It’s early on a Friday morning and Cullen Omori is outside his Chicago apartment smoking the first of several cigarettes. It’s cold and he has nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. Cullen’s well used to days like this one. In December 2014 his band, cult indie trio Smith Westerns, broke up leaving the 25-year old feeling bored and aimless one day, morose and insecure the next. “It got pretty dark at times,” he says, puffing out his cheeks. In between occasional cleaning shifts at a hospital, he struggled to find the confidence to work on new songs and couldn’t kick drug and alcohol habits picked up over five years on the road. Unqualified to do anything else, he questioned everything. Smith Westerns had been his life – he didn’t know it any other way.
The band formed as arty punks obsessed with the ‘60s psych they discovered on Elektra Records’ Nuggets compilations. Cullen and guitarist Max Kakacek were 17 and his bass-playing brother Cameron was 16. They dropped out of education to tour two years later, scoring support slots with Girls and MGMT and later The Vaccines and Arctic Monkeys. While their friends went to university and got jobs, they became Chicago’s indie darlings, travelled the world and made three albums – 2009’s self-titled debut, 2011 career best ‘Dye It Blonde’ and 2013’s stately ‘Soft Will’ – finessing their glammy licks and Britpop-flavoured choruses with each one.
Smith Westerns seemed to take cool to the extreme. Their fringes flopped like Brett Anderson’s, their interviews were often jokey and detached and they wore saucer eyes and curled lips as well as they did torn denim and scuffed boots. Their records evoked youth and discovery, a sexed-up American teenage dreamland soundtracked by guitar solos and chord changes that smacked you in the guts just as hard as Cullen’s wasted lyrics.
But their final album, 2013’s ‘Soft Will’, didn’t connect as they’d hoped and they finished touring it feeling dejected. They took a year off, but that led to musical differences between songwriters Cullen and Max that couldn’t be reconciled and Smith Westerns bowed out – minus Max, who had already formed Whitney with touring drummer Julien Ehrlich – with a farewell show at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall.
Lodged in the middle of the setlist was ‘New Years Eve’, one of Cullen’s demos. Over the next year, with the help of his friends (and new backing band) Adam Gil (guitar, bass) and Mat Roberts (drums), he’d turn those demos into songs. After months of rehearsing, as Smith Westerns once had, in a Chicago basement Cullen had the skeleton of solo debut ‘New Misery’ and went to record it in New York with Shane Stoneback (Fucked Up, Sleigh Bells). Extra musicians Ryan Mattos (Cults), James Richardson (MGMT) and Ted Humphreys (Guards) helped out in the studio. Influenced by ‘80s synth groups like OMD and the druggy darkness of Spiritualized, the album – due on Sub Pop this month – is loud and dense. Outside in the wintry air, Cullen chainsmokes and tells its story, along with that of his old band’s demise.
Why did Smith Westerns end?
“We had a lot of expectations for ‘Soft Will’, and not because we thought really highly of ourselves. Before ‘Dye It Blonde’ we were a garage band, we were happy with whatever press or shows we could get, then ‘Dye It Blonde’ made it feel like we could do it for a while. Things were mostly going in an upward trajectory but it felt like we’d taken a step back… it seemed like in order to keep going it would take a huge overhaul of our attitudes. Everyone’s personalities were going in different directions, it was gonna be really trying for everyone to get in the van and be around each other for another six months. So we took 2014 off.”
Then what happened?
“We played one show in Toronto that year, that was the last one with Max. Him and Julien were making music and living together. We would still have had a fanbase if we wanted to make another record, but Max and Julien… well it was more Max’s decision. He said he wanted to record with Julien and that was fine, I had some songs I was gonna start using but I wasn’t nearly as confident as they were. Cameron and I talked about [carrying on] and it didn’t seem worth pursuing without the whole band. It was me and Max that wrote the songs so not having him be a part of it… it didn’t seem worth soldiering on.”
So you were you ready for things to stop?
“I was ready to do something else. I like it better on my own. It’s weird; you have a band or a group of people you’ve been with since high school, a lot of stuff changes, you know? I don’t think that for a lot of people the day-to-day friends they see are from high school. I mean maybe, but not in my experience.”
Have you spoken much since?
