Q&A: Smith Westerns On Their New Album Soft Will And Making A Career Out Of Music
It’s been over two years since Chicago’s Smith Westerns released Dye it Blonde — the hooky sophomore album that finally allowed them to quit their day jobs. Since that album’s release the band played nearly 150 shows all over the world and, finally, took some time off in order to chill the fuck out for a minute before once again reteaming with producer Chris Coady to bang out album number three. The fruits of the band’s recent labor — an excellent new record called Soft Will — will be released this month, but we’ve already been given a taste of what the record has in store via the first two singles (“Varsity” and “3am Spiritual”). Though it’s clear that the band haven’t lost their knack for concocting tuneful pop songs, there is the suggestion that a few very grown-up concerns have started to color the band’s songwriting. “Yes, we did have that “holy shit this is my job now” realization at some point,” says front man Cullen Omori of the band’s newfound maturity. “It’s a little scary thinking that this is your career.”
STEREOGUM: After touring the last record so hard, did you guys take some time away from the band?
OMORI: Kind of. The album came out in January of 2011 and we toured all the way up until January of the next year. That’s when we finally had a proper break, and the break went from the beginning of February in 2012 to when we went into the studio in August. So there was a good eight-month break which none of us had really experienced since we first went on tour back in 2009. This has been by far the most time we’ve ever had at home to do whatever we wanted. There was a time after touring and recording that I didn’t want to pick up a guitar or work on new music, I just wanted to do all the things that I hadn’t done in the past two years. When you’re on tour you have this sort of momentum going where you’re playing shows and going to different cities, but everyone else is doing their own thing back in Chicago. So when you finally get home you have to sort of re-establish your footing with your friends and social groups and stuff. Once we got time to relax and got happy again we started working on a new record.
STEREOGUM: How does songwriting generally work with you guys? Was the process different this time around or do you have a typical way of working within the band?
OMORI: The way we write has pretty much stayed the same. For the most part — or actually all the time — it’s me and Max who write the songs. And it’s always been that one of us writes a sketch of a song and we’ll build it up together. When we got back from that last touring cycle me and Max got an apartment together which is crazy considering how much time we already spend together, but we got an apartment and we kind just chilled out and listened to music and drank and hung out for a month or so. Then we finally started approaching writing songs again and making demos. And it is pretty much the same as it’s always been — either one of us will write something or he’ll record something, but it usually always ends up with us in the living room just playing the songs acoustically and figuring them out. I think it’s really cool because I don’t think a whole lot of bands really do that anymore.
STEREOGUM: Are you the kind of band that makes a plan ahead of going into the studio? Like, well this is the kind of record we want to make, or this is the vibe we want … or does that reveal itself later in the process?
OMORI: Well I think for us it was really important because even though we gave ourselves like triple the time to record this record than we had for Dye It Blonde, we still tried to get the songs as close to finished as possible ahead of time. There are certain songs … like “Varsity” is a song that we brought into the studio and it continued to evolve while we were playing it. This was also the first time we ever went into the studio with an actual drummer who we’d practiced with. For Dye It Blonde we didn’t have a drummer, we had studio drummers do it. So we were able to kind of get more of a sense of how the songs should sound beforehand. I think we definitely go in there with our shit together, we definitely don’t go in there with nothing but a few acoustic demos. Still, it’s really important that if something sounds like shit, or if something sounds tired, or boring you should be able to change it and deviate from the plan a little bit … and that’s what we do. We try to get it like 70% there and the rest we kind of ad-lib in the studio.
STEREOGUM: You worked with Chris Coady again as the producer for this record. What is it about him that seems to suit you so well?
OMORI: Personality-wise, I think that for us — for me and Cameron and Max — we’ve spent time writing music together since we were in high school, so there’s this dynamic there that is definitely kind of like a club. I feel like that can be a battle of the personalities when it comes to bringing in an outside person, but Chris is really good and patient and he’ll sit there and help you get the right sound and he’s one of those producers that will share his ideas for what he wants, but he’s if you don’t like it he’s not like, “Fuck you I’m done!”, which is what I hear about other producers. I also think he just has a really good understanding of what sounds good and what’s cool. There’s this idea that people go in the studio and if you have a studio budget you can end up with this cookie cutter sound where it just sounds like Phoenix or something and that was something that we didn’t want … I like Phoenix, but I don’t want our band to sound like Phoenix. So it’s good and it’s interesting working with Chris. He’s super helpful and knowledgeable and I think that it went so well with Dye It Blonde because he took a chance and produced us at a time when nothing was happening with our band and it really worked out … so we just wanted to continue the relationship.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by how people responded to that record?
