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New Misery

Whitney Shuns Buzz Band Banality on 'Light Upon the Lake'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

No band in the history of everything has managed to avoid “death” in the sense that all bands – from The Beatles to your favorite local proto-punk-neo-folk-soul group – break up for one reason or another, with varying degrees of adversity and dramaticism. Obviously, The Beatles disbanded in 1970, but weren’t “definitively” broken up until Mark David Chapman read Catcher in the Rye in December of 1980, and as far your favorite local proto-punk-neo-folk-soul group is concerned, their drummer Keith was promoted to the late shift manager at Starbucks, so he won’t be able to practice most evenings, and proto-punk-neo-folk-soul drummers are at a premium in Des Moines. But silly comparisons aside, band breakups are rarely ever a joyous occurrence – tensions run high, bridges are burned, and once-hopeful fans are left with a finite discography.

So, when a particularly “buzzy” band such as Smith Westerns calls it a quits, the resulting career uncertainty for the former members can become increasingly unsettling to the devout follower. Fortunately, the legacy that follows Smith Westerns’ end looks to be far more promising than whatever outlook the original group may have had. Former front-man Cullen Omori made his way over to Sub Pop and released his solid solo debut with New Misery in March, and now, former Smith Westerns drummer Julien Ehrlich (who also had a stint in Unknown Mortal Orchestra) and guitarist Max Kackacek have banded together to form Whitney, and release a wonderfully jangly 70s-revival debut record, Light Upon the Lake.

Light Upon the Lake begins with a stellar album opener in “No Woman,” a seemingly mawkish entrance that meanders aimlessly as Ehrlich’s soft-cooing vocals opine about waking up in Los Angeles and experiencing an indefinite and tiresome change. Kackacek’s deceptively smooth '70s Martin-esque riffs eventually lead the track in a decidedly more confident direction, with a cacophony of horns closing out the introductory track. The succeeding tracks on Light Upon the Lake see an uptick in tone and vibrancy as “The Falls” feels like a mix of Vulfpeck percussive piano playful nudging Ehrlich’s lyrical musings on losing control, leading into “Golden Days,” the wax poetic (and indie rock right of passage) chronicling of some relationship passed (can’t help but think there might be some Smith Westerns undertones) – “It’s a shame we can’t get it together now.”

Where many might try and incorporate aspects of past projects into their current one, Whitney does a fantastic of presenting a definite tone and substantive grip of who Whitney is, namely in the band’s consistent use of horns, bouncing piano, and clean Martin riffs deftly maneuvered by Kackacek – especially on the album’s eponymous standout, “Light Upon the Lake.” The overall feel of Light Upon the Lake could be likened to The Band meets UMO with flecks of Vulfpeck and Blake Mills – in short, its wholly unique. The album features a number of punk sensibilities when it comes to lyrical verisimilitude and general brevity – the three song stretch of “No Matter Where I Go,” “On My Own,” and “Red Moon” runs a whopping 5:38 – with “On My Own” into “Red Moon” being the most impressive track pairing of the bunch, primarily for the excellent showcasing of horns mixed with Kackacek’s ever-tasteful licks. All in all, the two strongest aspects of Light Upon the Lake are Kackacek’s guitar expertise and the incorporation of harmonious brass work – making the record distinctly modern but also managing to hearken back to a softer time in rock music.

Light On the Lake closes out as sweetly and satisfyingly as it opened, with the uber-funk fuzz of “Polly” marking it as best track on the album, a soft cooing-ballad that has features undertones of disenchanted realism under the guise of happy rhythms and horns. The album closes with “Follow” - the sonic sibling of “Polly” – setting Light On the Lake’s with as positive an outlook as any debut featuring lyrics like “I know I’ll hear the call any time…” that lend credence to the visionary nature of Light On the Lake as a whole. “Follow” allows the record to help establish Whitney as more than just another buzz band, but rather a supremely melancholic (but not miserable) introduction steeped with perspective that maintains an ultimately warm purview of the band’s future. Expect to see Light Upon the Lake on many a "year end" list, including Transverso's, as the record exemplifies the ideal dulcet tones of an indie band debut.  

Cullen Omori Talks 'New Misery,' Tour Cancellation, and Life After Smith Westerns

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

If you’re an indie buzz band aficionado of the early twenty-teens, you likely touted Smith Westerns as one of the preeminent “buzz bands” in their class. As it seems is the natural course of most relationships, endeavors, and bands started in high school, the members of Smith Westerns began to develop divergent views when it came to their future direction, and subsequently disbanded.

