Cullen Omori: What you do when your high school band falls apart

The former ex-Smith Westerns singer candidly discusses the split of his group and a debut solo album he's chosen to call 'New Misery'.

Cullen Omori is porcelain-doll pretty, with a long, oval face, full lips, flawless olive skin and peroxide hair, the dull yellow colour of overripe lemons. He is tired when we meet, his amber eyes squinting in the afternoon sun, shoulder-length hair poking out from the bottom of his beanie hat, like straw. He’s pensive, tired; he seems like a man with things on his mind, leaning against the blue-framed windows of his Chicago apartment, a little distracted, chain-smoking as he answers my questions at shotgun speed. He speaks in fast, fractured half-sentences, driven by an internal logic that takes me a while to understand. His thoughts float abstractedly to the surface, one idea interrupting another, as if they exert too much pressure inside his mind and he needs to get them out as quickly as possible.

Perhaps the world-on-his-shoulders demeanour is because it’s been a rough few days. Midway through his current tour Omori’s van gave out, and his stress is palpable; he pulls furiously on a cigarette as he recounts the details: “I was just on this tour that was supposed to go down the West Coast for another two weeks, and my van straight up died at the border crossing into Canada.” The next day all his belongings were taken. “I had a rental car with clothes in it and that got stolen.” He rubs his forehead and shrugs, like,<em> what you gonna do? </em>“So I’ve cancelled those dates and I’m having some time off to just re-group and figure out what my plan is.”

Omori returned to Chicago the day before our interview and he has a lot to straighten out before he heads back on the road, with an imminent East Coast tour and European dates later in the spring. But there’s something else, a core of sadness, an unresolved pain that seems to run deeper than the petty irritations of the daily grind. It’s like talking with someone who has been recently heartbroken. And in a way he has. The dissolution of the <a href=””>Smith Westerns</a>, the band he had fronted since high school, has clearly affected him profoundly. He’s upfront about that. “I really try to, like, stay away from super-relationship words when I’m describing it,” he says, “but it is definitely that vibe, you know?”

I do know.

The breakup of the Smith Westerns is a life change it’s clear he’s still working through. And, like all the recently broken-hearted people I’ve ever met, Omori’s conversation is a little barbed, veering between remorse and bitterness as he details the end. “If I had known at the time that people were gonna be like, ‘oh that sucks’, I would have put more time into making it an official thing,” he explains, as he talks me through his decision to announce the band’s separation on Twitter. But then again, “Until I announced the Smith Westerns were done I thought we were an afterthought in people’s minds. But when anything ends, all of a sudden it gets this memorial status where it’s like: ‘That was really great. I wish I could have come to see the Smith Westerns’ – and it’s like: where was this support when no-one was coming to see the Smith Westerns’ shows towards the end? Or where was the support when our whole label situation imploded?”

I get the sense, from the way he peppers his answers with stinging asides aimed at ex-bandmates and hangers-on, that he wants to set the record straight before he moves on, but that he isn’t quite “over it”’ enough to let go. “I know there’s this thing of every single person who ever played in Smith Westerns calling themselves a ‘member’ or whatever,” he tells me at one point, “but it was always just the three of us: Max, Cameron and me. We had different people sit in and play drums and shit, but it was always the three of us.” He shakes his head firmly when I ask whether they are still in touch, and then seems to change his mind. “I talk to Cameron because he’s my brother. I’ll talk to Max occasionally – I don’t talk to him as much. Him and all the other, like, satellite members went off and formed that other band, doing some Dave-Grohl-type-shit.” He exhales cigarette smoke in a long, deliberate streak and stares off into the middle-distance. “I don’t know; I wish ’em well and whatever.”

That’s not to say he regrets the band’s demise, it was obvious it was over, he says, and the siren call to work differently had been sounding for some time. “I think that for me when it wasn’t working it wasn’t working. It’s like being in a relationship with someone since high school until you’re 24 – seven years or something like that. Which is fine – it’s cool when you’re in Chicago and don’t have a ton of other options, it makes sense. But after doing the whole Smith Westerns thing and meeting all these different people and seeing other kinds of music and other ways to pursue music I think I was ready for it.”

