Smith Westerns aren’t what they seem to be

2011-02-23T09:00:00Z Smith Westerns aren’t what they seem to beANDY DOWNING | The Capital Times | adowning@madison.com madison.com

Cullen Omori is fully aware of how he and his bandmates in Smith Westerns are perceived. The lead singer, part of the youthful crew’s core trio alongside brother Cameron and longtime friend Max Kakacek, said these perceptions are incorrect.

“Everyone has their own take on what our music sounds like and what that must mean we’re like,” he said when reached on the road in Texas recently. “It’s also weird, because when people find out we’re 20-something, I feel like they almost characterize us as what they were like when they were 20 instead of how we actually are.”

With that in mind, we set out to clarify a few popular misconceptions about the band, which plays at The Frequency on Friday, Feb. 25, behind their excellent sophomore album, “Dye It Blonde” (Fat Possum).

Misconception #1: Smith Westerns worship at the altar of garage rock.

The band’s self-titled debut, recorded on the cheap at the Omori family home in the north side Chicago neighborhood of Wrigleyville, arrived caked in noise — a lo-fi love letter to everything garage rock. Or so it seemed.

In actuality, the musicians simply gunned for the best sound they could with the secondhand equipment available to them. After signing to Fat Possum, the band sank their entire advance into crafting a follow-up more representative of the music they’d always envisioned, decamping to New York City and Hoboken, N.J., in July 2010 for three weeks of recording with producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House).

After overcoming their initial fears (“We were afraid we weren’t going to be good enough musicians … or we’d cause problems with Chris and he’d be like, ‘I can’t believe I’m working with these jokers,’ ” said Omori), the bandmates dove headlong into recording, emerging from the sessions with a more polished album that better reflected their developing tastes.

“We wanted to become a dream-guitar band for this record,” said Omori. “We wanted everything to sound really epic and big.”

Misconception #2: Singer-songwriter Cullen Omori is a hopeless romantic.

On “Dye It Blonde,” the wispy frontman, who often shields his face with his shoulder-length locks when onstage, comes across like a shy, lovelorn teenager, singing: “Everything that I’m doing/I do just for you”; “No doubt, it’s you I think and dream about”; “All of my time … should have been with you.”

In actuality, Omori describes himself as a pessimist, adding, “I’m not a hopeless romantic by any means.”

The singer goes on to explain that many of the songs, written during extensive 2010 touring, are meant to capture the fleeting nature of success. “A lot of it was dealing with questions like, ‘What are we doing? Is this it?’ ” he said. “I’m not trying to romanticize relationships. The songs are more about desire and trying to make it.”

Misconception #3: Smith Westerns are slackers.

Though they look like they could’ve been plucked from a casting call for the role of Stoner Teen #3 in a “Dazed and Confused” remake, the band members are actually scary ambitious. In interviews, the group doesn’t shy away from talking up the influence of arena-sized acts like U2 and Coldplay, and when Omori mentions that future tourmates Wilco are “at the top of the band pyramid in Chicago” the unspoken implication is that Smith Westerns are gunning for their spot.

The band also has a welcome competitive streak.

“With this album we really wanted to make things more eclectic and show off our abilities as songwriters and musicians,” said Omori. “And I think we also wanted to show all these bands we had been touring with and meeting on the road that we could make something great.”

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