Photo by Alexa Lopez
You're 26, and your life looks a little like this: you've graduated, moved to New York (shocker), become a consultant (another shocker) and you occasionally think about your undergrad golden days.
If you were Cullen Omori, however, at 26 your life looks more like this: you didn't do the college thing. In fact, you just came off seven years as frontman of the uber successful indie glam–rock band Smith Westerns, the band you've grown with since your high school days. Now what?
If you continued to be Cullen Omori, you would continue to do what you do best: whip out your guitar and make some music. You'd eventually go on to find a new home (enter Sub Pop), release your very own solo album (hello, New Misery) and embark on your very first solo tour, the aptly titled "Sad Guy No More" tour, which may or may not be classifiable as a shitshow (at least you'd have had awesome photoshoot with Urban Outfitters, just for kicks).
Street caught up with the real Cullen Omori, former frontman of Smith Westerns, current solo artist on a mission to make guitar great again. We talked with this rising indie pop/garage–rocker about the Canadian border, going solo, breaking away from Smith Westerns and dealing with shit when shit happens—shit in the form of border problems, bandits, breakups and new beginnings.
Ultimately, Cullen’s proven that if you believe in the music—despite the rollercoaster ride of uncertainty, failure, success and everything in between—it’ll all be worth it.
Keep doing you, Cullen. We'll keep keep you on our radar.
Street: How’s tour been?
Cullen Omori: I was supposed to be in Austin on tour today but I cancelled half of it because of all this drama. I’ve been touring for almost seven years and I’ve never had any of the things that happened on this tour happen, let alone in the combination that it happened.
We got to Seattle, played our Sub Pop showcase, which was great. We drove to the Canadian border. The Canadian border is always stressful for me. I went there one time, and it was really stupid, and the van reeked of weed. We didn’t get arrested, but we got detained for quite some time. So ever since then, I’ve always been…and I’ve gone through the Canadian border, I’ve been there like 15 times now. It’s not even the Canadian border, it’s almost more like the US border is the worst border to come through. I can get on my whole other thing like if this is how Americans treat people coming in from Canada, like American citizens, then how do they treat people when they go to Afghanistan or Iraq? When they have total liberties of whatever they can do to that person, you know? But anyway, that’s my social justice thing…And my van just dies. This new used van that I bought and I expected at least 5 more tours out of. So it breaks down 5 cars from the border. And I’m just trying to start it up and get it through and it gets going and it would idle and I’d kinda push it through, but then it finally dies at the checkpoint at the Canadian border and I push it across. We get it to the checkpoint and we go through immigration and I think like maybe it’s just a battery issue and I can keep going if I keep restarting it, maybe get on the highway and recharge the battery. Not the case, I make it maybe half a mile down. The van completely dies, we have to get towed across the border and we spend the next 2 nights in Bellingham, Washington. And the only place open is this shithole firestone full of idiots.
It takes two days to diagnose the problem, and in the meantime they’re putting all this shit on the car like a starter and a battery, but the engine itself I think is fucked up. So basically after a few days of waiting around in Bellingham, Washington eating Pizza Hut and staying in this shithole motel, they tell me I need a new engine. So I tow it back to Seattle, drop it at the Sub Pop wearhouse and I sit there for the next day deciding if I’m gonna scrap it, if I’m gonna sell it. The cost of what I payed for the van is the cost to replace the whole engine. It makes no sense to keep doing it. We get this van towed from Bellingham to Seattle, but then we take a rental minivan that I rent to take it to Seattle. We stay there that night and we pretty much bring most of our stuff up, all my personal stuff except this really heavy suitcase with all my clothes and so does this other guy. Then, that night the window gets smashed in.
Then these two suitcases full of all of my clothes, nothing expensive, it’s my clothes for the entire tour—technically my entire wardrobe. And so those get ripped off, and those are stolen from us.
I’ve never had anything stolen from me—thank God it wasn’t my gear. I’ve never had anything stolen from me in seven years of touring. I’ve never had a van straight up die on me. Maybe it’s something like a day you lose from like not being able to play a show, not such a big fix, just like a battery or something. But I’ve never had it straight up break down on me.
All that happened to me in like three days.
