Smith Westerns Practicing Perfection
Published Jul 12, 2013The story of Smith Westerns sounds like something John Hughes would have come up with if he had read Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your life. Two Chicago-born brothers make friends with the most talented guitarist in their high school and decide to start a band in their parent's basement. Raised on the glam rock of Marc Bolan and similar '70s garage acts, the group releases an intricate lo-fi debut, are signed to a well-known independent label and quickly whisked away on tour. Clubs take the place of university classrooms, drummers swap between drummers, and sooner or later the Nuggets-inspired riffs of their youth give way to dynamic chord changes, sensual choruses and falsettos that would make even Brett Anderson blush.
Yet in the eyes of many, Smith Westerns will always be a young band, the same group of boys that captivated audiences well before they were even allowed to drink in bars. But with their third LP, Soft Will, finally seeing its release and a headlining tour beginning this month, the group is looking to change all that.
How do you feel about the album finally seeing its release?
Singer/guitarist Cullen Omori: I feel good about it. I feel like it's definitely taken a really long time to come out. The record itself was done in December of last year. Just because of a bunch of logistical things, it's taken six months to come out, which is crazy, because on top of that we haven't released any new material since 2011. But it feels really good. It seems like people like it. It's definitely a different album compared to Dye It Blonde. It's just a new experience.
Has curiosity taken hold of you and have you been checking out people's responses to the album?
Yeah, I mean, if someone emails me a positive review or someone tweets at me, I'll take a look at it. If it's a music site I already like, I'll read the review. I try not to search it out. Usually, in most parts, it's not really productive. If it's a good review or something, I'm totally down to read it. I don't want people to think, like, "Ahhh, I never read anything." We just try not to search it out. It's easier to stay positive if you just focus on the recording being out. There's nothing you can do to change it now.
After Dye it Blonde came out you guys were touring really incessantly across the world. I was wondering how the songwriting process changed for this record because of that?
When we were touring it wasn't like we were on some huge bus where we could sit in the back with acoustic guitars and record. A lot of it was us trying to chase someone else's tour bus around in a van and having to be cramped. Everyone's sharing a room. You're sharing a bed even. So it makes it kind of hard to write on tour because you're super exhausted and you spend a lot of time with everyone — especially the way we tour — in close quarters. So it becomes a challenge trying to sit down and work something out with someone you've spent the past 18 hours with per day for X amount of months. So the songwriting process stayed kind of the same. We didn't start writing until we came back to Chicago. The album took two years to make, but it really only took seven or eight months to write all the songs and get it done. And the process is always the same. Me and Max [Kakacek, Smith Westerns' lead guitarist] will take an idea and work on it and basically go record a proper demo of it in our basement studio, figure out the direction, what we can change, what things we can replace with a better studio quality sound.
Listening to the record for the past week or so, it definitely sounds a lot more dynamic than your previous releases, especially with all the piano-based breakdowns and little vignettes. I was wondering if that was a conscious decision and what the reason was behind having a more broad and dramatic shift in the music?
I think it deals a lot with us becoming more comfortable in our music as musicians. I think on every record we try and tack on or add to. Dye It Blonde wasn't possible without having the debut come out and Soft Will wasn't possible without Dye It Blonde. The first record was really fuzzed-out, lo-fi, and on Dye It Blonde everything was at a similar level. The vocals weren't really that much louder than the guitars and everything was kind of a wash. With Soft Will I felt more comfortable as a singer, so I wanted to showcase my vocals a little bit more. I think also when you write music and you write songs, there's only so much you can do with a certain instrument. I think that sometimes it's useful to write on a piano. I just think it adds another dimension and I think it helps kind of shape the dynamic a little bit.
When your debut came out it was described as a really scrappy, lo-fi garage rock record. I was wondering if you think it's been easier in your career to evolve and progress because you started making music in such a pure and unadulterated way?
I think it makes me more confident as a musician, or artist, or whatever you want to call it. Because the first album was really... I mean, lo-fi was really cool back then, or whatever. That was the thing. But for us, we weren't trying to catch on and ride the trend or anything. We just didn't have any equipment. We were a bunch of amateur musicians, college-aged. "This is what we're going to make and we're going to make it." So I think the success of that and the subsequent success of Dye It Blonde makes us more confident in ourselves. I think having a debut where we could put an idea down, record it, and have it received well definitely has something to do with us being ambitious as musicians and wanting to continue to write.
A few years ago I watched this video of you guys shopping at Amoeba Records and I remember you mentioning your love of '90s rock and you buying a Breeders and Smashing Pumpkins record. When you started, the band was pigeonholed as having a '70s, Nuggets-era sound. That was the tag writers attached to you guys. But for Soft Will, do you think you delved into your '90s influences a bit more?
