It’s been a busy year for Smith Westerns. Luckily, with their respective ages barely reaching into the 20s, they group’s members had plenty of energy to meet all the opportunities that have presented themselves since the release of their critically acclaimed sophomore effort, “Dye It Blonde.”
The Chicago-based, indie-rock band has made the most of that buzz, touring with the likes of Wilco, Yeasayer and Yuck, and making the European festival circuit through August, showcasing their glam-meets-garage sound to global audiences.
Before heading down to Austin City Limits, Smith Westerns pull into Norman’s Opolis for a 9 p.m. show tonight with Norman’s own Evangelicals. Front man Cullen Omori took time to chat with Oklahoma Gazette about The Windy City, David Bowie and how EPs are for wusses.
OKG: 2011 has really been kind to you guys; what moments from this year standout as the biggest highlights?
Omori: The first tour we did, we were playing really small rooms and thought no one was going to come. We’d played them after our first album with not too many people showing up, then we came back the second time, and they were all sold-out. That was great.
Playing Lollapalooza … it’s a hometown crowd, and we were playing against Foster the People and thought everyone was going to go over there. But it was a great crowd and a great show.
OKG: You got to open for fellow Chicago band Wilco. What was it like, supporting modern-day icons like that?
Omori: We’ve done a lot of supporting; I consider ourselves to be a supporting band, which is a mixed bag, but you get some really cool things. It’s one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.
We hung out a couple of times actually, and we were talking about where they live in Chicago and where they practice. Turns out, it’s really close to where we practice. For us, we don’t encounter a lot of Chicago bands, so that was cool for us.
OKG: Did they have any words of wisdom for you guys?
Omori: We just watched and learned. We’ve always been really interested in what you can do with production and how you can really change how things are played live by bringing a lot of guitars along with you. Their live show is obviously super-seasoned.
OKG: “Dye It Blonde” came out early in the year, and even then, it already had people saying it would be one of the best albums of the entire year. What was it like to have that album so well-received so quickly?
Omori: It felt really good. At the time, I didn’t think what we made was much of a risk, but looking back … I hadn’t listened to the first album in so long, but that jump was huge. Now, I think that was a risk. I thought people would have hated that record, and we would have lost what following we had. I wasn’t optimistic with it coming out in January; I thought people might miss out on it, but people are still discovering it, which I think is all you can ask for.
OKG: Was it something you sensed while recording?
Omori: I think when we were in the studio, we had the idea that we could only go up from where we were and that we had songs that, even as rough demos, were better than our first record. Also, at the time, the approach was overdoing every song with instrumentation, and we weren’t hearing things like that coming out. We did think it would open up to an audience even more so than the first record.
OKG: Your debut was a really strong one, but you seemed to grow by leaps and bounds going into this one. To what do you guys tend to attribute that?
Omori: It was a matter of becoming better musicians through playing all the time. Touring has a big effect on you as a musician. You are surrounding yourself by music, in the van and sound-checking and playing the show. We gained better sense of musicianship and were able to see bands we liked perform and observe them. Seeing all those friends rise up gives you a new ambition to do really well and make records people really like.
OKG: What would you say you are proudest of concerning that record?
Omori: I’m proud of “Weekend,” because when we wrote it, it was a throwaway song. For some reason, people like that song better than anything else on the record, which I don’t understand. I don’t know why, but I’ll take it.
You can download “Weekend” and listen to “Dye It Blonde” in its entirety for free at the band’s website.
OKG: I know T. Rex and David Bowie are some of your biggest idols. Do you think this album was a clearer nod to that?
Omori: Those, among other power-pop bands, were the first songs we learned to play on guitar. That always has an effect on your songwriting, ’cause that’s what your drawing out of, but for that record, I was more interested in writing a song that was really classic, but not generic. If you strip songs to their bare bones, there’s a generality between them — something that could be sung by someone in ’90s or ’70s. It’s just about how you fill it in, and for me, it was about writing the classic pop song. For us, that’s keeping in mind how we learned to play music, but not the only deciding factor of how we made it sound.
OKG: There wasn’t much time between your debut and “Dye It Blonde” in terms of release dates. Do you see yourselves getting back to recording another follow-up equally quick, or will there be more time in between?
Omori: Our touring schedule ends in November, and I’d like a new single out by December or January. I’d rather be one of the bands that gets to make whatever they want, because they release something once a year. If one album sucks, you’ve still got the next one coming quick. That’s something that isn’t as popular anymore. Bands put out an album every three or four years, but their whole career rides on that album. But I don’t want to release EPs; that’s almost too safe. We’re an album band, so I’m planning to release another record in the spring or fall … depending on if we want to change our sound again.
OKG: In what ways do you see the band growing and evolving from here?
Omori: We don’t want to make the same record. Ever. That’s why it’s taken us a little while to write the next record. I could sit down and write 10 songs just like “Dye It Blonde” in a couple of hours, but I don’t want a formula to our music. I want a formula per record. —Joshua Boydston