Earlier this summer, Smith Westerns arrived at WFUV and The Alternate Side prepared to play an acoustic session of songs from Soft Will, an unplugged gesture that mirrored the subtle sonic adjustments that the rakish Chicago rockers have made since their 2009 debut.
Not that the band's latest release, Soft Will, doesn't reverberate with a certain punkish bravado, but there's a grander maturity to Smith Westerns' taut songcraft these days. Smith Westerns — vocalist/guitarist Cullen Omori, bassist Cameron Omori, lead guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich (who sat out of the FUV/TAS session) — are touring North America now and land at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Wednesday, July 24.
Watch videos of Smith Westerns in performance at FUV, below, and listen to the session on FUV Live on Tuesday, July 23, at 9 p.m. ET (also streaming) or onTAS on 91.5 WNYE on Friday, July 26, at 11 a.m. ET, also streaming online. Read highlights of Cullen, Cameron and Max's chat with The Alternate Side's Alisa Ali:
Alisa: You don’t usually do acoustic sets, so did you have to work this out a bit? Or do you wing it?
Cullen Omori: No, no, we spent time working on it. It’s different because you don’t have drums. The strum becomes more percussive. It’s something that we’ve never done; from the beginning, we’ve always played loud and electric. It’s something that appealed to us, so scaling it down is new and kind of challenging. It’s a good thing to do.
Alisa: I saw the video for “Varsity,” a very sweet, young love kind of video. Were you in that video?
Cameron Omori: None of us were.
Alisa: Cullen, you kind of look like the guy in the video a little bit.
Cullen: Because we have long hair? No, no, it’s actually a friend of ours. He did it with his girlfriend. We needed to do the video kind of quickly and I had an old friend from Chicago, Alan, and it worked out really great. I like it. I thought it was a good video.
Alisa: A lot of the songs on this record have a light, summery feel-good vibe to them. But the lyrics are more reflective and not so happy-go-lucky. I feel that the studio mix is so that the vocals are not as upfront; I feel that the guitars are much louder than the vocals.
Cullen: When we were in the studio, compared to all other albums, for us the vocals are up fairly loud. I think, of course, we like to have the guitar and other instruments be voices as well. But for us, we did a good job putting it up in the mix.
Max Kakacek: We definitely went into the studio deciding to put the vocals up and I think since all of us heard the song so many times, we all knew the lyrics, so it might have gotten lost in the music, but for us, we feel confident that the vocals are this loud.
Cameron: Plus when people come to the shows and see us live, they can pick out the lyrics they couldn’t understand on the record.
Alisa: What about the reflective, lamentative mood of the vocals versus the bouncy feel of the music?
Cullen: The lyrics are more reflective, the songs are different from the records we’ve done in the past, all in the love song medium. For us, the way we make music, I don’t think of it as a sunny thing. Most of the time we write the music is in wintertime or I’m in my room, not outside. It’s one of those interesting things when you put records out and they’re called sunshine-y. But we write in the basement.
Max: It smells like mold.
Cullen: We piece together the songs in our apartment or bedroom. I guess, as far as the lyrics becoming more reflective, we had done two records and I felt that lyrically, it was getting more confident. [I became] more confident to talk about things, so I imagine why it’s why I moved things in that direction.
Alisa: Has writing become easier for you?
Cullen: No … I think it has always stayed the same. As I write or as all of us write, you get better at playing your instrument or you have a better idea of what you want to do. As you get better, the vision gets bigger and bigger so you want to be able to create what you see. It never gets really easier, but your vision expands to what you want to do. It’s still a grind.
Traditional guitar music always had, for me, if not the most thoughtful lyrics, but iconic ones. Even when we were doing the first and second record, and there were very traditional love songs, I still spend time making them. Well, the first record not so much; I was like, let’s write it down and do it, but that was the first record and we never thought anyone was going to hear it. But for Dye It Blonde, I wanted to write more in the love song medium, and for Soft Will — after seeing the support for Dye It Blonde — it definitely gives you confidence as a musician and songwriter to do your own thing.
Alisa: Things really took off for you pretty quickly after [Smith Westerns] formed.
Cameron: That record came out three years after we’d formed. We’d been touring on it. There was no overnight success.
