Mick Jagger was a knockout at the Grammys last week -- and that's part of the problem. We've become alarmingly comfortable with very old men peddling rock 'n' roll. It distances us from the music's roots -- in teenage lust, teenage angst, a teenager's general unfocused yearning and yowling. So when a blemishless band like Chicago's Smith Westerns gets noticed for a lo-fi debut they recorded while still in high school, they find themselves grilled in every interview about their youth. How'd they do it? What do they feel they have to say? Did they finish their homework? It's "Rock and Roll High School" again instead of Bieber fever, and we're strangely intrigued.
"It's so old," sighs Smith Westerns singer and guitarist Cullen Omori, possibly oblivious to the irony. "I really don't like it when they describe us as 'kids' or 'brats' ... stuff like that. A lot of times, it's 'young upstarts.' Why don't people write about the 38-year-old upstarts? It's not supposed to be a gimmick. I have no control over the fact we're this age. ... But Robert Plant [formed] Led Zeppelin when he was 19. 'Dark Side of the Moon' was made when [Pink Floyd] was super-young. In rap and hip-hop, everyone's super-young. Taylor Swift is super-young. I think it's cool that we've moved past the fact that you don't have to be young to make rock 'n' roll, that you can still be old and successful -- as long as it's good quality -- I just don't know why it's such a big deal that we're so young."
with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Fergus & Geronimo
10 p.m. Feb. 26
Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Tickets: $10 advance, $12 door, (773) 276-3600, emptybottle.com
It's only a big deal to the owners of the bars across the country where the Smith Westerns -- Omori, his brother-bassist Cameron Omori and guitarist Max Kakacek, all of whom are 19 and 20 now -- have been playing on their recent national tour, supporting the band's widely lauded sophomore album, "Dye It Blonde." On the strength of that acclaim (3½ stars in Rolling Stone, 8.4 at Pitchfork ...) and several sold-out shows, that tour was just extended into the summer, including a second Chicago date (May 11 at Lincoln Hall, on sale now) and a slot at June's Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.
"We played a show in L.A. that was sold out, a show in New York that was sold out. Those two shows were points where we realized, hey, this is becoming a thing that people are really liking. It wasn't one of those things where all of a sudden it blows up and you've never played before," Cullen Omori says. "We've been touring a long time, starting in our junior year. This is our second record. It's just exciting to be selling out venues that last year were half full. We've worked hard; maybe it's paying off."
The Smith Westerns' self-titled debut, released in June 2009, featured a sleeve photo that inverted and sliced the cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind." The songs, though, were less grungy than glam, a set of spirited tunes about teenage lovin' ("Girl in Love," "Be My Girl," "The Glam Goddess," "My Heart," etc.) that sounded like they were recorded in Kakacek's basement after the guys got out of classes at Northside College Prep, which is precisely what happened.
Last month's "Dye It Blonde" steps up the production dramatically, guided by producer Chris Coady, whose credits include work on Beach House's "Teen Dream." Amid a pleasing swirl of mildly psychedelic effects and Kakacek's able guitars, the songs still have the stench of teen spirit. "End of the Night" might be the most exuberant expression of an ancient idea (man, it's thrilling to still be out when the sun comes up!) you'll hear this year. "Everybody wants to be a star on a Saturday night," sings Cullen Omori. "Come with me, baby, and your eyes shine the sunlight."
"That first record, you know, was made in a basement by ourselves, very much for ourselves," Omori says. "It was a reaction to hearing a lot of power-pop records, kind of being more imitating. It was, like that cover kind of showed, about taking existing, poppy songs and kind of warping, skewing, chopping them up. ... The second record we wanted to be a Smith Westerns record. We'd been surrounded by so many great bands and become good friends with them, like MGMT [whom Smith Westerns opened for late last year] -- we wanted to make something that would impress them.
"The first record also had me writing all these over-the-top love songs or whatever. For this one, I wanted to refine it. Music now has this thing where people love to write these cryptic lyrics. Me, I wanted to make songs not talking about relationships so much but about desiring things and being young on the road and on tour and stuff. Just being out there, feeling what we're feeling. A wish list of things you want to do."
The anti-bucket list track list includes "Weekend," "Still New," "Fallen in Love," "Smile," "Dance Away" and "All Die Young."
Now the goal is to craft the concert to sound like the album, Omori says.
"For us now, the No. 1 thing is to make the [live show] sound as close to the record as possible. The album is very layered, and the idea was always to recreate this aesthetic of arena-rock songs within these smaller clubs. Really loud and really in your face."
To accomplish that, they've added two extra members for the tour to fill out the sound, drummer Hal James and multi-instrumentalist Ziyad Asrar. They're more friends from high school.
"What can I say? We're young and it just so happens the people we get along with most are people our age," Omori says. "We're going to have young guys in the band until we're not young anymore, I guess. If that ever happens."