Cullen Omori – Photo by Alexa Lopez
Editors Note: Cullen Omori’s show at the Independent on April 5th has been cancelled.
Left For Dead.
That ominous three-word phase is the opening salvo of Cullen Omori’s “Synthetic Romance,” an otherwise sweeping and rich up-tempo pop number from the his debut solo album, New Misery.
Omori’s macabre initial statement may seem a little dramatic, particularly for a boyish-looking troubadour who is just 25 years old, but the one-time frontman of the Smith Westerns is already a grizzled veteran of the music business, and after seeing his former band dissipate under a cloud of acrimony, he’s had plenty of reasons to doubt himself.
“Up until the last four months of the Smith Westerns, I was optimistic about how everything was going,” said Omori, who will play at The Independent on April 5. “But having that blow up and fall apart definitely changed my perception on a lot of things. I’m not gonna say I’m a pessimist. But I’m definitely much more of a realist now.”
Exploding on the scene in 2009 as a bunch of teenagers with a surprisingly-refreshing take on lo-fi glam rock, the Smith Westerns were a group of snotty punks with an uncanny ear for channeling peak-era Marc Bolan tunes. The group took an unexpected and daring move forward with the 2011 release of Dye It Blonde, a grand collection of dreampop tunes that showcased the band’s growing musical artistry. Dye It Blonde ended as one of the year’s most critically-acclaimed albums, and Smith Westerns staked a claim as one of the buzziest bands in the indie-rock circuit.
Yet after the group’s somewhat-disappointing third album, Soft Will—an uneven recording that felt overwrought at times—the band began to splinter, and by the end of 2014, Omori announced that the Smith Westerns were breaking up. The band always seemed a little volatile, but it still came as a shock that Omori would be splitting from his brother Cameron, the group’s bass player, as well as guitarist Max Kakacek, the other main songwriter and Cullen’s creative foil.
With the sheen of his “buzz band” platitudes dulled, Omori spent two years in relative anonymity. During that time, he worked on developing a collection of songs he’d written in 2014, which he intended to make for the Smith Westerns, before the band disintegrated.
“I had all these songs, and the band had just broken up, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” said Omori. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go solo, because I really didn’t think I could make music without at least one person working with me. Eventually, I took a stab at writing and recording the musical parts that Max would normally take care of in the Smith Westerns. I really surprised myself that I was able to do that and that they actually sounded cool.”
While Omori sought to distance himself from the sound of his former band, there are elements of New Misery that bear his hallmarks. “Synthetic Romance” is full of sweeping choruses and “Sour Silk” is powered by his immaculate, Lennon-inflected vocals. There are, however, new facets of his songwriting prowess on display. “Cinnamon”—an irrepressibly catchy tune that showcases Omori’s innate gift for crafting nostalgic pop nuggets—is a more synth-oriented and electronic effort compared to his earlier work. Whereas the Smith Westerns embraced the 70s (glam rock) and the 90s (Britpop and shoegaze), this is Omori’s first real stab at music influenced by the 80s.
“I wanted to make my own sounds as much as possible and roll all my creative influences into a concise, smooth, and non-obvious way,” said Omori. “It was very important that I didn’t make some pandering, indie rock album. I wanted to make sure that it was built around a guitar sound, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be this jangle pop thing with laid back vocals. It was basically my weird attempt at making a pop album.”
While the music is warm and inviting, Cullen’s lyrics can be dark and biting, with plenty of allusions to regret, past mistakes and self-doubt. They’re possibly a reaction to his tumultuous tenure with the Smith Westerns. While the band formed in high school, Omori’s relationship with his brother and Kakacek seems icy now, and he’s been very candid about those hardships on social media and in interviews with the press (although he had nothing but positives to say during his talk with The Bay Bridged).
That contrasting combination of New Misery—bleak lyrics and sunshiny sounds—makes the music more compelling, Omori said.
“I feel like that’s the only way you can get people to listen,” said Omori. “I want to have these subtle cues to band and influences that I really love and at the same time have these lyrics that you can sing along to and get stuck in your head, but then be like, ‘wait, what the fuck is he saying?’ I want it to be this emotional speedball—it’s catchy, but at the same time, it has these dark lyrics.”
While Omori said he was in a pretty low place during his two-year absence from music, he now admits to being incredibly grateful for his second shot at stardom. He signed a multi-album deal with the venerable indie label Sub Pop and is touring extensively (appropriately called the “No More Sad Guy Tour”) behind New Misery, which was released on March 18.
“I’m just happy that I’m able to get a second life as a musician and that people care about what I’m doing,” said Omori. “Not everyone gets this opportunity, let alone twice. It’s always kind of in the back of my head that the Smith Westerns will be the peak of whatever I do musically, and my mindset is to not try and recapture that. I’m not exactly back to square one, but I’m close, and I’m ok with that.”
Cullen Omori, Living Hour
April 5, 2016
8 p.m., $15