Smith Westerns Mellow Out Before Blasting Off - Rolling Stone
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Smith Westerns Mellow Out Before Blasting Off

Kicking back with the Chicago indie trio before their summer tour

Smith Westerns

Cullen Omori, Max Kakacek and Cameron Omori of Smith Westerns (from left)

Sandy Kim

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.”

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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