Originally featured here on Clash.
Images by Rachel Lipstitz
“I was trying to rush to get this record done. I wanted it to come out like early this year, but I had a couple setbacks…”
Cullen Omori begins endearingly rambling to me through his speakerphone. We’ve been struggling to speak with each other because – time zones – and all that, “It’s always someone’s going into bed or someone’s just about to wake up, you know what I mean?” We know exactly what you mean Cullen.
But finally, we get to chat all about his new album ‘The Diet’ (out now), why he hopes EDM isn’t the new British invasion, and how he wanted his latest record to be timeless. Cullen tells me ‘The Diet’ was written during an eight-month period starting back in June ’16. “That’s a really quick amount of time for me. Usually, in order for me to get ten songs together it’s going to take me at least a year of working on different songs and seeing which ones I like and stuff.”
But circumstances meant Cullen started writing sooner than expected, just for something to do. Setting the scene, he talks me through what happened after he released his first solo album ‘New Misery’. “I think the expectation was for me to rest on my laurels and just cruise to the finish line. Um, and that didn’t happen.”
Heading out to tour his first solo record after the breakup of his band Smith Westerns, the “shows were poorly attended”, “our van got smashed and grabbed”, and “my girlfriend breaks up with me right before the European leg of the tour. So it was like an emotional kick in the balls.”
“I come back (after Europe) and I don’t have a place to live in Chicago anymore. I ended up going and staying at my parents’ place, which is obviously not what I want to be doing when I’m 26-years-old and haven’t lived at home for God knows for how long. But, I’m there and I start writing music, just as something to do.”
A lot of early Smith Westerns’ stuff was written in the very same basement in 2009 he tells me. “Flash forward almost a decade after that and I’m back there again except I’m just not in good circumstances.”
Using the same four-track tape recorder he used in high school, Cullen began taping the songs he was writing “instead of throwing my hands up and just quitting. The only way I could tread water, so to speak, was to write music. And then I got this rush of creativity as far as writing songs goes, because it’s not very often that you write an album immediately after another release”.
Music is like, “you love to do something, and you put everything about yourself into it, or at least I do. I honestly do at this point. But it’s never gonna love you back. You know what I mean? I love playing music. I like being a musician. For the longest time, how people saw my music was how I wanted them to see me, and (their reaction) was my worth. All the reviews or whatever, they can make you pumped on yourself, or super upset.”
“It’s a unique field. You can put in X amount of time on making a record but you’re not necessarily going to get something back. You can put in tons of time and for whatever reason it just doesn’t click with people and then that’s that.”
“[Going back a decade, Smith Westerns] originally just started as a high school band and we consistently got more and more popular, we lucked in. And now, I see myself as a musician finally for the first time ever. For the longest time, I never thought of myself as a musician. I saw myself as someone who happened to be in a band. I don’t pick up a guitar and shred. I’m not Bach. I’m not some virtuoso musician.”
Through Cullen’s honesty, it’s clear the push and pull of being a musician is a tough rope. He says music is something which can be a great source of joy at times, something which gives you an identity and the ability to be whoever you want to be in your music.
“Because there’s this performative aspect of [music]. But there’s also a confessional aspect to it. You’re basically opening yourself up to get abuse online and with music write ups”. Just fyi, that won’t happen here, because Cullen’s latest tracks are the brand spanking new shiny shoes you cannot wait to wear. And he agrees, despite being over two years since he started writing the tracks, “I can still listen to them and I like ‘em. That’s not something that can always be said going back after that long of a time period from when you make something.”
Cullen has had all the good reviews, the five stars, and had the good write-ups in the past, “I’ve done all that”. But now, “I really want to just be able to play shows and people want to see them, see the music and are interested in the music. That’s something that as I’ve gotten better as a musician and older, I think the live aspect is something that I gravitate to more now. I feel like I’m a better live musician now.”
Making music for a decade, Cullen has seen some changes. “I’m curious as to why stuff is popular now, I just cast my music into the world.” Talking about guitar music specifically, he says there are three main avenues you can take as a guitar band in the music scene “and I didn’t want (the second album) to sound like any of those. I didn’t want it to give over to the psychedelic jazz thing which is a really popular right now and I didn’t want it to be like super jangly revivalist either. I wanted ‘The Diet’ to pull from all the bands that I learned how to play guitar through their songs, that was one of my big influences.”
He says there’s a lot of Oasis in the album, but not Guitar Hero stuff… He liked the idea of classic song writing and having the bands that taught him how to play guitar being able to be heard in the album. “But I wanted it to be warped enough so it sounds new in 2018. But at the same time, if you sound too new and you go for too much trendy shit you’re going to end up having something in four years from now that is going to sound like 2018. In the same way that, if you listen to indie music from the early noughties now, it’s so cutesy with a baby piano doing the riff.” (All I can hear in my head is The Wombats circa 2007).
Looking to the future, “I hope we’re entering a period where rock and roll, and I hate using that term, it sounds so dated now, so rock and roll or whatever you want to call it, I hope we’re just in a lull before there’s a big resurgence. Is this what it feels like to be a jazz musician in 1960 before the British invasion? Is EDM the new British invasion? Cause I hope not. I hope we don’t think of Calvin Harris as a really seminal musician, like a critical darling, in thirty years,” he says with a light heart.
We probably won’t be learning about Calvin Harris the way we learn about Beethoven, let’s be honest. Or if we do, can we please sit in on one of those lessons?
Going back to ‘The Diet’, we begin talking lyrics. He says this album is interesting lyrically. After experimenting on ‘New Misery’, and writing lyrics that are more “poem-y”, Cullen has gone back to the classic love song for inspiration. “As cheesy as the love song thing is, it’s universal.” And by using the love song as a starting point, “I could use it as a template to write songs about other things with a little more freedom. I could make them more clever and slyer.”
He says, “‘Four Years’ is one of the few songs on the album that could have the narrative of me singing to another person”, one of the only clear love songs. Playing around with the concept of love songs means the music is jumping around and full of metaphors. “I like to be playful but also drop some real emotional truths for myself, and other times I like to play with the convention of what people think I should be singing next.”
In a description, it says the album is ‘love songs to my antidepressants’. “There were parts of the writing cycle where I got on a bunch of that stuff and then back off them. But I don’t want to glorify or make it this interesting thing as if to make the record more interesting. It’s just something that happened to me.”
Cullen also says how he was learning to change habits, “you can get away of doing whatever you feel like to yourself” when you’re in your early twenties and touring and “doing reasonably well” he says. “Over this record I was digging myself out of a hole I made from these habits”.
We’ve spoken about the confessional themes to this record, and he tells me, by putting the tracks “in the format of love songs, a conventional framing” he was placing a “barrier between me putting it all out there and me having something private for myself. Maybe subconsciously or maybe not, but I think I did that to protect myself so I didn’t put every single problem I have crystal clear out there. It means the album could appeal to a wider audience because they understand the face value of the song, but if you know anything about my biography then you can suss out exactly the meanings to it.”
And really, it’s the honesty in this album that makes it so beautiful. With a promise to head to the UK “soon”, Cullen just wanted to say “I hope people pick up on the record out there and I hope they like it.”