Who Are…Smith Westerns

Sean Fennessey

By Sean Fennessey

on 01.18.11 in Who Is...?s

File under: Chicago, Soaring glam rock and stomping Midwestern power-pop cut with a dash of Britpop anthemics

From: Chicago

Personae: Cullen Omori (vocals, guitar), Max Kakacek (guitar), Cameron Omori (bass)

The biggest knock against Smith Westerns isn’t so much a knock as a bitter pill: They’re young. The Chicago trio’s second album, the ambitious Dye It Blonde, was recorded when their members were 19 years old or younger, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell. And there are youthful sentiments — love and pain and distance and near-misses — but there’s a clarity of sound, a kind of veteran intelligence, that surprises.

The band’s self-titled debut, released on Chicago indie HoZac, had the same ambition but little of the rigor or know-how. Dye It Blonde, unlike its predecessor, was recorded in a proper studio in New York with respected engineer/producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House) and he has gifted the band with sonic structure and hope. Where once there were good ideas unformed, now there are skyscraping bridges and relentless choruses and spiraling chord changes.

The band, for their part, have grown, turning their Nuggets and T. Rex-inspired experiments in full-blown sing-alongs. Lead singer Cullen Omori is a dewy-eyed heartthrob type, singing in a dreamy tone about how dull weekends are without you (“Weekend”). Omori is no great lyricist, but he’s an honest one, completely tapped into the warring optimism and dullness of young adulthood. Meanwhile guitarist Max Kakacek drives these songs with slashing chords. “End of the Night” comes on like a snow plow, barreling over everything in its path, and picking it clean, before unfolding into a piano-led breakdown. These are bold, impressive steps for such a, yes, young, crew.

These are heady times for Cullen, too, who dropped out of prestigious Northwestern University after just one semester to pursue the band.

eMusic’s Sean Fennessey caught up with Cullen to discuss why singers are egomaniacs, getting labeled “ramshackle youngsters” and their terrific new album.

On the speed of success:

Everything feels really slow for us. In terms of having a band open for you and then eight months later they’re so much bigger than you. I remember in March of last year, Best Coast opened for us, and then, you know, look at what happened. We’re all really excited and we have high hopes, but we’re trying to stay realistic. We’re not in a situation where we have this super-huge fan base that’s going to disown us if we make something they don’t like. I think we definitely took a risk by changing the way the songs are written. They’re poppy to begin with, but you need a few listens to really get it.

On cleaning up the sound, being a “youngster,” and working Chris Coady:

We wanted to retool the sound and we always said if someone gave us the money, we wanted to record in a studio. That’s the way our debut was supposed to be done, but it ended up being lo-fi. We thought it was hi-fi at the time, we thought it was really good. It was also a reaction to…I get super-pissed off and I think everyone in the band gets super-pissed off when people call us “youngsters” or “ramshackle” or “troublemakers” or these other adjectives that don’t quite say it, but sort of say we don’t know what we’re doing. I think we wanted to be like, “Fuck you guys, we’re going to make something that no one can say that about.” All the overplaying and the bridges and production are [a reaction] to that. We tried to make everything more eclectic. It also allowed us to try to reinterpret a few things on this album that we couldn’t on the first because we just weren’t good enough. And everything Chris Coady does is super-layered and lush and features keyboards and synths and creates an atmosphere. We needed noise to fill in the holes. Some ambience. The Beach House record was great, too. We had a list of people we wanted to build upon our sound, and give us ideas, with a lot of technical know-how. We never got that far with the list — the one that seemed like the best option was Chris.

On influence and growth:

If you listen to Kinks songs or even the new MGMT album, there’s 10 songs in one song, but they flow really well together. You’re showing off to the listener and surprising them. My ability at playing music got better. The ability to reinterpret got bigger. And seeing bands play, too. We’re still getting recommendations about bands we’ve never heard of. We were listening to a lot of stuff. A lot of Teenage Fanclub. Suede. A lot of Oasis, especially. The whole discography. I’d go through one album a day when we were touring Europe. The first record came out of us listening to really rare records and collecting ’70s power-pop and glam. Bands that people don’t know about as much and make something like that. This one, there’s a lot of bands I liked when I was 14 years old that I said sucked a year ago when I became a “music listener” or whatever. But there’s a reason why those bands are popular and sell a lot of records. There’s a reason Led Zeppelin is great. Same with Oasis. If you asked me to play along to that in 2009, it would be unrecognizable. Now we can at least try to make something like that. I know where to start.

On singing:

The first record we did, the reason I was singing was because no one else wanted to do it. I always thought singing was lame. I thought it was something the douchebag kids in high school would do for attention. Every school has the theater kid who has to be signing down the hallway. It’s like, “Shut up! You’re ruining it for everyone!” It’s like carrying a trumpet around and playing little fills in the hallway. Max wanted to play guitar really bad, and I wanted to do something. I could only play chords. At first I felt weird about it and asked to turn my monitor down during shows. But now, in recording the album, it’s getting better. We played 120 times last year, plus all the time we practiced. Hearing your voice recorded is so different from singing live. It makes our live show better, singing out instead of into my shirt.

On what they learned from touring with MGMT:

Everything we learned was intuitive. Touring with bigger bands teaches you: This is how it should sound, you should talk to the audience. It became very apparent that we should make our live shows sound very similar to our record, especially the new one. We were playing it without keyboards because we couldn’t afford ‘em. We’re barely breaking even. We did hire someone to do it, though. No one knew the songs to begin with, so it wasn’t a big thing. But now that it’s out and there’s more attention, we need to make sure that it doesn’t sound weak. Before we never used pedals, we just plugged into the amp. We didn’t sit down and spend a ton of time working on it. This time we spent time researching and buying equipment. We used to think it was lame to sit down and turn knobs. We didn’t want to be a knob-turning band. But I guess that’s how you make it sound like the record, you have to be, like, calculated. I don’t think that we ever thought we’d be thinking about doing this long-term.

On their families’ reaction to their success:

They’re really into it. At first they wanted us to go to school. We all went to the best Chicago public school, Northside College Prep. Everyone had to test into it. It was the supposed smart kid school, even though I didn’t think it was that hard. Not that I’m so smart, but by Chicago public schools standards it’s really good. I took a year off after high school. Max went to school at DePaul, so we had free time on our hands. If the band was stalling, our families would be annoyed. We have nowhere to live, so we keep our stuff at our parents’ house. But we’re never home. If we were home on the weekends just getting drunk it wouldn’t be good.