By Philip Chevalier.
Whitney plays Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right tonight, and Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival on July 15. Light Upon the Lake is out today on Secretly Canadian Records.
Max Kakacek is somewhere in Wisconsin – sitting in a field where the wind makes its presence known every few seconds.
The former guitarist and founding member of Smith Westerns is taking time with family between tours for his new project, Whitney. Julien Erhrlich, Kakacek’s Whitney counterpart and another former Smith Westerner, hasn’t arrived yet.
I start by asking Kakacek how, as such a young band, Whitney manages to sound old.
“I think both of us have respect for the tradition of early American rock and country music,” he explains. “We don’t sit down and say, ‘This part needs to sound older.’ I just think if it sounds old, it comes out of our respect for those eras of music.”
Soon after, we’re joined by Ehrlich, who serves as both Whitney’s lead vocalist and drummer. He reports to be “chilling.”
“I’m decompressing between tours right now,” he tells me. “Just in Chicago at my lady’s house.”
Kakacek welcomes him, exclaiming, “There’s the boy.”
Ehrlich replies with an appropriately elongated “Suuuuup.”
This exchange resolves any curiosities on my part about whether they would try somehow to affect the same maturity in dialogue that their songs seem to capture so honestly.
When Ehrlich and Kakacek started writing songs together as Whitney, they did so in avoidance of a concrete plan. Their partnership sprang from the conclusion of Smith Westerns, perhaps indie rock’s most quintessentially young and spirited act of the last few years. Whitney’s initial demos made their way to the internet just as former collaborator Cullen Omori advanced his own solo work in parallel.
The pair recalls a calcified writing and recording process in the closing chapters of their former band. The picture they paint is regimented, a process made stale by an overt adherence to proven sounds and structures.
“Smith Westerns was at a point where everything was a formula,” remembers Kakacek. “There was always a plan. It seemed like everything was bound to be less organic and just very conscious of itself during the writing process.”
Whatever Whitney was going to be, it seemed necessary for Ehrlich and Kakacek to have fun creating it.
Or, as Kakacek puts it: “When we made Whitney, it wasn’t born out of a plan necessarily; that’s why it was good. It sort of came out of this place we hadn’t tapped into yet.”
In the early songwriting stages of their debut, Light Upon the Lake, the pair took pains to avoid being serious. Early demos featured lyrics written by a fictional character named Whitney, a device that provided them the wiggle room to land on a sound without caring too much about what they were saying.
When I ask more about the character, the pair emphasizes that it was just that – a device – and that we shouldn’t consider it to be the voice behind Whitney, which is by now definitively their own.
“The Whitney-as-a-character thing was more of a way to get past certain barriers during the songwriting,” Ehrlich explains. “I shy away from talking about that too much, though, because once we realized we were making something that we were obsessed with, we put our real, genuine feelings into it, so the third person perspective sort of fell by the wayside.”
He goes on: “I think it helped because we weren’t bearing our souls from the beginning. Later on, we got comfortable enough to do that, and actually be like, ‘Well, this is exactly what I want to say. We’re going to have to listen to this thing forever, so we might as well.'”
The lyrics on early demos – written by Whitney-the-character – were hardly drenched in the same sincerity that we encounter on the finished product.
“If you heard the original demos of ‘Dave’s Song’ and ‘On My Own’, the lyrics are pretty crazy,” Kakacek assures me. “We went back and rehashed those once we realized the Whitney persona wasn’t going to be the voice behind the record.” Ehrlich adds context: “They were kind of obscene. We say curse words; it’s pretty weird.”
Early drafts of lyrics aside, the sound that emerged from those early tapes, it turned out, was actually a fairly serious one – a disarmingly tenured country aesthetic that belies both the youth of the people behind it and the newness of the project itself.
When the pair wrote “Golden Days”, the most personal – and most infectious – song on the record, they left themselves no choice but to ditch the third person in favor of the first.
“It’s the most personal song on the record,” Kakacek shares. “At that point, we kind of dropped the whole persona-as-an-idea thing.”
As a kind of anthem for people who’ve fucked up in a relationship, it’s appropriate that the pair hadn’t fabricated what sounds on record to be a genuinely painful kind of nostalgia. When I ask what inspired the song, their response speaks to the strength of the track and the highly personal context it emerged from.
“I was in the middle of the messiest breakup of all time, and Max had gone through that a year earlier,” recalls Ehrlich. “So, I think it was easy for both of us to tap into that. I mean, I was tapping into it directly, and he knows the feeling as well.”
Kakacek elaborates, explaining, “I think the best way to sum it up is that after we wrote ‘Golden Days’, Julien and I both sent it to the respective people and told them, ‘This is something that in the darkest way you helped make.’”
Did they get a response back?
“I got a phone call of her crying,” Ehrlich tells me.
In musical form, Whitney sounds anything but young.
On “Polly”, the album’s penultimate track, Ehrlich translates as sincere when he laments “If only we were young” in a falsetto that cries out for comparisons to venerated soul singers from decades past. The album’s most upbeat, road-trip worthy tune, “No Matter Where We Go”, bears a handsome family resemblance to Revolver‘s “And Your Bird Can Sing”. “No Woman”, the album’s opener, feels dredged up from a deep well of listlessness, one that should have taken multiple years to dig.
Math doesn’t seem to allow for the twenty-four-year-olds to have dwelt inside of the requisite moods long enough to have woven them so deeply onto such a listenable record, but the full pallet is just there throughout the album in a pretty self-evident way.
One thing they capture well is the hope that, in spite of all the melancholy, there’s still a distinct possibility of being able to ‘get it together,’ so to speak.
When I ask if they feel close to getting their shit together after the breakups and craziness of the past few months of touring, Ehrlich iterates on his response, hitting new lows as he mentally adds things up.
“Kind of,” he answers, then pauses for a moment.
His mind changes.
“Actually, no,” he says with a laugh. “That’s a major no.”
If that’s the place this music is coming from, we could ask whether we might be better off if he lingers there for at least one more album.