CULLEN OMORI IN NEW YORK, JANUARY 2016. STYLING: MICHELLE CAMERON. SHIRT: DRIES VAN NOTEN. PANTS: PRADA. EARRINGS AND SHOES: VINTAGE. HAIR: ROLANDO BEAUCHAMP FOR ORIBE HAIR CARE/THE WALL GROUP. MAKEUP: KRISTI MATAMOROS FOR TOM FORD BEAUTY/FRANK REPS.
As recently as early 2014, Cullen Omori was in a bad way: His band Smith Westerns, who set the indie-rock scene abuzz with 2011’s garage-rock-indebted Dye It Blonde, crumbled due to inter-band conflict, all while he was battling alcohol and drug dependency from years spent on the road. Omori wondered if his days as a musician were numbered. If only out of instinct, he picked up a guitar. “It was a weird reaction for me to write music again,” he admits, sitting in a Logan Square breakfast spot in his native Chicago, looking not unlike Geddy Lee, with his long black hair and new yellow-tinted prescription glasses. “To have the pain and confusion, and then to start playing music seemed counterintuitive. But you can either resign yourself to that period of your life being over,” he says of contemplating an end to his music career, “or you do the only thing you know how to do.”
To that end, Omori, 25, began slowly piecing together demo recordings. Over the next two years, those songs coalesced into his debut solo album. “I got my act together,” he says, emphasizing that he’s in a decidedly better place emotionally and physically. The singer-guitarist’s transformation is no more present than in his new music: New Misery, out this month via Sub Pop and recorded last year over a month in a Brooklyn recording studio, retains the full-blown, giddy power-pop aesthetic of Smith Westerns, but reflects his maturation. “Having a year of self-destruction, just sitting around and making music, the lyrics have more of a gravity to them,” he says, referencing the spacey “Sour Silk.” Even on “Cinnamon,” the album’s peppy lead single, Omori turns his gaze inward. “All we are is unremarkable,” he sings, his vocals layered and swirling on a song he describes as “catchy and fast but with dark tones.”
Despite having already achieved success with his previous band, Omori, who is in the midst of a North American tour that wraps in late April, sees this new chapter as a fresh start: “It’s a total 180 from my previous mind-set,” he says. “There’s no way you can pass the blame around now. It’s just me.”