“Coming off the tour to Chicago, when you haven’t been there for two years, it is definitely kind of a mind trip,” says Smith Westerns’ frontman Cullen Omori, recalling the conclusion of the band’s touring in support of their breakthrough album Dye It Blonde. Besides scattered shows, the band has not toured properly since October of 2011—a year that saw 140 shows—and is preparing to embark once again in mid-July, this time supporting their exquisite third album, Soft Will.
“Everything is kind of different,“ he continues, “you don’t do the things you used to, and I was a little burnt out on playing music because it had been such a long stretch. So there was a disillusionment there. I’d never thought I could get burnt out on playing music. That was a thing that we had liked so much; we did to get away from having real jobs, and then it became a real job.
“So some of the new songs deal with that, and also where we stand as a group. A lot of our friends have graduated college, and there’s this idea that you need to keep up with all your peers, but at the same time, you are doing your own thing.”
This “dealing” is expressed in the opening moments of the album. “3am Spiritual” begins with the lonely strumming of a clean electric guitar and Omori’s voice going on to deliver the underscored words “You don’t look like you used to be, you don’t look like you did on TV.” This sounds like something he has heard, something that was said to him, but when the backing vocals join in, the song becomes almost joyful, and it’s as if the band is not dwelling in the sentiment. They are, as Omori said, “doing [their] own thing.”
Rather than go to college, Smith Westerns—then with an unnecessary “the” leading their self-proclaimed “meaningless” name—made a presumably meaninglessly titled album, The Smith Westerns. Though that record saw them touring with Girls and getting noticed by blogs and listeners, the blown-out garage-punk sound kept Smith Westerns from going beyond capable openers.
“We never sat down and said ‘we’re going to make it,’” Omori notes. “It was very gradual. We’ve been playing together since 2007 and we didn’t really get a lot of attention until Dye It Blonde came out in 2011. So, that was like four years of us toiling away, playing a lot of shows. To be now and have had three records come out and still be interested is pretty cool, but it was never expected and I feel like if it was expected, than we wouldn’t be a band right now.”
The singer, along with his also-present guitarist Max Kakacek and younger brother Cameron Omori, spent much of 2012 working on Soft Will, and despite the weird experience of coming back to Chicago after so much time away, the band decided to leave again for recording.
“We’d already put full demos to tape, so a lot of the creative side was done in Chicago,” says Kakacek, assuring that the band received its proper rest at home during the time off before heading to El Paso to work with producer Chris Coady. “The idea of recording in the middle of nowhere seemed like a cool idea, and we were able to re-realize the songs that we had recorded in Chicago.
“I think what was the biggest benefit was that we’d have a break and then we recorded in New York and then a break and then did shit in Connecticut. It gave us time to forget what we have made and change things and rework things and get new ideas. Having breaks was nice to have time and think it over.”
The band also decided to work with Mom + Pop Records for this release, the third label to put out a Smith Westerns album, a fact that Kakacek points out is a little misleading, as their first record was picked up by HoZak after it was completed, and Fat Possum, who released Dye It Blonde, never signs multi-record deals.
“All of us wanted to stay indie,” says Kakacek. “Like, even though they say they won’t force you to make something you don’t want, it’s still something you fear with a major just because of the reputation. But, the guys at Mom + Pop, they are awesome and we trust them a lot.”
“We are kind of polarizing,” Omori adds, “to where there are a lot of people that don’t like the music and a few people that are really for it. So, it’s just been about aligning ourselves with likeminded individuals, who share a similar vision.”
Besides these deliberate decisions, a lot of the Smith Westerns’ process comes across as instinctual. When Omori claims that “Varsity,” the album’s first single, is the last song on the album because it is most indicative of where the band is headed, it doesn’t take long to realize that the band has no real idea where they will be when they make another album, and that is a good thing, as Omori goes on to note “Each record is sort of bookmarking where we are at that point of our lives.”
“The idea that you can go from the first record to the second record to the third record,” Omori says, “and sort of hear what we had been listening to and see our maturity level grow. I think a lot of the artists I really like, like The Clash or David Bowie, each record is evolving. There are elements where it is the same, like his voice, but it’s the idea that you keep challenging yourself as a musician. Bands that can come up with a formula for how they are supposed to sound, like The Ramones, are great, but to come upon that formula is so hard. Why bother if you can challenge yourself to keep progressing. Like, even in three years, writing the same stuff, I can’t see any of us doing that.”
”You have to keep challenging yourself,” Omori continues. “I don’t want to be pretentious, like ’;oh, I’m an artist,’ but it is art and you want to keep being creative and you want to keep everyone interested and the idea is that we want to keep doing what we haven’t done, whether we take a huge leap or a couple baby steps. If one thing is set it’s our work ethic. That’s the thing that I think will remain with us. Because as soon as you become stagnant, what’s the point? You’re not helping yourself and you’re not helping the listener by making the same record over and over again.”
Repeatedly, answers are delivered with pauses or the admission that they had never even thought about what is being asked, and sometimes even shared laughter. But, just because they haven’t considered something previously, doesn’t mean they won’t give a well-thought answer, and their music is functioning on a similar level.
“We’ve always gone on our own path,” Omori says. “It wasn’t like we put out our first single when we were 18 and got picked up by a huge indie label. It’s always been a lot of touring, it’s always been ‘we’re going to make this music on our own and figure out a way to put it out there because we think it is good. And we’re going to show people that it is good.’ I don’t think there was any pressure, like, we were always pretty sure that if we didn’t like the record, we weren’t going to put it out there. It wasn’t one of those things where you try really hard to write on single and everything else is filler. We wanted to make an entire record that we think is good. Our work ethic has always been strong, and we figure if we think it is good, it will be successful either way we look at it.”