The chorus of "Bottom of a Bottle," the debut single from Santa Clarita, California, band Smile Empty Soul, sounds like a blanket endorsement of hedonism: "I do it for the drugs/ I do it just to feel alive/ I do it for the love/ That I get from the bottom of a bottle."
But frontman Sean Danielsen isn't a big drug user. In fact, he's actually concerned that so many of his peers rely on illicit substances to escape. "In the song, the word 'drug' is a metaphor for whatever you live for," he said. "It could be anything — religion, drugs, alcohol, relationships. For me, it's music."
Not only doesn't Danielsen party hard, he doesn't enjoy rock as merely an escape vehicle. While his friends rock out and hit the bottle, the singer grapples with his thoughts and contemplates how to spread his ideas to the masses. Smile Empty Soul aren't political like Rage Against the Machine; there's is more of a personal politics, with Danielsen addressing such issues as abandonment, religion, self-empowerment and rebellion. Even the band's name is a rejection of complacency.
"It's a comment on society," he said. "Empty people walk around with fake smiles on and it makes me sick. No matter what you do, you just gotta be real. That's the only thing that really matters."
Danielsen doesn't just hate that people are fake, he's irked by their ignorance. When he looks out in the crowd and sees his fans singing along, he wonders if they absorb his messages or if they're just another component of a spoon-fed society that asks few questions and seeks fewer solutions.
"I watch the news constantly, and try to keep up with what's going in the world because I think there's a problem with people my age — my friends, my girlfriend, everyone," he griped. "They don't really care what's going on in the world. All they care about is what's happening in their own personal life. They don't vote, they don't give a sh--. The problem is that all the stuff that's going on affects your life. People need to wake up and do something or at least just pay attention."
On "This Is War," a slow track washed with acoustic guitar and strings, Danielsen examines the battlefield through the eyes of a confused soldier: "Our leaders have a plan/ I'd only kill if it's for them / Now here we are."
"That's our most political song," Danielsen said. "There are all these people who joined the military just because they thought it was gonna help them straighten out their life or fund college or something. And then they end up fighting in this crazy war."
The second single from Smile Empty Soul will be "Silhouettes," a down-tempo cut colored with a ringing arpeggio and yearning vocals. Halfway through, the track picks up steam and ends in a flurry of melodic riffs and crashing beats that sound a lot like Staind. Personal and plaintive, "Silhouettes" is about the singer's desire to escape the grip of his parents.
"Everyone in this world at one point has said they don't want to turn out like their parents," Danielsen said. "My mom lets religion rule her life and I feel religion is a kind of a safety blanket. If you're afraid, you cling onto religion, and I just don' t want to be like that. And my dad works really hard, but doesn't have passion for anything. That's definitely not me."
After enduring a devout religious upbringing at a remote commune in Maine, the then 15-year-old Danielsen fled to California, where he played in several bands before meeting up with bassist Ryan Martin and drummer Derek Gledhill and forming Smile Empty Soul. Four years ago, the group had no record deal, few contacts and little cash, but the bandmembers believed in their dreams and pursued their vision, knocking on enough doors until industry insiders started to take notice.
Last year, they signed a deal with production label ThroBack, which hooked them up with Lava Records, home to Simple Plan, Uncle Kracker and O.A.R. Smile Empty Soul are currently on tour toured with Trapt, and "Bottom of a Bottle" is getting strong play at alternative rock radio. Even so, no one's rolling out the red carpet just yet. The band travels in a van filled with its gear, and all three members sit on a single bench during day-long drives.
"It's definitely not luxury travel, but it's totally worth it," Danielsen said. "We're a young band and we know we're gonna have to work really hard to succeed. We're just psyched to have the chance."