Cullen: There’s a difference between being blogged about or online as opposed to who comes to shows and how much you can tour. On the first record, with the debut, it took us three years [to make it] and we did it while we were all going to college. We wrote that album and it came out when we were 18 or 19. We were in our first year of college. It got picked up and people were talking about it, but it was never one of those things where we could go to any city and play a show. We weren’t getting recognized or anything. A couple of music people knew us. Dye It Blonde was really the first time where we could headline a tour and play for people. Because we had done tours where we headlined, before Dye It Blonde, and we’d play the same rooms to 20 people. The next time around there would be 300.
Alisa: You had said in 2011 that one of your big goals was to sell out Chicago’s Metro and you did that. What is your big goal now?
Cullen: When I said that, I thought it would be nice. We’ve always done it step by step. The reason we talked about selling out the Metro was because we’d played Schubas [Tavern] and sold it out. We played Empty Bottle and a couple of months later, Lincoln Hall. So we’ve always taken it on a step by step basis. If we’d formed in 2009 and said, “Let’s sell out the Metro or Webster Hall,” I don’t think it would have worked. For us, it’s always been about putting out a record, go on tour and see how people react. There’s never been that thing where we want to make a huge jump. If anything, we want to maintain where we are.
Cameron: There’s no months and months of strategy or planning behind it. It’s organic. It seems to work better. If we were to sit down and be like, “Where do we want to be," I feel like we wouldn’t be able to reach that goal if we set it.
Alisa: You have a great rapport, you’re brothers, Cullen and Cameron, and you all have been friends for so long. Initially, it was Max and Cullen and then you came in , Cameron. At that time, all three of you were taking turns?
Cameron: No, I was in the band originally!
Alisa: All three of you formed the band?
Cameron: In high school. I lived with Cullen! We did it together.
Max: Originally Cullen was drumming and we had no singer and then Cullen started to sing. To record, Cullen and I switched off on drums. But we never played live with Cullen or me on drums.
Alisa: Initially you didn’t know who the singer would be? How did it become you, Cullen?
Cullen: I guess I was the person who said, “I’ll do it.” When we first started playing, it was very much a punk thing. I was all about doing it, playing shows. As I kept doing it, I got better. I was never a singer, I never sang up to that point. I started singing when I was 16 with this band, so that was 2006. Never sang with a choir. Up to that point, the kids who sang, I thought, were the kids who wanted attention. That wasn’t me. Still isn’t me.
Alisa: So you didn’t feel apprehensive?
Cullen: It was totally a punk show. It was playing as loud as we can. When we were in high school, we wouldn’t go to high school parties; we’d go to post-college or college drop-out, pizza-and-beer record duded who’d get hammered and let us play for them. Then we’d grab the beer, listen to a lot of the records, and that influenced us a ton.
Alisa: What kind of records influenced you on Soft Will? You have an instrumental track on this record that I feel is very Pink Floyd.
Max: That was a fun thing that I wanted [to do], building instruments on instruments. An exercise in playing on this idea of making something epic, but tongue-in-cheek funny too. It’s silly that it’s on there, but fun too.
Alisa: I think it’s a lovely, orchestrated piece, actually! I don’t get the humor!
Max: It’s over the top in a certain way.
Alisa: For this record, you worked with [Grizzly Bear and Yeah Yeah Yeahs producer] Chris Coady — did you communicate with him in a different way?
Cullen: We really like working with Chris. We’d consider him a good friend. But we don’t go to the studio with a ton of songs, but with all the songs we want on the record. We also go having recorded almost the entire album in the basement where we practice. We show Chris the songs and we talk about what would be cool, what songs we can recreate and make better. That’s how we work.
Cameron: Chris is also really open to suggestions. It’s not a thing where you say you want to do something and he says, “No.” Before we go in, most of the songs are pretty much fleshed out with everything that we want in the song and then, with Chris, we figure [it out].
Alisa: So when you have the songs fully-fleshed out, were there any that were vastly different?
Cullen: For this record, no. Everything became more clear. The one song we wrote in the studio was “Varsity.” It was brought in as a demo and we worked it all out, as a band, in the studio. Looking back, when you listen to the demo, [the songs on Soft Will] are just clearer. You’re in a studio with a lot more equipment that’s more expensive than the equipment we have in the basement!