Interview with Sworn In vocalist Tyler Dennen | By Nicholas Senior
The act of unmasking someone typically evokes shocked reactions to formerly hidden horrors, but sometimes, it can reveal the beauty in the grotesque. Such is the case for Sworn In’s incredible third record—and first for Fearless Records—ALL SMILES. Dealing with internal and external anguish—and potentially calling it quits—the resulting album reveals a much more honest and unhinged form of the Illinois-based four-piece. The near-perfect mix of groove and melody combine to form an imminently memorable record that will surely surprise a lot of people.
The band have clearly expanded and improved upon their first two full-lengths—2013’s The Death Card and 2015’s The Lovers / The Devil—as ALL SMILES is Sworn In’s most focused and energized music yet. Vocalist Tyler Dennen agrees. “We took a more genuine, straightforward, honest approach, both musically and lyrically,” he says. “It was the result of the band having a smack to the face by reality over the course of 2016. We were really inactive, kinda on the border of breaking up. [Drummer] Chris [George] started writing for what we were planning to be a self-funded EP. It was going to be—not so much a last ditch effort, because we had already jumped ship, but we figured we would go out with a bang.”
Dennen admits that he hated what he was writing during that time, but the new album’s title track proved instrumental in opening himself up. “When I heard the instrumental to what is now ‘ALL SMILES’ for the first time, that’s when I started getting a little spark back,” he recalls. “This is what I’ve always wanted the band to sound like. It didn’t jump off from there, but there’s actually a version of that song loosely titled ‘Panic Attack’ that we recorded with a friend of ours. It’s the same instrumental with different lyrics—like ‘I don’t want to die so young’ yada yada—just a bunch of fake bullshit, trying to convince myself that I was [able to be] positive.”
“The moment it clicked and became ALL SMILES to me was two days before we headed out to record,” he continues. “I was sitting in my room. I had turned off all the lights, turned off the WiFi, put up some incense. I put caps lock on and put on what is now ‘DON’T LOOK AT ME,’ and that was the first song I came up with. From there, it was like a faucet that I couldn’t really turn off, but I didn’t necessarily have the time to catch all the water that was coming out of the faucet. I just made it happen, and I think it happened for a reason, because it forced me to be really honest and not dance around shit.”
That must have been some damn good incense…
Each of the record’s song titles is in all caps, and that’s intentional. It’s like ALL SMILES is an unhinged version of the band, Dennen states. “The all-caps is 100 percent intentional; I would not budge on that,” he confirms. “Historically, my lyrics were very self-deprecating. Often, I would perform the words from the perspective of somebody who’s a victim or who is me, but isn’t me, but is me. With that came a lot of dancing around certain terms and twisting words to try to get the listener to try to understand the feelings I’m trying to translate, rather than this unhinged all-caps honesty.”
Was Dennen nervous being this emotionally honest? “Yeah,” he concedes, “I was in a pretty constant state of anxiety when I was in the studio. There was one moment where I did crack [under the pressure]. On the last track, ‘CROSS MY HEART,’ the last set of lyrics for that final breakdown during the tracking that is on the song, afterwards—I don’t want to say it was hysterically crying, but it was somewhere between regular crying and that. I had to take a moment and step back. I never even realized the weight of these words until I said them out loud.”
Of the album’s title, Dennen explains, “ALL SMILES was the culmination of feeling so insecure and doubting of my own feelings and thoughts that the only thing that could come out was a smile. Something particularly shitty would happen—I would hold in whatever I wanted to say or, most of the time, would have no clue what I wanted to say. I just heard several voices screaming, and I couldn’t make anything out. There were so many thoughts and feelings going on at once that my only reaction could be to smile. It also touches on how smiles can be used to manipulate others and yourself.”
In early 2017, Dennen moved back in with his dad and became quite self-reflective. “It was a big life change and pretty emotionally traumatic time, because, for months before that, I couldn’t make heads or tails of how I was feeling,” he shares. “I got back to living at home, and that was a shock. My whole life was turned upside down. I was sitting at home one night and decided to have a couple shots of vodka and started thinking about how actors research roles. It led me to think how an actor will do that in order to most accurately depict what they are speaking of, to get the most firsthand experience and truth before they go and put it out to the world.”
Dennen realized he didn’t want to be an actor playing a part anymore. “I was thinking how, when I wrote the lyrics to The Death Card, I was 19, and I don’t remember one time sitting down and writing,” he says. “That shit just came out, and there was no thought about it. That was 100 percent what I call on this record ‘The Bad Bad Man.’ That’s the name that I came up with for that part of myself, which was something I historically ignored and shoved down and told myself wasn’t real. In turn, I lost control of that. I decided that I’m going to let it take over. Fuck this, I’m already at a very low state; if I’m going to make this album what I think it needs to be, it can’t be me grasping at straws toward how I want to relate and emote these things, because they don’t fully make sense for me. I [embraced The Bad Bad Man] for about a month; it was a pretty fucking dark time. That is a pretty huge theme on the record: accepting and acknowledging the bad and the good, and more specifically, not ignoring those parts, because I lost total control when I did.”
ALL SMILES is Dennen deciding to no longer hide behind a mask—yet the image on the album’s cover looks like just that. Dennen says that’s no accident. “I was a Christmas party with my girlfriend last year,” he begins. “In the bathroom, they had this painting. I saw this horribly fucking haunting toddler girl’s face in this painting, and it looked so bleak and dark. I decided I needed to take a picture of that face. The album’s art took on a number of changes and manipulations, but the cover is how I view that bathroom painting. The eyes, the mouth, and the lack of the middle of the face is intentional and descriptive of the way that people wear masks.”
“I really do find that metaphor to be aimless in most circumstances,” he clarifies, “but I realize people wear masks—but they aren’t covering their full face, and these masks don’t really look like they are supposed to be hiding anything. Rather, they are blank, glossy versions of the emotive parts of the person’s face. I made the realization for myself: we didn’t put the mask on. We don’t know why it’s on, and we sure as shit cannot get it off.”
Sworn In are much better off with an unmasked Dennen at the helm. Lyrically fierce and musically sharp, ALL SMILES is not only the band’s best work to date, its potent fury and melody make for a record that sticks with the listener and hints at further greatness to come. Turns out, these bad bad men make some very good music.