Words by Jonathan Stout
Smut is the collaborative project of vocalist Tay Roebuck, guitarist Andrew Min, bassist and synthist Bell Cenower, guitarist and synthist Sam Ruschman and drummer Aidan O’Connor. First breaking onto the scene in 2017 with the album End of Sam-Soon (via Broken Circles), they made a name for themselves with moody, distorted and melodic shoegaze. They soon relocated from Cincinnati to Chicago to be closer to the home of their new label, Bayonet Records.
It’s from here where they released How the Light Felt in 2022; a record that sounds so genuinely like it was made in the early ‘90s that if one was to travel back in time they could seamlessly place its songs between any others on a vintage college radio station playlist without anyone noticing. Although a melancholic air still surrounds the songs on How the Light Felt, the material leans much harder on brit pop and vintage shimmering alternative than the shoegaze influences of their previous release. Throughout the collection of songs, the listener hears shades of early Blur, Oasis and Orange Juice, coexisting pleasantly with ballads recalling the airy longing of Mazzy Star or The Sundays.
Their genuine application of influences mixed with “mature beyond their years” songwriting make them an exciting band to follow.
OS: As a Cincinnati resident, it’s been really exciting to watch your band grow and develop into what it is today. Were the reasons for relocating to Chicago the obvious/typical ones or were there other reasons you were drawn there?
Tay Roebuck: We just wanted more opportunities and to be more central for touring purposes, really. We decided that we wanted to take our music seriously, and since we had just joined Bayonet Records we realized it was time to jump into a bigger pond to pursue that dream. Chicago also has great music festivals and bands so once we got our stimulus checks we packed up and left!
OS: What do you enjoy the most about the Chicago music scene? Who are your favorite local artists?
Bell Cenower: Honestly, the variety of artists and genres is just a really fun experience. You can go out to a venue and there will be so many different opportunities to see different types of bands and that feels really invigorating. My favorite local band is probably the Roof Dogs, who are so freaking good at music it’s nuts. They opened at our record release show this December along with Mila la Morena, who is also incredible and a really fun act to watch!
OS: It’s been a tough couple of years, and an especially rocky and uncertain time for musicians. What did you do to maintain the inspiration necessary to compose an album while the world was in such chaos?
TR: We actually had most of the album written before the pandemic hit! We were extremely lucky to have our record deal to inspire us. If my memory is correct we signed maybe…. weeks before the pandemic hit? Which was a blessing in disguise because we had something to hold onto and work on and finesse during the first year of lockdown. We had never been on a label before so it gave us a lot of drive to prove ourselves and produce something we were proud to give them. But after it was recorded we had to wait two years for it to get pressed at the plant and that sucked big time.
OS: How does it feel to hit the road again in the current “post-pandemic” world?
BC: We’ve been back at it a while now, but it feels fresh and exciting every time we do it. We’re all really a bunch of road dogs! It feels awesome to connect with audiences who, like us, are absolutely aching for a good time. And just between the five of us in the band, we all get along so well that it’s kind of easy to be out for a long period. We like each other a lot.
OS: Your newest release, How the Light Felt, leans a little less on shoegaze and is more forwardly inspired by 90s brit pop. Were there any specific albums from that era/scene that gave you inspiration during the making of these songs?
TR: I think we all brought different albums to the table or I guess, like characteristics of different bands. I know Andrew loves Graham Coxon from Blur and tried to add that kind of experimental guitar playing into the mix. I listened to a lot of Blur and Suede but in the studio I read Sinead O’Connor’s biography and tried to channel that emotional storytelling through my voice. Keyword, tried. Bell’s a huge Smiths fan and Sam was getting really into trip hop and had a lot to do with the drum machine tracks.
OS: There’s a real maturity running throughout the songs on How the Light Felt, as well as a palpable cohesiveness and unity of vision. What is your normal composition process?
BC: It’s interesting to hear that, because it took us four years basically to write the album! I think part of it is that each of us has our very own strong point of view that we’re each bringing to each song, and that remains a through-line across the album. The way we write is such that we’re all writing together but separately, if that makes sense? We are all building and collaborating on a single progression or a concept and bringing our own styles of composition, but we’re also always engaging in a group discourse about how everything locks in together. I think for a lot of people, writing music is a solitary experience, which is valid, but none of us really write quite as well in a vacuum. We play off each other in what I think is a really special way.
OS: How long did it take until you felt like the songs were ready to record and release?
TR: We were ready and waiting to record for forever because a part of recording we looked forward to was tweaking and experimenting in the studio. We even wrote a few in the studio just to see what would happen and those ended up being some of our favorite ones! We’ve been so sure of ourselves and our vision that we left a lot of loose ends on purpose to challenge ourselves and I think sort of lived by “good enough for rock and roll”. Then of course we spent months in post panicking and perfecting the mixes.
OS: Even though you’re still in the early stages of your career with the band, you’ve already gotten to share the stage with some of the best bands in the scene, including Bully, Nothing, WAVVES and more. Do you have a favorite tour that you’ve taken part in thus far?
BC: It’s hard to pick a favorite, because each one has been really special in its own way! I think if I had to choose, for me it would be the tour we did with Nothing in 2018. It was a special time – pre-pandemic, so we were relatively carefree. It was also our first big national tour, so we were running on pure excitement for the whole month. Everything was so new to us and it was so much fun. Tour has this way of either dropkicking all your problems away into the sun, or it’ll drown you in them and you’ll plumb psychological depths you didn’t even know existed. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true – it’s a really immersive, all-consuming experience. The Nothing tour was definitely the former of the two.
OS: Are there any bands that you’d really like to do some shows with that you haven’t played with yet?
TR: We have a massive list of bands we want to play with and open for, actually. We’ve sent master documents to our label and booking man and manager and I’m not gonna mention any of them and curse us. [laughs] But I think we’d be a great fit with Alvvays. We’ve also played with so many amazing local bands in Chicago this year and I feel like doing a buddy tour could be insanely fun.
OS: As we’re now entering a new year, do you all have anything big planned? Tours, new recordings, collaborations, etc?
BC: That remains to be seen. Definitely got some tours in the works, and we’re going to charge onwards to a second album! We’re all champing at the bit to write new songs and take the music in a new direction.