Cullen Omori of Smith Westerns on Chicago and the band's evolving sound
Yeah, the guys in Smith Westerns (due tonight at the Larimer Lounge) are young, and their attitude on stage and in interviews seems to be filled to the brim with youthful exuberance with a touch of bravado. But none of that would matter if this Chicago band didn't write fundamentally good songs, and its two albums to date, a self-titled debut and 2010's Dye It Blonde, display not just a willingness to lay everything on the line for writing a good, catchy song, but also the ability to organically and quickly evolve and explore beyond the sound that got the band some attention in the first place.
Although originally something of a power-pop band, on the latest album, Smith Westerns is showing signs of integrating that style of songwriting with a more lush sense of atmosphere and nuance reminiscent of mid-'70s David Bowie or even Sweet. We recently spoke with Cullen Omori about that shift in sound and what it was like coming out of the sometimes harsh realm of the Chicago scene.
Westword: How did you come to be friends with Nobunny and then get to be his backing band for a tour?
Cullen Omori: He's from Chicago. That happened like two or three years ago. We met him through people we were playing music with in Chicago. He has a strong record-collector following. He needed a car to drive him on the tour in Canada. We were all excited to do it, and it was our first exposure to touring, other than driving to Detroit for a show.
There's more than a bit of a stylistic shift between your debut album and Dye It Blonde. What did you get especially interested in in terms of songwriting that led to that change?
There are a lot of factors. For me, as a songwriter, playing my instrument every day; in 2010 we played like a hundred shows, which makes you a better musician. It makes you more confident, even if you're playing the same songs going on stage and basically practicing. Once the skill set moved up, I was better able to reinterpret songs in a way that was above my skill set.
After seeing the response, I felt more creative and energized, because when you feel like people like your music, you want to make more of it. We also toured with so many bands that were so good that I kind of got bummed out and wanted to make something impressive that could impress them. With the first record, there was no intention of it ever getting outside of Chicago among our friends. All of these things shaped the direction and made us work really hard in terms of songwriting.
There's a great bit of reverse delay used at the end of "Still New." How did you learn about that sound, and what do you like about using it?
When we were in the studio, we were playing with a lot of different stuff. I liked the idea of making things so epic to the point where it's really intense. We were like, "Let's figure out how to have a classic album and reverse it." In that song, we thought it would be really cool and funny. It's super-heavy, and part of that song is airy, and it goes to half time and blows up. You're not expecting it the first time you hear it, so the last time, you're not expecting it again when it reverses out.
People often compare your songwriting to Nuggets-era bands, as well as David Bowie and T. Rex, which has its merits, but it's also a bit reminiscent of later John Lennon. In what ways would you say his music was an influence on your own? Is "Imagine 3" a reference to Lennon?
I think that, for us, it's been weird doing press stuff and talking about influences, because it's almost like the first album is disjointed from the second album. A lot of people tell us we're Nuggets- and garage-inspired. But I don't think that was the case. I think it was more the power-pop compilations and David Bowie that we were really into. And it was our weird attempt to imitate those bands.
With this record, I think we wanted to be Smith Westerns and have our own stuff. As far as the songwriting goes, for me, the process of writing the album, because I don't write any of the actual guitar parts -- that's all Max, or the vocal melodies or stuff -- I was just trying to make an album with really big choruses and sweet, dreamy verses. I went through this thing of trying to find songs that were timeless and perfect and what made me like them so much.
For me, a lot of the best music, with choruses and stuff, is '70s music and '90s music and always Top 40. We listened to John's solo stuff and thought it was great. There's a lot of '90s stuff, like Oasis, which is them reinterpreting John Lennon. As far as songwriting goes, that's a pretty good person to shoot for. It was more having my iPod with all of these timeless songs that made them super-catchy and super-memorable, and listening to all those songs and figuring out how to do it best in our own way.
Is "Imagine 3" a reference to Lennon?
Oh, yeah. That was kind of a dumb joke. That's probably the oldest song on the record, but we made it after our first album. It was tentatively titled "Imagine Part 3" as a marker, and it just stuck. There's no "Imagine Part 2."
People always seem to comment on your age. I was wondering if anyone ever asks about your ancestry, because not too many people of Asian ancestry are in bands. Did that affect how people related to you growing up?