Omori’s first solo effort, ‘New Misery’, would certainly suggest he is ready for it. The album is a dizzying, genre-bending collection that is strange and beautiful, showcasing his encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music history and giving form to his off-beat, melancholy persona. It is an incredible album, and he switches from distractedly preoccupied to upbeat and animated when I ask about the writing process, outlining his working methods with forensic precision. “I always have the TV on when I write,” he says. “One, because its something to watch, you know, but also, I’ve always lived in apartments where you can hear through the walls what someone else is doing. I always felt that was, like, a security blanket. Like I’m in a spy movie, turning the water on and the fans on and the radio up really loud so no one can hear what I’m doing.” I think he’s finished, but he is just taking a moment to light another cigarette before he continues. “And I also figure out skeletons of songs, and – this is something I’ve done since Smith Westerns, since I was like 15 years old or whatever – I would just kind of like write on an acoustic or an electric. I have this old electric guitar that I always write on. It’s just the right volume where its not fully acoustic but its not electric either, and I’ll write on that and I’ll come up with the skeleton of a song and then once I have the bare bones of it I’ll record and kind of put little things on it.”

Omori’s joy in the process comes across as unpretentious; he isn’t making music for the sake of it, that much is clear from the sheer pleasure in his voice as he talks about working on the new album. “I am not into the idea of just polishing a turd, you know? I won’t sit there and compose a chord progression and just put a bunch of shit on it. I know that’s what some bands do and some bands are very successful doing that, but that’s something I was never really into.” He doesn’t think of himself as a poet either, despite the poignancy of his lyrics. “I read somewhere that Elliot Smith would write his lyrics before he put any music to it,” he says. “I couldn’t do that. I don’t know why. I mean, I like to write lyrics but I don’t consider myself a pseudo-poet or anything like that. I’m not gonna cram ten-dollar words in just because I wanna make it sound like I’m smart.”

So how do you write the lyrics then?

“There will be a certain kind of rhythm to whatever the melody is, and maybe, like a kind of stream-of-consciousness trying to figure out words from it. For example, the ‘tastes like sin/cinnamon’ part [from the track ‘Cinnamon’] was just something that came from the cadence of singing that melody when I was writing the song.”

Cullen is genuinely passionate about the business of being a musician, in the making of the work, rather than the acclaim of being a recording artist. “I like the writing process much more than I like promoting a record or touring a record,” he says. “If I could just write I would do that.” Unfortunately – and I get the sense that Omori is savvy enough to know this – his exquisite face makes a behind-the-scenes career unlikely.

Of all the artists I’ve ever spoken to, Omori thinks the most about his audience. He is acutely aware that he writes music for listeners; that the artistic process engenders a two-way relationship, which he describes as a collaboration of sorts. “I feel like you are constantly trying to make something that other musicians can listen to,” he explains. “Not just other popular musicians, but other people who play guitar. I would like if someone likes the songs and happens to play guitar, that they can sit down and play the songs – just the chords and sing the vocals.” You get the sense that this is how he started out, all those years ago, a young teenager playing guitar in the basement, just jamming with the music, yet to make an impact with his high school band. “I want it still to be an experience that’s almost relatable to the song,” he says. “Not the same, but kind of a shared experience – that I created and it moves them to playing it on their own. I always think that’s a really cool thing to have with a song.”

Despite his ambivalence towards the performance element of releasing an album, and the inevitable attention it brings, Omori is fascinated to the point of obsession with accessibility. While he is clear that his musical influences include obscure bands and artists, he is also heavily influenced by what he calls “Top 40”. “I wanted to make something that was accessible,” he enthuses, “something that wasn’t hard to grasp. The thing I like about super-popular music is that it’s alright for a seven-year-old girl to listen to it, but also a 50-year-old man – Adele is like that – and that’s such a funny, cool thing.” Accessibility is what he hopes will set his solo work apart from what he achieved with the Smith Westerns. “That accessibility is a really cool thing to play with and something that as a musician I feel that I’ve never had. Everything I’ve done has always been critically received very well, and always points to music history more than accessibility, so I wanted to play around and try something like that.”

All the signs point to ‘New Misery’ being very well received. Early reviews swing between positive and glowing, and he is especially excited about the European response, and looking forward to playing the UK in May. Most of all though, he is clear that he needs to make that step away from his Smith Westerns’ accomplishments and create something new. “I don’t want to look back like, ‘I did this and it was great this one time in my life, and everything else after that is whatever,’” He says. “I’d rather look at it like [Smith Westerns] is something that I’ll be remembered for but not the thing that I’m remembered for. And keeping that mind-set, it’s hard – especially when you’re living through it. But for me, especially now I’ve put the record out and done some touring and stuff, I feel I can buy into it more.” He stubs out a final cigarette and shrugs. “I mean, we’ll see how it does – but to turn it around and put something out and get on just as good a label, in my opinion a better label, and not get destroyed in the reviews, people still liking what I put out critically – I think I’m very fortunate for that.’ He pulls those full lips into a half-smile. “Yeah.”