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In the four itinerant years since their self-titled debut, Smith Westerns have grown unphased by the rigors of touring. The melodic indie-rock group—whose latest album, Soft Will, drops June 25—has tested its mettle (and passed) with pivotal opening slots for MGMT and Wilco, not to mention high-profile stints in front of the itchy, overbaked masses at Coachella and Lollapalooza. Yet, come February 2012, after finishing up a whopping 140 dates to promote their second album (the critically hailed Dye It Blonde), Smith Westerns were apprehensive about returning home to headline a gig in their native Chicago.
When Smith Westerns finally arrived home, friends they looked forward to seeing had moved, and clubs they once frequented had disappeared. All the while, on the road, singer-guitarist Cullen Omori, bassist-brother Cameron Omori, and guitarist Max Kakacek had grown from—as they say in music parlance—boys to men. Everything, now, was ominously different.
This intersection between success and post-tour unrest culminates in the band’s third full-length, Soft Will, produced by Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the first to feature new drummer Julien Ehrlich, formerly of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It starts with “3am Spiritual,” the album’s dreamy opener. “You’re creating your own future,” says Cullen, “and lot of the ideas on the record were reactive. For a long time, you’re playing music every night where you’re bringing the party. And you go from having something to do every day to…nothing.”
Bummed out, he penned the song during the spring of 2012 on a mini-keyboard in the most mundane of places: his parent’s kitchen. “The lyrics came right away. It was supposed to be this uplifting ballad, to make myself feel better,” Cullen says. The song likewise marked a turning point for the group.“We decided to challenge ourselves with making songs that we hadn’t really done before,” explains Max. “With ‘3am Spiritual’ we didn’t want it to be as immediately poppy. It was more a progression of ideas, designed to build up to a big chorus.”
There’s a cool metamorphosis that pervades Soft Will. For instance, its first single, the shimmering, lovesick “Varsity,” actually began as an acoustic track that doubles as a tongue-and-cheek reference to being referred to as a high-school band by the press. “Then in the studio, it just came out as a mid-tempo pop song.” Max notes, adding, “There was an improvisation to some songs, that lead to them being catchier.”
They recorded the meat of Soft Will at Sonic Ranch, a live-in recording studio located 30 minutes outside of El Paso, Texas and a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. “It was like going to summer camp,” Cullen offers. They loved the isolation. “We pretty much stayed on the ranch and cranked them out,” says Cameron.
Soft Will, in kind, is an album of frontiers: mellifluous guitars, confident restraint, and pensive songwriting. But to Smith Westerns, recording an album about dreading their homestead feels almost like an interlude—because they can’t wait to play those songs on the road. “Sitting around doing nothing for a while,” admits Cameron, “it can be nerve-wracking.”