Smile Empty Soul Readies Their Swan Song, But Are Nowhere Near Done

Since Smile Empty Soul’s inception in 1998 the band has gone through a litany of changes. At its core, however, has always been frontman Sean Danielsen, and for all the changes the band has been through, Danielsen has been through just as many, if not more.

Going from being a California high school kid starting a band, to being signed at 20, to still being active 22 years later, his life can be heard in the eight Smile Empty Soul full length albums, and eight EPs, with a ninth EP, Swan Song, due out later this year.

This first single off of Swan Song is “Savior,” a biting commentary on society’s shift to selfishness.

Now a two man outfit consisting of Danielsen, and drummer Ty Del Rose, Smile Empty Soul recently completed a run of shows in the U.S., and will be heading out again later this month for a tour that will run through September 1st.

I caught up with Danielsen over Zoom as he prepared for the tour, and he discussed Smile Empty Soul’s new music, including why the upcoming EP is titled Swan Song. He also opened up about what it’s taken to survive over two decades in an ever-changing music industry, and shared his thoughts on classic rock radio, marijuana, and God.

The new single is “Savior,” which is about society’s shift to being more self-centered, and selfish. What were some of the things you saw, or experienced, that made you want to address this? 

Nothing specific sparked the song.

Songs just kind of, the way that I write, almost write themselves, or present themselves through the creative process.

As far as just my opinion of society going down that path, it’s been a progression that I’ve noticed. I’m 42 now, and I still remember the ‘80s, and the ‘90s, and the early 2000s, and it just seems like that’s the path we’ve gone down.

We’re pretty much the same generation. I’m 45, so I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it was a very different time, which seems odd because it wasn’t that long ago. 

Technically it wasn’t, but you know with the rapid ever-changing technological landscape I feel like we’ve aged more than 40 years in 40 years. It’s like things are just rapidly evolving at this point in time.

Yeah. Sometimes I think about what our grandparents must have gone through, being born pretty much before radio, and then dying in the internet age. That’s a lot to handle. Not to mention wars. 

Oh yeah, I always think about my great grandmother, who lived to be 98, and was born in 1898. The things that she saw, and lived through are just … it’s incredible. She saw the Great Depression, she saw two world wars, she saw Vietnam, she saw so many cultural changes, and evolution.

It’s not just now, the last hundred something years has definitely been an intense time period.

What do you think can be done to sway things back to being caring for others? 

Obviously there’s a lot of things that would help, or could help, but I think one of the major issues is the loss of faith in a higher power.

I think that the more people abandon the concept of God, I think morals kind of get left behind in that same instance, and accountability goes out the window, and I think it definitely contributes to the selfishness that we’re experiencing these days.

“Saviors” off your upcoming EP, the title of which is Swan Song, but this isn’t the end for the band, right? 

It’s definitely not the end for the band. I fully intend to continue to play shows, and do Smile Empty Soul, but at this point in time I am kind of rethinking the concept of new music.

Smile Empty Soul, at this point, is what’s considered a legacy act, and there’s only so many spots in our set list each night for songs. We have so much music out there, and our fan base is kind of split into two categories. One is the dedicated diehards that have followed us all the way through till today, that know all the new music, and keep up with the new music. Then there’s the other demographic that knows the band, and knows the hit songs, and may know one album of the newer material, or a couple songs from this one, and another one from over here, but aren’t really familiar, and aren’t really keeping up at the same pace as that other group.

When you combine all that with the fact that it takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears, money, time, effort, and energy to create, and record, and release new music, it has come to a point where it’s like – is it actually worth the blood, sweat, tears, time, energy, money, and all that to continue to make, and release new music?

That’s a question that I don't fully have the answer for yet, but we’re just observing.

I haven’t released new music on a legitimate label in a very long time. I’ve been releasing it completely on my own, independently since 2017. This is the first EP we’ve put out through a label, so I’m just kind of sitting back, and watching how it performs, how it does, and then I’ll make that judgment call. But it is possible that we don’t make new music, or take a large break from making new music. I’m just kind of playing it by ear at this point. I mean, we do see these shifts in the industry.

Everyone notices the shift in formats – from CD, to MP3, to streaming. Would another seismic shift change your plans? If there was some other way of music being distributed, or consumed, would that maybe sway you? 

It would depend on what the shift is, and then how I saw that affecting us.

The shift in how music is consumed does play a role. I mean, there are positives to the evolution of the way the music industry has gone, but there are also huge negatives, too, and one of the negatives is that everyone is just streaming whatever song they want at that exact moment, at the touch of a button.

You bump into people that don’t know the chronological order of your releases. They don’t know what songs are from what record. They’ve never heard a whole record of your music. They’ve never sat there and listened to the songs in the order that you intended for them to be consumed, and looked at the artwork. It’s kind of taken away some of the artistry, I feel like, and turned it into a cheapened product. In my mind, that’s a pretty huge negative, and definitely plays a role in my line of thinking with all this, but we’ll see what happens.

Something will happen. 

Oh yeah. I mean, at the rate that it’s all evolving, we’re definitely not done evolving now.

Smile Empty Soul started in ’98, and that puts the band in a unique position, because in a few years you’re going to start getting classic rock radio airplay. How might that affect things? 

I mean, we’ll see if we get that.

You know, Smile Empty Soul has struggled at every turn to even get, in my opinion, what we almost should be entitled to, so I would be surprised to see our music all of a sudden come back in a significant way at classic rock radio. We’ll see.

