Cullen Omori Talks Life Post-Smith Westerns, DIY Solo Struggles & His Sparkling Second Album

Josh Spencer
Cullen Omori

Jumping on the phone with Cullen Omori takes a couple of tries. The place that the native Chicagoan calls home these days -- a back house on a property in Los Angeles’ storied Laurel Canyon -- gets wonky reception, and before we begin, it’s best for him to take a walk down the drive, to his car. “I can kind of use the car as an office,” he explains.

Once we do get talking, it’s clear that Omori -- former frontman of one-time indie “it” band Smith Westerns and for the past four years solo artist in his own right -- is amped about his second album The Diet. It’s a record that doubles down on the shimmery, hazy and unconventional pop rock of his solo debut, 2016’s New Misery. The new collection, which includes pre-release singles “Four Years,” “Happiness Reigns” and “A Real You,” is in fact a more immediate listen -- though Cullen wasn’t necessarily trying for that.

“The funny thing is, I think some of the singles on this record are way stronger than the singles on New Misery, even though that wasn’t my intention,” he says. “It was really just to make a standalone piece of art.” The new record came along much sooner that Omori expected, thanks to a series of unfortunate events that derailed New Misery before it hardly had a chance. When life gives you lemons, as they say, and Cullen had to feel he was handed a bushel full of them in 2016. The Diet is his lemonade. 

Before this past Sunday, the last time I talked to Omori was New Year's Eve, 2014, at the late, great Brooklyn art and music space Glasslands. It was a bittersweet night—the last show for the venue and for Smith Westerns. The glam-garage trio called it quits after three acclaimed albums, high profile tours, an ardent albeit modest fan base, and the departure of founding guitarist Max Kakacek. Omori’s younger brother and SW bassist Cameron went back to school—but Cullen was all in for music, even while flying into the great unknown of a solo career without a pilot’s license. Eventually, back home in Chicago, amidst much shut-in life and no shortage of drugs, the songs for New Misery came. The debut was recorded with Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, Cults) and Omori signed with Sub Pop, the indie leviathan that just celebrated its 30th anniversary (a label formed two years before Omori was born).

Which brings us back to Cullen and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad 2016. It started off promisingly enough: positive, if not universally glowing reviews for New Misery, particularly in the UK and Europe (Omori, used to raves, saw this as a glass half-empty), and strong touring in the Midwest and at South By Southwest, but heading up the west coast, his touring van broke down at the Canadian border; a replacement vehicle was vandalized and all of Omori’s clothes were stolen; shows were canceled, and soon after, his live-in girlfriend of four years broke up with him and moved out of their Chicago apartment. Cullen wound up living with his parents.

But wait, there’s more: “Then I had this big exodus of people quitting or parting ways,” he explains. “I stopped working with the manager I had been working with, the booking agent stopped working with me, and so all of a sudden I had no way to book any shows to support New Misery, and I couldn’t find an agent at the time who wanted to come on board, halfway through a record cycle.” He’s also convinced that some of Smith Westerns’ punk-styled antics early on—they were teenagers, after all, given to occasional jerk behavior—did him no favors. “We definitely burned some bridges and it came back to haunt me a little bit,” he says. “So it made pushing forward and trying to promote New Misery really hard, almost impossible.”

Simply put, this solo stuff turned out to be a tougher slog than Cullen had anticipated. “I just guess I didn’t realize how much from the bottom I was starting over again, really. Because at that point I think I’d kind of grown up having every review I’d ever gotten be really good, and I hadn’t played a non-sold out show in like five years or something. And then to go back to playing to barely anyone and just getting mixed reviews—it was formative.” The aborted rollout of the debut album put a chip on his shoulder, but rather than let it grow into a boulder, wallowing in his new misery, Omori channeled his energy into even more songwriting. “I really just had no options other than sit around and do nothing,” he says. “So writing just came naturally after that.” And, to shake things up, a transcontinental relocation: he moved to L.A.

