The album was inspired by dark times for the LA-based musician, but taps into a rich seam of anthemic Brit-rock
The drums that thud before Liam Gallagher’s vocal at the start of ‘Live Forever’ are unmistakeable. Cullen Omori pats his ringed fingers on the table, keeping time. “Yeahhhhh!” he drawls. “I love Oasis, man.”
Whoever chose this on the jukebox in the crummy pub we meet in at the end of a busy day of press for Omori must have a sixth sense. Not only is ‘Definitely Maybe’ his favourite Oasis record, but its third single starts blaring out just as he’s revealing his obsession with Californian singer-songwriter Judee Sill, who was signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records and died of a drug overdose in 1979. These and other similarly dark thoughts have dogged the former Smith Westerns singer for the past couple of years. It’s all a long way from immortality.
“She didn’t want to open for any band, she just wanted to headline,” he says, distilling her latter days in the music industry. “Everyone forgot about her and 10 years later she just OD’d in North Hollywood, near where I live now in Laurel Canyon. The obituary didn’t even mention the music.”
More than that, there are some reports that say the singer, who drew on religious themes for her music and endured a turbulent personal life, had become so obscure when she died that no obituary was ever written.
Why is this relevant to the former Smith Westerns singer, who this week follows up his 2016 solo debut ‘New Misery’ with The Diet, his second record for Sub Pop? Well, because he fears the idea of suffering a similar fate.
This Chicago kid with the tousled mop and ratty clothes is not here to glamourise drugs or death, merely to reveal what can happen when a musician falls through the cracks and misfortune descends.
Straight after ‘New Misery’ came out, the van Cullen bought to drag him and his band up and down the United States on tour blew up at the Canadian border. They persevered in a rented car until one night everything inside was stolen. Tour ruined, he parted ways his both manager and booking agent, and when he pulled himself together to play in Europe a while later, the girlfriend he shared a home with ended their relationship. For the ex-frontman of indie dreamboats Smith Westerns, who toured with MGMT, Arctic Monkeys and more, this wasn’t how things were supposed to pan out.
All the while, the drink and drugs that hastened the demise of his old band lurked in the background, and his ex-bandmates Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich were enjoying early success with new band Whitney.
“I went back to Chicago and beat myself up through taking drugs, everything. It felt very much like a deep personal failure,” he says. “It felt like the dream was over.”
By 2017, Cullen was happily relocated in Los Angeles, and already into a new relationship. Slowly but surely, music crept up on him again, and one night found himself playing some new jams on his acoustic.
Cullen hated the show (“It was like pulling your pants down in front of a room of people and being completely naked”) but he caught the attention of producer Taylor Locke, who invited the singer down to his Velveteen Laboratory studio in Los Feliz. There, with a merry-go-round of additional players, they would record ‘The Diet’, a collection of subverted love songs that reflects Cullen’s newfound chill. Clean, poppy and imbued with the rose-tinted nostalgia he perfected in Smith Westerns, the album melts together Britpop, John Lennon, John Cale, George Harrison, Graham Nash and the snap of ‘70s art-rock. More importantly, it could offer this vulnerable 28-year-old a shot at salvation.
He’s hardly washed up, and his sense of humour is sharp as ever, but, as we find out, Cullen Omori could sure do with a break…
How did what happened around ‘New Misery’ affect you?
“It was very helpful, it shaped me to be much more humble and have a better perspective. The music is a part of me and it’s the only thing I do. I’m 28 years old, I have a high school diploma and the only thing I know how to do at some degree of difficulty is music. It’s a weird skill to have, it translates to one thing and that’s making records. If you don’t have that opportunity then you’re fucked. Luckily Sub Pop doubled down on me.”
How did they react to what happened?
“The owner drove me personally to the airport when the van broke down and paid to get me back to Chicago. They were trying to lessen my freak out saying the same thing happened to Nirvana in 1989, they’d run through all these vans. They’re in a position to support music they like.”
So how did The Diet come about?
“My vibe was inward, and I wasn’t even planning on making another record until I was approached by the guy who produced it. My thing for what a good song should be is if I play it on acoustic guitar or piano and sing it and you like it, that’s a good song, without all the fucking bells and whistles. I wanted to do something organic, not revisionist; I was able to be a bit more subtle with what I was putting in. It’s like a painting, there are different parts you can analyse.”
