by Dan Hyman
Things always moved fast and furious for Smith Westerns. Not long after their 2009 self-titled debut—an adrenaline shot of glam rock—the three teenage Chicagoans were thrust into the indie-rock stratosphere. By 2011's Dye It Blonde, they were a full-throttle, undeniably confident touring force that, for better or worse, ranked among the buzziest of buzz bands. That they've seemingly out of nowhere decided to call it quits isn't entirely shocking—bands that burn so hard tend to flame out quickly. Judging from the seemingly tossed-off tweets that front man Cullen Omori made last week, in which he announced that the band was going on "indefinite hiatus," the end arrived abruptly. The band, which includes bassist Cameron Omori (Cullen's brother) and guitarist Max Kakacek, will play one final Chicago gig, sans Kakacek, on Tue 12/23 at Lincoln Hall.
In this interview, Cullen talks about the band's final days, the uncertainty that followed their most recent album, 2013's Soft Will, and what prompted them to break up. "The band just didn't work—both creatively and personally," he says. Kakacek came to him and Cameron a few weeks ago and said he no longer wanted to be a part of Smith Westerns. Bigger problems already existed: Cullen and Cameron rarely spoke, and Cameron was back in school full-time at Northwestern University. Cullen and Kakacek, the principal songwriters in the band, were each working on their own projects, and Cullen says those pursuits didn't click together creatively.
Lately Cullen has been rehearsing for the final Smith Westerns show and beginning to accept that the band is definitely over. He's already recorded an album of new material, which he plans to release sometime in 2015, and he remains optimistic. "Writing this record . . . was super cleansing," he says. Of Smith Westerns, he adds, "It was totally unexpected that anyone would even follow our band. . . . But as time went on, it was like, 'Well, I don't think we need to do it just to keep the kids together.'"
Dan Hyman: Why end Smith Westerns? And more specifically, what instigated this decision?
Cullen Omori: In 2014 we didn't really do anything. In 2013 we released Soft Will, and the Sky [Ferreira] tour was the last tour we did. We kind of took it easy in 2014. We hadn't really taken it easy or stopped since we started or since the ball started rolling on our band in 2009, when we were like 19. We just toured nonstop, or if we weren't touring we were spending a lot of time working on music and writing. So we decided we were going to take some time off with the intention that we would possibly revisit putting out more Smith Westerns music. And as the year went on it become more apparent that to get us back in the studio, to get us all on the same page, was gonna be something that was not very possible. And then recently Max came to me and Cameron and said he didn't want to be a part creatively of Smith Westerns anymore. He thought it would be a good time to stop since we hadn't done anything this year. And Cameron and myself were down with it. We were fine. We weren't angry or anything. But we wanted to do one last show because we never planned any of this. This was very unplanned. He just came to us and told us and we were like, "Cool, let's just at least do a show before we stop." He wasn't into that idea.
But you guys are officially done?
The band just didn't work. Both creatively and personally. The terminology I used, "indefinite hiatus," I thought was a clever way of saying "it's not going to happen in the future." But yeah, there's no plans to reignite Smith Westerns. It's broken up. Me and Cameron, when Max left the band, we decided we weren't going to dissolve it until we played these last shows because it sprang up on all of us.
Why had it been so difficult to get back together this past year?
We were taking this time to do things that we hadn't been able to do while we were on tour. I used to live with all those guys in an apartment, and then I moved out to live with my girlfriend. I don't know. It was just one of those things where during this time in 2014 both [Max and I] were working on music. We never stopped working on music. We were working on different things, and as the year went on we'd hear snippets of each other's stuff. It would have been hard to reconcile the two sounds into an album. It would just have been really schizophrenic and weird. And that's when Max decided, "You know, I don't really want to do it anymore."
Was it inconceivable that Smith Westerns could exist without Max?
The way we wrote would be Max and myself, we'd come up snippets of songs, of a chorus, of a verse. Usually I would come up with the structure or the vocal melodies and share it with Max and we would construct a song together and he would arrange it and put on the instrumentation. He was really interested in the pedals and tones and everything like that. For my new stuff I've been doing, now I can do the arrangements myself. But one of the things that made Smith Westerns unique to me and Max was it involved us both bringing songs and fusing them together. He very much loved to have guitar really interwoven in everything. And I'm not the greatest guitar player; I'll be the first one to admit that. But without Max the guitar-rock aspect wasn't going to be as strong.
Band breakups rarely come out of nowhere. Did you have any inclination the end was near?
I don't know. I think it was pretty gradual. We wandered into being a touring band. When we started, the whole point was to play some shows and try to sell out the Empty Bottle. And that was cool. If we could tour, that would be great. We were doing those things in 2009 and we were like, "Let's do that for a couple years and then go back to school." And then we did Dye It Blonde and then it became, "Cool, we can sustain ourselves and do this!" We had a lot of fun and we toured, and then with Soft Will we wanted to continue that way. We did Soft Will because that's what you were supposed to do to follow up this record, Dye It Blonde, that got us popular. During Soft Will there were parts of it where we still wanted to give it a shot. We thought we'd continue to pursue it because we were still writing songs that we liked—I don't think we were as stoked about it as Dye It Blonde, though. But we were still excited. And of course, this is in hindsight. At the time we were probably like, "Yeah, this is good." I think we were very much into it when we were making Soft Will. But afterwards, when we were doing the tour, we were really burnt out on it. The newness of touring was no longer a big deal for us because we were oversaturated with touring for Dye It Blonde. We enjoyed it more to write Soft Will than we did to tour that record. And that's kind of the inverse as it was for Dye It Blonde.