Also it was my first week of release on the record too, I should be thinking about all these other things and I have to deal with this shit. Well obviously, the West Coast isn’t gonna happen, and even the Southeast wasn’t gonna happen, but I’m pulling through for the East Coast. That’s still gonna happen. We’ll do it next week and everything. It’s just that up until this point I’ve been pretty lucky or unscathed with all this touring stuff until all of this shit just drops on me.
That’s why I’m back in Chicago and that’s why I should be in Austin right now, so it’s a good ol’ piece of shit. And it goes into this whole starting from square one thing with this record, of where it feels like I just started a band and went on the road with it.
The few people that do know about Smith Westerns, that’s a cool thing and some other people from the shows, it’s mostly it’s been new people checking it out. It definitely feels like I’m back where I was when I was 19 and touring, for better or for worse. But I do get to workshop the stuff, the songs, I do get to do a lot of stuff, you know. Not the best…
Street: Things can only look up from here though, right?
CO: I’m scared to say that, because I don’t know how much worse it could get…
Street: Tell me about your decision to go solo, and how it’s been so far.
CO: When you do things solo, for lack of a better word…I just didn’t had anyone I really would want to work with musically, recording wise. Smith Westerns was a unique situation, it was the few people I ever made music with, the only people I really made music with, and the first people I made music with.
Getting into the studio and the creative aspect of working by myself at this point where I feel confident enough in my ability is a great experience. I would love to work with someone else when I feel like I’ve exhausted all, everything I have to say, and everything I have to write with my music, but I don’t feel like I’m there yet. I do like having no restraints when I record, when I write. The only thing I think that’s different though from going from a band situation to a single person is when things do go wrong the way they did this last week, you don’t really have, is when you’re a group of three people, for better or for worse, you share the success and you also share the failure. Right now, I’m taking a lot of failure. It’s a different dynamic. You definitely have the most at stake. Everyone else that plays with me live, they’re my friends and stuff and great, but they don’t have the same kind of interest as I do in the success of the project.
So when the van breaks down and I’m walking the two mile round trip five times that day to get to the auto repair shop, that’s on me. When the van breaks down at the border and I try to talk to the border guards so they don’t think I’m a terrorist or something, that’s on me.
Creatively, it’s amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever not do it again as a band, I probably will work with other people, I have to some degree on this record, I’ve had other band members come in.
It’s a cool position to be in, and, up until last week, a position I pretty much thought was the best one I’ve been in in a very long time.
Street: How has your music changed? How’s this a departure from Smith Westerns?
CO: First off, the sound’s gonna change automatically just because Smith Westerns was entrenched in the two people writing it, there’s me and Max writing the songs. I would always concern myself with whatever would become the singles, I would always be interested in that. Working without him is different. Also, I felt like, at this point, I’m gonna be 26 in about half a month or something like that. For me, Smith Westerns was never a retro or revivalist band, and sometimes we got pigeonholed as that.
So for me, whether I failed or succeeded, I would lean towards a sound that was more eclectic, that wasn’t so 70’s or whatever, or where my influences go off the cuff. I really wanted to make something inclusive of all the music I listen to, still within the genre of having guitar prominent in the music. Kind of switching all over from 70’s to 80’s to 90’s, in that time period. Also going ahead and just saying, I like popular music, really famous musicians and stuff, you know contemporary.
Street: What do you listen to?
CO: I love Top 40. I guess she isn’t top anymore, but I was really into all those Britney Spears albums, I love Drake, I listen to alot of Katy Perry and I like Adele’s older record, I’m not that in love with the new one. Pretty much anything on the Top 40 you know? I love Rihanna, I’m a big fan of Rihanna. It is music and there’s something to be said that even if you might not have the craziest influences that you’re pulling from and this huge of musical history in your music. There’s something to be said about making something accessible and making something that’s appropriate to listen to when they’re like a 7 year old girl and 50 year old man. To gain that acceptance into the mainstream is something I think onto itself is an art. My career, I’ve always had really good critically acclaimed shit I just never really had that real success. Not that I want to go mainstream to succeed, I think it’s a really interesting way, being able to make something that a Top 40 song, it’s something that is art and has a lot of creative inputs going into it. But to be able to do something like that, just even trying to warp my songs a little bit in that direction, you know? And not make this idea that indie music or punk music, I mean it used to be, you need to make this barrier for the listener to jump over to in order to get it, you know?
