Chicago-based trio Smith Westerns plays teenage psychedelic-tinged pop in the vein of glammy rockers T.Rex on their latest album, Dye It Blonde. Cullen Omori and Max Kakacek, both 20, and Cameron Omori, 19, have received favorable reviews and heavy blog buzz for Blonde, which offers a more polished sound than their scratchy, garage rock debut. Lauren Duffy chatted with singer/guitarist Cullen Omori last March just before the band traveled to Austin to perform at South By Southwest.
What are you guys currently doing in New York?
Tonight we’re doing this weird show at Saks Fifth Avenue, playing in a department store… it’s going to be bizarre. But it’s free vodka, free stuff, and we’re getting styled in Rag and Bone gear so I’ll be in head-to-toe denim.
Could you tell me more about the process of making Dye It Blonde?
As soon as we finished Pitchfork Fest, we got into the car and drove straight to New York and started recording the next day with [producer] Chris Coady. We picked him because we thought he was someone who would be able to make really full sounding recordings without the instruments being lost, he makes it so you can hear every part, which is really important to us. We wrote the album over the course of an entire year touring; “Smile” took seven months to write. The way me and Max [Kakacek] write, we write a verse or a chorus, and kinda let it stew and sit and come back to it later. As the song evolves, it gets better and better. I’ve never worked with anyone else musically other than Max, we have a good understanding of how to accommodate the other person, there’s a lot of mutual respect… after seeing other bands and the way they work, I think we work a lot more cohesively.
What has been a surreal experience in the last couple of months?
This last time on tour, there would be a really cool band from that city there. It’s good to see other musicians come to our show, we met Black Lips in Atlanta, and in Portland we went to the Dandy Warhols’ place. Oh, and our friend Ryan McGinley brought Albert Hammond Jr. to the Mercury Lounge show and we got to meet him, which was a huge deal for me ‘cause I’m a huge Strokes fan.
Check out Ryan McGinley’s short film about GIRLS and Smith Westerns, Friends Forever.
I saw that you were photographed for the latest issue of Rolling Stone, what was that like?
It was weird… we don’t consider ourselves models or anything like that. Me and Cameron, we did the shoot, it was fun. They tried styling us but it didn’t really work… they gave us a bunch of clothes and Cameron put three different collared t-shirts on. I always like to keep a record of photos and press stuff, I think its really cool.
You guys have a lot of tour dates coming up, so what can people expect from your live show?
The last tour, we were getting our bearings on how to play live, our new album, and we had to add a new member, so getting comfortable with that. Now performance-wise, really feeling comfortable with songs… I want to get a really nice fog machine.
Are you excited about performing at South By Southwest? It’s your second year at the festival.
I’m super excited, it’s going to be such a turn around from last year, from being broke, staying in a car, sleeping in a hard tile floor; now playing only 4 shows and they’re some of the best shows at South By, and seeing all of these awesome bands.
Here’s Smith Westerns performing “Weekend” at SXSW 2011.
Are you looking forward to opening for Wilco?
Totally excited, [especially] being from Chicago. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was my jam, I’d listen to in seventh grade with my Dad.
How do you feel when people are constantly bringing up your age?
If people want to talk about our age, it’s a fine, its a fact of our lives, you can’t lie about it, but I don’t understand why its that big of a deal. People belittle us and say, ‘they’re just a bunch of kids, they should be grateful for whatever they get.’ We’re musicians, we’ve been doing this for three and a half years. It’s cool that were young and doing it, but it shouldn’t be used in a way to say that we don’t deserve it.
How have you progressed musically in the last few years?
I only started singing three years ago… only the attention-seeking kids in grade school would sing and it totally turned me off from it. Playing in a band, you meet people, hear new music, you get inspired, you get better at playing your instrument, able to reinterpret. We’ve been on tour with some of the best bands of the last 10 years, seeing them play every night, learning from that, talking and hanging out with them. I have the greatest amount of respect for GIRLS and MGMT… two of the best bands going right now. Hanging out with those dudes makes me want to make as good of a record as possible, try to impress them.
What are your plans after this tour?
We have a break in July, and then we’re back out through January. My personal goal is to visit every continent in the next year and play there… just take it as it comes.
Any plans to go home to Chicago?
We live nowhere right now… I hope so.
Is it weird talking to friends from high school, comparing your experiences?
I talk to very few people from [high school] now, like what they’re doing and what were doing. In some ways… when were on tour, and go to a college party, like, this is what everyone does every weekend? But at the same time… its all good.