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Electronic musical duo smle’s journey from dreams to Grammy nominations

Musical artists Ruben Cardenas (left) and Lewis Martinee (right) also known as SMLE. The two are currently working on an album for smle, which will act as a new chapter for their careers. VIA INSTAGRAM @SMLEMUSIC

Sitting in the back of a Jeep as it drove up a steep dirt road on the edge of the Sequoia National Park mountains, Ruben Cardenas glanced to the right to see the city lights of Los Angeles peeking through a blanket of the dark night sky only to realize how high up he was. 

The 29-year-old musician and producer nervously pondered that if he made one wrong move, he would be dead. Finally reaching the top, his terror turned into awe of the beautiful view where there was no light pollution and thousands of stars. 

“It was magical,” Cardenas said in an interview with The Statesman. From walking the red carpet of the 60th Annual Grammy Awards and touring as a performer, Cardenas has experienced these dreamlike moments with his childhood friend Lewis Martinee. Together, they make up the electronic music duo known as smle (pronounced smile). 

The name derives from the duo’s mission to use their music to put “a genuine look of happiness on your face.” They originally went by “smile” until their management advised them to change it; “The main reason it’s smle without the ‘i’ is because of search engine optimization (SEO) , it would be really hard to find us if our name was smile,” Cardenas said.

Cardenas grew up in Miami, Fla., where music was a huge part of his life from a young age; he started learning piano at eight years old, guitar a year later and drums soon after. “That’s always the first dream as a musician, right? You want to be a rockstar,” Cardenas said. He knew early on that creating music was what he wanted to dedicate his life to. He recounted being around fellow students preparing for the SATs while he was focused on rehearsing for auditions. “I always knew that I was on a different path and like doing music or anything creatively, it’s always a different path.” 

In high school, Cardenas attended a five-week summer program at the Berklee College of Music before attending Miami Dade College. He completely dedicated himself to his music despite the challenges and uncertainty that came with it. “You have to want it from the beginning, you know? Because it’s like sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, you know, financially, spiritually, however you want to put it.” 

Currently, he resides in Los Angeles with Martinee, who he met during his freshman year at Christopher Columbus High School located in Miami, Fla. Similarly, Martinee was exposed to music at a very young age, having a father who was a producer and DJ in the 1980s. Martinee caught Cardenas’ attention when he mentioned that he played in a band the previous summer. “I was like ‘Oh, music person,’ so we just started talking, and then he would come to my house, after school like every week, and we would just jam on guitar and drums.” 

The pair would often compose songs together on a tablature software called Guitar Pro, and later upgraded to a digital audio workstation called FL Studio, which allowed them to progress and hone their skills as musicians. “[T]hen it just kind of snowballed from there,” Cardenas said.

Cardenas and Martinee started as a group called TheCasaBrothers, writing songs and playing small gigs. 

“But then we made smle, and in one month of just posting a random song on SoundCloud, just for no reason, it just blew up by itself,” Cardenas said. “And like it crushed all of the numbers that we had for the other project, within that month.” 

The duo successfully continued as smle and “rolled with it,” quickly booking management and talent agents. Shortly after, they were performing alongside producer Bro Safari and the artist WRLD, and made appearances at other events and music festivals, as well. 

In 2018, smle received a Grammy nomination for Best Remixed Recording for their rendition of “Funk O’ De Funk,” originally composed by Bobby Rush. At the time, they had the one nomination in contention and were blindsided by a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. The two helped work on the song “A Little Love” featuring Happy Colors, which was featured on the album “Una Vida” by Ednita Nazario. “We saw them posting on Facebook about it. We were like ‘Oh, congrats’ and they’re like ‘You guys are nominated too,’ and then like a week later we got the American Grammy nom[ination].” 

Cardenas explained how unreal the entire nomination experience felt, and mentioned how he and Martinee questioned how they were walking on the red carpet in close proximity to popular musicians such as Odessa and Tyler, the Creator. The Grammy nomination raised the price of their remix fee and progressed their careers to where they are now. 

Recently, smle collaborated with artists such as Christian French, Emmeline, Racquel Jones and Thievery Corporation. The duo has also produced multiple songs for video games, most notably creating the anthem for the “Rocket League” World Championship series in 2022. Cardenas mentioned that while nothing has been finalized, they might work with K-pop groups such as Twice and aespa — in addition to some other major projects that he is extremely enthusiastic about — but he could not disclose any details. 

When producing for other artists, the duo adopts a more methodical approach, focusing on clear purposes and references. However, when writing music for themselves, they prioritize exploration and experimentation. “Sometimes I’m in there for like 30-45 minutes, an hour, just playing,” Cardenas said. “And then something comes out of it. And other times, it’s like, I know exactly what I want to do.” 

Cardenas described their musical inspirations as “all over the place,” ranging all the way from Mac DeMarco and Pharrel Williams to songs from the “Sonic Adventure 2” battle video game. The duo collaborates on almost everything with equal sound engineering capabilities and production roles. Cardenas explained that ideas often start with Martinee, and he will usually “take [those ideas] home,” developing them further. 

Martinee and Cardenas are currently working on an album for smle, which will act as a new chapter for their careers. Cardenas explained that it will provide fresh sonic and aesthetic directions, taking inspiration from folk, country and grassroots genres while retaining the unique sound they are known for. He wanted to emphasize that he and Martinee are not limited to producing electronic music. 

“smle is like the tip of the iceberg for what we do,” Cardenas said. “It’s electronic, and it’s cool, and we love it. But we also do everything else, and we love it just as much.”

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