A conversation with former Smith Westerns frontman Cullen Omori about rock & roll, and his great new album’s place in it.
It’s not easy to follow a massive wave of hype as Chicago’s Smith Westerns did when they released their debut album following the flood of new rock that emerged from Brooklyn and New York City in the early 00s. Looking back at that time, listening to the band’s trio of LPs they made before calling it quits in 2014 makes you realize just how underrated a songwriter its frontman Cullen Omori was in that Obama era among that generation’s crop of guitar-based talent like Foxygen, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Beach Fossils and Deerhunter/Atlas Sound. Especially 2011’s Dye It Blonde, the group’s second album and perhaps the most significant touchstone for the work Omori would be doing as a solo act. On August 17th, the singer released his excellent second album for Sub Pop, entitled The Diet. But don’t be swayed by its name–this record is an all-you-can-eat buffet of quality pop songwriting, with hooks and a crunch comparable to Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been and Redd Kross at their most Beatlesque. We had a chance to send in a few questions we had for Mr. Omori about The Diet and all the ingredients that exist within.
When you think of the word diet, it almost always is in relation to food and eating. In what way did you chose the term for the title of your album?
It means a whole lot of things to me in regards to the new record. Originally I was inspired to use “The Diet” because I remember reading about the Hunter S. Thompson diet that was brimming with drugs and alcohol as well as super rich epicurean foods. In some ways my diet during the writing and recording of the album mirrored the Thompson diet, but with more sadness and self-loathing included. Sonically, the term the diet makes sense because instead of loading up the songs with overly rich arrangements and synthesizers like I did on “New Misery”; I wanted a return to the classic rock instrumentation of my biggest influences.
As someone who isn’t as in the thick of the indie rock scene in 2018 as he was years ago, how does the scene compare these days than during the Smith Westerns time or even in the immediate post-9/11 era?
You hit the nail on the head with my involvement in the indie buzz band current for sure. I originally found myself riding the wave to success, and then watched as the infrastructure that enabled our success also informed our failure/decline. This machine affected both the Smith Westerns as well as limited the reach of my solo material. It’s overwhelming having to pay attention to each year’s new crop of buzz band artists especially now when I feel like every newer band sonically sounds very similar to the few guitar oriented indie juggernauts i.e.: Tame Impala, Ariel Pink, and Mac Demarco. After being in music for so long, I’ve wanted to formulate a true musical identity so that when you hear my songs; you can go, “Ah! That’s that Cullen Omori sound.” And I rather fail in that pursuits than be successful aping someone else’s shtick.
One worry among the old folks is the rise of synths and the decline of guitars as the primary sound of most new bands. Just like in the 80s. How do you see it from your vantage point?
I think it depends on the synthesizers one uses. If you use analog synths or ones that you operate in a physical sense, you get more of the fickleness and intimacy that you get with an organic instrument. However, if you are just using a midi and hopping around from plug ins to plug in than I feel like that is disingenuous. There is something about picking up a vintage guitar and feeling all the possibilities of what could come out of that instrument as well as what has previously come out the guitar in the past; you don’t really get that connection with midi synths.
I’ve seen The Diet catch a couple of comparisons to Oasis in the press. Where do you stand on Be Here Now– masterpiece of cocaine psychedelia or the Gigli of rock ‘n’ roll?
For me Be Here Now is the last great full Oasis record. Everything after Be Here Now is okay and might have a song or two that is powerful, but those first three records are the only ones front to back that are solid. I think it’s hard to make relatable and meaningful art when you are a millionaire rock star; unless of course being a rich, privileged musician is part of your universe like Van Halen or something.
I loved how there’s talk of your admiration for Judee Sill in your NME article from last week. David Geffen’s Asylum Records put out so many classic albums from the 70s. What are some of your other favorites from Asylum?
Meh, nothing really stands out to me in the way that the Judee Sill records do. I love her music and how it’s a precursor to bands like Broadcast or Cocteau Twins. Plus I really relate to her life story.
Pitchfork cited All Things Must Pass and The Slider in their review of The Diet, but what are some of your other favorite George Harrison and T. Rex albums that might be a little deeper in the crates?
I can go much deeper on the John Lennon discography than the George Harrison discography. As a whole I think that John Lennon’s body of solo work was/is much stronger than George’s. As for T. Rex I really like the album Futuristic Dragon as well as the folksier albums Bolan made when they were called Tyrannosaurus Rex.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of your label Sub Pop. Can we talk about three of your favorite albums from them in the last 30 years?
The Diet by Cullen Omori, New Misery by Cullen Omori and Teen Dream by Beach House.