Smith Westerns, Aging Gracefully
ABOVE: MAX KAKACEK, CULLEN OMORI, AND CAMERON OMORI AT THE WYTHE HOTEL IN BROOKLYN. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO
For the past four years, garage-rock wunderkinds Smith Westerns have been defined by, essentially, just that—youthful, yearning lyrics, brash guitars, and trading college for a rock-‘n’-roll life on the road. The trio, who released their scuzzy, glam rock-doused self-titled LP as teenagers in 2009, has punctuated stints of rigorous touring with a maturing discography.
For their third album, Soft Will (Mom + Pop), the band, composed of two brothers, frontman Cullen Omori and bassist Cameron Omori, and guitarist Max Kakacek, left their home base in Chicago to record at Sonic Ranch in El Paso, bringing drummer Julien Ehrlich and producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) into the mix. Soft Will marks a new landmark of Smith Westerns’ continual sonic development, expanding Dye It Blonde (2011)’s approach to refinedness into something entirely sweeter, dreamier, and more vocally and lyrically informed.
Interview recently caught up with Kakacek and the Omori brothers, at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn.
COLLEEN KELSEY: How did you address this album as opposed to your first two? What was the shift or progression?
CULLEN OMORI: I think that, in comparison to the first two records, the way that we’ve always written records is that each record influences the next record, and each record pushes us to go in a different direction. Each time we get a little bit better and all those experiences kind of inspire us and influence us to keep on creating. For Soft Will, the idea was we wanted to create the experience of touring all over the world, and make something that we weren’t able to make before. When we did Dye It Blonde we were in the studio, like, 30 days to make the entire thing. With Soft Will we were able to kind sit down and go over everything—nuanced things—and hone everything exactly how we wanted it.
MAX KAKACEK: Yeah, and as far as the writing of writing the record, Cullen and I got an apartment together right after the tour of Dye It Blonde. We were living together for the entire writing process, which I’ve never done before.
KELSEY: And you guys recorded in Texas, right?
CULLEN OMORI: Partially.
KELSEY: Did the location affect you guys in any way?
CULLEN OMORI: I mean, the studio in Texas was really nice and had really good equipment and I think that, helped color the album, so to speak. [all laugh] But there was never a Southwestern vibe of the desert—like a Queens of the Stone Age vibe…
CAMERON OMORI: We had one thing to focus on—the guitar.
CULLEN OMORI: It’s almost like being back in school or something, because we were stuck with everyone. When you’re in El Paso, for us at least, we didn’t have a ton of people that we knew, so it was really good to make sure that everyone stayed focused and on point.
KELSEY: So you write mostly at home in Chicago?
CULLEN OMORI: Like 90, 80 percent is written in Chicago, and all planned out in Chicago. We go to the studio basically with an album written and it’s just, “Let’s see if we can get a sound for this to sound better,” or something that sounds really bad that was on it before, we replace it.
KELSEY: Do you find that it’s best place, creatively, for you guys to write and make music?
CULLEN OMORI: It’s kind of the only place where we can write. We’ve toured all over the place, captured and stayed in all these great cities. We always come back to Chicago. There’s a lot of musicians in Chicago that are getting semi-popular and then leaving and continuing their career. People that, like, go to Chicago for college and then leave. For us, I feel like everyone’s very much part of the city, everyone likes the city. I think that if it wasn’t for Chicago, our band wouldn’t have been where we are now. You can kind of work things out in Chicago without being noticed right away. There’s not this pressure where everyone’s like “Oh, yeah, this dude is playing a new record” or playing a show, and everyone flocks to it. You can slow-build in Chicago and be under the radar. We’re not afraid to take risks because we’re not trying to conform to any scene or anything like that, trying to do some Brooklyn scene or some L.A. thing. It’s our own, so we’re doing everything we want to do.
KELSEY: Did you have any particular influences or touchstones that you looked to while preparing the album?
CAMERON OMORI: In terms of just the recording process, we did look back at Dye It Blonde and thought of the things we thought were good on it and things that weren’t. With this new record we tried to bring the vocals up a lot more, ’cause that was more the focal point of the melody, the lyrics and stuff, which is Cullen’s thing.
CULLEN OMORI: When it came down to writing songs we were like, let’s mix it up, let’s write something lyrically different than I’ve done in the past two albums. With each album, we get better as musicians and we get better as singers, playing together. This time I felt more confident about my voice so I was like, let’s put it out and make it more vocal-oriented, more ballads and less guitar.
KELSEY: Have you been working on any new material yet or are you just gearing up for touring and moving along with this album’s release?
CULLEN OMORI: The album was mixed in January, so it’s been six months. We write at a really slow pace. We always kind of censor ourselves where everyone’s kind of critical of what they bring to the table.
KAKACEK: Yeah. I think I always like working on material in a certain way because there’s a certain serious that you take to it, like maybe throwing around ideas that aren’t necessary but we like where it’s going, whereas we’re in a writing phase and taking it more seriously.
CAMERON OMORI: Cullen’s got some songs.
CULLEN OMORI: Yeah… I’ve got some up my sleeve. [all laugh]
KAKACEK: They’re there. They’re coming.
SMITH WESTERN’S THIRD ALBUM, SOFT WILL, IS OUT TODAY FROM MOM + POP, AND CURRENTLY STREAMING VIA NPR.