To me, my big goal was always—it was apparent in Smith Westerns, much more apparent now—that I want to be something that anyone can listen to, on the surface it is catchy and cool but if you take a second to listen to actually analyze what I’m saying in my lyrics, to take a second to really listen and find these touchstones and nuggets of musical history that I leave in my songs, like old ass 80’s songs and using that texture to run throughout the whole song, or finding a guitar tone that sounds so similar to Brian Eno or something and dropping that in a song. I think kind of like making this weird hodgepodge of all my eclectic tastes and all of my influences.
Growing up at a certain time, I guess now I’m maybe older than some of the people that listen to my music. But also, I think that there’s a certain type of music I grew up listening to, and there’s certain type of music I grew up listening to because I chose to play guitar.
And that’s an experience I think is really great, learning how to play an instrument. I think guitar was a radical tool of rebellion at this point now has become so accepted and been around for so long. Everyone knows what guitar sounds like, everyone knows, I mean I guess I can argue with someone how much it could really change and the expectation of what guitar should sound like to most listeners.
For the most part people know exactly what a guitar should sound like. You’re not gonna be able to have the same effect of introducing a new sound and build some trickle wave form and changed it around. But there are other ways of making guitar interesting and reintegrating it and playing with what people are expecting from it and what’s become common, what guitar should sound like and how it should be used. I think right now people are very much reflecting on the kind guitar music that it’s like scratchy electric guitar or some revamp of 70’s music or something like that. And I think there’s a better way to do it. I’m not claiming that my record or my music is that better way, but I feel like for me, when I was approaching it, I was like if it works it works, but the last thing I wanna do is make a 70’s ripoff Smith Westerns record. I’ve done that for three records. I thought it’s time for something else.
Street: Would you say that your creative process is centered by guitar? Is that where you draw your inspiration?
Yeah, I mean I know how to play piano, I’m not amazing at it. I could write on it as far as chords. For me, I’ve always written with the TV really loud up so no one can hear what I’m doing. I’ve always written on a semi–hollow body so it’s not acoustic, not electric, it’s a little bit loud, but you can’t hear it in an apartment. I’ll kind of sit there and figure out the chords for the songs and the vocal melodies just by humming it out. And maybe I’ll piece together some kind of lyric that will stay as a vestigial product of the original song writing process, maybe it won’t. And what I’ll do is work it that way before I layer all the bells and whistles. Once you put some more stuff on other than guitar and vocals, sometimes it changes the song and I’ll end up rewriting the chorus or the verse and stuff.
Nine times out of 10 I’ll stay on the guitar and my voice as my main thread. My other thing is too, that I grew up playing chords, and in Smith Westerns I never played lead guitar up until I started doing my own stuff.
My experience is when I found a song I really liked and had some guitar in it, and the chords were more than just two or three chords, I felt like I was playing a song, playing an actual song, when I was playing those chords. I think the idea is that I’m not taking a sample of chords that are polished and mature in the same way I feel like other bands do that play guitar with the lamest chord structure and it’s bad.
There is some of that where I fall back into classic chord structures, but at the same time, I try to make it interesting enough, that when you listen to a song on full blast, with all the arrangements on it you get one experience. But if you were to be a musician or guitar player and sit down with the guitar and the chords, you’ll have a different experience, but it will sound like the song and it’s entertaining to play. And if I can have that connection with someone that plays music that sits down and plays my song and the song comes together and it sounds like the song, you know what I mean?
That’s the connection I think you can only have if you’re a musician which is also a secondary connection I feel like when I want to write my songs, that the person playing guitar wherever they are and singing the lyrics will have the same experience I had sitting in my room writing it. I think that’s a really powerful thing, and not in a cheesy way either. I think that’s a really cool byproduct of it.
Lots of people will say “Oh yeah, I made an album this time, a real album”. I feel like I made a “Cullen Omori Greatest Hits” record or something. I feel like all of the songs are singles in their own way. Like I said, I’m starting from square one. There are certain things that I’ve done in the past were very polarizing to people. But I think I made a great record. Even though its not having the same explosion the way that the Smith Westerns record did when they came out, I think ultimately it’s a base I could start a career off of, instead of trying to capture some of the heat from this initial flash.
Street: Are you still writing while you’re on tour?
