Dang, Young Whippersnappers
By Arrissia Owen-Turner
It’s not easy being an American rock star. As soon as you drop your sophomore release and critics slobber all over it, you’re opening for bands like Wilco, MGMT and Belle & Sebastian making the buzz hum louder.
Then it’s time for the anticipated European release of the songs you’ve been playing nonstop since the day they dropped. Europe gives its approval, and you’re looking into a loaded tour schedule and already feeling the pressure of what’s next.
“The music is all we think about,” says Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori about the Chicago band’s recent rise in the music world and the impending pressure. The release of the band’s Fat Possum debut, Dye It Blonde, in January set the ball in motion after a few years of Internet hype spawned from some initial tracks uploaded to MySpace.
“I am fine with that,” Omori says about heightened expectations, verbally shrugging it off. “It’s not pressure. It’s what I would do anyway. I can’t imagine what I would do if I wasn’t doing this.”
On the heels of Dye It Blonde’s early success, the quartet——made up of Omori’s brother Cameron on bass, Max Kakacek on lead guitar and a drummer from their rotating cast——is feeling antsy to do more, but is trying to slow down and take everything in.
“It makes me want to write more and make an even better album next time,” Omori says. “I don’t want to disappoint.”
The young band has played with established acts, learning as they go. “There is a certain aspect of watch and learn,” Omori says. “We are being really inspired by the success that can happen by people who take music seriously, and inspired by the quality of the talent we get to witness on tour.”
Seeing other professional musicians who have many years, even decades, behind them helps motivate Smith Westerns to stay the course—despite the highs and lows that accompany life on the road.
“That has been melded into our persona,” Omori says. The time spent in tour vans and sound checking has helped make them better musicians, he says, which in turn leads to bigger gigs. “It’s very much a validation that our hard work is paying off.”
The end result is thanks to the band sticking to its, er, guns. Smith Westerns was no pushover when it came time to record Dye It Blonde, not even faced with a new label wanting more of the same from its Nuggets-heavy, 2009 self-titled release.
“We didn’t want a ton more production value,” Omori says. “We wanted to make it sound clear but in a way that wouldn’t suck–clean, but very disconnected.” They enlisted producer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio; Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs) to pursue their vision. The result is a graduation from glammy, garage rock recorded in a basement to their bigger-sounding, dreamy indie pop.
When the band expressed its ambitions, the label supported them all the way. “They were like, ‘Whatever you need we will work with you,’” Omori says. It paid off.
The results are songs like the anthem “All Die Young,” reminiscent of post-Beatles John Lennon. The most unusual track stands out not because of its musical merits so much as the back story. “Imagine Pt. 3” is a remake of a song released on a split 7-inch in April 2010. The band essentially covered itself.
“It was like a sketch,” Omori says about the song’s first incarnation. “We wrote that a month after the album came out in 2009. We were excited about where we were going to go next with our sound.”
The first version of “Imagine Pt. 3” next to the Dye It Blonde version shows the band’s growth like height notches in grandma’s kitchen. The updated version is tighter, lusher in its execution. The result is a dreamier version that Coady helped the band reconstruct.
So what’s next? “We’ve had a very good year,” Omori says. “People assume we have this huge ambition, but it’s not really like that. It’s the small things, like playing a show and having a musician you respect show up. I don’t have my heart set on winning a Grammy or anything. I am much more realistic than that.”
But he can still imagine the possibilities.
Smith Westerns with Yeasayer and Hush Hush at The Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sun, May 22, 8PM. $20. All ages.