former smith westerns frontman cullen omori sounds off on going solo
As we premiere his single ‘Synthetic Romance,’ Omori explains how Kate Bush and mountains of candy helped shape his exciting new solo sound.
When I call Cullen Omori, he's mid-way through a pack of Milk Duds; I'm on my fifth Reese's Cup. Omori eats lots of candy. He confesses to having a smoke while we're on the phone, but whittling his vices down to sugar is, he says, "a small victory." He had his fair share of sweet stuff during the making of New Misery, his debut solo album due out via Sub Pop next Friday. The amount of candy consumed during its production might be the only similarity between it and Omori's last record, Soft Will. That album arrived in 2013 and was the final project he'd record with Smith Westerns -- the garage-glam trio he formed with guitarist Max Kakacek as a 17-year-old fan of 70s rock. "This album cost less to record than any of the Smith Westerns' records. The really pricey one was the last one," Omori explains of Soft Will. "We recorded it in three or four different studios across multiple months."
This time around, the nearly 26-year-old Omori wasn't merely responsible for New Misery's music, he budgeted the entire project, too. To save money, he rode a borrowed bike four miles through sweltering summer heat from his sublet to Treefort Studios, producer Shane Stoneback's now defunct space in Downtown Brooklyn. "It was in a six-story storage place, literally where you'd keep furniture. The first three floors were storage units, but there were some practice spaces for other bands," Omori says (Cults, Sleigh Bells, and Vampire Weekend have all worked on Treefort projects in the past). "It was 30 days straight of working from 11am to 2am. About two weeks into it, Shane just started living in the studio; he'd sleep there," says Omori. Apparently, he wasn't the only one: "Some people illegally lived in their storage units. There's a communal bathroom so if you wanted to take a shower, you could. One night I stayed there and got hives."
Omori knows the experience might sound hellish compared to Smith Westerns' relatively plush recording process -- "you'd write and demo together, then go to a studio somewhere you've never been to, do your part, and leave" -- but he's quick to sing its praises. "It felt really monastic: there were no windows and I couldn't tell what time it was, so Shane and I would be working in there until we'd exhausted every idea," he says. "It was so single-minded."
That isn't to say Omori was on his own. In addition to Stonebeck's guidance and resources, he enlisted a choice crop of collaborators to help bring New Misery's new sound to life: Cults' Brian Oblivion contributed bass and keys, MGMT's James Richardson did a little lead guitar, and Guards' Ted Humphrey played drum parts. "I came in with a file folder of all the songs already tabbed out, it was just a matter of getting these guys in and hearing what their takes were on what I'd demo'd earlier," Omori explains. "Going in, I kept thinking, 'these parts all suck, they're not gonna work, I need to get all these better musicians to do it.' But in a lot of cases, we'd stuck closer to what I'd written. I realized the stuff I'd done did sound professional and that I could do things on my own."
Omori's initial insecurity about his material was a product of a fundamental shift in creative process. In Smith Westerns, he'd write "a skeleton of a song: a chord, melody, some of the lyrics" and Kakacek would fill out the various instrumental parts -- add or subtract tones and textures. By the time the band had announced its indefinite hiatus in 2014, the pair had been working this way for at least six years, having made music together since high school. "It sounds cliche, but it was about youthful exuberance and the joy of really discovering music. That was great, but I don't think the way we got popular, the way we wrote, and who we are as people was sustainable for making music," says Omori of the group's decision to disband. "I played in the band from when I was 18 to 23; I put my whole identity into it. When you're in your early 20s, you try different shit, and if you fail, usually no one notices. But for better or worse, everyone could see us."
Without Kakacek to engineer the instrumentals, Omori challenged himself to fully furnish his vision -- to play lead guitars, fill out synths, and orchestrate arrangements on his own. His earliest experimentation is the New Misery track i-D premieres today, "Synthetic Romance." Written during the twilight of Smith Westerns, its sweeping twangs and booming drum hits feel a bit closer to Soft Will sessions than New Misery's comparatively poppy lead single, "Cinnamon." But each track boasts a full-bodied sound anchored in gripping, manic melodies. "I wanted the record to be upbeat and fast songs because the last record was mainly very slow," Omori says of his structure. But this time, channeling influences was a bit of a slower simmer. "As much as I loved what we did in Smith Westerns, I just felt a few of our influences were too visible," says Omori. "I wanted to explore my own influences without making this pastiche not having had the time to really absorb something. I wanted something smoother, a little more clever."
His influences might be more thoroughly meditated, but cleverness shouldn't be mistaken for snobbery. He cites the likes of Roxy Music, INXS, and Kate Bush, but stresses the importance of these acts' mass appeal (and it's true: for all of her eccentricities, Bush remains one of Britain's best-selling recording artists). "I like pop music because it's accessible; it's not trying to make walls for the audience to jump over," Omori explains. "The idea that you're creating music that's gonna weed out 'non-real music' listeners or whatever -- I don't think that's something that I like or that I think is cool. I felt like I could take a lot from pop music in terms of being accessible and immediate, while still interrogating what the genre means today."
The enigmatic frontman's taste for bubblegum pop (and just regular bubble gum) has resulted in a standout clutch of solo tracks that he can truly call his own. "It's the only time I've never felt like anything needs to be changed -- turned up or taken out. I'm still happy with it, which isn't really something I've experienced," he explains. "It's a representation of what I want to hear just as a listener, not even as a musician. I feel like I can stand behind it."
Text Emily Manning