Definitely. I mean, when we first started the T. Rex thing was really prominent. When we were doing Dye It Blonde I wasn't listening to a whole lot of it, or anything like that. I think that our background of learning how to play songs and learning how to play guitar or how a song is written comes from a lot of power pop or T. Rex and David Bowie. That's what we learned to play our instruments on. Dye It Blonde and Soft Will are more us listening to '90s music, listening to pop Top 40 radio and trying to kind of make a weird, radio pop song but based in how we learned how to make music, which is that '70s glam kind of thing with '90s guitars. I don't think so much it was us trying to listen to different things, but we were raised listening to this kind of music, we grew as a band playing this kind of music, so trying to kind of take our roots and make something new and poppy is kind of the result of Soft Will, you know?
Is there a Top 40 track you guys have been listening to more often this past year?
I remember that when we first started approaching writing an album I was listening to that Britney Spears song "Till the World Ends" all the time. I was really into that song. I think the arrangement of that song is really interesting and is something I really respect. I listen to Top 40 all the time, especially when I drive my car around. I just love listening to the radio. I feel like sometimes people say radio is dead, but it's very much alive. It's something that's important. I'd love to write pop songs, but I can't. The way I listen to music or the way I go about writing songs, or the way Max goes about writing songs, it's kind of hard to do, so we end up making this kind of music.
I guess you can rest easily knowing Britney Spears can't really either.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]
I wanted to get into the recording process behind the new album. I saw that you guys decided to re-team with producer Chris Coady [Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio] again. What made you decide to do that?
It kind of has to do with familiarity, but also just trust. Chris is someone who I respect. He gets along with our band, which is hard, because we've been making music together since we were 17 or 18, so I think there's this kind of an insider thing. The three of us have done it this way, so it's always hard incorporating new people into the mix. That's probably why we've had so many drummers and just got a new one — you know, Julien [Ehrlich] from UMO [Unknown Mortal Orchestra]. But Chris and Julien are the kind of people that fit into the personality that we have, just because we've been around each other for so long and kind of have a set way of doing things. Finding people that kind of resonate with that. Chris is someone who does a good job and who we trust. You know, we grew up producing our own records, even though it was lo-fi, but we were very involved in it. It's one of those thing where you kind of want a producer that respects that but also ads to it, and he does a good job of balancing that.
Seeing him work with you for the past few years kind of called to mind a band like the Flaming Lips who have had the same producer for years to help develop their signature sound. Do you feel that same way about Chris?
Yeah, that would be great. But it's one of those things where we don't know what we're going to do with our next album. We just go along with it and kind of hope for the best. We never make a conscious effort and say, "We're going to change our style, we're going to develop here." It definitely has to happen organically. So when we go to sit down and make the next record and it clicks again and everyone's feeling it, then yeah, absolutely. But it's too early to tell. Chris is definitely someone we want to work with again.
I read online the album was supposed to come out a month ago. Why did the label decide to push it back to the end of June?
There was a problem getting the vinyl printed. There was a worry we weren't going to have a release date on vinyl, and I think a lot of people who buy our records buy vinyl. So we pushed it back so they'd come out around the same time.
That makes sense. You'd think there'd be more vinyl plants these days, because it seems like everyone is having that problem.
Yeah, I feel it's one of those things where they're kind of backed up and have enough business, so they don't have time to open up other ones and are kind of in limbo.
Someone should invest in a new one.
Yeah, I should start one. Kind of like a pop-up shop in my place. [Laughs.]
It would do well in Chicago.
Yeah, for sure.
For the past two years you guys have toured probably to some of the farthest reaches of your careers. Do you guys plan on touring to that size in the future or are you going to pare it back since you were on the road for so long?
I think when we first started touring we were like, let's just go for it. Not so much for Dye It Blonde, but for the debut we had never really been outside of Chicago that much. And for Dye It Blonde it was like, "Maybe we should support this band?" Maybe we got a lot smarter as far as choosing the right place to play and when we come to a city we're not opening for some band our fans can't afford to go see. I think it's just smarter touring. I don't think we'll be touring as much, but we'll be headlining shows and it will be a better representation of us, because touring when you're supporting and doing other stuff makes it more of a grind and doesn't make the shows as good. I think this time around it will be a lot fresher because we won't be touring everywhere. So hopefully it makes the shows a lot better.
I totally forgot about this, but when I was doing research for this interview I rediscovered when the stage collapsed on you guys at Pukkelpop two years ago. Did that ever make you rethink touring or playing festivals?
You know, it was definitely a really bad, terrible event. At the time it was one of those things where we wanted to stop and it was obvious we were going to go on. There was never a time where we were going to rethink that. Touring is all we've ever known. It's something that's really terrible, but we were going to try to find a way to make it work, and that's why we continued on the rest of the tour.
I was reading a Rolling Stone interview the other day where you mentioned enhancing your live shows this time around. Do you have any new ideas? I think for a long time we were just trying to get our footing in a live setting. Now that we're more of a headline band and want to establish ourselves as a headliner band, there's definitely more visuals and better lights. But also just the musicianship will be a lot better. We've definitely been striving to make it sound just like the record and it's something we've gotten closer and closer to each touring cycle. So I think it's going to be a much better show musically and as we go the lights and visuals will be a lot more powerful. We already have a few more things we're working on.
Yeah, I saw a video of you guys playing "Varsity" the other day and it sounded exactly like the record.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I think that's just a testament that touring and practicing really does work.