Two years ago, when Cullen Omori, now 19, and Max Kakacek, 18, picked up guitars and started the band that would become the Smith Westerns, they were both still students at Northside College Preparatory High School. Only Kakacek had any idea what he was doing, and they were drawing on an extremely limited set of influences. "We got Nuggets and all of that comp stuff," says Omori, "and we were like, 'Oh, this is easy enough. We should rip this off.'
"It was really bad," he admits. "We sucked. The only reason that we kept on making music was that we were friends with each other. We sucked bad. Bad."
That didn't discourage Omori's younger brother, Cameron, now 17 and freshly graduated from Northside. He "tagged along," in Omori's words, till they made him their bass player. They then set about learning not to suck—a goal they've accomplished in what has to be record speed.
Within a year of those first rehearsals they'd found a foothold in the Chicago rock-club scene. "Our senior year of high school," says Omori, "we played all of those venues, the Bottle and Schubas and all of those places." But the band quickly learned that this was cutting them off from potential fans even as it exposed them to new people. "We were under the impression that if we were offered shows at these venues and we played all the time, we would get a following," Omori says. "And that's not true at all. So now we play one big venue show a month and we play house shows because I think either . . . no one really has money to go to shows, or the people that we want to have at our shows don't have money for shows, so it's kinda the best way to do it."
One reason the Smith Westerns got such high-profile gigs so early in their career was that their audience, though relatively small, included some major players in the city's garage-rock scene. Miss Alex White has invited them to open for the Red Orchestra—they played at that group's final show—and for her current project, White Mystery. "Right away I took a shine to them," she says. "They can be intelligent and very creative musically, and they're funny as hell too." White, who got her own start in the clubs while she was in her teens, has helped out lots of other young local bands, including the Stranger Waves, Puking Pearls, and Teenage Dream.
Even more important has been the support of HoZac Records. In June 2008, around the time Kakacek and Omori were finishing high school, the tastemaking local label put out what's still the band's only single, a seven-inch with "Irukandji" and "Crabman" on the A side and "Spiritus Sanctus" on the flip. Thanks in part to HoZac's reputation, its first two pressings—500 copies on black vinyl and 150 on gold—have sold out, and a third pressing of 200 on red is going fast. Earlier this month HoZac released the Smith Westerns' self-titled debut full-length, one of the first LPs from the singles-focused label; though the HoZac guys are die-hard vinyl fetishists, they plan to issue it on CD as well. One track from the album also appears on a split single with the Dead Ghosts, a Vancouver group the Smith Westerns met last year while touring as the backing band for masked Bay Area weirdo Nobunny; it came out on the Austrian label Bachelor this spring.
Smith Westerns remakes the band's sound with a streak of glam that the single didn't even hint at. "They basically kinda reinvented themselves," says HoZac's Todd Novak. "It really seemed to work well for them, and we were really surprised that their recordings turned out as good as they did. It seems like [glam] wouldn't be something that a band of teenage kids just learning how to play music could latch onto—it just seems out of reach."
But the Smith Westerns aren't out of the garage just yet. Dirty, snotty rock built from trebly, reverbed-out guitars and well-worn chord progressions makes up a significant chunk of the record. Standout tunes include "Gimme Some Time," which sounds almost like pop punk, and "Tonight," a ramshackle ballad that makes it pretty clear why they've been compared to the Black Lips often enough to get sick of hearing it. But the glammier songs aren't tentative experiments—they're some of the best cuts on the record. "Be My Girl" opens with a blues progression topped by a slurring lead guitar, driven by a ba-boom-ba-clap rhythm like a slower version of the beat from Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2"—a combo that's straight-up classic T. Rex. And both "Diamond Boys" and my personal favorite, "Girl in Love," replicate the blend of 50s crooner melodrama and proto-punk swagger that Marc Bolan and David Bowie worked from time to time.
Most of Smith Westerns was recorded throughout the winter and early spring in Kakacek's basement. As Kakacek and Omori, the group's primary songwriters, came up with the material, the band would put it to tape; sometimes they'd lay down a basic chord progression first, then use that to help them write the rest of the tune. (On both the single and the album the Smith Westerns are a trio—everyone takes a turn on drums—but they've recently added a permanent full-time drummer, 18-year-old Hal James of Teenage Dream.)
Their recordings started out raw—they tracked their seven-inch using the built-in microphone on their digital four-track. They bought two proper mikes to make the album, though, and it actually sounds fantastic—the music's still saturated with lo-fi fuzz, but it's a natural-sounding lo-fi fuzz. "The way we record, we call it 'hi-fi lo-fi,'" Omori says. "It's like lo-fi, but we're trying to make it sound as good as we can. A lot of lo-fi bands totally rely on the fact that it's lo-fi for their whole sound and whole idea. And our purpose or plan was to make it so that if we have to record in a hi-fi studio, it would sound just as good."
I wouldn't be surprised to see the Smith Westerns go to work in a studio a little more sophisticated than Kakacek's basement in the near future. Though the band nearly dissolved last fall, when it looked like college was going to split them up, they've since changed plans and seem likely to make it to album two—Kakacek is attending DePaul, Cullen Omori will start at Northwestern this fall, Cameron Omori is taking a year off, and James dropped out of high school. If Smith Westerns is their way of putting the big kids on notice, then the next record might move them into the front ranks of Chicago's garage scene.
If that's what happens, it'll be less a coup and more a passing of the torch. "From where [the Smith Westerns' music] was two years ago to where it is now, you listen to it side by side and you can hear a lot of growth and development," says White. "I think it's great that they're kinda growing into their skin."