Interviewing Cullen Omori of Smith Westerns

Mike Sheffield

cullen omori of smith westerns portrait

Cullen Omori performs with Smith Westerns at our 2009 CMJ Imposition. Photo by Nate Dorr.

In 2010, Smith Westerns created more buzz than a swarm of Africanized honey bees. Moving past their initial hype as America’s Next Top Garage Act, they emerged as beautiful glam-tinted Harrison-channeling power pop butterflies, winning the hearts of doe-eyed youth and blog yuppies alike with the leak of “Weekend,” the lead track and first single off their forthcoming 2011 Fat Possum release, Dye It Blonde.

I recently got the chance to shoot the shit with frontman Cullen Omori over dying cell phones while the band stopped at rest stops and took turns driving back to Chi-town after a heap of dates tickling Canada. Our signals were weak but our conversation was an untypically relaxed one as he crossed borders and dealt with lousy, overpriced minestrone soup.

So, you’ve been on tour for a while, where has the best show been so far?

I
think in Stockholm. Stockholm was the best show we’ve ever had. It was
like the biggest show we’ve ever headlined. They just really like
American bands.

Are there any places you’re trying to play?

I want to go to Prague …to see if all the rumors about it are true.

What rumors about Prague? I actually studied there.

Ever see that movie Eastern Promises? Is it like that?

Well, it’s really beautiful, poor and corrupt.

Well,
I also thought that there are like porn sets there, where you can just
go in and bang a girl in a room and it’s free if they film it and they
put it on the internet.

I never saw that when I lived there but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Follow your heart on that one.

Yeah, I’m excited.

Do you guys feel connected to other music that’s come out of Chicago?

Like, what kind of music?

Well, there was the house scene, the hardcore and pop/punk scene of the 80s and 90s, the blues, R. Kelly, Kanye… Were you exposed to any of that growing up in Chicago?

I don’t think there’s really a lot going on currently in Chicago. I mean, we’re all fans of like, Wilco and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Did you spend much time at the venues in Chicago?

I mean, not really. I guess this would be the age that we would probably be going to more shows in Chicago, finding out about the Metro and stuff. But since we got into it so young, there are a lot of things [we didn’t get to do].

How recently did you guys graduate high school?

Like two years ago. We are [all] 19 and 20.

Was the band around in high school?

Kind of. The name Smith Westerns has been around since high school but the sounds on the last [two albums] are things that have come about more recently.

For sure, you obviously grow with your music. I was curious whether you had any local stardom when you were in high school or anything like that.

Not really. We played shows. That was cool cause out of all the kids playing music our age none of them would actually go play bars or whatever.

When did you guys meet?

Cameron’s my brother, so I met him… at birth. And we met Max in high school. So yeah, we [got together] when we were 15 or 16.

Are there any questions that you wish a journalist would ask you?

No, not really. [I’m fine with anything] pretty much as long as it’s not puff questions like “what’s your favorite color” or…

Shit! I was going to ask you about your favorite food!

Also, really uninformed interviews, those are the only things [that really get to me].

What’s the worst you’ve ever gotten from an uninformed interviewer?

People not knowing that we’re based in Chicago or I don’t know. I think everyone thinks that what they read on the internet is usually truthful and that our Wikipedia article or whatever is written by us when it’s usually not. All information online isn’t always reliable.

Hopefully I’ll be somewhere closer to the median. So, I was actually at your show in Brooklyn on Saturday when it got shot down by the cops. That’s not the first time this has happened to you?

Yeah, I guess when we come to town we just end up playing places that just get busted. That place (171 Lombardy) had hosted a rave the night before, so I think that kind of attracted the attention.

Do you guys have any opinions of authority figures or the police in general? Any past skirmishes?

No, I mean, we don’t get caught. No, we haven’t had any.

So, I read online that you guys are really tight with Girls. How did that come about?

Yeah, we’re friends with them. They contacted us on Myspace and were like, “Hey, we’re going on tour supporting the Los Campesinos!, do you guys want to be the first of the three bands? I like your music a lot.” It was JR. So then we went on tour with them. This was before their album was out or anything, and we just did about 10 shows with them and then we stayed in touch after the tour. Then when they went on their headlining tour in January, they invited us and when we needed a new drummer, we moved over to San Francisco and [lived with them].

Was there any moment in particular that it officially clicked with them?

I think that within the first few days everyone was sort of friends. But yeah, we’re friendly with them. I mean, we really respected their music so I think that helps.

