In the world of indie rock, there’s no minimum age requirement. At least that’s how it should be, according to Cullen Omori, frontman of the Chicago-based Smith Westerns. When he and his bandmates released their self-titled debut back in 2009, they were fresh-faced teenagers, barely out of high school. Since then, fans and critics alike have dwelt on the musicians’ youth, and the singer-guitarist is sick of it.
“I don’t want to be a gimmick, and I feel like everyone playing up youth is a gimmick. Which is ridiculous, because I can’t help it,” Omori complains, reached on his cellphone in the band’s tour van somewhere in Florida. “Sometimes I don’t care, but other times it’s kind of annoying, when it’s used in a demeaning way to make our music seem less serious.”
Omori believes this ageism is specific to indie rock. “Taylor Swift is, like, a year older than us and she’s totally beating us [commercially],” he observes. “Miley Cyrus—totally beating us. Every new rapper is always super young, but usually I don’t feel like that’s something that the music press plays up.”
Luckily for Omori and his bandmates, they won’t be the victims of age-related bias for long. Both he and guitarist Max Kakacek are now 20, while bassist Cameron Omori (Cullen’s brother) is 19.
The rockers are growing up, and this maturity is reflected in their new sophomore LP, Dye It Blonde. With its lush studio production and grandiose arena-pop songwriting, it’s a far cry from the band’s fuzzy, basement-brewed debut.
“I think it destroys the first album,” enthuses Omori. “We wanted to record the first album that way, if we could. The way it [Dye It Blonde] turned out was the way we imagined it being—this big, epic, explosive, and dynamic-sounding record.”
The studio gloss comes courtesy of producer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear), who teamed up with Smith Westerns at the Magic Shop studio in New York. His stamp can be heard on the stunning “All Die Young”, a slide-laden power ballad that sounds like it was made to succeed “Free Bird” as the final slow dance at every high-school prom. Meanwhile, the lead single, “Weekend”, aims for your hips rather than your heart, its driving rock beat providing the foundation for fiery guitar leads and giddy pop melodies.
With their ultra-polished new sound, Omori hopes that Smith Westerns will be able to shake the pesky garage-rock tag that reviewers affixed to their early recordings. “ ”˜Garage’ kind of means that you have an inability to play your instruments very well,” he suggests. “I feel like this record is so musically constructed. I’d rather have you call it ”˜prog rock’ than ”˜garage rock’. ”
Now the band is taking Dye It Blonde on the road, with a headlining tour in February and March to be followed by a string of shows with Wilco in the spring. This jaunt is especially exciting for Omori, as he’ll be turning 21 in April. And what should fans expect once the singer is officially allowed to drink in the United States? “Watch the live show decline,” he jokes.