By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Inter-band turmoil? That's just something to be expected during any band's career. Problems can arise from a range of sources, including monetary concerns, creative strife, roadweariness and, often enough, infidelity. It happens.
Infidelity's a tricky one, though. It's hard enough as is, most would say, to stay in a committed relationship while living a regular person's life.
Yeah, stuff happens. But, y'know, people move on. They work things out. It's just a little, well, weird when they do so and still so openly share their wounds with the world surrounding them.
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Over the past four years, that's been the story of Dallas' Smile Smile, as the duo has prepared to release Truth on Tape, the band's sophomore album, which is a painfully honest look at what it's like to be inside of a relationship's implosion.
The turmoil all started back in 2006 when Ryan Hamilton and Jencey Hirunrusme released their debut album, Blue Roses, as the folky, poppy Smile Smile. Not only were the two collaborating musically at the time, but they were romantically involved. They lived together. They worked together. They were engaged.
And then the shit hit the fan.
The two had a very public—and very bitter—breakup. Yet, somehow, through all the personal tension and drama, the two remained together professionally.
Of course it wasn't easy. Not at all. And through the early part of the split, Hamilton would write songs to Hirunrusme as a sort of release—but to also show her how he was feeling.
"That's the funny part," Hirunrusme says. "He wouldn't talk to me, but he would e-mail me these songs and I would listen to them and think, 'Yeah, that [song's] all right.'"
It's these songs—penned by Hamilton partially out of spite and partially as a sort of cathartic process—that make up the bulk of Truth on Tape, which earned its release from Kirtland Records earlier this week.
But if you're expecting a record that is completely down in the dumps, this isn't that record. Instead, it meanders the up-and-down emotional territory that accompanies a breakup. Quite a few songs come off as more charming and hopeful than as a soundtrack to a night spent drinking and crying into your cocktail. The title track, "Truth on Tape," with the lyrics "This can't be permanent/I've got to leave this all behind/And here I go" feels more like an anthem of hope than it does a sad-sack breakup song. Meanwhile, album closer "Labor of Love" bares the bitterness, anger and resentment that come from the breakup the album was built upon. "You lie, you sneak, you cheat/You said I was the one," Hamilton sings on that song before explaining his bitterness: "This is what you get when you cheat."
Hamilton credits Hirunrusme's putting up with his antagonism as the driving force behind the band's remaining together: "She was able to step back and look at these songs objectively," he says.
But the sessions for recording those songs provided more hurdles.
"Ryan was giving me all these rules like, 'You can do this, but you can't do this' and 'This is when we're going to work,'" Hirunrusme says of those sessions. "I just kinda catered to him to keep it all going."
Worse, though the two were working together on lyrical and melodic changes, the bulk of the material being molded showed only Hamilton's side of the story.
"This album that we've put out is really one-sided," Hirunrusme says. "I want people to realize that it is pretty biased."
But Hirunrusme held on to the project anyway.
"I don't know how we're still doing it, honestly," she says. "It's kinda like [how] you wake up everyday and tie your shoes. You don't really think about how you did it. You just do it. I think [that's] because of all the work we put into it. And I've never worked with another musician where everything has come so easy. We both write our own parts—we wrote our own vocal parts and we'll play a song and get together and perform it. It's just one of those things that you hold on to when something bad has happened."
And it's easier to do so when you're receiving positive feedback. When Kirtland re-issued Blue Roses in 2008, it caught a little bit of industry buzz, allowing the band the opportunity to tour in support of bands such as indie darlings Metric and Denton's own pop-punk heroes, Bowling for Soup. Problem is, few audiences actually knew the band's backstory. And, onstage, personal feelings between Hamilton and Hirunrusme managed to creep back up to the surface. The two would sling verbal barbs at each other, not fully realizing the effect it was having on the audience.
"There was some backlash when we were playing outside of Dallas after we had broken up," Hamilton says. "Jencey will say or do something, and I'll snap back. It's just a relationship that has zero filter while we're talking to each other. Because people don't know [our backstory], they think I'm a huge asshole. Once we stopped doing that, the response was so much better."
While opening for Metric, that much showed.
"When you're on somebody else's tour and most of the people are just there to see the headliner, [you don't expect much]," Hamilton says. "But we've never sold that much merch, and I think that's the real ultimate tell for a band on tour. We were selling tons of merch—we sold out of shirts and CDs."
And, in the end, now that most of the dust has settled and the drama has subsided, it's that kind of response that's keeping the band moving forward.
"We kinda put all of our musical eggs into this basket," Hamilton says. "If we can do this together, it makes the most sense to keep doing what we're doing. I want this to be our success story. I mean, this my life dream. And this is Jencey's dream too."