When Smith Westerns first broke big in 2009, a lot of lip service was paid to the surprise that these teenagers—these ramshackle teenagers, with their recently obtained high school diplomas and floppy haircuts and wan smiles—somehow making music that adults wanted to listen to. Their first two albums felt like teenage albums, yes, as frontman Cullen Omori sang a lot about love, in the coy manner of boys just having fun in lieu of doing anything more serious.
But their newest album, Soft Will, is a true evolution, layered with lush moving parts as Omori, brother Cameron and guitarist Max Kakacek have turned their attention toward the naturally-occurring thematic touchpoint of growing older and figuring out your place in the world—a typical coming-of-age experience, but lent extra weight through their blend of sonic nostalgia, drawn deeply from Britpop and the Beatles and Big Star, and the kind of invention that comes from absorbing influences over time and synthesizing them into something original. More than a record that conveniently sheds the “teenage” narrative, it’s one that leads you to imagine a lengthy, productive career for the band—because anyone capable of writing songs as cinematic and moving as “Varsity” and “3am Spiritual” without the buzz cycle’s eye of Sauron transfixed on them is ready to settle in for the long run. Yeah, their Facebook still lists their band interests as “Pu$$y & Weed.” Growing up is a process.
Compared to Dye It Blonde, the new album has a whole transitional sound to it—not just in the actual music, but in what you guys are singing about.
Cullen: Dye It Blonde was super unexpected in the way that everyone reacted to it and the way we were able to tour on it. We did all this touring and went all over the place and traveled, and after that experience we came back to Chicago and had a ton of time to reflect and decompress and really we had nothing to do. We went from this state of go-go-go to nothing, so we kind of ended up writing slower, more reflective songs just because that was what we were doing literally everyday.
For the first two records I used a classic love song medium and wrote about what I wanted and needing things and pining over things. For Soft Will there’s this idea of coming back from touring and playing music—something we always love to do—but being so burned out from it.
When you say the reception to the second album being unexpected, what do you mean by that?
Cullen: It took us a long, long time to get support to get it produced. We dropped out of school in 2009, went on tour with Girls; it was supposed to be a month-long tour but ended up being four months of us sleeping on couches in San Francisco, doing SXSW, going to Europe, doing this every single night on $150 of support. We finally got support from a label to make a record and we were kind of just like, “Let’s go for it, this is our chance to do something.” It turned out to be a stepping stone more than a last chance.
You guys are from Chicago, but was there any other reason you decided to go back there opposed to anywhere else?
Cullen: It’s our home; it’s easier to be there; it’s like a homebase. The idea that Chicago has always been a place where you can do your own thing and it’s not like everyone’s watching what everyone else is doing and trying to outdo them. It’s a good place to write and retreat. We all live in the same area and don’t see anyone else. And I like the idea of being a Chicago band, I think that’s cool. It wasn’t like we ever wanted to come to Brooklyn and start some band in a warehouse or whatever.
I’m from Chicago myself and the sense I always got there in the last few years is that all the rock bands that are playing there are really noisey and atonal and it sort of exists outside of the conventional Pitchfork indie rock stuff. Did you guys sense any difficulty coexisting with that?
Cullen: When we started making music we got picked up by Todd Killings of Hozac and he found us off of Myspace. We started playing some shows at, like, Reggie’s Rock Club to no one on a Monday night. From the time when we first started to when we started touring nationally we were a part of that whole house show, backyard show thing, then when we left and came back after Dye It Blonde it seemed like that had grown a whole lot more. I guess there is that whole noisy, punk kind of music, but our band kind of exists in that too—like The Orwells, Twin Peaks. There’s definitely a lot of different scenes or pockets but I don’t think any of them hate each other.
Funny you mention The Orwells—a friend of mine interviewed them last week and texted me saying it’s this group of 18-year-olds and they name dropped you guys as one of their primary influences. You started out as a teenage band too. How do you feel about growing into that influence stage?
Cameron: It’s really cool. I think when you make an album or something you want it to be more than just the year you tour on, you want it to be something that people connect with. To have bands that are doing well reference us is cool.
There was an often repeated narrative with each of your first two albums. The first one was like, “Look at these teenagers who made a bunch of noisy garage music” and the second one was “They discovered Britpop and now they have producers.” Reading interviews it seems like you guys are caustic to being pigeonholed like that. For this third record did you feel any natural reaction to continue pushing back against that?
Cullen: I think early on we definitely got pegged as this ‘teenage garage rock drink a thousand beers and fuck shit up’ band, and I feel that’s not an accurate description of who we are now, or really at that time. For this record the teenage aspect should be stripped from it; I don’t think it’s something that has any bearing on this record. Everyone wants to look for something to help categorize it or whatever. We’re happy as long as someone’s listening.
What’s the process for putting a song together in general?
Max: Usually it starts when one of us has a sketch.
