As Sober Rob wrapped up his set to his bone-chilling closer “Moving On,” the crowd waited in anticipation of what was to come next, knowing the show would be taking on a different form under its new ring leaders. When you’re in charge of entertaining 750 restless, Red-Bull-and-vodka filled twenty-somethings crammed into the hopelessly tight quarters of a nightclub, those first few moments of your set can make or break the entire night.
Such was the moment for electronic duo smle when they stepped out on stage at 12:30 a.m. in front of a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn’s Schimanski in June. Eager eyes and ears awaited smle’s first move as their silhouettes emerged from backstage, guitars and drumsticks in hand, ready to relieve Sober Rob and bring their hybrid live show/DJ set to bear.
The only question on the crowd’s mind was how smle would jump into their set, transitioning back-to-back from Sober Rob and into the next hour and a half. For the next sixty seconds as they got their pads and setup squared away, smle ushered in the evening with signature velvetty, fluming synths in a rhythm that picked up speed as it headed for its eventual climax. At the end of that minute, following a brief moment of silence, the duo begged to the crowd, “New York, let me fucking hear you!” and snapped off a room-shaking drop with enough bass to be felt in your chest from the back of the venue.
In that moment, smle made it clear what their m.o. would be for the night: for the next 90 minutes, they were going to play anything and everything that would get bodies jumping and heads banging. Combining their hallmarks of live instrumentation and nostalgia-inducing throwbacks within their mix, elevated above everyone and drenched in multicolored concert lighting, smle kept the crowd on its feet and raving deep into the Brooklyn night.
That Brooklyn show was a far cry from where smle started, 1,300 miles away in their hometown of Miami, Florida, where Ruben Cardenas and Lewis Martinee met ten years ago as schoolmates. The two immediately clicked after discovering their mutual interest in creating music, which led to countless jam-sessions at Cardenas’ childhood home. With Ruben on the drums and Lewis on guitar, the two would engineer mixes ranging from heavy metal to classic rock on guitar sequencing programs.
What began as two friends experimenting with live instruments and fresh beats has now blossomed into a Grammy-nominated, collaborative electronic project with a vision to give listeners positive, feel-good music that kept people smiling. “It’s hard to hate something or someone that makes you smile,” said Lewis of the group’s chosen monicker.
A name was only the beginning, though, and soon the project developed into what it is today, after the two started putting all of their time and effort into finding smle’s musical identity. “We started jamming as a two piece band essentially, and then we did the DJ thing for a while,” said Ruben. That led to making tons of remixes, something that was an important part in building smle’s audience and breaking through the clutter.
Their breakthrough moment came when the duo was nominated for a 2018 Grammy award for their remix of Bobby Rush’s “Funk O’ De Funk,” an award given by a highly selective group of tastemakers (Think Diplo and Skrillex) and not the general academy. Having built their chops on nostalgic, feel-good vibes and the use of real instruments in their production, smle has been pushing their take on EDM based on their backgrounds studying music in college, giving them both a broad and deep understanding of music that’s enabled them to make recognizably different music than most producers in today’s scene.
It should come as no surprise, then, that smle’s music sought to bend the rules of defining itself within one specific lane or general. Their incorporation of live instrumentation into their progressive, R&B-influenced style of future bass was done deliberately, fully aware that it was a fresh take within an EDM market that was becoming progressively synthetic.
Speaking to their knowledge of where their music was at sonically compared to the popular trends at the time when they created smle, Lewis explained that smle aimed to be more musical than EDM was at the time, saying, “We have this whole background of jazz and hip-hop and being in bands and learning theory. We’ve always wanted to put it to use, and with this project it just comes so naturally to use all of that stuff.” In certain ways, “It’s kind of sub-par if we don’t do that,” Ruben concluded.
Just five days after their Brooklyn show, smle released their newest body of work, their “Love Notes” EP. An ode to R&B and a self-described “super passion project,” the EP’s been written and ready to release for nearly a year and a half. Kicking off the four song EP is “Love Residue,” a characteristically classic R&B rhythm featuring vocals by Jackie’s Boy. Walking Early Bird through the EP, Ruben described the vision for “Love Residue” and the EP in general, saying “We were just trying to kick off the EPby making a record that people who love EDM could get behind, and then people who loved R&B could be introduced to future bass and EDM sounds.”
The EP also features “Into Something,” which was originally released as a single in May. With a fluming beat and arpeggiating synths, it’s the closest track on the EP to smle’s recognizable future-bass style that they’ve been known for through this point in the project’s lifespan. The song features the all-star vocals of Amanda Ibanez, aka Kiddo A.I., someone very familiar to smle’s music. Originally the vocalist on WLRD and smle’s collaborative single “Stranded” (also the title track of their 2017 US Tour), she was introduced to Ruben during their music schooling together in Miami.
“Back then we weren’t really working together, we were just in the same recording classes.” said Cardenas. “Then fast forward a year or two, a different friend of ours was like ‘You gotta work with this girl, she’s great, she works fast, she’s awesome’ – so we agreed, she comes by, and it was like I know you, we went to school together. We immediately clicked and we’ve been working together ever since.” Along with “Stranded” and “Into Something,” smle also released “2 Me” , their disco-infused single featuring Ibanez’ vocals that has been an Early Bird favorite since its release this February.
Closing out the EP is a second track featuring the sultry vocals of Jackie’s Boy, over an intelligently mixed production that melds the hallmarks of both R&B sensibilities and smle’s electronic core. It’s the perfect track to wrap up the album, reminding listeners that smle is equally capable of producing traditional R&B, future bass, and a tasteful middle ground of both.
Overall, the EP is an easy listen and — true to smle’s vision —encapsulates the idea that EDM and R&B don’t have to live in separate futures. This is an EP that your mom, your friends, and your closest musical confidants will all appreciate. According to Ruben and Lewis, “People resonate with music that has meaning,” and after listening to their latest work, “Love Notes” seems poised to resonate among a broad audience and has the meat and bones to withstand the test of time.
Listen to more from smle on Early Bird’s “This Is smle” playlist: