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Smith Westerns Mellow Out Before Blasting Off

Kicking back with the Chicago indie trio before their summer tour

Cullen Omori, Max Kakacek and Cameron Omori of Smith Westerns (from left)
Sandy Kim
June 20, 2013 3:20 PM ET

Cullen Omori has been stoned all day. A busy night lies ahead: The Smith Westerns singer is hoping to whip up a killer gumbo and then, if all goes according to plan, stock his newly minted "smoking room" with the early-Nineties action figures he's recently become obsessed with. Right now, though, he's ready to spark up again.

"Go easy – this stuff is pretty heavy," he warns, sliding a mini-glass bong snugly packed with choice buds across a table in the living room of his messy, college-style Chicago walk-up apartment. Omori's pet fish, Little Pig, looks on from his murky tank.

The 23-year-old frontman and his bandmates brother Cameron Omori, 21, on bass, and longtime friend Max Kakacek, 22, on guitar finished recording their third studio album, Soft Will, last October. Save for a pair of Coachella gigs in April, life for the three longhaired musicians has resembled one long, hazy weed nap since then. The daydream ends next month, when they head out on a nationwide tour behind the new album.

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Today, Cullen woke up, checked some trashy tabloid websites The Daily Mail and Perez Hilton are two of his favorites and messed around with a guitar that he recently outfitted with a marijuana-themed pick guard. Cameron overslept, the result of an up-'til-3:00 a.m. bender playing Candy Crush on his iPhone. Kakacek, the most put-together of the three (if only by process of elimination), had already met a friend for coffee and a chicken salad sandwich by mid-afternoon; he even found time to stop by the bank to withdraw some money for the early-Eighties Jeep Wrangler he wants to buy.

Playing in Smith Westerns is the only job these guys have ever known. Their Nuggets-inspired 2009 debut, recorded while all three were in high school, caught the attention of a handful of influential music blogs; their slightly glossier follow-up, 2011's Dye It Blonde, made them indie darlings.

After a year of touring behind Dye It Blonde, including high-profile opening gigs for Wilco and Arctic Monkeys, Smith Westerns returned home to Chicago in early 2012. Cullen moved into an apartment with Kakacek in the hipster-friendly Logan Square neighborhood; he later moved down the streeet to his current place, where he lives with his girlfriend. Cameron is still figuring out his plans, so he moved back in with his and Cullen's parents in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Sauganash.

"It was the first time since 2009 that we had this huge gap of time," Cullen recalls of their life after the Dye It Blonde tour. After an enjoyable stretch spent doing nothing, the trio got back to writing new songs; last summer, they headed out to Sonic Ranch Studios in El Paso, Texas, to record Soft Will with returning producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio). Adds Cullen, "It was nice to get out and go to this weird, isolated place."

On most days, the trio holed up in the studio from mid-afternoon until the early morning hours. New drummer Julien Ehrlich, formerly of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, joined them for the sessions – the first time they'd recorded with a full band. Cameron recalls the sessions' loose, freewheeling vibe: "I feel like Dye It Blonde was the [album] where there was a little more pressure. This one was a lot more fun."

Soft Will suplements the band's Big-Star-style power-pop with more complex arrangements and lush orchestral melodies. Cullen says he looks to the Clash for inspiration on how to evolve. "You listen to their first record and it's almost unlistenable," he says. "Then you listen further down and it's like, 'Whoa – this is, like, straight-up, really, really poppy, catchy, well-crafted music. I like that."

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