The new record is called Dye It Blonde. Where does that come from? Hiding any mustaches?

No. It’s from the last song on the album, it’s called “Dye The World.” When I [first wrote] the lyrics for it, every line would be [about] dyeing the world the different colors of the rainbow. I was thinking of Michael Jackson, the way that [the lyrics of] a song like “Man in the Mirror” are all about making a change or whatever. I kind of thought it was interesting to be really Michael Jacksony. But then I wrote it down and I was “aw, this is a song that’s seven verses long for all the colors” and, you know, it just didn’t sound as good. So I [decided] “Dye it Blonde” sounded good; I think it works. For this record, we wanted to make it really timeless and I think it’s a name that doesn’t sound really 90s or 70s or 60s. It sounds pretty timeless…

Do you consider yourself a big Michael Jackson fan?

Um, no. (Laughs) The thing is, I wasn’t born in the 80s, so…I grew up with Michael Jackson being a creep. I think it is different cause a lot of people who we hang out with are a lot older, so they all like Michael Jackson ‘the pop star’ where as all I knew about him was… Michael Jackson ‘the pedophile.’ I mean, I love his music, it’s good, but it’s not like I’m a huge fan as much as I would be of other bands. It’s not the same. I wasn’t crying when he died.

So, a lot of your songs are love songs. Do you have a particular person in mind for all these songs…and if so, would you give up the whole thing just for them?

No. I mean… no. There’s no person in mind and I wouldn’t give up doing this for someone. They are songs more of wanting then love; songs that are based on this idea of trying to attain stuff that you want. And it takes the shape of a relationship, but it’s not like there’s some girl I’m crushing on or whatever.

Well, for some musicians there is. It’s rumored that Daniel Johnston, for instance, wrote every song for the same girl. But for you, it’s all basically about desire?

Yeah, it’s about pining or waiting, its not like I have a notebook with tears all over it… tear soaked pages.

How do you guys feel about the midterm election results?

I’m on tour. I haven’t really seen much about it. We’ve been in Canada too, so…

Well, even more importantly than the midterm elections, how do you feel about the ban on Four Loko?

Oh, Four Loko? I think (the ban is) dumb. I’m not particularly really into Four Loko, I just think that it’s not that bad. It’s like, I don’t understand how it can be marketed towards kids cause it tastes like shit. It’s not like you are drinking juice. It doesn’t go down like juice. You have to have some kind of stomach for it.

Is there any particular concoction you like to have before you go on stage?

I don’t know. I mean, I like Diet Coke a lot. I can tell you that I don’t want PBR from the bar…that’s not my favorite thing I like to have before I go on stage, with like fucking shit caked into the ring around the mouth piece. I can tell you that’s what I don’t want to have before I go on.

Anything else you don’t want to have before you go on?

I don’t know… an opening band that clears the room. You know?

Have you had that at all recently?

Not really. I mean, that’s something that happens all the time. I’m all about letting other people get a shot but you know, too many shots and… your time is up dude.

Do you have any bands you’re beefing with right now?

That we hate, you mean? No, I don’t know, most of the time people I meet in other bands are cooler than anyone else that I could meet. I mean, kids my age are fine, its just I think people in bands are a lot more interesting.

Aside from Girls, who would you say are some of your contemporaries right now?

I don’t know what bands we really, especially on this new record, are going to be compared to. But we like Magic Kids and we really like Yuck and, you know, Girls… we’re really good friends with Harlem. I don’t know, it’s always weird when people ask us who our contemporaries are cause then I feel like it gives everyone a license to label us and fit us into some form, you know what I mean?

Well, I thought I’d give you a chance to set the record straight.

I think that, especially with our new record, we’re trying to get away from garage rock as much as possible. I mean, garage rock is really simple and really bare and the chord progressions are bare and the melodies are good but it’s not very structurally crazy or anything. On the new record, we really made a conscious effort to make the songs a lot harder to play and over the course of touring all the time, we just got a lot better at our instruments.

Was there a particular moment things started to go well for you guys or was it more of a gradual thing?

Well, we’re driving our mom’s mini van around cause we can afford a tour manager and stuff. So it’s like, I think the reality of it is that a lot of people who like music seem to like our music but it’s still really hard to be on tour as far as we don’t have any luxuries. It’s not like when we go on tour we play to sold out rooms or anything so it’s still kind of at a (low) level, we don’t really consider ourselves taking off in the sense that a lot of our friends who play music are a lot further ahead than us.

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