Speaking with Smith Westerns’ Max Kakacek a few weeks before the group’s Tuesday stop at the Varsity, the 22-year-old guitarist had to catch himself.
“The thing about [touring] is after you’ve been …,” Kakacek started, “I was about to say ‘After you’ve been doing this for so long,’ and it’s only been a few years.”
In that moment, he didn’t sound self-inflated so much as rightfully surprised by the Chicago rock trio’s progress both on road and record. Smith Westerns marked five years under the low-wattage rays of the indie-rock limelight with June’s matured “Soft Will” — a third LP that no longer requires qualified praise such as “good for how young they are.”
Until now, it’s been difficult to approach Smith Westerns’ wide-eyed dream pop without the cognizance of youth. The group’s self-titled 2009 debut came to fruition while the guys were still in high school, and their choice to use an inverted image of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” spliced with the Virgin Mary as the cover art still seems too brainlessly ballsy to be all that inspired. Even standout lines on their 2011 breakout “Dye It Blonde,” such as frontman Cullen Omori’s chorus chant of “All die young,” can sound dramatic to the point of posturing. But speaking with Kakacek, it sounds like dreams have been dulled by actually living them out.
“The glamour of playing a show and talking to a girl afterward, or hanging backstage after a show and getting drunk is something you get over pretty quickly,” he said. “Actually, recording records and being on the road then become the only things left, and you have to like that. I think we’re all already over the romanticized part of it.”
If anything, “Soft Will” shows a group with plenty of adoration for less championed pillars. Much like the sonic spectrum of “Dye It Blonde,” producer Chris Coady again gives pillowy space between guitar parts without having everything washed away to reverb oblivion. And while the tool kit hasn’t changed, it’s also the group’s most contemporary-sounding effort. Kakacek has traded his old buzzsaw power-pop licks for winding arpeggiations — something that puts them more in line with bands such as Real Estate than T-Rex.
“Making ‘Dye It Blonde,’ we wanted it to sound cleaner than our self-titled. Then with ‘Soft Will’ we wanted to pick up the fidelity from ‘Dye It Blonde,” Kakacek said, noting his group’s push away from reverb and toward better songwriting. “It forces you to play better and arrange better than if you’re just trying to blow out a guitar.”
Instead of co-opting the authority of artists from decades past, Smith Westerns now stand on pedigree alone. And there are moments on “Soft Will” that hint at that maturation. The album opens with the line, “It’s easy to think you’re dumb like you were.” Similarly, “Idol” chips away at the inflated reverence for established artists that many experience during their formative years.
“Meeting a lot of people on the road, it’s not necessarily that you develop a dislike of them, but you expect grand people,” Kakacek said. “You meet some people, and it’s just disillusionment.”
That reactionary attitude toward their own expectations is fused throughout “Soft Will.” Consider lead single “Varsity,” the final song on the album. There’s a tendency for the accessible nature of a single and the thetical demands of a closing track to be mutually exclusive. But, Kakacek pointed out, there was a desire to “end [Soft Will] on the thing farthest from ‘Dye It Blonde.’”
And there couldn’t be a better track than the swelling and glossy “Varsity” representing Smith Westerns right now, as it’s the most present piece of music they’ve ever written. It’s also the first time they’ve really sounded excited for what might come next.