OMORI: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We went from having like … Dye It Blonde was kind of our last chance to make something happen. We had toured in 2009 with Girls for a bit and gone to Europe and did the whole sleeping on couches thing and Dye It Blonde was very much our last hope to make something that we really loved. We had a little bit of money from Fat Possum, and we were like, “Okay it’s all or nothing,” and it ended up working out really well … to the point that we didn’t need to have jobs during the Soft Will recording.
STEREOGUM: You recorded Soft Will in Texas right?
OMORI: Yeah, we recorded in El Paso and then we did a recording session in New York, and then we mixed it in New York.
STEREOGUM: Why Texas?
OMORI: Well this particular studio is really nice and they have really great equipment and Chris had worked there before. I also know a ton of bands that have recorded there — Animal Collective recorded there recently; Yeah Yeah Yeahs recorded there, Beach House too. So I knew that they had good equipment but the actual place is really cool too because you’re not actually in El Paso, you’re really far outside of the city so you’re kind stuck in this weird place and and everyone gets their own room. They cook breakfast for you too, which is really cool. It helps to write things there because everyone — even if you’re not playing your parts that day you’re still in the studio helping out, or listening, or giving an idea or something. In New York it’s easy to be like, “Okay I’m done with my part, I’m gonna go hang out with my friends and get fucked up now!” You can’t do that in El Paso. You’re stuck there. You’re like, “Well, I guess I’m gonna go grab a drink and come back to the studio.”
STEREOGUM: How long were you there?
OMORI: We were there for a little more than three weeks. So that was good. There’s definitely breaking point where you couldn’t stand each other any more … but that dissipated after about a week and half.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited about being on the road again? Do you suffer from that weird musician thing of being home and not knowing what to do with yourself?
OMORI: No, I think that the idea of touring once you’re home for a while, there’s something that’s attractive just because you get to do something where you’re on a schedule. Touring can be a really positive thing but also a really negative thing. When we’re playing good shows and we’re seeing people that like the record, which encourages you to write more music. I’m totally down to go on tour … and I don’t mind slumming and crashing on couches or whatever. I don’t need some fancy production thing. So, I’m excited to go on tour but I’m also realistic and I remember what touring is actually like.
STEREOGUM: You guys have been doing this band together since you were literally kids. When you started this band back in high school did you ever imagine you would be making music with these same dudes for the long haul?
OMORI: [Laughs] No, no, no, no, not at all! I mean, the whole ethic of our band is just “one step at a time.” When we got together and were playing music in high school it was never like, “Yeah we’re gonna sell out the United Center in two years!” it was more like “Maybe we’ll open for a band playing at the Empty Bottle!” or something like that … that was like a goal at the time. We were in high school. And I think that’s what makes us continue to work together, there’s not a whole lot of expectation it’s just “Let’s try to make some music” and “Let’s keep growing” and the hope that people will still like our band in a year or two … and that our music gets better and let’s remember to have fun with it. I think as soon as it turns into a job thing, like “let’s move the units,” it kind of ceases being something that I think is worth pursuing.
STEREOGUM: Well if you didn’t do this, what would you do?
OMORI: I don’t know! That was kind of the thing, there are some songs on the new record that are kind of reflective of this period in our lives … like … all my friends that I’ve had have graduated college are doing their own thing, and I don’t know how good their “thing” actually is but they’ve focused on something for four years and now they are doing it. Meanwhile all I’ve done is … this. It isn’t bad — and I’m not complaining — it’s just something you’re aware of in your post-college years. So I don’t know what we’d be doing otherwise … probably going to school or finishing school? I’m super fortunate that this band happened. There was never any expectation.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny how often lately I have this version of this conversation with musicians … it’s the “Is this what I’m really going to do as my main life pursuit? Am I going to get a real job at some point?” And sometimes the decision just kind of gets made for you and it’s like, “Oh shit, I guess this is my job.”
OMORI: Well it’s one of those things where I’m like gonna do this music thing for the time being and I know that I can always go back to college or school or whatever, but when all your friends have graduated school and you’re going to be the oldest person there by like five or ten years … it is a little weird. And yes, we did have that “Holy shit this is my job now” realization at some point. It’s a little scary though thinking that this is your career. I mean, it’s a volatile thing, making music.
Smith Westerns’ Soft Will will be released on 6/25 via Mom + Pop