It’s gone nine on a Tuesday evening in Soho. People are milling about, drinking outside pubs and pretending it’s not a school night. Summer is very much in the air. Down Madame Jo Jo’s dingy stairs, holed up in the cramped corridor-like backstage room are four stringy-legged kids from Chicago. SMITH WESTERNS are headlining White Heat later and a ton of people are filling up the club but if they’re excited it’s hard to tell. They’ve been touring their eponymous debut album (released on Hozac Records last year) hard since January and, with just two days till they fly back home, the weariness seems to have caught up with them. Not that it shows when they take to the stage for a shimmery set of Garage Pop perfection, including the crowd-pleasing Be My Girl released on Transparent last summer. New tracks Smile and All Die Young in particular sound really special, like songs you feel you already know. While there is an element SMITH WESTERNS might be relatively new to all of this but they’ve already got their game locked tight.
Before their set we make room amongst the stacked chairs, empty clothes rail and cans of tepid lager to have a chat. Singer Cullen and bassist Max do most of the talking. Cullen’s guitarist brother Cameron and drummer Colby keep schtum for the most part, occasionally guffawing at some of Cullen’s comments. Although pretty hard to engage with for the first few minutes, once we get through the boring questions they perk up. On reflection, their relative disinterest in promo is refreshingly Rock ‘n’ Roll. SMITH WESTERNS are a band on a very focused path. Don’t let the ‘or whatever’s fool you. While their songs capture moments of transitory yearning, these dudes are in this for the long haul it seems and nothing less than the big time is going to be good enough. They might just get there too.
So I heard Be My Girl through Transparent…
Cullen: Yeah. Our album came out a year ago and then the Transparent thing was a one-off single last July. The album had a small release, we had a 1000 printed of it…we have just whatever distribution, not really, the label doesn’t really have distribution. The last I heard was it being really hard to get here, the vinyl or whatever.
It would be good to know a bit more about you in terms of when you got together, how it all started.
Cullen: You talk Max, I just have to check something…[fiddles with laptop].
Max: Us three started in high school about three years ago. Cullen, Cameron and myself. They’re brothers. We’ve gone through a couple of drummers…
Bands always seem to go through drummers. What is it with that?
They’re just assholes. Not this one though [gestures at Colby]. We started out a crappy high school band and then eventually, here we are. I guess.
What did you grow up listening to and did it make it into your music?
Max: [distracted by the sound from the club] Oh damn, Drake is on in there?
Big into Drake?
Cullen: I guess like, the thing is…I don’t know if we grew up with anything. I think we were discovering things as we were growing up. So I mean…what did you mean?
What I meant was, there’s definitely a lot of 60s Garage and 70s Psychedelia that I can hear in there. Like in Tonight, the fuzzy, psychedelic sounds in there that feel like another era. But what I was feeling about your songs is that they’re very in the moment. There seems to be a big thing about nostalgia at the moment, but your songs don’t feel nostalgic. The sentiment is very ‘now’.
Cullen: That’s what we want it to be. Just cos, like, every other band is like ‘let’s go to the beach, suck each other’s cocks’ or whatever [group “Whhhhaaaaat!” and laughter from everyone]. It’s just like bullshit. All those bands, they’re nostalgic because they’re losing it, y’know. Kids who had all of college to play with recording equipment, synthesisers in their bedrooms or whatever. Whereas for us it was like, I started playing music when I was 18 and a half. We started recording when I was 19, put the record out and went on tour when I was 20 and now we’re playing here. So it’s like, there’s no gap between when high school let out and when we started.
Have you always wanted to do music?
Cullen: When we all started high school, we didn’t have any goal or anything to make a band. We always hung out together, I guess like it sounds stupid saying we were art kids but we hung out with a lot of kids who, for being 18 or whatever, listened to alright music, y’know what I mean? And then we took it one step further and started listening to other stuff, other than all the big alt bands that every 18-year-old thinks is an underground band or whatever. So I think we were just seeing what we could do.
There is something very timeless about your songs. I was thinking about the way Pop music has evolved over the last 10 years, the idea of what pop used to be is very different to it what it is now…
Cullen: Everyone wants to make Pop songs. It’s just figuring out a way to do it. You want all of your music to appeal, for people to like it, y’know. Any band that says ‘we don’t want to write pop songs’, then why put it out, y’know.
I’m really excited to see you play tonight because recorded, you can hear all the melodies, but it’s slightly hidden behind the feedback, which I really like…
Max: I think now we’re at a point where we’re over that. It’s been out for so long. When we made it, we really liked lots of noise stuff going on. But making the same record twice is kinda dumb. The newer stuff is a lot more clean. When we play now, it’s a lot cleaner. The Pop songs are more straight up Pop songs, there’s no hiding behind any lo-fi gimmick. It’s just straight up. The new stuff is much more produced. It’s really exciting who we’re planning on recording this with. The production is going to be more intense, more instrumentation, more complex harmonies.
So you’re not producing and recording it yourselves?
Max: No, we hired a producer. We made the decision to take advantage of the opportunity we’d been given rather than just make it ourselves to say we’d made it ourselves. We’d rather make something that sounds really good.
Who are you working with?
Max: I don’t think we can say yet. It’s not been confirmed. You’ll know soon enough. It’s being released through North America through Fat Possum.
Cool. So Girls are big fans of yours?
Max: Well, we lived in San Francisco with them for a little bit.
Colby: I’m from San Francisco.
Max: He’s better friends with them.
Colby: That’s kind of how we all connected, yeah.
So how did you end up living with them, was that through touring?
Max: Um, we went out to meet him [Colby] and toured with them and we used to like, crash on their couch.
I saw them a couple of times when they were over back in October, November. That album’s awesome. Although their sound is very different, Lust For Life makes me think of what you’re doing because of that right-here-right-now-nothing-else-matters thing. That’s what I really like about your sound.
Max: I haven’t been able to hear their new stuff yet but apparently it’s going to be really cool. He’s being really annoying about sending it to me but he said it’s sounding really good.
Colby: Horns, what did you say, French horns?
Max: Yeah, he has like French horns and stuff on it so it’s going to be really cool. They want to do a lot of stuff with Latin rhythms or something.
Cullen: Like Vampire Weekend?
Max: No, not like Vampire Weekend but weird… they’re trying to do some different… I dunno, I’m excited to hear it.
So you were touring with Girls as well? How was that?
Max: Yeah that was like our first major tour I guess really, wasn’t it? Last summer, so almost a year ago.
Cullen: Yeah, I mean we had a taste with like J-Retard.
Max: Yeah, touring with them was awesome, sometimes they get a little diva-like, but most of the time they’re really like awesome.
Max: No, like, d…
Max: Yeah, give it some ‘tude.
No ‘tude from your end, then?
So what are your dreams with Smith Western?
Cullen: Um, I mean…
Max: I want to be Jack White, Cullen’s going to be Julian Casablancas.
Cullen: I think like… I definitely don’t want to go back to school for a while. I just think…like… if you want to spend all this money and whatever and, like, effort on writing, I think now we want it to be, like, really actually put out right. I think that’s the dream. Have it reach all the people that would like it and stuff and not be some like underground thing.
Who writes what?
Cullen: It works out really well, because Max is technically really good and I don’t really know how to play guitar that well so when I try to rip stuff off it comes off fucked up and that’s a song.
Who do you listen to – what gets you excited?
Cullen: I like the Beach House record.
Max: I like the Pop songs off the Ariel Pink album.
Cullen: I like The Drums.
I’m getting sarcasm?
Cullen: No, we’re friends with them. Everybody seems to like them here, and it was really weird yesterday when we were driving back we saw a huge poster on a building of them. As far as old music goes, I’ve been listening to Wilco. We’ve been listening to a lot of Brit Pop. On the last record it was ‘70s type Power Pop and T Rex and all that stuff. There was a lot of music that I thought was really lame and sucked like, that I used to like when I was in eighth grade or whatever , like Oasis and stuff, and recently I’ve been revisiting it and it’s like a lot better.
Yeah, they had some good songs. My brother and sister were really into Oasis and they used to take it in turns to blast it out, so because of that I liked Blur.
I had to, because they liked Oasis. But I secretly liked Oasis.
Max: What about Teenage Fan Club?
They were great. I liked Pulp a lot, Pulp were my favourite. It does seem like there were fewer big bands back then, there are so many more pockets of things going on now.
Cullen: (Yawn) It’s the whole internet thing, it’s like there’s more celebrities now because there’s more coverage now. You’re more aware, y’know.
I guess that’s how you got in touch with Transparent?
Cullen: They found us or something. When the album was put out, I was like, ‘oh yeah this is gonna be great, we can go play shows in Chicago’.
Max: Yeah, we get to play a party in Chicago and it’ll be like a 100 people.
Cullen: And then it got picked up by Gorilla Vs Bear and then Pitchfork, and Transparent came around sometime between those two and said they wanted to put a single out in the UK. And it was the two best songs off the album. The album kinda shifts between being kinda glam-y to being 70s power Pop, kind of bouncy. And those two songs are more glam driven. The thing is for me, and probably the same for Max, when you go round to people’s houses who a bit older and they play records, you hear something and you’ll like, ‘oh wait, I never heard this band before, let me go into it and try to recreate it, or add on to it, put it in to whatever I’m doing’. And that’s kind of what happened with the album, we were listening to a lot of stuff like Milk & Cookies and T-Rex.
Our music tastes are so much more varied now, the way we filter our feelings through whatever we’re listening to at any moment.
Cullen: I like the way David Bowie did it, where every record built upon what he’d done. Whereas, some very successful bands make one album, have their sound and the next three albums are just the same shit. And it sells records and they get really popular but I’d rather have an album where each song is different from the others, not a half-step up or a different effect pedal on it.
So how’s this summer looking?
Cullen: We’re going to record in July, and we’re doing the Pitchfork festival. And then we’re going to try and figure out what we’re doing touring wise. We’ve been touring really hard.
Max: We kind of want a break, since January we’ve had like 70 or 80 shows. It’s been intense. We’re all excited about going home in a couple of days and sleeping.
What’s the scene like in Chicago?
Cullen: It’s not very good.
Max: There’s not much.
Cullen: The scene in Chicago is like the best example of how trying to be creative actually just kills you. It’s like eating too much vitamin C and dying from it. It’s like all these kids who are like ‘we’re so open to learning and making music and putting visual effects over it’, it’s the biggest cluster-fuck, pseudo-assholes.
Max: There are all these parties where people wear all black and someone plays 15 pedals off a Macbook and projects, like, the Windows media player over himself. They all like release tape. There are no Pop songs, it’s just like 15 minutes of noise. Everyone just gets stoned and sits in a room saying ‘did you just hear what he just did?!’
Cullen: Yeah, it sucks. And they all have really attractive girlfriends.
Of course they do.
Cullen: [Laughs] I mean proportionate to them. So like, a 3 gets a 5. I mean, it’s just that kind of thing. I’ve grown to hate it but I go out because I like to be in a group of people and just lurk.
Lurking is good.
Cullen: I love to live there, it’s a great city to live in, our families are there, I’ve lived there my entire life so I like it for that aspect. It’s cool and everything. It’s almost good because of the scene because it’s like, ‘I’m not going to make that. I know exactly what I need to make now’.
So it’s like the negative to the positive?
Cullen: Yeah, I guess the best way to sum it up is that these kids are super-pretentious because they all consider themselves artists, thinking ‘I’m going to break in four years’ but the odds on them doing that are so slim, it’s like fuck off, y’know?
I guess trying to figure out what you want to do can sometimes be hard but having something to buck against can be really healthy.