Music

With his second solo LP The Diet (Sub Pop), Cullen Omori – former frontman of the now dissolved Smith Westerns – guides us across a record driven by the desire to discover a renewed sense of musical intent. Moving to LA in 2016, the Chicago-native had experienced a period of emotional and spiritual drainage. This provoked Omori to confront the surplus of negative feelings in his life through examination of his creative process and reasoning. To regulate the negative meant shedding any pretence and writing music solely for himself.

It was in LA that Cullen met producer and musician Taylor Locke, which triggered a positive alliance and the recording of songs crafted between 2016 and 2017. Cullen shares, “But none of these songs were going to be an album. I was just writing to write, until Taylor heard all of these and was like, ‘We need to make something.’” 

The follow-up to his 2016 debut solo record New Miserythis most recent body of work sees Cullen find a beautiful and nuanced balance between modern and nostalgic strokes of sound. He recently opened up to us about the making of the record and the first albums he fell in love with.

Photography by Josh Spencer

J.L. Sirisuk: You moved to LA two years ago – what led to this move?
Cullen Omori: It was definitely an unintentional decision. I really try to avoid that LA myth where somehow LA, Hollywood, California – literally whatever you want to call it – has this restorative or like creative vibe that infects and somehow elevates whatever you are doing. In short, I moved there because I had burned all the bridges I could in Chicago and was leaving a four year relationship with my ex and then moved out for my newest ex. Girls love breaking up with me, what can I say, but I think me moving was a more reserved way of dealing with it than shaving my head or something. 

“We did everything ourselves in terms of recording, in his backyard every day for a month and we just went to town on these songs I had made from June 2016 to March 2017. “

JLS: Do you think the new atmosphere added anything fresh to your creative approach?
CO: Like I was saying before, I’m hesitant to chalk up the atmosphere of LA as being important to this record. In many ways I moved cross-country to do exactly what I was doing in Chicago, which was sitting in my apartment with black-out drapes writing songs, because at this point it’s so associated with my identity. I would likely be writing music even if I didn’t have a record deal. There’s also a gross part to LA, with the drug scene, which I would continually fall in and out of. It was so omnipresent that I thanked my drug dealer in the liner notes of the album. 

JLS: You recorded your new record The Diet with Taylor Locke, what did he bring out of you?
CO: Taylor is a great guy and a greater musician. I’ve recorded with some amazing producers (Chris Coady and Shane Stoneback) but with Taylor he was so musical and that definitely set the stage for where the songs ended up going. He can sing and is on a lot of the back-up vocals and harmonies on the record, which I explored a little bit on New Misery but not to the extent I did on The Diet. He also plays in this tribute Fleetwood Mac band and I think some of the guitar licks from that project through osmosis got into my album, which I love. We did everything ourselves in terms of recording, in his backyard every day for a month and we just went to town on these songs I had made from June 2016 to March 2017. 

JLS: Tell me about Happiness Reigns – people usually write songs about their muses, not with them – how did this union come about?
CO: I think I had gotten back from tracking at Taylor’s one day and I had a song that needed to be finished so I asked my girlfriend at the time to help with it. At that point the song was more or less a standard love song with the usual muse vibe. And I think instead of making the song be about the things I like about her or our relationship, the song would be more interesting if she helped edit this loosely-based love song about her. Very post post-modern maybe? 

JLS: There was a revolving door of musicians – how did you choose who to let into your creative process?
CO: It was really about who was available. Taylor has been living in LA for forever so he knew a ton of talented people. And I have been touring and playing music for a decade now so I knew some flame players as well. 

Photography by Josh Spencer

JLS: On The Diet you cut back on things – what in your life were you cutting out? What excesses?
CO: I think for me it was more about dropping some of the musical trappings that I felt dragged down the last record. I took my foot off the gas on a lot of the synths that I was really into experimenting with in New Misery. That’s not saying we didn’t use them on this record, we had access to Roger Manning’s synths who plays in Beck and Air, since he was storing them at the studio. The writing process occurred directly following the dissolution of my relationship and after a mass exodus of people working for me. So I wrote it with no tether, and in a place where I was mostly on my own in my blacked-out room working on songs. Then as I began to start dating my newest ex, that factored in too.

JLS: What was one of the first records you remember falling in love with?
CO: I remember picking up Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones and Recurring by Spacemen 3 when I was sixteen or something, at this cool record store in Chicago called Reckless Records. I couldn’t stop playing either of them, and I remember burning copies of them for the other Smith Westerns guys. These two albums sent me on my journey of discovering all this old music that is so influential and seminal not only on my own stuff but for anyone playing guitar pretty much. 

JLS: I’ve seen your Twitter feed and you seem to have a good sense of humour. When things get heavy, what makes you laugh?
CO: I guess if I had to use one word to describe me it would be sardonic. I think if you can approach things with sarcasm and not completely turn it into a joke but be sarcastic enough that you can take some of the sting out of your problems it’s a good starting place. 

JLS: How do you feel after emerging from the creation of your new album?
CO: Good. But I’ve done five studio records at this point, factoring in my last band, and I know that what people like is random and so the only control I have is making sure that I feel my music is a good representation of my taste and sensibilities. And I think I accomplished this on The Diet

JLS: What keeps you going?
CO: At this point I’ve written lyrics for 50 plus songs, which is insane and scary. But at the same time I’m leaving at least a silhouette of who I am for other people to discover and whether they discover it tomorrow or in ten years it doesn’t matter because the music will stay the same.

Cullen Omori: The Diet is out now.