If you happen to be in Chicago and see Smith Westerns’ Cullen Omori out at night—which isn’t very often—send the man home if you’d like to see the band’s next album be as good as the new release, Dye It Blonde, released January 18 on Fat Possum Records. By his own admission, Omori’s hometown isn’t that fun, so he tends to stay in a lot and write songs in his room. For inspiration, he listens to other bands—four different songs from four bands, to be precise—and thinks about incorporating those ideas into a song for Smith Westerns. But listening to other bands has its limitations: sometimes he’ll hear something so good from another band that what he subsequently writes just can’t compare. And that leads to writer’s block. What I found most interesting about the band’s creative process is their willingness to put song fragments aside, sometimes for months, then return to them with a new outlook. Sitting on songs, in Omori’s eyes, makes the band more confident in their songwriting.
Dye It Blonde has received rave reviews for its low-fi garage rock sound. Read more about Omori’s creative process after the video and catch them now on tour.
Have you ever had any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I went to film school and was into that for a while, but I got away from it because making music obviously takes fewer people than making movies, and I didn’t want to rely on so many other people. With something like a film, you own less of the creative process. It falls out of your hands.
Because of your film background, do you start your songwriting process with an image?
Not really. I create the chord progressions and Max fills in the parts. I do a vocal melody and he embellishes it or puts stuff over it. I don’t know that I think of music visually. I think of it more like a game—what fits and what doesn’t. I don't have any cool creative process. Laughs.
I read somewhere that love is one of the themes you like to cover, so how often do you make a conscious effort to cover certain topics in your songwriting?
The lyrics are written after the music. I don’t usually have a phrase that I build a song around. What I like to write about is the theme of romanticism and the idea of wanting something. It’s not written for a girl or about anyone in particular. It’s about desire, not necessarily about a relationship. Like if we are on tour and playing shitty shows, it could be about wanting to play better shows. A lot of people who write songs are specific about who or what they are writing about. But our lyrics are open ended and can apply to a wide range of things. It’s really more about a sense of optimism, wanting things to get better.
What is the writing routine like between you and Max?
It takes a long time for us to write. Usually I’ll listen to four songs on repeat that are totally different from each other, and I’ll think about how I can incorporate all of them into a song. That’s often a starting point. I can’t listen to a song and know note for note what is being played, so I try to reinterpret it in my own way. If I come up with a fragment of a song, I’ll refine it then go to Max. He might have another verse or chorus in the same key, or we’ll just change the key. Then we blend those two things together to see if they work.
A lot of those songs we might have for four or five months. We’ll refine an entire verse, record it as a demo, leave it, then come back five months later with a new chorus or approach it from another perspective.
Why does that work for you?
It makes everything less rushed, and we can really let it unfold. On the new album, we wanted each song to unfold when you listen, because that’s how it was written. We come up with a part and then let it breathe. There are a bunch of songs we recorded that aren’t even on the album because we thought they sucked. Like we might have a verse we love, but we don’t have a good chorus. The songs on the album were not written on the spot, like one take and it’s done. Each song was scrutinized. We have a high standard, and sitting on songs makes us feel more confident.
With any type of writing, sitting on something often brings results.
Yeah, it’s like going shopping. Do you want to buy a cool outfit all at once, or do you want to come back several times and buy a new piece to the outfit each time, after giving what you have time to sink in?
When do you write the lyrics?
Max writes the guitar parts. When I sing the melody over it, I first just make up words that come to my head. It’s very free association. Sometimes I’ll make up the words and phrases just to fit the melody of the song. I don’t want to be cheesy with lyrics, but there comes a point where you can be so over the top in using weird phrases. What we are trying to do is make love songs that are neutral, that aren’t too personal. I try avoid clichés, but sometimes I’ll slip them in just for the hell of it. And I like picking lyrics from other songs and repackaging them in our sounds.
So does the melody drive what the song is going to be about?
For sure. I’ll create a melody in my head, and the phrases often come from that.
How disciplined are you as a songwriter?
I try to sit down and write every day, or at least come up with parts of songs. It’s fun to try to look at a guitar neck, where there are only so many notes, and think about how many ways you can arrange them. It’s not like I make a conscious effort each day to come away with a song, but at the same time I don't dread it. Its fun, and I feel accomplished when I create something that sounds good. It’s not hard to come up with a song, but it’s hard to come up with a song that fits my standards.
Describe a productive writing environment for you.
I write best at home. There’s nothing that I like to do here in Chicago, so I end up staying at home a lot and playing guitar. I don’t really go out here in Chicago. It’s not that fun. I don’t want to go party, because that’s what I do on the road. So when I’m home, I like to decompress. I’ll sit in my room, and if I can’t come up with a song right away, I try to learn someone else’s songs, which often helps me generate ideas.
Are you a night owl?
I find that if I write something late at night, I wake up in the morning and realize that it sucks. I like to wake up, eat, then go my room and write. If nothing happens, I eat, watch TV, then try again. If I’m not thinking that I have to write something, that’s when I get my best work done. If I’m under pressure, it usually doesn’t come out so well. I like to go at my own pace and not force it. I can’t crank out the hits.
Do you write your lyrics with pen and paper?
Yeah. I don’t like typing. Plus, if I type on my computer, I always end up going on Facebook or something like that.
How do you know when a song is done?
When we recognize that the other person has made something that we like, that’s often a good place to be. We have different standards. If he wants to write a slow song, I want to write a fast one. And vice versa. There’s some competition involved.
How often do you get writer’s block?
It happens pretty often. It comes after I listen to a new band that I really like, and I start to think that everything I write after that sounds like shit. I’ll get so into a band that either the songs I write are a complete rip-off of that band, or they are not nearly as good as what that band does. So I just don’t touch a guitar for a week. That’s the best time: when I don’t touch a guitar at all. When I play all the time, I’ll often hit a wall.
. How has your songwriting changed with this album?
With the first record, the lyrics were jokes and “caveman” lyrics, like the most obvious thing you’d see in a love song. With the new one, we tried to be a lot more clever. I try to make it more honest. When we first started, I didn’t want to write songs that were super-cryptic with crazy wordplay. But I didn’t want to write songs about getting fucked up, either. That’s a cliché. The reason we started doing the love song thing is that it was so cliché that not a lot of people were doing it anymore.
What was the easiest song to write on this album?
Probably “All Die Young,” because I had this phrase in my head and I knew exactly what was going to go with it. The song was written about when we go on tour and see all these people in arrested development, older people who play in bands or who go to shows all the time and get fucked up. They’re doing the same thing they used to do, except now they are worse at it. What we are doing now is fun, but I’d rather—what’s that James Dean saying?—live fast, die young. I don’t know that you can do something like this for your whole life.
But it sounds like you approached that song with an idea of what it was going to be about.
Yeah, once I come up with a chorus or catch phrase, it’s easy to work around. It’s finding that phrase or sentence that can be tough. If I have an idea of the song’s format—like if it is going to be a love song—I can come up with a title. Then once I have a title, I can often fill in the other parts of the song.
How often do you get song ideas from your environment?
A lot of times, song titles pop up just from conversations I have. Then I’ll write it down for later. But do I have a crazy night and try to recapture it the next morning? Usually not. It’s more like I stumble upon that phrase subconsciously.