A few hours later, Smith Westerns are very much out of their element. On paper, the decision to play pool on a Monday afternoon seemed wise – few bars are open this time of day. And plus, who doesn't enjoy a nice round of baked billiards?
So here they are at the Two Way Lounge, a Logan Square hole in the wall outfitted with a lone pool table in the back. Cullen is wearing a black track jacket and matching pajama pants; Cameron sports what seems like his take on a safari guide outfit; and Kakacek is outfitted in a Rag and Bone t-shirt, metal necklace and a pair of very tight skinny jeans. A crop of local drunks perches at the bar, arguing about blow jobs. When Cameron tries to buy a beer, one unruly regular tells him, "Get the fuck out of the way."
"It's sad," says Cullen, pausing to take in the scene. "But hey, it's cool."
This isn't the first time he and Cameron have felt out of place. Their Japanese-American father works in insurance, and their Caucasian mother works at a local hospital; growing up, Cullen says, "We were white to the Asian kids and Asian to the whites."
Forming a band was the popular thing to do at Northside College Preparatory High School. As a junior, Cullen recruited Kakacek, the best musician he knew in his grade, to begin jamming together. When they needed a bassist, Cameron, one year behind in school, came onboard. "The first time I picked up a bass," he admits, "was when we decided to start a band."
The three teenagers soon began writing their own music – largely because Cullen and Cameron could never learn the covers they attempted to play. Early Smith Westerns gigs were mostly at house parties where Cullen would scream over unimpressed crowds. "Like, 'Fuck you, we're playing the show!'" he recalls. After just a year of playing together, they recorded their debut and released it in June 2009, the same week Cameron graduated from high school.
By a couple of years later, the band was selling out venues across the country. Learning how to be a proper frontman was a steep but necessary learning curve, says Cullen: "It was definitely a weird climb."
Three games of pool and as many pitchers of Bud Light later, Cullen recounts a brawl he once nearly got into at this very bar. Well, sort of. Some dude, he recalls, was hitting on his girlfriend. When Cullen politely suggested he fall back, the inebriated stranger began profusely apologizing, as if terrified of getting beaten up (which the musician says he had zero intention of doing).
Seconds after he shares this anticlimactic story, two patrons of the bar start going at each other, as if on cue. "You put one hand on her, I'll fuck you up," says one young guy to an older man, pointing toward a woman nearby. "I'll break your fucking neck!" the man snaps back. Things quickly subside, but Smith Westerns have had enough. Maybe pool wasn't the best call today, after all.
A while later, they're still trying to make sense of what just happened. "What was that?" says Cameron, laughing. They're down the street by now, relaxing on an outdoor patio at a pizza joint, splitting a "PBJ" – pizza, beer and a shot of Jameson.
Talk turns to how they'll occupy the weeks before their tour kicks off in late July. "Mostly practicing and figuring out cool things we can do to enhance the live show," says Cullen. "When we're onstage, everyone is doing multiple things. We can't be running around in a circle, doing a Bono."
Practice, it turns out, is something new for Smith Westerns: "Our practice before was playing a show," adds the singer. "We never had mikes in the basement. We would just rock out really loud, and that would be the practice."
After a final round of whiskey shots, it's time to go. "What you got going on the rest of the day?" Cullen asks his bandmates as he gets up to leave.
"I gotta head back to the bank," Kakacek replies. "You?"
"Stirring up some gumbo," Cullen says.
His brother Cameron takes a second to think about what he's about to do. Then he remembers: "I gotta call Mom to pick me up."
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