Were you happy with Soft Will?
Parts of it. We spent maybe two times or three times as long in the studio on Soft Will as we did on Dye It Blonde. And I felt that we ended up . . . we overthought it a little bit. At the same time, though, we did exactly what we wanted to do on Soft Will: we went in the studio and make a fucking long-ass studio record. I think there's parts of it that are really good—"Varsity" and other parts that touched upon the direction we would've gone if we had done another album. I think that's cool, but we've done this for seven years technically. It was important we stopped doing it when it wasn't as fun. It's not like any of us were driving a BMW or something. And the people that liked the band, I'm grateful for. It was totally unexpected that anyone would even follow our band. But I don't think that we should do it when we don't like it. Then it becomes like something you talk about in high school: you don't want to be your parents and have a job you hate, you know what I mean? And that's something I lyrically talked about in Soft Will: it started to feel like work. It started to feel like a chore to do it. You were having to reconcile that with, "Well, that's what happens when you're a band that's been established." But as time went on, it was like, "Well, I don't think we need to do it just to keep the kids together."
How did it feel when Dye It Blonde broke big? Obviously if you guys had stopped after that massive success it would have seemed odd.
I feel like with Dye It Blonde we had stumbled upon something that really worked and people liked and we didn't expect people to like. In earlier interviews we gave this impression that we wanted to be famous. I know people have taken that and ran with that to view us in a negative light. But in reality Smith Westerns was something that was sprung upon three 19-year-old kids who had just gotten out of high school who were fucking losers. So it was like "Awesome! We get to get wasted and people will take our shit like how we've been getting treated!" It was stupid. The only difference is that we were indie musicians. The best example of other musicians who are young and say stupid shit are rappers. When you're young and getting this attention, no matter what anyone is going to say, it's going to go to your head a little bit. To say that wouldn't be your decision . . . that just hasn't happened to you yet.
Your whole adult life has been wrapped up in Smith Westerns.
Well, with Soft Will we didn't do that much press on it and we didn't tour that much. So I feel like a lot of the fair-weather fans that would be like, "Hey, Smith Westerns guy!" have forgotten about us, which is totally cool with me.
You guys did have that huge Gap ad though.
I forgot about that! Here was the thing with Gap: We'd done some modeling stuff from time to time, and I think now there's this idea that you can't really sell out in music anymore. 'Cause you go anywhere and it's sponsored by like a vodka company and Ray-Bans. Shit like that. At the other end, those kinds of things, like the Gap thing, while it could be perceived as lame, funded our music. It helped me continue making music. So in that way it's awesome. It helps.
Have you been approached by record labels about launching your solo career?
As Smith Westerns ends, I don't really know what label I'll have or whatever. I just think that because we don't live in a city like New York or LA, you can just do your own thing and I'm not being reminded of the rat race of being an indie musician. Before any of the Smith Westerns stuff was decided, I was just working on music to work on music. It was one of those things where at the time, coming off of touring and having all these expectations of being this band, it was kind of cool to not have anything. I was working with my friend at hospitals cleaning stretchers, cleaning blood and shit off stretchers. Wearing like a hazmat suit. We'd go into hospitals at different times of the day. Sometimes we'd go in in the morning and clean the ER. I just wanted to do it. It's not like it was the difference between living at my parents' and living in my apartment. I just wanted to do a job because I hadn't worked in a while. We'd talk and listen to music and listen to sports radio while we repaired these stretchers or wheelchairs in different hospitals. And from there we'd go to my friend's basement and I'd have these two guys, Sam and Adam, who would record and play drums on my recordings. And it was a really cool way to work. It was just on everyone's own time. Instead of having to check on whether or not I could do something, I was able to just do it. Which was great, and I was able to teach myself how to write a fully realized song. I've been doing it since February. And once I started doing it, it was almost like this light went off where I was able to write so much more music than I normally had been able to in Smith Westerns. I've written 12 songs. And not some bullshit 12 songs where eight of them suck.
So you have a complete record?
Yeah, I have a record. It's written. I just need to go to a studio and record. I've been recording super lo-fi like we used to do in Smith Westerns, in basements. I haven't really tried to get a bunch of people on board and try to monetize it. I think it's really important after what happened with Smith Westerns, where we were really at the will of the label or we were being told to go with this person or that person, that I really assess who I work with in a personal way.
Describe the music you're making.
The last song I wrote the majority of for Smith Westerns was "Varsity." I think it was the closest thing to what the new stuff sounds like. I made a very conscious decision to strip back the chord progressions of the songwriting because I felt like with Soft Will there was a little too much of this prog element. I wanted to move back to the simplicity of earlier Smith Westerns songs. For me, the idea of making a pop structure—really listening to Top 40 radio, and I listened to a ton of it—is like verse, chorus, second chorus, et cetera. Shit like that. It's about really trying to integrate that structure and the way you use melody and how dynamics change and bring that into how I grew up writing music, which was very 70s influenced or late 80s. I'm trying to find something where it sounds good and poppy, but it's not lame and overdone. I didn't want it to be super sugary. Finding that balance is really cool, and it's something you have to experiment a lot with. I don't want to make anything that is super niche.
But you'd like to release this album and pursue a solo career?
Now when I think about music, I just want to exist as a musician and be able to continue writing music because I enjoy it. It's something that's happened over the course of the last year. After Soft Will I wasn't 100 percent sure I wanted to be a musician. But writing this record with no intention and no label telling me "You need this done by this time," just doing it solely for fun and altruistically, was super cleansing.