Since the dismemberment of the band, former frontman and Chicago native, Cullen Omori, set out to grasp the realities of embarking on a solo journey, making demos initially intended as post-band-breakup coping mechanisms, that after some extended basement sessions, materialized into Omori’s sublime Sub Pop debut, New Misery.

In the midst of a cross-country move, Transverso spoke with Cullen over the Bluetooth speaker system of his Fiat rental as he combed the Hollywood Hills in search of his future Los Angeles homestead.

CULLEN OMORI: Let me just jump in my car real quick, it's air conditioned in there. So anyway… Alright. I’ve got like this crazy rental car… and it's like a Fiat. The little tiny Fiat thing, so it’s a super… it's got like a computer thing in it that I can use as a Bluetooth so I can talk to you over the car.


So what’s up? Lets talk. Fire away.

Alright. I guess I’ll start out with something general: How do you feel having New Misery out for a while now? How do you think people have interpreted it? Are you pleased, or are you kind of bummed out?

You know, it’s a mixed bag. I spent so much time making the record and, I mean, the record was done and mastered last August, but it took six months to come out and that was kind of annoying, and to have my “maiden” tour blow up the way it did with my van breaking down and the rental van that we got just to go back to the airport got broken into and my clothes got stolen.

That must have been rough.

I mean, it’s a story for sure, and it’s a crazy story, but it's like those things were all kind of real big bummers. I don’t know, I think right now, I’ve always been… with Smith Westerns, I’ve always had really good reviews and this time around its been mixed. I think a lot of people in the US haven’t been getting it in the same that all my European or UK reviews have all been like super super good. You know? Its kind of like people have been missing the point and, I don’t know, that’s kind of annoying. But I’m not trying to write for like critics. Usually, it just so happens that critical people tend to like my music a lot more than like a general audience. This time around it’s a little different, but at the same time… I don’t know. I guess I do. I’m a little annoyed because I feel like I made a record that sonically is really different, but still has a lot of complex, deeper things that people kind of take at face value. Kind of like, “Oh these are songs that some Millennial would write about,” like “Losing the indie spotlight” or “Falling out of some popular band,” when it wasn’t that. It was that was part of it, but there were so many other kind of themes of coming out a self-destructive thing and being so fucked up all the time on drugs, and just not knowing kind of what I was going to do next. And kind of just working through that and while working through that I wrote this album, and that was more what it was about, more so than like “Oh, I’m bummed that I’m not in Smith Westerns any more.” I could give two shits about being in Smith Westerns right now, and I also really hate that I’m getting pegged where people are kind of like “Oh yeah, this is like Smith Westerns,” and it's comparing it to it, and people will send me messages that are like “Can you make a song that’s like this Smith Westerns’ song?” and it's like “Shut the fuck up.”

Absolutely. That has to be irritating.

Yeah. So I guess it's mixed about how its been received.

Sure. I figured that’s probably the downside of once being involved in the “indie darling” or “buzzband” cycle. It seems like it might create this sort of undue expectation of anything that might come after whatever the initial entity was, and that sounds like something that you’re dealing with right now.

Yeah. Well the thing is Smith Westerns wasn’t Coldplay – we weren’t this huge thing – and I like to think of it as I can go on and have a life after Smith Westerns and it doesn’t have to be held up to it. You know? I feel like as the frontman of the band, I’m kind of unfairly labeled as whatever I make, when really it was this whole process of me and Max writing the songs. It wasn’t just me doing everything. So yeah. Also, coming out of a bad situation, Smith Westerns kind of just gelled together and all of us sort of were doing well, and the path was obvious that we would keep making music with it. But after I left, there was no path. It wasn’t like “Oh, I should go and write another record,” and one of the cool things in writing this record was that it was an exercise in letting myself know that for me personally that I can sit down and write an album start to finish all by myself. I could do all the parts that otherwise, Smith Westerns were too afraid to try, or they thought were going to be bad, or whatever.