But yeah, I mean, that could definitely have an effect. If classic rock stations started playing even just “Bottom of a Bottle,” frequently, it could have an effect on the career, and the decisions that I make, and all that, but I’m a believe it when I see it kind of guy.

One of my local stations changed to being what they call the new classic rock, and sometimes they’ll have a block like, “Here’s a block of songs from the 2000s, the Myspace era,” and I’m like, okay, ease up on the word classic here, but cool. 

Yeah, we’re definitely old now, you know, and it’s pretty crazy. It’s definitely a trip because I grew up on Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, Nirvana, those are the bands that first really stirred my soul in such a way that I was like – this is what I want to do. I am dedicated to this. This is my dream.

My band’s big releases were closer to the releases of those albums that I grew up listening to than they are to us today.

 My first album was 21 years ago. Nirvana’s Nevermind was only 12 years before that.

What do you feel has been the biggest learning curve for you in terms of all the technology that’s happened, and also going from being on a label, to being independent, to being on a label again? 

Man, it’s just been such a crazy roller coaster ride in every way, from the beginning till now.

I don’t know what the craziest single aspect would be, or if there even is one, it’s just a constant adjustment period. You can never really settle in. You have to keep up with the changes that are happening frequently.

It’s been interesting. I mean, when I first started I was just a musician, and we had a very successful first album, but then we ran into trouble with our record company, and ended up off that label before even releasing another album, and never had that multi-million dollar push ever again. 

As the Smile Empty Soul world shrank, I had to learn how to wear a lot of the hats, including the business hats, and learn business in general, and learn all these other things that I never saw myself learning, but I had to if I wanted to keep this thing afloat.

That was definitely a crazy learning curve moment – having to pick up the business.

At this point I’m our manager, and I’ve been our label. I never really thought about doing those things in the beginning, but had to pick them up, and to have to pick them up when you are literally at the height, that’s a huge responsibility.

I’ve definitely gotten flung into the fire on many levels, many times, and had to just figure it out on the fly.

You mentioned you had the big push with the first album, which came towards the tail end of the last era of opulence in the music industry, when a lot of money was being thrown around. Is there anything you remember from that time as an especially opulent moment, or offer, where you were like – “Seriously, for us? This is awesome!” 

I mean, the whole thing was crazy.

I was 20 when we signed our record deal, and it was a massive record deal.

We shopped around to all the labels, and ended up with interest from all of them, so we had one of those bidding war scenarios. I think our deal was like $1.5 million, or something like that.

We came out of the gate swinging. We had successful music videos, and were on radio, and all this was happening when I was 21. I mean, we hit the road for our first tour, and I think I was two months into being 21 years old. So there are a lot of surreal moments, and it was cool in the aspect that I got to live some of those dreams before everything changed in those dreams, before it became almost unachievable because the industry changed so much.

You can’t possibly, at 21, be prepared for what you were thrust into. What aspect of it were you least prepared for, or not fully equipped to deal with? 

I wasn’t equipped to deal with any of it, really, and I didn’t handle it well.

We signed our deal, I got a very large check. Immediately, that was the most money I had ever had by 100 times, and our single came out with our video, and they became very successful.

We step out onto the road in a tour bus, and we’re touring with platinum bands.

I was definitely not prepared, mentally, for any of that, and ended up drinking and drugging way too much, and allowing things to go to my head, and my ego to get way too big.

I learned a lot from it all. I definitely didn’t take it well, but looking back, I don’t know how I could have expected to take it well being as young as I was with the things that were occurring.

Our 20s are definitely a decade for making mistakes. 

Tell me about it. Yeah, that’s very true, and it’s really easy to make mistakes when you’re having all these great things flung at you like I was, and people just praising you, and telling you how great you are, and money, and recognition and all that. It’s hard to handle those things, especially when you’re that age. It’s too much.

Did anyone from those platinum bands you were touring with ever pull you aside like, “Hey, dude, just so you know, you’re on a path that’s not so great?” 

Not really, because a lot of the bands that we were touring with were partying right there with us, so it was still more of like a debaucherous time period in the music industry. The hard partying ways of yesteryear were still thriving at that point.

I think that’s another thing that fueled my whole situation, the fact that all the bands that we were touring with were putting it down hard, too, and I felt like I almost had to toe that line with them.

With all that in mind, it’s now 2024, you’re 42 years old – when you get on stage and sing “Bottom of a Bottle,” what kind of drugs are you actually thinking of? 

I was messing things up pretty good with my hard partying in the early years of the band, and I also had the beginning stages of cirrhosis of the liver, and a stomach ulcer, and I was in my mid 20s at this point.

I realized, as giant management teams bail, and your business account managers jump ship, and your lawyers, and your labels, everybody’s jumping ship, that was the period where I had to learn how to wear these other hats if I wanted to keep it all going, and I definitely had the sense that the mess of a person that I was at the time wouldn’t be able to navigate that, so in 2007 I quit drinking and drugging cold turkey, and I’ve remained sober ever since, other than weed, which I don’t actually consider to be any more of a drug than coffee.

Some people would argue against that assessment, but it’s definitely fairly harmless compared to pills, and blow, and all the other darkness that you can find yourself entangled with.

It has actual healing qualities. 

Agreed. There’s a ton of valuable elements to it, whether physical, or psychological. So I continue to dabble with that here and there, and I drink coffee. That’s about it. Those are my drugs of choice.

Personally, when I hear the song now, I think of Advil. That’s the drug I do it for now. 

There you go. Mid-40s party right there.


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