How was the studio process?
“There’s a DIY quality to it. You’re in this hub where everyone is excited about what you’re making; it makes it a better atmosphere. Recording was healthy, but things fell apart in the mixing. A musician friend was doing it and he ended up crashing my car and breaking my computer and it was a disaster. It’s a good story and I love him to death, but that made everything change. We had to get someone else to mix it via email because I had no money left. That took four months and in that time things started unravelling… I was falling into old habits.
But you pulled it round in the end…
“Partying alone and going down a path that gives you control over your situation, you know how you’re gonna feel when you drink or do any drug. That gives you control in a world that’s chaos, otherwise you’re floating in the breeze. But I feel like I made a good album and upped the ante.”
What would the ideal reception be for you?
All I want to do is be able to play to people that the record means something to and have them enjoy the show. To be able to eat and drink what I want and have enough money so if I get cancer I can afford the medicine that the US wont give me unless I have enough money for it. That’s honestly all I want! This is something I did as a kid and am now doing as an adult.
Who is the music for?
In San Francisco on the last tour, a kid said to me my music really helped him when he had depression. People will say it’s cheesy, but this is a small cult thing, that’s important to me because that’s real. You can lose track of that when you start playing bigger shows – the kids who beat you up in high school are there listening to your music.
What’s it been like to go straight from high school into being in a band and then dealing with it breaking up?
“There are times where I’ve asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ In Smith Westerns we thought, ‘Are we fooling people?’ Once it did well it was like, ‘Why not?’ You fall into it. We weren’t popular enough to have a handler to take care of shit, like Justin Bieber. When I was wasted and drinking a bottle of red wine a night and whisky onstage and saying the dumbest shit, it’s because I was 19. You go from that to drugs, and no one’s saying, ‘No, get that shit out of here.’ That’s why things fell apart, eventually.”
Did you ever feel like a cliché?
“I don’t think we were successful enough to be a cliché! It wasn’t like we were super-popular, on the radio and TV all the time. It was a weird internet music indie bubble. You walk around and no one gives a shit who you are, then you walk into the right room and everyone knows. It’s a cult thing and you can get drunk on it and become an asshole on it. Now I’m hyper aware of it, I have done it long enough, I’ve seen people quit, seen people keep going, sometimes it’s disheartening sometimes it’s good. It’s almost like being an athlete.”
“I keep doing music and keep being in situations that ruin my body, but I do it because I want to keep playing music. Check my kidneys and liver, they’re probably like an 80-year-old’s! I do this because I love it and it’s the only thing I want to do. I’m competitive, anyone who plays music and says they’re not is bullshitting. You have to have a competitive spirit to keep being creative. Maybe being competitive consumed me in the past, but now it’s more of an even keel, I see what other people are doing musically and that makes me competitive, not which venue they’re playing or what TV show they’re on.
It sounds like it’s been tough to get to a point where a second solo album was realistic…
“For a long time, picking up a guitar was a point of pain. I was either obligated or feeling, ‘Why aren’t I writing stuff that’s connecting with people?’ When I did it for this record it was for me, selfish as it is. If I was going to do this after what happened with the last record and eat shit and eat more shit, I was going to make songs I like. This album is like reading my diary. I can have a real conversation with someone who likes it. I used to think you needed conflict to be a good musician, all my favourite artists have been addicted to drugs or had terrible lives, so I went in search of that. What happened was I got it all times two, especially with the relationship stuff. It’s a story, but it doesn’t change the music, that needs to be there regardless. That’s where I’m at now, I feel a lot wiser and healthier and more aware… If it fails it fails, at least I’ll fail beautifully.
We heard Oasis when we sat down, and you’ve toured with Arctic Monkeys. What can you learn from bands like that?
“In some ways, how I acted in Smith Westerns was very similar to Oasis. With my brother Cameron in the band I felt very connected to Liam and Noel, and that Beatles-y, but harder sound, too. Liam defined a whole era of British music; he was a marker, raw and punk. With the Monkeys, they had figured out a way to be on tour. We were all raucous and trying to get wasted and they came and partied some nights, but they were very much the way a band has to be to succeed long-term. Al and all those dudes are fucking rock stars. We’d hang out after the show and it was tangible. I had to try and fail before I got to where I wanted to be.”