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Through Paying Dues

Now that their second album is out, Smith Westerns can’t get to the payoff fast enough.



Smith Westerns are one of the few new Chicago rock bands to attract significant attention from outside the city in the past couple of years. They originally got over on the novelty of being teenagers in a pretty fabulous garage-scuzz band, but that's all changing. They're now old enough to vote but not old enough to drink, and their new sophomore album, Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum), proves that you can take the boys out of the garage and take the garage out of the boys. Instead of recording in their basement again, they went to DNA Downtown in New York with Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and in a proper studio it turns out they're a dreamy indie-rock band with a heavy helping of bootleg T. Rex licks. A November profile in the Tribune quoted the band dissing Chicago and complaining about what they saw as their unjustly low station in the hierarchy of the city's music scene—which didn't exactly endear them to their peers or local fans. I talked to front man Cullen Omori and guitarist Max Kakacek at a diner in Lincolnwood about their ambitions and their reputation as brats.

Is music all you do now?

Omori: Basically, yeah. We don't really do anything beyond listen to music, write music, practice. Talk shit. About everyone. [Laughs.] So, yeah. We don't have any hobbies outside of music. I dunno. It's like, it would be like if I was working at a regular job and you'd say, "What's your hobby?" and I would say "music," but it's working out in a way.

You guys haven't had to have jobs lately?

Omori: There was a year after high school, when Max and I were out of school and he was in [college], and I was working these jobs that sucked. One job was actually the best job—I was interning at this production company downtown, and all I did all day was intern shit, like order sushi for everyone. Drew dicks on Adobe Illustrator all day. Sat around. Another job I was in an office building, and that was kind of like a montage in a teen movie. Like, clean up faxes and stuff—fax machines. Stapling things. Drawing brain bubbles on how I was going to get things done.

So it's pretty good music is working out for you, then, if those are your other options.

Omori: Then we all went to school. For a semester. Sucked.

Where did you go?

Omori: Northwestern. I love Evanston. I want to move there. Or Rogers Park. That's where we wanna be based out of, if we stay in Chicago.

You thinking of moving somewhere else?

Kakacek: It's too much money.

Omori: We get a good deal 'cause we're still young. A lot of other bands have to get practice spaces, but we're young so it's still a little bit appropriate that we leave our shit at our parents' house. It's not like we're 28 and should be ashamed. They're all proud of us.

Are they happy to facilitate all this?

Omori: Yeah, we're not a burden on their lives. I'm not costing them anything because I'm not going to college. I'm always gone. So, it's cool. So this is pretty easy. We kind of lived in San Francisco for a couple months last year; that was fun. I think it was fun because it was the first time we were by ourselves.

Kakacek: We were on couches and floors every night. That part sucked.

Omori: That did suck.

Kakacek: We didn't have our own apartment or anything.

What do you hope happens with this record?

Omori: I hope I can play the smallest room in any city and have people in it. And maybe play to 200 people a night—I would be satisfied. Of course, that's not where I want it to be. But I would be happy to not have to worry about money; breaking even would be nice. We're always in the hole. We never make money.

Kakacek: I would like to upgrade our shitty equipment—just make a little money.

Omori: I mean, like, to be able to do it and have fun. It's always been fun, but we see a lot of our friends' bands in situations where they do really well and it looks like so much more fun. Like, not stressed out, you don't have to worry about anything. You just get a tour manager—start having tour managers and it's all just so much easier. Ideally, with this record, I would be able to just play the show and sit in the van all day and be on my computer and then get out of the car and play—eat something and play a show, and people like it, like really enjoy the songs and know the words. And then I could go to sleep. That would be awesome.

Because right now it's a lot of—I dunno, I have to drive the van, I have to go in, I have to talk to the people who work at the venue. Then no one comes to the show, and then we drive around for three hours after looking for a cheap hotel room. I dunno. Just an upgrade. I don't plan on, like, playing UIC Pavillion in five months. Like . . . yeah. I dunno. Max, you got anything to say?

Yeah, Max. What are your dreams for this band?

Kakacek: My dreams? I want shows where people are there for us. I want to be well respected as musicians. Like, not so much like, "He's a young guy," but that I'm a musician too.

Are you guys tired of it always being focused on your age?

Omori: I hate the adjectives "bratty," "scrappy," "troublemake . . . y."

You feel like those aren't accurate?

Omori: If we were a bunch of 'tards, we wouldn't be where we are now, the level we're on. I think a lot of people categorize us as a garage band—people read something online, and so they think they're supposed to describe us how that described us. You know, like, make a decision for yourself. I dunno. We wouldn't be doing what we'e doing at this level, or in the level of the past, if we weren't ambitious, if we were just brats. It wasn't just, like, handed to us. It was—we were working. We didn't just make a record, have the single come out, and not tour until we knew people would show up every place we play. If anyone looks at our touring record, it's all support, never a headline. I dunno. Paying our dues.

Are you tired of paying your dues? Do you feel like your dues are paid up?

Both: Yes!

Omori: I'm ready to get that hard work back. We've been making good show and music karma. We tour all the time—we haven't made any money on these tours—with the idea that exposure will help you. Like, no one—I dunno. I feel like it's weird, like, because how music works now is we put out this record and tour, but someone can come out and just put a single on their MySpace and play to as many people as we do.

So you're sad that rock 'n' roll isn't fair?

Omori: I think, like, we're ready to get bigger with this record. I dunno. Supporting is fun, but we want to play a crowd that's just there for us rather than just being like, "Oh, opening band, cool." Opening sucks. Opening for bands that have audiences who want something different than the live show you're going to give them sucks.

Kakacek: You almost have to, like, perform to fit. It's like the most acting you'll ever have to do, being up there pretending like you're having a good time opening for them. Like you're having a blast while 15-year-old girls text in the front row.

Omori: Like some dude from the Jersey Shore is, like, laughing at you with his girlfriend. It's like, fuck you, asshole. This ticket was 40 bucks. We're getting some of your money. Even if it's only like a penny per person.

I am assuming this had to do with one of the two bigger tours you've been on?

Omori: Let's just say it wasn't the MGMT tour. Don't wanna name names. We're just ready. Ready to bust up. Bust up. 2011.

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