“It was kind of spur of the moment,” he recalls. “I had had the record and the tour go to shit, my relationship go to shit, and I had a friend who was like, 'You can come out and stay in L.A. and rent a room. Just try and come out for a month and focus on something else, maybe a change of pace.' And so I came out and I really enjoyed it." While his move out west is in keeping with a steady stream of artists—from Soundcloud rappers to indie rock and pop musicians—who’ve succumbed to L.A.’s siren song in recent years, for Cullen, the relocation had less to do with the sun or space (“I’m in a smaller space now than I’ve ever been in,” he says), or “industry” access than it was just a rather spontaneous way to shake things up. And although he’s holed up in Laurel Canyon, he’s not particularly hung up on the mystique of the place synonymous with Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, Crosby, Stills and Nash and many more. “I’ve seen other indie musicians really go and run with that narrative, of like this place having this vibe to it, and I didn’t really get that,” he says. “This little place I’m living in is great, and it’s cheap, but I could easily live anywhere else if it was as cheap as the place I have right now.”

Being in L.A. also proved fortuitous in late 2016 when, armed with some new, rough versions of songs that had come surprisingly quickly, Omori found himself opening a show at The Echo for his friends Fatal Jamz. Ever hard on himself, Cullen felt that the set, played early to a sparse room, was a disaster. “I thought, ‘This sucks, it sounds really bad, maybe these songs don’t’ translate live,’” he recalls. Taylor Locke disagreed. The engineer, producer and ex-guitarist for alt-rockers Rooney approached Cullen after the show. “He was like ‘I really liked your stuff, if you ever want to come over, I’ve got a studio, it’s in my back yard.’ So I came by and we worked on the songs and I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll try that out.’ Because up until that point, I wasn’t really planning on another album, or I assumed it wouldn’t be for a very long time.”

Within a matter of months though, the two were in Locke’s Los Feliz studio assembling what would become The Diet, with a mixed bag of guest players. Created, Omori says, with less concern for making “hits” than No Misery, the album showcases the singer’s penchant for unconventional, off-kilter power pop—sweetly cinematic walls of sound dominate, rather than traditional verse-chorus structures. Which is not to say there aren’t memorable hooks: "Happiness Reigns" is sublime, and “Natural Woman” and “Master Eyes” are standouts as well. While most songs are short—only two tracks clock in at more than four minutes, and one of the most charming, “Last Line,” is a puny but powerful 1:55 -- Omori knows how to hit it and quit it. And as with all of his records going back to Smith Westerns, you’ll hear touchstones from an earlier era. He’s long worn his influences, from T. Rex and Bowie to Oasis, on his sleeve, but he hopes he’s increasingly able to channel them in a modern way. “I mean, the idea that there’s a nostalgia to it doesn’t make sense really because I wasn’t around 50 or 60 years ago when that music was new,” he asserts. “It’s a thoroughly new experience to me. Of course I’m indebted to those influences, the biggest things being like '70s rock and '90s Britpop. And if you take those two things and you put it through the lens of now, you can warp it and kind of reinterpret it in a way that yeah, it is familiar in a sense, but it’s also its own new, weird thing.”

At least two songs on the new album draw on specific women in his life: “Four Years,” as the name implies, was born out of his long-term Chicago relationship, while “Happiness Reigns” was not only inspired by, but features writing input from his most recent girlfriend, model Sammie Yochelson. Although the chorus proclaims “Pictures of you and me in love,” and Yochelson gets the first thank-you on the album, the couple recently broke up. “I know, right? Now I look like an asshole!” he self-deprecatingly exclaims. No, not an asshole, Cullen, just a good boyfriend—and anyway, it’s not as bad as a tattoo.

Elsewhere, another aspect of The Diet that stands out—something you might not pick up on without a lyric sheet—is the remarkably sexed up, explicit lyrics, a rarity in indie rock. A sampler: “I won’t lead, she won’t follow/ Won’t spit or won’t swallow” (“Natural Woman”); “I’ll call when I want to/ And I’ll fuck when I want to be with you” (“Millennial Geishas”); “In the wettest of my dreams/ Don’t get me off anymore/ It’s a chore” (“Master Eyes”). Are you ready for a shower yet? But Omori is quick to point out that lines that might appear as pure thirst are often something else. “A lot of times with the more explicit stuff, what I’m referencing, the object of the song isn’t another person or even an idealized person, but rather it’s me talking about something else—lusting after drugs, or love songs to anti-depressants or whatever.”