“Me and Cameron are brothers so obviously we’re close. I don’t see him as much but I’ll still speak to Max. I’m glad he’s doing Whitney and it’s obvious that if we were to make a fourth record it would have sounded awful, with him pushing in that direction and me doing what I’m doing with this record.”
Was it hard to get going on ‘New Misery’?
“Yeah. We grew up on tour – being able to party and drink or get all different types of fucked up but still having someone telling you where to be. Not having that routine anymore you definitely get into trouble. You develop habits. With time on your hands you indulge habits from tour and that can get kind of out of control.”
What impact did that have?
“A lot of… not self-pity but thinking about stuff. I don’t have a job, I could do whatever I felt like and ingest whatever I wanted because I had nothing to do. There was a lot of drinking and other stuff you do on tour that’s not good for you. You remove playing music and having shit to do and it’s still there. I would get fucked up and go to bed thinking ‘if I don’t wake I don’t care’. That’s not the main reason for this album, but it’s a part of my life I had to wrap up before I started this.”
It sounds like you’re singing about drugs on ‘Cinnamon’
“Yeah that’s what it’s about. I’m not gonna say I haven’t done my fair share of drugs but I like keeping a mystique to the whole thing. There’s a definitely a total drug vibe to the record in my mind that I would rather allude to.”
A drug vibe in what way?
“The lyrics and the way it sounds. One of my favourite parts about it is how dark the tones are, like in the way Drake or Lorde are. I like the idea of making songs as catchy as possible but with something weird on them. At this point I can’t come up with a straight up pop song. After Smith Westerns I thought it would be cool to write the cheesiest, poppiest thing possible but every time I tried it came out as weird, so I embraced that. I’m not gonna have a repetitive bonehead song because that’s technically close to what pop is now, so it’s got a little more depth. You can go back and find a tapestry of different things going on.”
In the video for ‘Cinnamon’ you burn some Smith Westerns posters, why?
“It was a total joke. The whole idea had a certain amount of cheese to it. It isn’t a dig at Max or Cameron. It’s a low budget video like Axl Rose would have made if he’d got thrown out of Guns N Roses or something. I feel like with videos in Smith Westerns we were afraid of having our image fucked with or not looking cool. I wanted to make something funny and stylish that didn’t take itself too seriously.”
You referred to yourself as a ‘piece of shit’ recently, is that what you really think?
“I definitely relate to that statement. This record was made after the infrastructure of Smith Westerns had gone to shit. Because the band happened directly out of high school I didn’t have time to build my personal identity. When we were in disarray I took that a lot more personally than I should have. I was left as someone who is 25 that had this experience, I’m not saying it was bad, it was cool and great but I don’t have any money, it’s not like I can take off and retire. I feel no better off emotionally or physically, if anything I’m worse off.”
“I couldn’t say, ‘Oh time to go use that degree I have’. I was exactly where I started six years before, with no direction or idea what to do next. I started ‘New Misery’ like, ‘Right, time to make a record and get back to basics’. I didn’t even know if I was going to keep making music or if the early songs were worth it. But I started writing again and they were.”
Whose basement did you record in?
“Adam Gil, my drummer’s. He has a studio under his parents’ apartment and they brought us down whatever they were having for dinner. That was cool. He can record really well. I can record myself decently now but Max used to do it all so I had no idea. That meant I could experiment with whatever I wanted to do, I could see for myself if it didn’t work.”
Have you changed as a musician?
“I surprised myself. I couldn’t play bass or piano or drums before this and now I kind of can. What might have taken me 10 minutes to figure out in Smith Westerns now takes hours of noodling around. I don’t think the saying about the first thing that pops into your head being the best really applies here. I was finding myself, moving around in the dark. It worked. I recorded so much before I got to the studio and arrived on the first day with a folder with dividers for each song with everything mapped out, tabbed out parts and chord sheets. The joke was, if I died Shane could just finish it himself.”
Thankfully you’re still around to see it through!
“Yeah! For a year after the band stopped I didn’t listen to anything. I didn’t want to go on tour. After the second year I definitely missed being able to travel. I played the first solo show last October with no music released and no hype and the venue was packed. People were really responsive, it encouraged me to do more!”