Interview Smith Westerns: ‘I Didn’t Even Want To Play My Guitar’

Smith Westerns are traversing the rocky ground of album number three with ease.

Growing up isn’t always fun. Commitments, challenges and pressures suddenly dominate day-to-day living; the carefree days of youth are long gone. Smith Westerns however are taking it all in their stride. Back in 2009, they left college to release their bratty lo-fi debut; fuzz was abundant, but hiding behind it were distinctive melodies and good ones at that. A revamp on their follow up ‘Dye It Blonde’ made music fans fall hard for the Chicago band, as their gorgeous hooks were placed in the limelight alongside blasé guitar riffs. The transition was staggering, and they’re at it again with ‘Soft Will’ - their third and most mature record yet. The youthful vigour that fuelled their stompy garage rock has been transformed into a more intricate, gleaming sound.

Their most personal record to date, ‘Soft Will’ couldn’t have been as accomplished as it is without the success of its predecessor. “The more touring we did the better musicians we became,” Cullen Omori, the band’s effortlessly cool frontman, explains. “When we first started the only time we would really practice is when we would play a show,” he laughs, before adding: “I like one genre of music intensely then I move, so I think it is a mixture of us becoming better musicians and getting even more eclectic tastes.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “We were unprepared to go crazy touring and that’s what we ended up doing, so we were really burnt out,” he sighs, bitter-sweetly. “I think when we were touring ‘Dye It Blonde’, the last thing I could think about doing was recording new music. We were really exhausted.” Thankfully, once the toll from their heavy touring commitments subsided the initial ideas for ‘Soft Will’ started to flicker and bubble into life. “I didn’t even want to play my guitar and I didn’t really want to be writing music, but the first song that happened was ‘3am Spiritual’. I wrote a rough sketch of that in November then me and Max [Kakacek, guitar] spent the next eight months laying down songs.”

Retreating back to their home town was a challenge in itself. The trio - Cullen, Max and bassist Cameron Omori - were only 19 or so when they left, but when they returned a few years later they found a city that had evolved in their absence. “Coming back to Chicago and having a real stay here was definitely different because in that time period lots of local bands we had been friends with had disappeared.” Over the course of ‘Soft Will’, it’s a theme they often return to as they explore having to adapt to once again find their niche. “It was a different landscape, so finding our footing in that played a part in the songwriting process,” Cullen asserts.

Smith Westerns have consistently delivered dose after dose of heartfelt disillusionment that is instant yet endearing. Unlike a cheap one night stand, the ten tracks on this album make your heart race and knees weak, like falling in love for the first time. The value that the band place on the album being a start to finish listen is clear, a sentiment that Cullen echoes. “It is hard now because of the internet and people skipping forward to where they see the break happen, so we wanted ‘Soft Will’ to be an album that you would listen to in its entirety and enjoy it, as well as listening to the tracks alone and them still being good. It is kind of hard because of the internet and people picking and choosing what they want to hear.”

It’s apparent how much time and effort was spent nurturing ‘Soft Will’ into the record that they wanted to make. When asked what the title means, the frontman starts babbling away and apologising that he isn’t putting it into words as best as he can, such is the importance of the title and concept of the album. Quickly regaining his composure, Cullen states: “‘Soft Will’ is basically the minor convictions and promises you make to yourself at certain times. It is the changing and maturing, so the idea you have at one point in your life isn’t always a belief that you will hold. Something at the time you believe really heavily in, so lots of the songs are things I feel like I heavily believe in now, or have gone past, but at the time it was really necessary to believe in them. That is the idea of ‘Soft Will’.”

If you need evidence for this sparkling, more introspective sound, look no further than album opener ‘3am Spiritual’; its gentle origins dreamily amble by to make the flourish of lush keys and Max’s guitar solo even more rewarding. “With ‘3am Spiritual’ you have to commit to the entire song so you can put the beginning into perspective,” Cullen explains. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the immediately woozy finale ‘Varsity’. “Out of all the songs on the album I feel like it is the most immediate. There is this thing with all our songs where we try to find the right mix between wanting it to build and being a song that evolves, but at the same time something that doesn’t lose everyone’s attention.”

‘Dye It Blonde’ was a promise of vast potential that has been achieved in sensational style. Maturing may be difficult for some, but not these guys. “I guess you just make different things as you grow up,” Cullen ponders. Not many bands though have blossomed quite as vividly as Smith Westerns.

Smith Westerns’ new album ‘Soft Will’ is out now via Mom+Pop / PIAS Cooperative.

Taken from the July 2013 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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