So it's like an exercise in songwriting for me, and so I still like the record. It's not like anything has turned me off to how I feel about it. I still feel strong about it, I support it, I think they’re good songs that are smart. I think that unfortunately, it's not a record that people… well, you know, I feel like right now with indie music, if you play guitar, you go two ways with it – you can go shoegaze-y or you can go with this '70s light rock shit. Its like jingle rock, and I really wanted to make something different, so I thought at the time a year and a half ago “I wasn’t going to be playing jingle rock doing the '70s stuff,” you know? Everyone has been doing rip-off Todd Rundgren or rip-off Canned Heat or whatever, so I was like “Well, I’ll try something different.” I wanted to make a song with synth. I wanted to try something that has soundscapes that were these songs that could technically be, you know from the '70s or '80s. And I also really wanted to move away from the revivalist idea – I didn’t want to make something where you could be like “Oh, these guys are trying to hearken back to like some era of guitar rock” or whatever. You know? I wanted to make something that was more kind of “my sound,” and I felt like it was appropriate being twenty-something, well when I wrote this album I was 24-25 and I thought it was appropriate. Also, it was my fourth record, so I could really start trying to move away from my influences and starting to really do it kind of “off the cuff.” I thought there was something that – I’m not going to say its my “sound” now – but it was more kind of less leaning on a certain genre, or a certain sound, or a certain band to make it sound right. It was a different experience too, not working with a band; that’s always weird. You know, with Smith Westerns, you could split work together – me and Max would work a lot – having a sounding board to bounce ideas off and change things, which was great, but at the same time, it would become limiting when Max and I had different ideas of where the music should go, and what we should be sounding like and stuff like that.

Right. You mentioned there was a “weird” trend in “revivalist” sensibilities in indie rock and what not – at this point, would still consider it to be “revivalist” or would you just consider it to be “en vogue” or something to that effect?

I mean… I think its very much a trend right now. I think that there are always bands, for as long as I’ve played music, and for as long as I’ve been recording music and can remember – there’s band that will go off of a certain vibe, or a certain genre or whatever. I think that now, however, the attention those bands are getting is huge, and its just part of how things go. It's circular, you know?

Sure, most things are.

And for now, its going to work for people, but I feel like I made a record that kind of was three years too early or three years too late or something, you know? It was probably two year too early, because its not any of those things. And that’s the other thing, too – even if I fail at something I don’t want it to be something where people can be like “Oh, he’s ripping off that band.” I think I did a pretty good jobbing of taking all my influences and melding them into this record. You can’t be like “That’s the Elton John song,” or “That’s the Flaming Lips song” or shit, I don’t know. Its all kind of spread out.

Well what comparisons have you seen people try to ascribe?

The only comparison I’ve ever read about is when people say something like Tame Impala, but I don’t even listen to Tame Impala to be honest. I was singing in a John Lennon-y kind of voice in 2010, so it's not like any of my music is a reaction to current music. That’s not how it works for me.

Its stylized in a manner of which is unique only to you, but do you feel like people take the stylization too seriously? Like with the US audience, you said it doesn’t quite “mesh.” Do you feel that people are taking you having been in a band like Smith Westerns too seriously to be willing to open up to Cullen Omori?

That could be a possibility. I feel that when I was with Smith Westerns, I didn’t feel like I was this huge public figure or anything like that. So, I didn’t feel like if I was, it ever benefitted me. I don’t think I get a huge benefit from being the front man of Smith Westerns. If there are any connotations connected to me being in the Smith Westerns, they’re negative – things that I did when I was twenty years old. They think that I’m like bratty or I’m pretentious, but people forget that there were two other dudes in the band – my brother and Max – who were equally as bratty and pretentious as I was. I didn’t use my name because I wanted to go solo. People weren’t like “Oh yeah, Cullen Omori, check it out.” I used my name because we were mastering the record and they needed to have a name and I couldn’t come up with one that I didn’t hate, you know? So I just used my name. Its one of those things where there might be some bloated takedown when they can’t accept something like when someone [else] has a “clean slate” would - like a musician that they wouldn’t know anything about other than the music. I feel like people also form their own narrative about who I am, and what my music is about, and that’s literally formed people’s ideas – word of mouth – that’s formed people’s ideas of me on some things. It's still all over the place, but I feel like people are building their own narratives for me, and it's not a good one. Unfortunately, that’s how it goes, but I think in Europe or the UK, they don’t have that the same way here. I guess I just pissed off the wrong people when I was in Smith Westerns.

Why do you think that is?