Cameron: One of us either has part of a song in chords or a whole song in chords and then we pass it along to each other. Then, we have a weird kind of demo recording in the basement that slowly evolves. Cullen then works on the melody after there are some sparse arrangements on it and then we’ve basically finished writing all the parts for the song and then we take it to the studio when it’s pretty much done.
Cameron: You just elaborate on it from there. But it takes a long time. Usually if I’ll have a song or Max has a song it takes a month and a half to get it. And that’s us working hard, if we’re not working it takes like two, three months…
Cameron: And it’s also one of those things where you censor yourself. There’s bands that write thirty songs and then they cut them down from there…But I think we’ve always been hyper critical on each other to the point where, what you want to bring to show to everyone, you want it to be the best song you could write at that time. And that’s why it takes us a while for us to get a song but the songs that we do get are exactly what we’re going to put on the record. There’s none of this, “Let’s censor ourselves”.
Given the song that would become the opener on Soft Will, “3am Spiritual,” when was the last time you guys were awake at 3 am?
Cullen: This morning, we had to fly here, so we got up pretty early. We got into town at 9 but our flight was at 5:50 so we had to wake up pretty early. And we still almost missed it. So, that was our 3 am, I haven’t been up that late in a while.
You can definitely sense a shift in maturation in the sound and perspective in the songs on this record. Looking back at your first two records and realizing where you were then versus now, do you find yourself looking back when you approach new songs as sort of a way to make yourself self-critical to check your newer impulses when it comes to chasing a new idea or sound?
Cullen: I think that when I look back at the other albums I can see that with each album I got more confident about what I wanted to sing about. When we first started out I think it was purely about making music. As it went along, when you play shows or when you see your album do well, it’s probably one of the most inspirational things. As cliché as that sounds, it’s really inspirational because you’re getting direct feedback. So I think it made me more confident in a lyrical standpoint. Early on in our debut record we were doing kind of jokey, ‘hold your hand’ songs as an homage to the tradition of writing songs like that. With Dye It Blonde there’s a leap there, and in Soft Will there definitely was a leap where I felt more comfortable without using a love song.
I think that as all three albums have progressed, there’s an intent to layer things more instead of having everything pretty much just blurred in the first album. Dye it Blonde was a little more layered but still things were less subtle and less thought out. In Soft Will there was a really intentional shift to make things more subtle and dreamier in the background and have more layers in the song.
You mentioned that you guys all dropped out of school to keep going with the band. Would this have been the upcoming year of your graduation?
Cullen: We would have graduated last year in 2012, so it’s been like five or four years.
What were you guys each going to college for?
Cullen: I was going for film. But I didn’t want to do that anymore.
Cameron: I actually went earlier this year. I went for a semester at Northwestern, and I wasn’t studying anything in particular. I just picked some classes, I took astronomy or something.
During the school year?
Cameron: During the fall in the beginning of the semester. I went there for a semester, I liked it.
What was it like getting back to the classroom?
Cameron: It was fun, it was easy.
Cullen: It was like Lil Wayne when he talks about school.
Cameron: It’s true, I don’t understand why everyone freaks about it. I thought it was kind of fun. It was nice to have a schedule where you knew exactly what you were going to be doing for the next ten weeks. I enjoyed it, it just let me kill some time.
Were you ever recognized?
Not at all, it kind of bummed me out! I don’t know man, it wasn’t a bad experience. I enjoyed it, I don’t see why people freak out about it.
I imagine having a schedule of everything you have to do everyday is vastly different from being in a band, especially when you mentioned living in San Fransisco for a while. How do you guys keep yourselves on track?
Cullen: I think that whenever there’s a pause or a breath, it’s like, “Okay, let’s start working on making something else.” I think it’s important; making these records every couple of years is almost like a habit now. I don’t think we really think of it as kind of, what are we going to do next, what’s the end track…It’s kind of one of those things where it’s like, well the last record went well, people seemed to like it, I’m still enjoying playing music, let’s make another one… It wasn’t one of those things where it’s like, our fans need this, I need to pay my mortgage or something like that, I need to pay my child support…I always like to think that we have this mentality of just one step at a time. We usually try to be reasonable and not have some crazy idea.
A friend of mine said that your new record is not nearly as good to run to as your last one, as the songs are a little slower.
Cameron: Lift to it – this is our lifting album. This is our all-over body record.
Now that you’re three albums through and this is maybe the one where it’s finally cast free of the whole teenage thing, where do you guys see yourselves going from here? What’s motivating you going forth?
Max: I don’t know, I still enjoy doing it. I think we finally have a band together. We have a drummer who is one of the first drummer who we’ve done all the songs with, we’ve performed with him, we play shows a lot better, which is always a fun thing. When you play better it’s more fun to keep doing it. We haven’t toured in a while, so going back on tour is a big thing to look forward to.
Cameron: I think it’s also taking some pride in the record that’s coming out that keeps you going. I don’t know, just enjoying the way that it’s done.
Cullen: I think it’s different every time that we sit down. As much as every band is like, we didn’t want to make a new album like the last record, we get better at envisioning what we want to do and go for it more with every record because we have the chops to do it.