While it occasionally seems like the Smith Westerns don’t have a care in the world, lead singer Cullen Omari adamantly believes that constant touring defines a band in its inception. After touring with Girls, MGMT and Florence and the Machine, the band is currently barnstorming the US on its own headlining tour, in support of their critically acclaimed second album Dye It Blonde.
If you’ve ever been to the Midwest in the Winter, you’ll know that the lakes freeze over but the drinks keep pouring, and “Dye It Blonde” transports us back to the same dank, lively dives where the Smith Westerns’ sound was largely forged. There’s a triumphant feel to the album, but there are also glimpses of loneliness and isolation on “All Die Young” and “Only One”, showing their youthful exuberance isn’t impervious to a darker and wider array of themes.
I recently spoke with Cullen Omari about the recording of “Dye It Blonde,” signing to a new label, and their upcoming tour with fellow Chicago natives Wilco. — Aaron Frank
AF: You’ve said before that you felt like the first album took a while to grow on people, whereas this one seems to be pretty much an instant success. Has that sort of reception been an exciting or intimidating experience for you?
Cullen: I think it’s really exciting. I just think the last record took a long time for people to get in to and even when they did get into it, it definitely didn’t appeal to as wide an audience. So it feels like a solid foundation for a lot of hard work that we’ve put in since July when we recorded it and even before when we were touring.
AF: Obviously it was recorded under different circumstances too since you guys went in to a studio with a producer this time. Did that make this feel like your first record in a sense?
Cullen: Yeah, definitely. I remember when we first signed with Fat Possum, they told us “This is going to be like your real first album since a lot of people haven’t heard of you.” And we were actually very offended at first, like “People have heard our album. We’ve been touring all this time.” But now that’s it out, I think that’s very much true. Just in the first three weeks since the new album’s been out, we can tell a huge difference from a year after our first record was out. We’ve already sold I don’t know how many times what the first record did.
AF: Well you probably shouldn’t sell yourself short. I mean, the songwriting on this album is a lot stronger and evidently more structured. There’s a lot of emphasis on having that powerful chorus and lead-in. Do you think a lot of younger bands suffer because they don’t value that kind of structure or accessibility?
Cullen: I don’t really think it’s that people don’t want to make their music accessible, it’s just they don’t really feel the need to get the word out about it to other people. That’s the thing with Chicago bands. We were always the only one that felt like we were constantly going out on the road. That was kind of the key for us at the beginning, going out and not just trying to get fans, but meeting other musicians in bigger bands and trying to have them hear us. Because, it’s weird, once you get to this level and meet a certain amount of people, you all end up having this weird connection from seeing all these people touring on the same circuit. It’s like some weird club that we fell in to and it’s kind of helped us avoid the whole Midwestern thing.
AF: So you’d say touring has helped you guys sort of develop an identity through finding connections with other bands?
Cullen: Yeah, it’s integral. It teaches you how to play your instrument because you’re playing every night ,and it humbles you because you’re not playing for anyone that already knows who you are and likes your band when you’re opening for other people. You’re trying to win people over every night and you learn how to develop a live show. I think it’s been very important for us as far as meeting new people and learning how to have the right attitude and experiences when it comes to touring.
AF: One thing that really stood out to me about this new record is how it’s just a really solid rock album, and isn’t really bound by any particular genre like “garage” or “glam” like some people have said about you in the past.
Cullen: That’s the thing with the internet is people find a word or read a review that they think is from a somewhat reputable source and then that becomes that the word of god. I feel like I could just make up who some of our influences are and mention them in a couple interviews and then sooner or later people would start saying “I hear that influence in the music.” As far as the garage thing, I feel like at most you could say that about our last record, but not about this record. I think this record was very much us trying to make guitar rock and dream pop songs.
AF: Well it’s cool you were able to recognize that early on. Do you kind of feel like the fascination with your age from the press is starting to wear off and people are talking about the music more?
Cullen: Well, it depends. I feel like the more popular we get, the less professional our press starts to become because we’re getting so much more of it. But at the same time, if people want to write something interesting that isn’t going to be like everything else, then the music starts to become more of the focus. It’s always annoying and just kind of demeaning because it has no bearing on our music. It might have something to do with how we look, but I don’t think it should be a big deal. It doesn’t make us any better or worse and it’s cool if people want to include it in articles or whatever, but I just don’t want it to be used as a gimmick at any point.
AF: So I just wanted to get back to your roots a little bit more. You mentioned listening to Wilco when you were growing up. Were there any other Chicago or Midwestern bands you admired early on?
Cullen: Smashing Pumpkins for sure. I’ve always been a huge fan of theirs. Wilco, I think Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out when I was in seventh or sixth grade. My dad and I used to listen to that a lot like on Sundays when we used to run errands and stuff. I still listen to that. I mean, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of my favorite albums of all time. I think the instrumentation and the way they arranged the songs on that album is perfect. Playing Smashing Pumpkins and singing is easier for me though just because it’s at a higher register and it’s fun to play along with all the harmonies.