Because at the same time, when you look back at music history or whatever, you these “coffee” guys or like the type of guy that only writes music because they couldn’t find the music they liked to listen to, because “everything sucked” and so they made their music or whatever, and people celebrate that. But I think now, with the internet, Twitter, and the press in general, there’ll never be a next level rock star, because they’re constantly tearing them down. The persona has to be this guy that’s always humble and they can be like “Oh, I want to get a beer with that guy.” There’s no longer the idea of being this presence on stage that’s larger than life. Its like this “cool” real vicious energy and people don’t want that – it makes them uncomfortable and they want to tear it down. And I don’t think that that’s how I am, but I think being a front man and having it all kind of be about me, I think that feeds into the concept that people have this idea of me being a pretentious asshole guy, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m making music that I want to hear, I love performing, I love the aesthetic. My favorite part of this album that you make, you have to create this interview around it, you know? You have your album artwork, you have your videos, and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in doing; I’m a part of that from beginning to the end. I don’t want to say I’m not getting a fair shake or try and complain about it or anything, but I feel like my past isn’t there to help me, it's only there to hurt me. For whatever reason its stuck to me more than anyone else, you know? Like I read about the dudes in Whitney, or whatever.

It sounds like you’re almost just experience this curse of being the frontman despite your main intent to just make music you want to make, as opposed to appealing to a larger mass that may have listened to something you made in the past.

Well, I mean the idea… the narrative that I had was “I want to make pop music,” I think that people go and see that I went away from a band to being a solo artist that wants to make pop music, they think that I’m trying to capitalize on something, or it’s a money grab. That’s not true at all. When I say “pop music,” I mean that I still make music that isn’t dead to a lot of music history, and people that know music know good bands, everyone from the '60s to now; it's all in there, its all in my music. Its not like I’m trying to become Selena Gomez, or anything like that. Its just that I can appreciate something that’s melodic and immediate and trying to work something that is so over the top – like when you think of pop at the top, you think that it's grasping to be as marketable as possible – and try and take that and warp it, like I do with all music that I’m interested in. Its kind of real representation for myself, and its something that isn’t selling out; it’s a cool thing. I think there’s something to be said about making music that a fucking six year-old girl can get into, as well as a seventy year old man, you know?

But [I'm] staying true to my principles, and not selling out in a musical sense, and I think that often goes with not trying to play into that retro-revivalist seventies shit that’s kind of being accepted into the “indie spirit.” I’m just going to do my own thing and play around with what works. Right now, I’ve just been listening to nothing but Ministry, and I want to go really heavy for the next record. I just want to play around do whatever the fuck I want to do. Luckily, I’m in a position with Sub Pop that I can do whatever I want – they are so behind me in every way – even when my van broke down, I went to their office and just hung out for two days, Jonathan Poeman drove me to the airport and made sure I had everything – that I had a hotel and everything after my shit got stolen – that’s something I’ve never had before with a record label. I’ve never had that kind of acceptance and kind of support. It's cool and it makes me want to create, and I kind of feel like this maiden tour that I did that ended up blowing up is just part of my story now. Nothing I’m going to do now is easy – its not like coming out of the Smith Westerns, make this record and coming out at a different place. That’s that. I think part of it not being easy, and part of it being bad luck hanging over me… when I’m backed into corner I think is when I’m at my best, its when I’m my most creative. I have the kind of ability to draw upon whatever kind of emotion or anxiety to really crush whatever comes next, so that’s kind of how I approach it. I kind of let it rip me apart, and that’s where I got New Misery, I was slowly in self destructive mode, and I did not care what was going to happen to me. For a while I realized that the only thing I’m even halfway decent at is making music; everything else, I suck at. Everything else, I am less that amateur at. The only thing I know how to do is put together some chords and write lyrics that people can relate to, and that’s a cool talent to have. Its something I didn’t really appreciate until now, until I made New Misery.

It sounds like you’re trying to maintain a positive yet stubborn rationale even despite your string of bad luck, did that reenergize you at all when it came to working on your demos?

Yeah, it took me a second. During New Misery I felt bad for myself for a lot of the time, I did for a second when all that stuff fell apart on that tour, and I had to clean house a little bit with different people that were working with me and try to really figure out how to do it again. I mean, I’ve being doing it now for seven years – being in the music industry – and I know that I fuck up. You know you’re going to mess up. Its like, what am I supposed to do.

[Cullen calls out “What are you doing?” to a passerby while driving.]

