In late 2014, Cullen Omori was unsure where his music career was headed—he just knew he wouldn’t be going any further with his longtime band, Smith Westerns. He and bandmate Max Kakacek (who’s since formed the group Whitney) weren’t seeing eye to eye about songwriting, and Omori felt Smith Westerns had hit a roadblock creatively. “There was no real reason to make the band work anymore,” he says.
Smith Westerns formally broke up in late 2014, and even before the split became official, Omori had started writing the material that would form the beginnings of his solo catalog. Earlier this year he signed with Sub Pop Records, and he plans to release his first album under his own name (as yet untitled) in early 2016. He says he’s never been happier or felt more at ease with himself as a musician. “Now I can just take an idea and run with it and see what happens,” he says. “I haven’t felt as confident about my music as I do now since the Dye It Blonde era.”
Omori will perform live for the first time as a solo act in a matter of days: the singer-guitarist headlines Schubas on Friday, October 30, backed by longtime friends Adam Gil and Mathew Roberts. “I hope people want to get in on the ground floor and check it out and see where this goes,” Omori says. In this interview, he details the end of Smith Westerns, his new solo career, and the dark days in between.
Dan Hyman: How did this all come to fruition?
Cullen Omori: In 2013, Smith Westerns did Soft Will. We did all the touring and support for that—I think we went to Europe twice, and then we did a coheadlining tour with Sky Ferreira at the end of 2013. Then we took a break, and the announcement that we broke up was around maybe December of last year. Before that, the idea of Smith Westerns was that maybe we’d keep going as a band, but we’d try to do some other stuff as well. So we were always gonna take a break and then come back and reevaluate. This was the entirety of 2014.
That’s when I started working on music. But I didn’t know if it was going to be for Smith Westerns or for my own personal use. I was writing songs in the same way I’d write Smith Westerns songs: I would write a chorus progression and the lyrics and a singing melody, and then I would usually hand it off to Max. But since we weren’t working like that at the moment, I ended up filling in the blanks of what Max would normally do. As the year went on and I started writing more and more songs and finishing them myself, it became more apparent that I could do this myself and have the most amount of control over what I was going to put out in the world.
So was going solo always a possibility?
Well, I always had written songs in tandem with Max. I never really knew what writing a full song by myself would be like, or if I could even do it in a way I thought would sound good. So the first two songs I wrote without Max were something that could have been a new direction for Smith Westerns if we were to pursue it.
But as I wrote more and more songs, I started to realize that they sounded like songs that wouldn’t work for Smith Westerns. They were something I liked a lot more and had me pouring a lot more influences into it. The songs started to take a shape that was really personal to me. It was something that I didn’t want to cooperate and cowrite on. I became really attached to them to the point where I was like, “I don’t think this would benefit from having someone else work on them.” A lot of the doubt and hesitancy of being a musician and needing to work with other people faded away, and I got more and more confident writing the songs.
The dissolution of Smith Westerns was really about the incompatability between you and Max.
Yeah. Smith Westerns was always about collaboration with Max and me. And the kind of music that Max was making on his own at that time and the kind of music I was making on my own wouldn’t be compatible. It would be pulling in two opposite directions. Without Max being in Smith Westerns, it didn’t feel right to continue doing that. It’s always been about whether we were enjoying ourselves and it was fun and whether it was a positive creative outlet. There was no real reason to make it work. If it wouldn’t benefit us to collaborate, it wouldn’t benefit a listener to hear something that was so schizophrenic.
There was a time earlier this year when you were debating going back to school and putting your music career on hold.
It definitely got kind of dark for a while. I mean, there was no breather between becoming an adult and figuring out what you want to do: It was chosen for me, because we had early success with Smith Westerns. After doing Smith Westerns for seven years and then having it stop, you go, “All right, what do I do?” Other than having some records that did critically all right, what do I really have? Because I don’t have any money. It’s not like I can go live on island for the rest of my life. I’m going to have to continue working.
It also was that thing where, for the rest of my life, is what defines me going to be Smith Westerns? Is that going to be the cool thing for the rest of my life, and I’m always going to be trying to live up to that? Am I always going to be, like, “Oh man, back when I was 22 it was fucking sick!” Or am I going to take that and then do something that I feel like is a stepping stone to something better? Instead of having the Smith Westerns experience be some cool trophy of my life, I decided I’d rather use it to do something more representative of myself as a whole.
Tell us about your new solo material. How were the new songs written? What should fans expect?
When I was writing the songs, I was working with my friend in his parent’s basement all through 2014 and into this year. So I had a lot of time. Each song would take six weeks to demo out and figure out what I liked about it. We’d build a song out and take it in any direction to see where it would go. The set of songs I have now are all really strong and really made the cut and are much faster than anything I did in Smith Westerns; they’re a little bit more upbeat, tempo-wise. In my mind, I wrote these songs in the same way as when I’d write the singles for Smith Westerns. A lot of the songs with Smith Westerns that I ended up being most attached to were the singles.
You mentioned “Varsity” as a Smith Westerns song most comparable to your new material.
Yeah. That’s probably the closet jump-off point to my new stuff. After doing the whole guitar-rock thing, I went more toward using synths. I’m not the greatest guitar player in the world, and in using different synths you can obtain a whole other range of textures. It’s one of those things where everyone knows what a three- or four-piece band sounds like, but with synths you can play with people’s expectations and maybe get a little bit weirder.
Also, with these new songs I wanted the vocals to be way out in front—more like pop music. In Smith Westerns it was always Max’s guitar and my vocals weaving in and out together. I always really wanted to focus on choruses that were catchier and making everything very earwormy. The lyrics were also more topical to my life this time. This album is just more relevant and not as guarded. There’s nothing jokey about my music. At the end of the day, as a musician you’re going to be defined by what you make, so I want to feel 100 percent behind it.
On a personal level, are you happier now than in the late days of Smith Westerns?
I’m definitely happier. Especially because now I can just take an idea and run with it and see what happens. Soft Will was a record where Max and me were the most not in step with each other. It was an album of a lot of sonic compromises. I haven’t felt as confident about my music as I do now since probably the Dye It Blonde era. I feel like the body of work I’m making now, as a whole, is solid. It’s not just select songs. I don’t have to ask anyone what they think.
How are you feeling about the Schubas show? This is your first solo gig.
I feel good. The guys that I have backing me up—it’s going to be a power trio—I feel confident, because they were working with me on the demos and figuring out the songs. They’re good musicians. They both played at the last Smith Westerns show. I got along with them musically. I feel confident in them bringing all this new music to the stage. It’s definitely different being the bandleader—I’ve been the front man, which is one thing, but I think it’s different when all these parts that I’ve thought of and made and created, I have to dictate them to everyone at the show. I feel like there’s been so much time removed from the whole Smith Westerns buzz that I’m pretty resigned to maybe a smaller crowd. I hope people want to get in on the ground floor and check it out and see where this goes. This isn’t going to be some one-off thing. All these songs are extremely thought out.
And you recently signed with Sub Pop Records.
Sub Pop is great. They take care of their bands, and I’m starting to feel that. They seem like great creative partners. They also have a lot of resources, and they know a lot of people. They’ve done it for a long time and they’ve done it well. I’m not a believer in talking shit on other labels that I was on, but I’m very happy to be on this label. It’s great.