AF: Did any of you guys come from musical backgrounds? I think I read that a family member of friend of the family gave you some T. Rex and David Bowie records when you guys were first starting out.
Cullen: As far as getting those records, that’s probably the furthest from what happened. My dad played the guitar and was really in to all those 90s rock bands like Social Distortion and Soundgarden, just really heavy guitar rock. But as a kid, pretty much all I listened to was Top 40. That was my thing. Even when I got in to high school, I wasn’t really in to all the indie bands. It always seemed like this colorful, cardigan-wearing type of thing. So that’s when we started listening to older stuff like Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Pink Floyd, but we were still listening to the same type of Top 40 stuff that comes out now that’s out of rotation in a few months.
So my dad’s friend, this real cool guy who used to work construction and was really big in to music gave us a bunch of stuff and from there, we just kind of found out about David Bowie and I started building my collection from there. I bought the Best of David Bowie when I was a freshman in high school, but usually if I find a song that I like I’ll try and go find the rest of their discography. So a lot of that stuff I got when I was younger and don’t really even listen to as much anymore, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is Top 40, like I’ll still listen to all the new pop songs and keep up with Top 40.
AF: That’s sort of surprising. Your music doesn’t exactly have a modern Top 40 feel to it.
Cullen: Well, I think when I’m writing my parts, I try to come up with what I think is going to be the catchiest and most acceptable thing for me, and something that people aren’t going to have to try that hard to understand. And I think just by listening to Top 40, whether it’s from now or from 40 years ago, I think there are some similarities and some respectable things we should try to emulate as a band. So there’s a reason a why a lot of Smith Westerns songs are really catchy like that.
AF: I always find it interesting how people in bands or people that end up really loving music don’t really start listening to different things when they’re younger until someone inevitably tells them what they should be listening to.
Cullen: Yeah, I think when we first started out when we were 16, we were kind of just shooting in the dark and trying to make punk music and it ended up getting to Brett Cross. He was the guy from Hozac that put out our first record and heard these demos on MySpace, and he started booking us to open shows for different bands that would come in town. By no means were these big sold out shows, they’d be like 50 people on a Tuesday night at the Empty Bottle. And through that we just kind of started meeting the people who would come out to these shows, who all ended up being record collectors and stuff. And they’d have us over to their house to listen to music and they’d buy us free beer and stuff, which is awesome when you’re 16, but we’d listen to four or five records and be like “Those three or four weren’t that great, but I really like this one.” Beyond that really, I think the internet is a great place to find new music and older stuff that you aren’t really familiar with. So between those two things, going to people’s houses and listening to records and having the internet, we were able to find out about a lot of music we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
AF: So what would you say your songwriting process is like? Are you able to write on the road or do you do most of it at home?
Cullen: Well, with this record a lot of it was written on the road. I write mostly when I’m at home, but I think the songs we wrote on the road took a really long time. So I wouldn’t mind testing some things out on the road this time. Just seeing the response to our music on this tour makes me want to write more. It’s good to see that you’re not crazy and that other people are enjoying the songs that you thought were good. It’s a great feeling to have as far as making new music, so who knows. Maybe I’ll try. Maybe the entire next record will be written on the road since it looks like we’re going to be touring for the next six months.
AF: You guys seemed to take more time with the recording on this album too. Was that sort of freedom one of the reasons you signed to Fat Possum?
Cullen: As opposed to like a major label?
AF: Well you had to be fielding offers from different labels after the first record, right?
Cullen: Well at first it seemed like we were going to be riding a golden horse all the way to the bank or whatever, but after everything is said and done, record labels are weird. Everyone wants to talk to you about stuff but the offers don’t always come in. We had a couple other offers, but ultimately what we felt was that Fat Possum was going to be able to fund and properly support our decision to put all of the money in to this intense recording process. I think Fat Possum worked out really well for us because they were very understanding. In hindsight, you can see the connection between the two albums but letting us sit down and explain to them before we even had a record, “We need this much money because were going to do this with it” was very much a leap of faith on their part. So in the long run I think we made the right decision going with them.
AF: So essentially you wanted someone who was going to put the most money in to the recording and production of the album, rather than promotions and everything else.
Cullen: Yeah, exactly. We want the music to be well-supported. The publicity and marketing can be taken care of after that. We’re most concerned about the product.
AF: You guys are going to be in LA for Grammy weekend this year. Any famous musicians you’d like to come check out your show? Kanye West? Bono?
Cullen: I wanna see Nicki Minaj. I really want her to come by and check out our show. I’d be beyond excited. Bono would be good too.
MP3: Smith Westerns-“Imagine Pt. 3”