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Smut Dreams Up a Melange of Sounds That Stick to the Heart

The Chicago-based shoegazers Smut share how they hit their stride on their second album and the personal griefs that surround it.

Photo by Mayank Mishra

Across their second album, How the Light Felt, Smut dips their toes into more experimental waters, concocting dreamy soundscapes and songs that are so lovelorn and fragile, they edge towards pop perfection. While diving head-first into a vast array of late-'80s and '90s influences including dream pop, trip-hop, and Britpop, the Chicago quintet enlisted legendary producer Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths) to bring out a wall of sound that elicits a hazy sense of nostalgia and permeates the mind. Since originally forming in Cincinnati in 2014, Smut's sound has evolved from a raw, noise-driven blurt of energy to blissful minimalism that's perfectly sequenced for emotional impact. Composed of vocalist Tay Roebuck, guitarist Andrew Min, guitarist-synthesist Sam Ruschman, bassist-synthesist Bell Cenower, and drummer Aidan O'Connor, much of Smut's music is rooted in profound heartbreak and loss. Over the band's thick layer of swirling synths and knotty, reverb-drenched guitars, Roebuck casts her pastoral spell of sung mediations lift immensely heavy subject matter to the light and allow the darkness to dissipate among the stars.


Following last year's tour, we caught up with Roebuck and Ruschman who discuss how the band has shifted sounds from their earlier EPs, hitting their stride, and the personal griefs that surround their new album.

Paperface Zine: How did you all meet and form Smut? Sam Ruschman: Tay and Andrew had some ideas for a few songs way back in 2014. I had been friends with both of them and hopped on, and we got to work on an EP. Three years later, after a few lineup changes, we recruited Bell as our bass player in Cincinnati where we were all living. After the four of us moved to Chicago in 2020, Aidan joined on drums and the rest is history!


PZ: Do any of you maintain other projects outside of Smut?

SR: I make electronic music under the name Buried Cable.


Tay Roebuck: Bell and Aidan are also in a country band together called Toad Vine, and Aidan is in another band called Strange Weekend!


PZ: Last November, you released your second album How the Light Felt. Talk to us about how this record came together and what the recording sessions were like?

SR: This record came together over a few years. Some of the songs on there are ones we had been playing for a minute! We had the demos for a good chunk of the record back in 2019 and when we signed with Bayonet to put it out we got to work writing the rest. Pretty much all of the newer tracks on the record were a product of quarantine. We would work on stuff in our living room playing, which was kind of odd since we were really only able to work on the tracks in a very basic and stripped-down sense. We traveled back to Cincinnati to record the album at Solitude Recordings with our old drummer and good friend Harold Bon, who is also a fantastic engineer. The recording sessions were long, with a lot of overdubbing and just trying things out, which I thought was really fun. Songs like "Morningstar" and "Unbroken Thought" were formed in part at those studio sessions.

Photo by Jaycee Rockhold

PZ: How was the approach different compared to your previous releases like 2020's Power Fantasy or 2017's End of Sam-soon. SR: I think the writing on How the Light Felt is more varied than our previous releases because of the amount of time it was written over and our evolving interests in what we were taking inspiration from. While End of Sam-Soon was more of a straightforward rock record, we really wanted to start dipping our toes into more synthetic sounds with Power Fantasy and that trend just continued with How the Light Felt. As a band, we have varying tastes in music, and what makes our latest record different is how we were more willing to sort of showcase those tastes. I know we all enjoy records that don't really stick to one sound.


PZ: Tay, one of the themes you explore across the new album is the death of your little sister. I know the songwriting and creative process took a while due to the pandemic, but that must've been really difficult to think about while writing.

TR: Of course, and I wrote about it because it was all I could really do to process my grief. The album sort of travels through the grief process with different facets of grief being explored. When someone dies the world goes on, and what I write about hopefully taps into the subtleties of that. Having an album this personal is very difficult because it’s not something people like to talk about or in some cases hear, but the album is for the people who like me live in that loneliness. To maybe feel like someone out there understands.


PZ: Were there any songs on this release that turned out way different than their initial idea with the help from your bandmates? TR: I'd say every song on this album is an example of that. Our process is extremely collaborative so whatever a person brings to the table is pretty much guaranteed to shift into something different by the end. That's part of the fun of being in a band!

Photo by Grace Lillash

PZ: What's something that makes this lineup special and how have you grown together over the years? Bell Cenower: Smut has had a lot of different iterations, and each one has been formative in its own way. With the most recent addition of Aidan, I think this lineup has a new kind of energy injected into how we play. We tend to be a very close knit group in both music and friendship, and I think our lineup now is this really sweet balance of all of our strong personalities coming together creatively and platonically in a way that just feels… a little cosmic at times? I think that it’s taken quite a bit of time for each of us to feel really confident in our own voices, and we’re at the point know where we know who and what we are. PZ: You’re currently touring the new album so how has that been so far and what are you looking forward to the rest of the shows?


BC: Touring on this album has been a really special time. One of the coolest things during the tour was seeing people already know the songs from the album, and they're singing along! Whoa! I think we're all really grateful to have played in our respective hometowns. It means so much to get to play your music for the friends and family who helped get you to where you are. Ultimately, we just love to play shows no matter where we are, and meeting new people who connect with the music makes it feel really worthwhile.

PZ: Now that the tour has wrapped up, what's next for Smut? TR: We hope that our album has a bit of reach, and that it is generally well liked so that we can tour a lot next year and meet the people who connect to it! We have another album being currently written and sometime next year, we'll start recording that also!


How the Light Felt is out now through Bayonet Records.


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