If, light years from now, people ever want a snapshot of youth and young manhood in 2011, they need look no further than Chicago trio Smith Westerns, for to listen to their music is to experience vicariously the reckless thrills and irrepressible energy of a new generation, distilled to its purest and most vital essence. Hell, even the title of their lustrous sophomore album “Dye it Blonde” manages to capture its touchstone signifiers in three easy words, almost as much a playfully potent and authoritative slogan as it is a glorious statement of intent.
Even more appropriately, the beginnings of Smith Westerns were fomented while the trio of Cullen (guitar, lead vocals) and Cameron Omori (bass) and Max Kakacek (guitar) were still in high school. “We were all going to school together, so we started playing together”, Cullen Omori says of their formative years in Kakacek’s basement. “It was very punk rock, very straightforward stuff; we didn’t really try that hard at the beginning. It was really raw, music-wise, stage-wise, everything, then we just started playing gigs around Chicago”. Around this time, they were introduced to the halcyon era of glam-rock by one of Omori’s parents’ old friends, opening their eyes to David Bowie, Marc Bolan, T-Rex. The resultant self-titled debut – released in 2009 – was a revelation, with the trio showing remarkable facility in assimilating influences belying their age group, while also hardwiring them to a stomp and swagger entirely their own.
The album release won them instant buzz (with Todd Killings of Hozac Records even picking it up and giving it a proper release) and staunch support from the influential likes of Pitchfork and NME, and, in short order, they hit the road (with the likes of Girls and Los Campesinos!), left college, and signed with Fat Possum Records. “In late 2009, midway through touring, that’s when we definitely felt like something was happening”, Omori admits. “It felt like all our hard work was finally paying off. The tour we wound up with Girls, we were playing big venues, it was really exciting”.
When it came to recording their next album however, the band – frustrated with the lo-fi tags that had been hastily and carelessly slapped on their debut (“I felt like we did the best we could with ****** equipment and no money, we weren’t deliberately trying to sound like that”) – were intent on pushing it to the next level as much as possible. “Fat Possum wanted us to record it super lo-fi but we knew we wanted something a lot bigger than the last album” Omori says. “They gave us this advance and we didn’t even use it to pay ourselves at all – it all went towards making this record”.
To that end, the band recruited producer Chris Coady, already feted for his work on some of the most canonised records of recent years, among them Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Fever to Tell”, TV On the Radio’s “Dear Science” and Beach House’s “Teen Dream”. It was a union that was borne, quite simply, out of mutual admiration. “We wanted to work with someone whose work we liked also, and Chris has made so many records we really loved, like the Cold Cave record (“Love Comes Close”). Once he came in everything was pretty quick. We recorded it in 20 days and mixed it in 10 days. We knew what we wanted, and we just went for it”.
What they wanted, to judge from the end result, was a lush, layered wall of sound, complete with back-up vocals, phasered guitars, rich synths, and an effortlessly universal, ageless, peerless feel. “It was definitely a conscious thing that we worked towards”, Omori agrees. “For a while everything was so bare bones, lo-fi, badly recorded, and we wanted something that sounded kind of timeless – like music in the 60’s. Really big choruses, really clean sounding. That was the kind of sound we were aiming for”. Indeed, some of the unabashedly anthemic choruses and full-bodied melodies seem designed expressly to be sung along to in arenas, lighters aloft, with some songs even vaguely recalling another well-known stadium act from this side of the pond. “Yeah, I actually listened to a lot of Oasis while we were making the record”, Omori confesses. “You can kind of hear it with songs like “Smile”, where we rip them off a little bit”.
Make no mistake; “Dye It Blonde” is an album destined to soundtrack hot, hazy summer days and a million house parties, driving along the open road with the top down or even rowdy nights in. When asked where the ideal place for Smith Westerns to play however, Omori plays it admirably cool. “We’d love to play at big arenas, eventually. But for now we’d just like to play in clubs to great crowds who know all the words to our songs. It’s starting to happen now, I think”.