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You wouldn’t know Cullen and Cameron Omori and Max Kakacek were itching to get back on the road from their laid-back personas, but with new album Soft Will to show off and the gradual shedding of the child prodigy label that followed them in their early career, they’ve come into their own musically and in their own confidence. WERS was lucky enough to sit down with the three founding members of the group (a permanent drummer, Julien Ehrlich of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, was recently added to the lineup) backstage at The Sinclair in Cambridge to talk about the new album and feeling that they’ve finally come into their own musically.
All in their early twenties, the band churned out tracks for Soft Will in 2012 upon returning to their home town of Chicago after playing 140 shows in a single year in support of 2011’s Dye It Blonde. It was an experience completely different from what they’d expected—they could drink without fake IDs, many friends had moved on from Chicago, gone to or graduated college, and the guys struggled to find a sense of where they fit into their long-neglected home. The new tracks, including standout songs “3 A.M. Spiritual” and single “Varsity” build on the dreamy forward momentum established in the two previous albums but sounds more self-assured. After spending four would-be college years writing, touring, and getting their industry sea legs, Soft Will is their graduating thesis project—they’ve learned a hell of a lot, and you can hear the progression.
“When we had started persuing Smith Westerns in a real way, so let’s give ourselves this four years. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking to think that some of our friends have a degree or some real job experience and the only experience we have is our band. It’s a positive and a negative thing.” Cameron is quick behind, noting that “I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything, really.” With nothing but positive reviews and another several months of international touring, the guys have nothing to worry about except, as always, what comes next.
The writing for Soft Will was a shared task between Cullen and Kakacek, the only member of the band who had previous music training before jumping onto the Smith Westerns bandwagon. “We were kind of more comfortable in the studio this time around,” Kakacek spoke up. “We kind of took everything we’d learned from Dye It Blonde and souped everything up and tried to make the vocals clearer.”
Frontman Cullen noted that “there was definitely a ton of things that changed personality-wise just in those three years [since starting the band]—from me being in college and saying, ‘Let’s see what we can do with this band until we can support ourselves with music’…we had no life outside of the band. Once we came back from that, it was kind of like trying to find some type of life or some type of anything back home that you could connect to.”
The show itself, opened by Portland act Wampire, clocked in at just over an hour, and even the band laughed out of their own brevity. “We’ve got three albums, but even if we played them back to back it would only have an hour and a half or something like that. So we’re gonna play the hits, okay?” With barely a word in between, the five-person touring ensemble launched into favorites like “Be My Girl”, “Imagine Pt. 3”, “My Heart”, and “Weekend”, closing with “3 A.M. Spiritual” and “Varsity”. Compared to the Dye It Blonde tour, all members seem more comfortable playing and switching between instruments, but Kakacek stole the show with one perfectly executed solo after another, complimented by the band’s signature wistful melodies.
Smirking, Cullen took a sip of his beer and quickly explained that they don’t “do” encores, then gleefully shouted “No!” as the audience shouted out requests for their final song. The band, always preferring to play over speak, giggled and launched into their final song of the night. With a healthy balance of Dye It Blonde and Soft Will represented in the set, it’s fair to say that Smith Westerns are headed toward anything but burning out after their four-year perusal of the music scene—with new surprises, hooks, and expert lyricism demonstrated in each passing album, their Sinclair show already has fans holding their breath for the fourth installment in the SW saga.