Hey, sorry there’s a guy in a wheelchair being a dickhead. Anyway… It does make me create but it also kind of… what’s the word? I don’t know, I’m a very pragmatic person – like while on tour, that’s why I bought a van rather than rent - but the one thing that doesn’t makes sense is that for me, is that its all stress. Not with the writing part, but everything else that goes into making an album happen. And touring, there’s so much stress, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever not be kind of looking at anything other than the next year, you know? I don’t really think any further than that, I still want to do it, but there’s a part of me that kind of just defies the logic of “should I take it easy?” but I say no, I’m just going to keep on doing it. That may sound kind of emotional, like… what’s the word? Like a fucking… motivational speaker, or something like that.

I think that’s conceivably the best attitude you can have facing the stuff that you’ve experienced. In a way, you’re maintaining an indomitable spirit about the whole thing – you’re not feeling sorry for yourself, but at the same time you’re not saying you’re going to go conquer the world in a day. There’s a realist approach to it.

That’s how I do it, and that’s how I’ve been doing it. Its stressful or whatever, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve grown into this role; I’ve grown up doing music my entire life. There’s no formula to follow – everything’s different. There’s no right way to get somewhere, but there’s a lot of ways to have missteps doing it. But I don’t know, I guess right now its like, that toured got fucked in the US, I’m going to Europe to play some shows, and then I’m going to come back to do some more tours. I also really want to start supporting some bigger bands – I think that I’ve been out of the music scene for so long, but back in the day, I had really good relationships with different bands. But now its kind of a different scene – Chicago only has a handful of different bands: Orwells, Whitney, me, and a couple of smaller bands. There’s not much of a scene. What I want to do with music is – I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the next record – but what I want to attempt is really go outside something totally different, you know? Like not have it be '70s guitar riffs and love song lyrics. I mean my mind is constantly going. I’m like manically going and so hopefully something will click and work. I think this record is good, I think New Misery is really good. Its like, I don’t know if the singles were the best representation of what the album was, but I think that for me, everyone that I showed it to at Sub Pop, everyone has a different favorite song on the record. There was no go-to “This is the single of the record,” everyone was willing to give an idea on what they think about it, and that’s awesome, because that means that the record is chalk full of real songs, and that’s something that doesn’t necessarily happen with other bands. But at the same time, I don’t exactly know what people like, there’s no formula. If there was, I would experiment and try to fuck it up.

You mentioned you’ve been listening to a lot of Ministry as of late – have you been leaning toward a certain album more than others?

I like kind of like With Sympathy. I like the stuff where they’re kind of new wave-y. I’ve been reading the Al Joregeson autobiography and its amazing – its so good. Its like he’s this out of control junkie, he’s crazy. I don’t know, that was a part of music I just kind of stopped listening to - something really heavy, like super heavy, trashy. But I’m starting to get back into Ministry, especially the stuff where it was kind of still super poppy, like the new wave stuff was really interesting. Its kind of like the category of music that I’ve been making. I’m a pretty anxious and angry person, and I don’t really present it in my music – my music is more cathartic than it is straight up in your face progressive, and I think that the next thing I want to get away from is how dreamy everything is and how smooth most of the songs are, to get [to a point] that makes it a little bit harder. I grew up around punk bands, and Smith Westerns was very much like a shitty punk garage band, and I feel like that would be a really cool thing to do.

Have you ever leaned over into any RevCo stuff yet?

I’ve listened to a few things, but I haven’t really gotten into. The autobiography is so good - if you haven’t read it, you’ve got to read it – all his stories are so fucking funny.

I’ll have to check it out.

I’ve always been like “Oh, I should read it,” but I wasn’t going out of my way to get it, and then one day I just walked into a place and it was there. One of the stories that he tells is every single time they played a show on tour as Ministry, I think there was a limit to anything over 90 decibels, and they would never do it, they would always play above it. They would get fined every night, and it was like a  $20,000 fine every night. And the label said they won’t pay, they wouldn’t do the tour support, so I guess Al jerked off into a Ziploc bag and sent it to the A&R guy and then the guy calls him and says “Did you send me drugs, what is that? That stuff smells like shit!” and he was like “No! That’s my fucking cum, if you don’t pay us, everyone on the crew will start sending you our cum,” and they got the tour support.

That’s insane.

I know! It was so good, it was so funny.