That's actually a weird/good/unexpected question, because it's always about our age. We're all 100 percent American. Me and Cameron have that exotic look. We're half-Japanese and half-Irish. We were raised as third generation half-white, and we were raised very white. I'm excited to play Japan later this year, though. As far as the whole race thing goes, we're not like Freddy Mercury and hiding it. People have always been very receptive: "Oh it's a weird mix thing, well, yeah."
For that "Writers on Process" interview, you said that your lyrics have themes of romanticism and desire. What is it about those themes that serves as a source of inspiration for your lyrics?
When we were first making music, no one really wanted to sing, and we weren't very good at singing. I didn't consider myself a poet or anything, and I didn't know what to write about. I kind of looked at what other people were doing at the time, and they were being super-cryptic about things. Weird stuff. So I thought the way to get the furthest away from that was to write love songs in a timeless way.
For the second record, I wanted to refine that formula a little bit better and make it my own. I think there are certain things in songs like that that anyone can relate to. For me, it wasn't necessarily about relationships, but more about desire and the idea that we want to make it. Over the course of being on the road, I had a lot of wants, and being young on the road and having those things realized and romanticize things working out, which it has.
Your path to being a touring band out of Chicago parallels that of Big Black in a lot of ways. Were you aware of that history, and what do you think the good side of not really being able to get press and deal with the club scene in Chicago has been for your band?
No, I didn't know about that. Big Black? That happened to them? We really like Chicago, and everyone who plays in our band is from Chicago, and it's very much a Chicago thing. There was definitely this weird thing when we were first starting out; there was not a lot of Chicago press for us. There were a couple of pieces here and there, but we really found our success from going outside of Chicago and touring, and the Internet definitely helped.
Now Chicago and us have this weird thing. I don't know if they like us or hate us, but we like them. I think that maybe in any city when you start to get well known, people get more stand-offish or more critical. Not so much the people of Chicago, but the press; I don't know what they think of us. If people want to talk shit about our band in Chicago, it doesn't really affect us. I guess it's good that people care strongly enough about us either way to hate us. At least they're talking about us.
I think the reason there's such a history of people trying to call us out for not living in Chicago and stuff like that -- everyone in the band is a Chicago resident, and half the people that try to call us on that stuff have moved from Chicago. The thing with Chicago music is that the bands that people really like are also really only liked in Chicago, because they never leave. The last time a band started getting popular outside of Chicago was the Ponys, because they were touring all the time.
Has Chicago opened up a bit more now that you've received some attention from out of town?
At first there was some interest in us from record-collector type of people, and then it switched to a larger public. We get lots of love in Chicago. Our show at the Empty Bottle sold out two months in advance; we were asked to add another date or two. It's really important to us to play a smaller venue in our home town, because if you knew about us and knew what was up and got your tickets early, we wanted to play a place where the stage was closer to the audience.
How has the equipment you use live and on recordings evolved since the band started, and what do you use now, and what is it about that gear that you find suits what you're trying to do?
That's a really good question. Before it was more plug-and-play, like on our last record. We'd plug into a couple of pedals and leave them on, and that would be our sound. Since the new record, I think our ability to interpret sounds whenever you want, create it, and now everyone has a ton of pedals.
If you go to a show, you definitely see people popping on pedals all the time. We added another member and now have two synths on stage. It's a whole other realm of sounds. I think that was also related to touring with MGMT and how you put on a live show and create a show with layered sounds. They have a lot of stuff going on on stage, too.
My dad is a big enthusiast, and he likes to make his own guitars and stuff, so he had some spare parts, and he assembled me a guitar for before I went on tour. I play that -- it's kind of a hybrid Strat that's not really a Strat. Max plays a white SG. Some real rock-star shit! We use Fender Twins, but I think we're going to switch.
The one cool thing about having a record out that people seem to like is that we have a little more money to buy some equipment. So we'll treat ourselves when we get back home to Chicago. Get some AC30s or something. We recorded with a white Marshall half stack that I wish I could have, but I wouldn't want to carry that up a flight of stairs at every show.
What are the most odd, peculiar or interesting things you've seen or experienced on tour?
The weirdest thing is when you go into small towns to stop to eat at Subway or whatever and you run into the alt-kid who lives in the small town. Usually they're really happy to see you. It's kind of a weird culture shock because we grew up in Chicago, which is a big city. What we do in Chicago we can do in New York, but when we go into the rest of America, we experience the Dairy Queen culture of nowhere America. Which is always weird because those places always have the weirdest stuff in them at rest stops. Another weird thing is crashing while on tour. We spun out last year during a winter storm. It was intense.
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