While he admits to liking the idea of pushing the lyrical envelope in a punk-spirited way, he’s well aware that in 2018, particularly in indie rock circles, language isn’t taken lightly. “For instance,” he offers, “some of the old Rolling Stones lyrics. If you listen to those, some of those are really misogynistic.” [No kidding. See: “Brown Sugar.”] “But this isn’t objectifying. This is more me just giving it some bite, and playing with expectations where you’re listening to this indie rock song and all of a sudden there’s a lyric like ‘spit or swallow,’ something like that. It’s in no way condoning some kind of creepy, gross, masculine thing. I’m just playing with conventions, and if it veers into something that people find shocking, well, I don’t know.”

Omori -- news flash -- looks the part of a rock star. Suffice to say that genetics -- his dad is Japanese, his mom Irish -- have been kind to him. In fact he’s so good looking that you wonder if he’s serious when he says he was a high school “loser” who turned to music as an escape. In any case, the camera loves him, and he knows how to work it, though he’s certainly conscious of how that kind of thing can—again, especially in indie rock—be seen as eye roll-inducing d-baggery, and he’s quick to take the piss out of himself on social media. “Like, back in Smith Westerns we’d get a lot of ‘Oh these guys are assholes,’” he recalls. “And it was never that I thought I was better, it was more like, I was 18, 19 or 20 years old, and I was really insecure about myself, and so in a very kind of idiot way I tried to exude this overconfidence. But now that I’m older I mean, yeah, I’m the first one to tell you that I’m not perfect.”

And while in the past he’s bemoaned the lack of “rock stars” in the 21st century, it’s more about romanticizing the trope than celebrating the attitude. “I almost feel like the ‘rock star’ attitude is like a vestigial organ or something,” he offers. “Because it no longer works! There aren’t millions and millions of dollars pouring into guitar music anymore. It’s been done.”

Those are facts. And Cullen is under no illusions -- now less than ever -- that the path he’s chosen is an easy one. “I always kind of hope that being a rock musician in 2018 isn’t the equivalent of being in the 1950s and being like, ‘I’m gonna become a jazz musician!’ you know, right when rock n' roll was born,” he says. “I think the terms of what you enter into when you play guitar music in 2018 -- even compared to 2010, and especially compared to 2001 -- are totally different, you know what I mean? Not to say I am a martyr for playing guitar music or anything, but I’m definitely aware that I’m not doing it so that I can become ‘famous.’ Because there’s no doubt other avenues or genres of music where I could achieve that much quicker.”

Still, he keeps the faith, and keeps to a budget. As The Diet’s title suggests, Cullen Omori is rolling more economically than he’s done in years, strapping on bass in some recent live shows and playing as a three-piece, and even contemplating touring the new record by using different groups of musicians—one in the west, on in the east, and one from his beloved Chicago—to cut down on costs. “Taking a whole band on tour is costly,” he says. “Things are way more DIY, and I’m much more involved these days. It feels in a way kind of the vibe of Smith Westerns at the very beginning. I am my tour manager, I have to take on a lot of things [his homemade merch is something to see], which is fine.” Cullen’s been refreshingly candid online, too, about the ups and downs of life post-Smith Westerns, including a tweet he wrote soon after our conversation prior to the album's release:

"We in the homestretch now gang! 5 days to go until my new album The Diet is released. Really hope the roll out and reception is much better than the last record I put out."

That gold scale emoji he tweeted suggests “justice.” No one ever said there was much of that in music, but Cullen Omori deserves a break—and could well get it with The Diet, a “happy medium,” he says, between Smith Westerns and New Misery. “Other than music, the learning curve is very steep,” he concludes. “Like I’ve said before, I have a high school education, I didn’t go to college, I skipped out on college to do music, and so now the only thing I really know how to do is this. Which is a good and a bad thing, I guess? We’ll see how this record goes.”