Cullen Omori | Sad Guy No More

"Sometimes you can't be new, but it's worth a try," Cullen Omori sings on "Synthetic Romance," one of the many reflective and spangling indie-pop songs spread across his debut solo LP, New Misery. It's a fair assessment, as to many he'll always be the singer/guitarist of Smith Westerns, the jangled-up crew he formed in his late teens that issued a trio of praised albums before imploding in 2014. The last couple of years were tough for the Chicago-bred songwriter, and came fraught with moments of self-doubt. But caught one week ahead of New Misery's March 18 release through Sub Pop, he's excited to be working on new projects, whether they be music-related or something handier.

"I'm at Home Depot, buying wood," he says, twitchily noting over a cell phone connection that he's also been shuffling down the aisles of an Illinois franchise looking for a jigsaw. Later, he and a friend will be building an equipment crate they'll be stuffing into Omori's tour van, one of many touch-ups made to the recently acquired 2002 Chevy Express.

"The side passenger door that swings open had half-exposed paneling, it was just metal," the musician says with a laugh of first getting the vehicle, confessing that the Craigslist sellers weren't entirely legit. "I had to get a bunch of things fixed on it, but now it's all ready and working good. Hopefully I can keep it and it becomes the 'Cullen Omori bus' for quite a while."

Beyond the van repairs, betterment has been the theme of Omori's life this last little while. During his run with Smith Westerns, Omori would lean on fellow band member Max Kakacek as a writing partner, their collaborations often presenting the glam grandeur of T. Rex with the '90s-era shine of Britpop. Following the split, Omori was hit with a wave of uncertainty, questioning whether his time in the music biz was up.

"When the band failed, I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't know if I could make music that was strong enough to become a solo record, or that I was even strong enough to perform by myself," he reports. At first, the shift from being in a full-time touring band back to civilian life--he briefly worked a cleaning job in a hospital--hit the artist quite hard. And while his song output had slowed down significantly after landing back in town, his partying habits didn't.

"When you grow up in bars from the time you're 18 to 23, you don't get a sense of what moderation is. And that's fine when you're in a party atmosphere, or you're at a show, because the people that come out, that might be their one time out of that week. But for you, it's the same thing every day. When you come back [from tour], you still want to do those kinds of things, but that becomes not cool when you're just sitting at home by yourself," Omori explains, adding of his dip in productivity, "I felt like I was getting reckless about everything, with how I was living. It was totally unsustainable."

Omori credits his girlfriend with helping him back away from nightlife to focus on making an album. Gauging by the direction of the conversation, a social media presence where he describes himself as both a "sad guy loser" and a "rocker pretty boi," and this being his first solo effort, the album title of New Misery seemingly taps into the Chicagoan's self-deprecating sense of humour. That said, he's definitely channeling the depression and frustration of the past couple of years into the LP.

Despite its triumphant and swaggering guitar hooks, album opener "No Big Deal" is Omori's letter to himself, a "creature of habit,” trying to point out how he seriously needs to reevaluate his life-goals. "Cinnamon" melds chorus-slickened New Order bass tones and electro pop synths with a winking peek at dark-days decadence ("I can hear you through the stall, don’t you go and take it all"); delicate but desolate strummer "Be a Man" has his fragile, breathy vocal detailing just how easy it is for a gram to turn into an ounce.

"A lot of [New Misery] is these little snap shots of where I was mentally during this time of total uncertainly... a total breakdown," Omori admits, though he says he's since recouped both mentally and physically. Following the recent upgrades to the "Cullen Omori bus," the songwriter is taking his "Sad Guy No More" tour around North America just as the new album hits stores. After a few years out of the game, he's excited and relieved to be heading back on the road, even if it means bringing his Misery to the masses.

Photo Credit: Alexa Lopez

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