CO: I’m taking the time now that I’ve been off to write now that the tour got cancelled. I can’t stress this enough—so much of my situation and my future has also been handled by signing with part of being part of the right people and right label. When my van broke down and when all that shit happened, Sub Pop was super good about getting it back and getting my gear back safe. It definitely feels like I have more songs in me, and they know I have more songs in me, and it doesn’t seem like they’re gonna be bailing on me any time soon. I want to look forward to the next record. I don’t like the idea of waiting two and a half years, if the record does well before you make another one. I’m not putting out music too often, but I’m not taking a long ass time. I want to capitalize on the momentum I get.
I like the idea of building a discography, the idea of being able to choose from a bunch of different songs, and also not having when I don’t play my one hit everyone’s pissed off. With this record, and I feel like with all my records, the favorite song isn’t obvious, and that was really hard when we picked the singles for this album.
People have seen the singles that we’ve picked and said ‘those aren’t the singles’. These should be the singles. That’s not something that happens with most records. Usually you find the most commercially viable, radio listenable right off the bat. From meetings with Sub Pop and talking to friends, everyone has their own collection of favorite songs off this record. I think that’s a really cool thing.
In terms of success, I feel more successful when musicians I admire message me and say ‘I heard the record it’s great’. A bunch of people, Cole from Diiv hit me up, and a bunch of other dudes. It’s good to know that people are people are still appreciating my music. It’s rewarding…It’s a sleeper. People are sleeping on it. It will start to become more and more apparent as word of mouth goes, and that’s fine by me.
Street: What’s the inspiration for the themes behind your music, you titled it New Misery and your tour’s name “Sad Guy No More”. What’s the idea behind the underlying sadness and overcoming that?
CO: The whole album came about after my band broke apart…it wasn’t so much that the band’s breakup itself is what I was upset about. I wasn’t. It was time to leave. What was more upsetting was that I had spent all this time, from the time I was in high school up until I was 23, 24 in this band.
I felt very grateful early on, I was one of the few people of my friends my age that had figured out. I figured out that I would be a musician and in this band, and hey we wouldn’t get along all the time. The worst thing we’d be thinking about that there would be a shitty reviewed album or the tour didn’t go that well. And that kind of changed when the reality of the whole band breaking up happened.
Identity wise—I was pretty much back to where I was when I started when I was 18. I didn’t have any work experience, or any other work experience I felt that could cross over in any field other than being a musician. I feel like all my experience up until that point was like two sentences that prefaces my album reviews. So that was a little disconcerting and a little scary.
Having that happen and not knowing where to start and where to go, if I would want to do music again or what I would do. The fact that Smith Westerns was as popular as it was, and that it was my first band, that was a 0.1% chance of that happening again. If I were to go back into it, I was going back into it, realistically, the chances of me repeating what I did with Smith Westerns are low, but do I want to do it because I love music? That was something that I wasn’t 100% sure of at the time, but I figured out that I did. That it was something I liked, something I did want to do, something I do want to pursue, and I didn’t care what the ramifications of it were. When you’re in a band that’s it’s doing well, people are on you to write your next record and you have a deadline for that, and the tour has to do well, what we’re going to do and how we’re going to change it. And all the money thrown into it. And there wasn’t a ton of it either, it got whittled down from so many people taking their cuts from it, that it wasn’t like I had created a stable future for myself in any means.
While I was figuring out what I was gonna do, I had my guitar and I had the means to record, so I started recording. That’s what I would always do. This time there were no deadlines. There was no rush to finish anything no deadlines. I started doing that. And that’s kind of how it happened. My mentality the whole time was like yeah, bummed out.I didn’t know what my legacy was gonna be or even what path I was going to take.
Now it makes sense, like oh, put out a record and tour and get back and people will like it. I haven’t been getting a ton of them, but the reviews are really good across the board except maybe one or two. I glance at them when they send me in the press packets, I don’t read them usually. Anyway, it wasn’t a clear path when I set out to do it. At the time I felt very lost as what to do.
Now in hindsight of course, it’s cool as shit, put out a record, people will like it.
Even when I wrote the songs, it took me 6 months to get someone to put it out. No one wanted to touch it. One or two labels. Compared to people you’re talking to like ‘oh you’re set...’ that’s not the case. It took a long time to finally find a home. And when I did, it was great. Sub Pop came in and saved the day.
It’s also kind of tongue–in–cheek, the whole saga. At the same time that’s the only way I know how to discuss things if you’re depressed or you have a little anxiety, putting a little humor into it. So that’s kind of the way I approached it.