Cullen Omori of Smith Westerns on Chicago and the band's evolving sound
Jaein Lee Smith Westerns
Yeah, the guys in Smith Westerns (due tonight at the Larimer Lounge) are young, and their attitude on stage and in interviews seems to be filled to the brim with youthful exuberance with a touch of bravado. But none of that would matter if this Chicago band didn't write fundamentally good songs, and its two albums to date, a self-titled debut and 2010's Dye It Blonde, display not just a willingness to lay everything on the line for writing a good, catchy song, but also the ability to organically and quickly evolve and explore beyond the sound that got the band some attention in the first place.
Although originally something of a power-pop band, on the latest album, Smith Westerns is showing signs of integrating that style of songwriting with a more lush sense of atmosphere and nuance reminiscent of mid-'70s David Bowie or even Sweet. We recently spoke with Cullen Omori about that shift in sound and what it was like coming out of the sometimes harsh realm of the Chicago scene.
Westword: How did you come to be friends with Nobunny and then get to be his backing band for a tour?
Cullen Omori: He's from Chicago. That happened like two or three years ago. We met him through people we were playing music with in Chicago. He has a strong record-collector following. He needed a car to drive him on the tour in Canada. We were all excited to do it, and it was our first exposure to touring, other than driving to Detroit for a show.
There's more than a bit of a stylistic shift between your debut album and Dye It Blonde. What did you get especially interested in in terms of songwriting that led to that change?
There are a lot of factors. For me, as a songwriter, playing my instrument every day; in 2010 we played like a hundred shows, which makes you a better musician. It makes you more confident, even if you're playing the same songs going on stage and basically practicing. Once the skill set moved up, I was better able to reinterpret songs in a way that was above my skill set.
After seeing the response, I felt more creative and energized, because when you feel like people like your music, you want to make more of it. We also toured with so many bands that were so good that I kind of got bummed out and wanted to make something impressive that could impress them. With the first record, there was no intention of it ever getting outside of Chicago among our friends. All of these things shaped the direction and made us work really hard in terms of songwriting.
There's a great bit of reverse delay used at the end of "Still New." How did you learn about that sound, and what do you like about using it?
When we were in the studio, we were playing with a lot of different stuff. I liked the idea of making things so epic to the point where it's really intense. We were like, "Let's figure out how to have a classic album and reverse it." In that song, we thought it would be really cool and funny. It's super-heavy, and part of that song is airy, and it goes to half time and blows up. You're not expecting it the first time you hear it, so the last time, you're not expecting it again when it reverses out.
People often compare your songwriting to Nuggets-era bands, as well as David Bowie and T. Rex, which has its merits, but it's also a bit reminiscent of later John Lennon. In what ways would you say his music was an influence on your own? Is "Imagine 3" a reference to Lennon?
I think that, for us, it's been weird doing press stuff and talking about influences, because it's almost like the first album is disjointed from the second album. A lot of people tell us we're Nuggets- and garage-inspired. But I don't think that was the case. I think it was more the power-pop compilations and David Bowie that we were really into. And it was our weird attempt to imitate those bands.
With this record, I think we wanted to be Smith Westerns and have our own stuff. As far as the songwriting goes, for me, the process of writing the album, because I don't write any of the actual guitar parts -- that's all Max, or the vocal melodies or stuff -- I was just trying to make an album with really big choruses and sweet, dreamy verses. I went through this thing of trying to find songs that were timeless and perfect and what made me like them so much.
For me, a lot of the best music, with choruses and stuff, is '70s music and '90s music and always Top 40. We listened to John's solo stuff and thought it was great. There's a lot of '90s stuff, like Oasis, which is them reinterpreting John Lennon. As far as songwriting goes, that's a pretty good person to shoot for. It was more having my iPod with all of these timeless songs that made them super-catchy and super-memorable, and listening to all those songs and figuring out how to do it best in our own way.
Is "Imagine 3" a reference to Lennon?
Oh, yeah. That was kind of a dumb joke. That's probably the oldest song on the record, but we made it after our first album. It was tentatively titled "Imagine Part 3" as a marker, and it just stuck. There's no "Imagine Part 2."