MEMBERS: Julien Ehrlich (vocals/percussion), Max Kakacek (guitar), Josiah Marshall (bass), Malcolm Brown (keys), Tracy Chateau (guitar), William Miller (horns), and Charles Glanders (sound engineer)
FROM: Chicago, Illinois
YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: The band Smith Westerns, which brought Kakacek and Ehrlich together as that glam outfit fizzled out
NOW: Making a case for album of the summer (and eventual winter) with Light Upon the Lake, out June 3 on Secretly Canadian
The primary contradiction of Light Upon the Lake, the debut LP from Whitney, is this: how can music so strongly rooted in melancholy make you feel so glad to be alive? It’s a strange platter—and to be sure, Whitney’s kind of a strange band (just take a look at their introductory portraits on Instagram if you really want to, uh, get to know them). But in talking to Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, the songwriting duo at the forefront of the group, it becomes clear that there’s an explanation for every contradiction—a key to every song.
Take those seemingly disparate emotions on the record, for instance. They’re not so disparate when you find out that Ehrlich and Kakacek wrote much of the music in the dead of a brutal Chicago winter, but then took a trip west and recorded it at the tail end of a pleasant Los Angeles summer. So pleasant, in fact, that while they were making it, various members of the septet took turns sleeping in a tent in the backyard of their co-producer—Jonathan Rado of Foxygen.
“We FaceTimed him, and it was the first time he’d ever done it,” says Kakacek, explaining in deadpan fashion how the band was initially introduced to the facilities at Dream Star, Rado’s home studio. “It was the most awkward FaceTime I’ve ever been on.”
“You’re not gonna make good music if you think you’re hot shit.” — Julien Ehrlich
Digital awkwardness was to be expected, anyway, as Rado is more well-suited to analog tools himself, which is what he used to record Light Upon the Lake (while also tapping into “the tent magic,” as Ehrlich describes it). Nearly every member of the current lineup—Ehrlich, Kakacek, Josiah Marshall, Malcolm Brown, Tracy “Print” Chateau, William Miller, and Charles Glanders—came out to lay their parts down on the songs, and the final product is a crushing and invigorating modern take on roots rock, soft pop, and ’70s soul—like a Curtis Mayfield collaboration with The Carpenters (Ehrlich rocks the atypical combo of drumming and singing, just like Karen Carpenter did), but with the addition of a Danny Whitten–type figure on guitar.
“The thing that we tried to keep constant was never relying on any sort of effects that create space, like reverb or delay, and trying to keep everything dry,” Kakacek explains. “So as the guitar player, that was a challenge for me to play differently because there wasn’t any way to brush things under the rug. It had to be really clean.”
Kakacek is referring to the difference from his earlier playing with Smith Westerns—a now-defunct glitter/garage group that Ehrlich joined as a drummer toward the end of the band’s existence (after first meeting them while playing with Unknown Mortal Orchestra). Following that breakup—and dealing with new romantic breakups of their own—Kakacek and Ehrlich started writing together, laying everything they were going through on the table. “You just have to make the most honest music that you can,” says Ehrlich. “You’re not gonna make good music if you think you’re hot shit.”
Tracks like “Golden Days” and “Follow” feel like a bare-assed jump into the album’s titular lake, and their disposition cuts deep into the way that certain sunny memories can twist themselves into gloomy ones, and vice versa. The whole approach is one that resembles little about Smith Westerns—and, more importantly, little about other contemporary bands in general.
“I think we just like feeling vulnerable,” Ehrlich admits when asked about their distance from the reverb-washed groups that seem to be perpetually en vogue. “We’re not trying to hide in some kind of indie rock scene or anything.”
After another long and cold winter come and gone, Whitney are back in the sun, touring through the country and looking for places to stay, couches to crash on. At least when they return to LA, though, they’ll know exactly where to go: “[Rado] actually sent us a picture somewhat recently of the broken-down tent blowing around his backyard,” laughs Kakacek. Summer’s here again. FL