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Smith Westerns

Growing Up and Branching Out

Aug 01, 2013 Issue #46 - June/July 2013 - Charli XCX Bookmark and Share

“We don’t want to be a party band,” Smith Westerns guitarist and co-songwriter Max Kakacek says from his cell phone while visiting friends in Austin, Texas, just a few days after the Chicago-based wunderkinds’ performance at Coachella.

Kakacek is referring to the shift from the carefree lo-fi rock of the band’s early work to the more developed, crisp sound of their third record, Soft Will. Once known for the immediacy of their fuzzy, catchy garage-tinged pop songs, the bandKakacek, guitarist and vocalist Cullen Omori and bassist Cameron Omorifelt the need to change things up a bit.

“I think the cleaner thing was definitely a conscious decision,” Kakacek says. “It was us going into the studio and trying to make it sound as good as possible.”

Following relentless touring in support of 2011’s critically lauded sophomore effort Dye It Blonde, the band returned to Chicago, and Kakacek and singer Omori moved into an apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. They set up a makeshift rehearsal space and studio in a rented basement down the block and began crafting the bulk of what would become the shimmering, hook-filled guitar pop that is Soft Will. Drawing on the influence of what Kakacek calls, “the giants of major rock movements of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s,” including Teenage Fanclub, Suede, and The Cure, songs such as first single “Varsity,” “Best Friend,” and album-opener “3am Spiritual” feature, among a number of other immediately noticeable differences, expressive synthesizers, delicately strummed acoustic guitars, and mid-tempo rhythms. Elements that are no doubt a far cry from the garage-rock label they were saddled with when first starting out four years ago.

“We had just got out of high school and garage rock was really important to us,” Kakacek explains. “But we’ve kind of left that style of music. Dye It Blonde was in between, but I think [Soft Will] isn’t that at all.”

In addition to the sonic departure, which the group cultivated with Dye It Blonde producer Chris Coady mostly in a secluded studio in El Paso, Texas, Omori’s lyrics are reflective of the band’s movement in a more mature direction. Throughout the record he frequently explores the themes of growing up (“Fool Proof”) and alienation (“White Oath”), which one can’t help but assume comes from the pressure of achieving success at such a young ageOmori is only 21 and Kakacek just turned 22.

“From my perspective, he took the writing process a lot more seriously,” Kakacek says of his friend. “Even on Dye It Blonde, he wrote some of those lyrics when he was 18 or 19. This time around he would have drafts of lyrics before he’d finish ideas.”

The heightened attention to detail and quality is part of the young band’s strategy to progress musically and sustain a career that spans multiple albums.

“The main goal is to keep things interesting for us and keep making records that are different than the last one. I think that’s really the most important thing,” Kakacek says. “We’ll always try to make the last record sound old compared to the new one.”

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s June/July 2013 print issue.]


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