By Andy Downing
RedEye special contributor
11:31 AM CDT, July 19, 2013
"I'm trying to catch my breath," sings Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori on the local rockers' gorgeous third album, the recently released "Soft Will."
Few could blame Omori, who, along with bandmates Cameron Omori and Max Kakacek (new drummer Julien Ehrlick completes the group's current lineup), played more than 140 shows in support of 2011's "Dye It Blonde" before taking off most of 2012 to rest and recuperate.
"When you're on tour you get tunnel vision, and you're in your own little world in the van or bus or whatever," said Omori, 23, who now makes his home in Logan Square. "It was two years of moving and two years of being all over the place, so coming back and having nothing to do was different."
By phone, the frontman talked about being considered veterans of the Chicago music scene, why the band's early shows tended to be sloppy affairs and what it's like to grow up in the public eye.
Both the Orwells and the guys in Twin Peaks have spoken of your influence in recent interviews. Is it weird to be in your early 20s and be considered veterans of the Chicago rock scene?
[Laughs] That's hilarious we're considered that, but we have been at it for a long time. It's cool to see those dudes who are doing the same thing just going for it and grinding it out. I don't think of us as veterans yet, but we're not a new band anymore for sure.
Is it surreal to go from playing house shows when you were getting started to playing Lollapalooza this year?
We're definitely grateful for it. We started [the band] for fun when we were in high school ... and being able to grow it is something that's cool to look back on. It can be surreal. We had no intention of [playing festivals] when we started out.
I remember seeing some of your early shows and then again when you toured behind "Dye It Blonde," and you undoubtedly grew up as a live band. Was there a sense early on you didn't take playing live seriously?
Oh yeah, absolutely. When we first started out the show was practice. We wouldn't rehearse, and then the show was when we would play our instruments. Also, the novelty for us was, "Oh, we can play the shows and we can drink or whatever," and that's really cool when you're 19. With "Dye It Blonde" ... there were actually people coming out just to see us, and it was like, "Oh, we need to grow the show." I'm excited to go on tour with "Soft Will" because I feel like we're way, way better musicians. Before it was like, "We don't care about the shows. We don't care who's there. We're just going to drink some beers and chill."
At this point, you've essentially grown up on record. Is listening to your debut like looking at an old yearbook photo?
I listened to self-titled, the first record, about a month ago for the first time in like a year and a half, and it was cool. I can stand back and look at every record as a benchmark and hear the records we were listening to and the things we were thinking and the places we'd been. I still remember listening to it at the time and thinking, "Wow, this was recorded well and sounds really nice." Then you listen to it now and it's like, "Oh, this is very lo-fi. This sounds like it was recorded in a trash can."
Was it difficult being a teenager and having people in the media make judgments not only about the music but about you guys personally?
When you're growing up and you're given a platform to say whatever you want, it can definitely be weird. We were young kids being interviewed, and it's not like we had handlers telling us what to say like Justin Bieber or something. It was a learning process. You learn things like sarcasm does not come off well in a written interview. Sometimes we were labeled as pretentious or whatever, but it was very much more that we had a hard time believing anyone would actually like our music. I remember the first time someone came up and asked me to sign a record for them. I thought they were [bleeping] with me. None of us could wrap our heads around the idea that people actually liked the songs.
The new album closes with the song "Varsity." Did you ever letter in a high school sport?
[Laughs] No way. "Varsity" was made tongue-in-cheek because we were being labeled as a high school band even though when the first record came out we were already like 19. It was kind of a joke for us, like, let's name it "Varsity."
Is there a sport you could have lettered in? I've read you're all pretty good at basketball.
Maybe if I had grown when I was in high school, but I didn't get tall--well, taller--until much later. Besides, I would skateboard or whatever, but I wasn't about team sports. Team sports, man, I just don't know.
Smith Westerns, 9 p.m. July 31 at Lincoln Hall, $20; 2:30 p.m. Fri. at Lollapalooza, Sold out.
Cullen Omori personality test
Last album you bought? "I'm trying to think because I don't have my iTunes open. This will be like the 'What's your favorite band?' question where I'll sit there thinking about it for 20 minutes."
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? "The Jayhawks really famous song 'Blue.' I've been listening to that a lot."
Song you never want to hear again? "'Dance Away' from 'Dye It Blonde.'"
Best concert you've seen in the last year? &"Oh, it was this Chicago band called the Biz, and they played like a ladies night. It was really good."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "Fatal Jamz from LA."
Favorite movie ever? "The Prestige"
Chicago's best music venue? "Ooh. To play at it's Metro and to see bands I like Metro and Lincoln Hall.
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