From left to right: Cameron Omori, Max Kakacek, and Cullen Omori. Photo credit: Sandy Kim
Storm clouds are creeping over Manhattan as the Smith Westerns, sitting around a chic room in the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, joke about being young.
"Everyone is amazed by our age," says Cullen Omori, 21. His two other band members—brother Cameron Omori, 23, and friend Max Kakacek, 22—chime in and agree. They're sick of being labeled as teens. They're sick of being told they have a lot to learn. They're sick of being put in a box.
But the fact is, people are amazed with these three longhaired dudes because they've been so damn prolific while being so damnyoung. Today, the group releases their third studio album, Soft Will, a pleasant collection of guitar indie rock that recalls jangly Elvis Costello melodies and the dreaminess of Kurt Vile. The album follows 2011's Dye It Blonde, the record that made them darlings of the quirky independent music world, and 2009's self-titled debut, an album they released while they were still doing algebra problems in high school. Noisey caught up with the youngins last week as they were in New York prepping for the record release, and chatted about everything from Midwest thunderstorms to Yeezus.
Noisey: Like every piece of press written about you is like, "Oh my god! These guys are young!" Is that annoying?
Cameron Omori: At this point we are over it. Everything that is written about our age or says teenager doesn’t reflect our band anymore—if it ever really did—because we were all in the last year of our teens, being 19, when our first record released. The only thing that I ever had a problem with regarding the teenage thing is I feel like "teenage" is synonymous with being inexperienced or shitty. Like, it's good for being a fucking teenage high school band or something. There was this inferred meaning from people trying to say that we just stumbled upon it when, really, we spent all this time working really hard and we knew what we were doing. It is not like we were just taking shots in the dark or something.
In the defense of those questions, it is probably weird creating art while you change so much between the ages 18 and 22.
Cullen Omori: Everything for us has always been a trial by error. It is hard because you are going through the most formative parts of your life—where your opinion really changes every couple months. What you say in one interview is not the same opinion like six months later. It's hard because we are not like anyone else our age making music, because they're usually super popular, so they have handlers. We don’t have handlers. It's very much a raw process of trail and error. That is how it has been musically, in interviews, in everything.
I struggle listening to guitar music these days. Do you feel like indie rock has gotten stale?
Cullen Omori: The music cycle always goes from guitar to electronic back to guitar. In the early 2000s, it was Interpol and the Strokes. Those were like the coolest bands. Eventually, it will circle around, but I feel like it is important that we learn to play music and write songs while listening to both old and new records. We listen to a lot of guitar rock. We make guitar rock. Everyone knows what the guitar is supposed to sound like. The listener knows already what it can sound like, so it's your responsibility to make something new out of that.
When you have, like, Kanye West, or some electronic band, they are using software and equipment and you don't expect to know what it sounds like. You could basically play a chord and it is being run through all of this shit so it sounds like mission control Mars take off. We aim for something that is more timeless and more carrying the torch.
How do you feel Chicago has played a role in your sound?
Cameron Omori: It's really important. In New York or LA, new bands can get a lot of attention right away. The couple of years we were just in Chicago playing house shows helped us get better. We didn't have a platform where people could just see us fail, and were able to build what we wanted to represent. With each record we do the same thing. We keep building. We have an image and a sound we can try and get across. We can work on it instead of having everyone look at you.
What was it like touring throughout that time? You played something like 160 shows on one tour.
Cullen Omori: In like 2009, we quit school and we all got in a van and went on tour for like a month. It ended up being like 3 months of us staying in San Francisco, and did a really slummy tour. We went to Europe and were surfing couches everywhere and ate at the gas stations. For the Dye it Blonde tour, we finally got to the point where we able to headline and play for a bunch of people. But we were doing it so often, when we got back from tour, we were like, "Oh, let's write a new album," because we were just kind of exhausted. Just burnt out. You go from doing something as kids, something you do because you don’t want to get a job and then it becomes a thing where you have to play the same 10 songs every night.
It becomes a job.
Cullen Omori: Yeah. For the most part it was a positive thing because it made us way better musicians. As far as crazy tour stories go though, I mean I don’t want to get too… just, like, vomiting.
Cameron Omori: I mean that is what everyone was doing in college.
You essentially had your own "college" on tour.
Cameron Omori: You would go to the show and you couldn’t drink. So every like third show they wouldn’t card you so that was the night to get so shit face. It was always in the south. In the south they didn’t give a shit so most of our favorite touring spots are down in Memphis and stuff.
Who would drink the most?
Cameron Omori: Probably Max
Max Kakacek: Yeah, probably me.
Cullen Omori: He was in it for the long hall. I am like the sprinter.
Cameron Omori: It is weird now that we can drink, now we can all go to the bar.
Cullen Omori: We, like, grew up in a bar. We spent like the last five years in a bar.
Being from Chicago, have you guys heard the new Kanye West album yet?
Max Kakacek: Yeah, I have heard it. I thought our release date was great because there was not a lot of music coming out. And then Kanye West decides to drop Yeezus.
Do you consider him a Chicago guy? What do you think of the Chicago hip-hop scene?
Cullen Omori: It’s weird. It is definitely not one of those things where, like, I’m really good friends with Chief Keef and we smoke blunts all the time. But I feel like that music is cool. But [the press] makes Chicago seem like some kind of a war zone. I mean, Chicago has crazy gun problems. Everyone is getting shot. With where we lived, if you go south and west, there's the heroin and crack epidemic. That's the thing about Chicago, too. It is the Midwest, and it is the clean downtown, and places are super nice. Then you go to those other parts and it is a really, really, really shitty. I don’t think it is good. I know some people think that perception is making Chicago out to be a shitty ass place, but I feel like it something that should be talked about.
Max Kakacek: It is scary.
Cullen Omori: There are parts where it's houses and brownstones and flats, but then you go down the block and the buildings are, like, destroyed with 15 dudes hanging out, corner boys or whatever. It's weird. It is also weird because it is all of these college kids who love Chief Keef, then buy drugs from him.
As a Chicago resident, do you think the public isn't taking the realities you're talking about seriously enough?
Cullen Omori: Music dramatizes it, I think. Most of the time it is going to dramatize it instead of shed a light to it.
Eric Sundermann likes to listen to the Smith Westerns when it's sunny. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy