Chicago natives Smith Westerns started making music together as broke, garage-and-glam rock loving teenagers, a context that birthed their first self-titled album and initial signature sound: earnestly hooky, dirty, noisy lo-fi. But that was four years, two records, and about a million tour dates ago. The band’s newest release Soft Will has seen a shift towards tempered tempos, cultivated lyricism, and most notably, a whole different level of production value. But while their sound may have grown cleaner and more deliberate, there’s still plenty of youthful shenanigans in what most critics have taken to calling their “most mature record” to date (which is fitting, since Max Kacakek and brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori are still barely breaking into their early twenties, and far more shenanigans undoubtedly await them).
I chatted with Max about the band’s evolution, favorite tour partners, and burgeoning adulthood.
You guys all met in high school. What made you decide to form a band together?
M: I think it came about as organically as every high school band does. We weren’t really doing anything else. Cullen and I met our junior year. We went to a relatively small high school but somehow never really hung out until then. We started playing music, and Cameron is Cullen’s brother so he joined us at the first practice on bass. Cullen actually played drums back then. Six months later we got a drummer and Cullen started singing.
And so Smith Westerns started out playing many high school parties?
M: Yeah that’s how we started really. When we first started we were kind of a shit-fi punk band in a way that sang about stupid stuff, basically screaming and shit. So house parties were pretty much the only shows we could get.
Do you miss playing house parties now?
M: There is a certain part of me that misses it, but also it’s fun to be able to play all our newer music on a much bigger scale. If we ever did another one, we’d probably just play the first album all the way through.
Your first album has been repeatedly described as lo-fi, skuzzy, etc. Was this a deliberate stylistic choice or did it have more to do with the fact that you guys were young and recording in a basement because you were broke?
M: Yeah, I mean at the time we recorded some of the songs when we were seventeen. When we were that age, we were mostly listening to older garage stuff that all had that sound. It sounded really rough and crappy. So that’s all we really thought about making. But realistically we couldn’t have made it any other way. We weren’t even using Garage Band for some of those tracks. We were using some free program we downloaded on my Dell computer. It was really shitty shit. (Laughs).
I Googled your new album (and also listened to it) and in almost every review, it’s been described as some iteration of “more mature”. How would you say your guys’ age and place in life came into play while you were writing these new songs?
M: I think a lot of the reason people are giving it that kind of review is that Cullen took the lyric-writing a little more seriously on this album. He didn’t want to write about the same content he had written about on the lat albums, and I think makes people kind of assume that we’re all growing up now, because the lyrics aren’t as light. They’re still love songs, but there’s a darker element to them, which I guess seems more grown up. I guess we’re a little more mature after all that touring, but I wouldn’t say this is a totally adult album or anything. There are still moments of fun and lightness as well. Youthful parts (laughs).
You guys have toured a ton and played with a ton of bands. Who would you say your top three bands you have ever played with are?
M: This isn’t in any order. Before the album Dye It Blonde came out, we did a tour with MGMT in Europe, and that was amazing. Those guys are great and that band is awesome. Then when we got to go on tour with Wilco, that was obviously amazing. They’re Chicago legends. The first real tour we ever went on as a band was with Girls. They contacted us and said you guys should come out, and that’s kind of when we decided to actually do the band for real.
So what’s up next for Smith Westerns?
M: We’re going on tour for the next like four or five months intermittently between America and Europe. We’ve been working on getting the live show together, and we’re excited to be able to play the whole album live.