”: “My feet hurt from the sand/ But I still march on gun in hand/ Cause this is war/ This isn’t what I’d planned/ I wanted to be so much more/ But this is war.”
“We weren’t even going to put it on the record,” Martin said. “The album was completely wrapped and we were ready to send it off to Lava. Then Sean came in and said, ‘Check out this song I came up with.’ We were in our rehearsal space in North Hollywood. We were blown away and thought, ‘We should put that on the record.’
“The song was so timely. It’s not really against war or for war. It’s the story of a person who joins the Army, hoping to get enough money to go to college, then they don’t realize war could break out. And when push comes to shove, you’ve got to go over there – ‘I gotta do what I gotta do.’ “
Formed in 1999, Smile Empty Soul signed with ThroBack Records two years later and worked with producer John Lewis Parker on their debut album. Lava execs liked what they heard and pacted with ThroBack to release it.
“Our main goal was to make a great album that kind of reflected us as individuals, a record that people could relate to,” Martin said. “We didn’t want to make it really, really perfect. There’s a lot of songs that we felt were really well-produced, and then there’s ones that sound raw. That’s the vibe we got out of making the record. We learned about playing with each other and playing tighter.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits,’ when I was like 9. I went with my mom to Target and she was asking me, ‘You know that one song?’ and she starts singing it and says, ‘You want to get that CD?’ I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I love Queen. The lyrics are amazing, and everything was so epic. Freddie Mercury sang his ass off.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “This kind of counts, but it doesn’t. I’m originally from Cascade, which is about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles. All throughout the ’80s, they would have rock bands playing there. I remember I was like 7 or 8 and I went to see The Germs with a friend of mine. The first one I got a ticket for and wanted to see was Megadeth with Corrosion of Conformity at the Orange County Fairgrounds. It was heavy metal, dude.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “I’ve had a lot of shitty jobs. I’ll go down the list: My job before we got signed, I was a customer service representative for Washington Mutual. I was the guy you yelled at because you didn’t have any money in your bank account. Before that, I worked at Barbecues Galore and delivered barbecues to people’s houses. The ultimate awful job was I used to be a character at Six Flags. I was Bugs Bunny or sometimes Marvin the Martian. Kids would kick me, hit my head. The cool thing about it was that you could grab girls’ asses and check out girls without them knowing that you were looking at them. But was so fucking hot in those things, and kids would just fuck with you.”
ON THE WEB: www.smileemptysoul.com.
BWF (before we forget): Upcoming tour dates – Nov. 2, New Orleans, Voodoo Island (with Audioslave).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc