If you don’t recognise the name Cullen Omori, you probably will be familiar with his old band, Smith Westerns. As frontman of the indie rockers, he found international success with the group’s sophomore effort Dye It Blonde. Fans were pretty dissapointed when Smith Westerns went on indefinite hiatus back in 2014, but now Omori is breaking out on his own with a debut album, New Misery, out later this month. We’ve already seen promising things from the record in the form of “Cinnamon” and “Sour Silk”, both dreamy helping of blissful guitar pop, and with Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend) and Emily Lazar (HAIM) behind the decks, it’s bound to be one to remember.
In a revealing chat with Wonderland, Cullen talks bad habits, the pitfalls of success, and why dark pop is really all you need.
What drew you to making music – what was your calling?
I don’t really remember ever feeling like music was a calling. I think I more or less just fell into it. Growing up it wasn’t apparent that I was gifted musician or anything like that. I went from taking piano lessons to playing clarinet, and then to playing snare drum (not a typo, I was playing a single snare drum in the grade school “band”. Very glamorous.). I started playing guitar when I was in high school and it was probably just a vehicle for channeling all my self-hate, sexual frustration and teen angst. I wasn’t using drugs or getting laid (not even getting that kiss!) in high school, so I had a lot of free time to pour myself into different creative outlets. I split most my time between music and film, and for a while my plan was to go to film school (which I did, for a semester).
Does the title New Misery have any special meaning to you?
I think it encapsulates the different shades of success and failure that everyone experiences, in one sense or another. I never thought the reality I was living in 2014 (when I wrote the record) could have happened, and as I was dealing with all the responsibilities and failures of my past career I found those feelings to be succinctly summed up in the idea of New Misery.
What concept did you start with when you were making the album and how did it grow to become what it is?
After spending most of my life in this bubble of pseudo-rock-n-roll debauchery, I was carrying on with a lot of habits that were becoming obstructive and unglamorous. There was no real concept to the album other than mirroring my emotional and musical state as I tried to find the thread. I just continued to keep writing music and those songs eventually became New Misery. I was writing for myself and didn’t necessarily think about the songs in terms of public consumption, which was liberating. The track listing on the record is essentially the order in which the songs were written, and while I can’t say that would be apparent to the listener, I think one can see the varying emotional state in the music.
How long did it take you to write the album, was it a long and lengthy process? Did you go and record anywhere interesting or far out? What’s it like to record an album… is it a great release of energy?
I got into the studio with all the songs around June 2015. I had neurotically tabbed out all the parts so that once I got in to the studio, the whole thing could go smoothly. The joke of the recording process was that if I died the album could still be recorded. This time around, I was able to explore any idea or tangent that I felt might be worth exploring, which I think resulted in a much more experimental, non-revivalist album. Of course, a lot of energy and emotion gets expressed in the studio, but in my opinion the real cathartic release came from writing and demoing the songs back in Chicago.
What kind of art and culture have you consumed that you feel shaped your sound and image today?
Hot 100 Pop. I’ve also became obsessed with what I consider “dark pop” or music with dark, cold textures that are still melodic and catchy like Roxy Music, Drake, OMD, INXS, and Elliott Smith. Lately I’ve also been into Townes Van Zandt. Spiritualized. Berlin-era David Bowie. The appearance of James Duval and young Keanu Reeves. 90’s Jamie King. Vanilla Sky. Pain Management. Hard Drug Culture
Are you looking forward to the SXSW gig? Have you been before? We really want to go!
I think SXSW might be something like my 7th show ever with this album. It will definitely be a new experience for me, and I’m just excited to get up in front of some people.
What’s the strangest/most amazing/or most notable thing that’s ever happened to you whilst working as a musician/artist?
I saw that a fan had gotten some lyric of mine tattooed on themselves. It feels very intimate and flattering that someone would connect with something that I wrote like that.
What plans do you have for the future, with your music, visuals… anyone super-interesting you wanna work on?
Power Trio. I think the three-piece live set I’ve been working on will be quite cool. Everyone in my band plays at least 2-3 instruments on stage and sings, so I have a ton of talent up there. Visually, a trio harkens back to classic rock-n-roll greats. I would eventually like to have a giant sculpture of my head on stage that would just sit there, as well as have the three of us each be on risers varying from 3-6 feet. I would love to work with Jessie Andrews.
We would love to raid your record collection… Give us your top 5 weirdest and most wonderful tracks to go and check out…
“Bewlay Brothers” – David Bowie
“Rodeo” – Fatal Jamz
“In My Darkest Hour” – Chris Bell
“Hey Ma” – Cam’ron
“Space Ace” – Brett Smiley