Formed around the creative nucleus of former Smith Westerns bandmates Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, Whitney germinated from a spontaneous songwriting tangent the pair struck upon in their shared Chicago apartment. While the indie rockers’ unlikely reinvention as earnest balladeers might come across as an unlikely career move, the gentle falsettos and baroque pop grandeur of debut single ‘No Woman’ captivated fans and critics alike in January.
Conveying a country-accented indie sound atop more meticulously constructed songcraft, debut LP Light Upon the Lake continued to fuel the groundswell building around the group. Characterised by an acoustic sparsity pouring with warm familiarity, the LP courses with longing and shattered romance, tinted with a certain sun-dazed optimism. With the group gracing Australian shores for the first time at 2017’s St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, we caught up with guitarist Max Kakacek to talk about his favourite albums of 2016 and the influences informing Whitney’s distinctive sound.
Watch: Whitney – No Woman
Music Feeds: It’s that time of year where everyone is pulling together their ‘Best of 2016’ album lists. Do you have a standout LP?
Max Kakacek: I think there are a few. I’m a huge fan of Charles Bradley’s Changes. Anything he puts out is… I mean his story is just so unbelievably inspiring. His backing band, The Menahan Street Band, are unbelievably talented.
They’re really fun to watch live too. Something else, which at first I was little sceptical about, is Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Julien kind of freaked out about it straight away. By hanging out with him, listening to it over and over again, I started finding little things I liked about. Then there’s a friend of ours, Sam Evian, who also released an album this year called Premium. I think it’s been largely overlooked. He’s a great really talented guitar player and I’m pretty sure he recorded himself for the most part. Off the top of my head right now those three.
MF: There has also been a really positive reaction to your own debut album. Were you expecting such a strong reception?
MK: After we were writing there was a moment where we had the finished album and were deciding what to do with it. At first, we thought we might just self-release it via SoundCloud or something like that. Put it out just for our friends in Chicago. Keep it small and local. Then it all flipped. I remember when we got the offer to go to Australia, I think it was in late summer and we were on tour. All of us were shocked. I know Julien has been there before but for everyone else in the band it was like a new experience and we were all super, super excited. You know? Getting to go to Australia via music! It was great and kind of surreal in a way.
MF: Whitney seems like a very song-driven group. But on the other hand, you have been performing these tracks live and touring extensively as a large 7 piece ensemble. Has a year on the road informed where you might go with your next release?
MK: Absolutely. I mean, I’ve talked to this friend who saw us play at one of our initial basement shows, then at the next show we did back in Chicago and more recently at this homecoming show we did at an even bigger local venue. They said that each show they felt like they were seeing a different band. Early on Julien and I would sometimes get a little bored with the songs, you know playing the exact same thing every night. But at this point, with the full band, the songs have evolved a little. There are certain sections which we’ve opened up to improvisation. It keeps them a little more open for us playing in a live setting.
MF: And that’s easier having more people on stage?
MK: Yeah, I really enjoy it. The challenge of it is learning to play less as individuals, knowing when to have your moment and when to step back. That’s the good thing about everyone in Whitney. We’re all happy to play for a little bit and then kind of take a back seat for a while and then come back in when others need you. We got really lucky in that sense.
MF: So it’s a fairly ego-free zone?
MK: Yeah, exactly.
Watch: Whitney – Polly
MF: Are the musicians you’re playing with mostly friends from Chicago?
MK: They’re all local. When we formed the band, after Julian and I had been writing, it was kind of unspoken that everyone would be in the band. It felt like we didn’t really have to ask any of them. We had all just been hanging out. They would be in the apartment every day and partying with us during the time the songs were being created. When we did ask, each member was kind of like: “I already thought I was in the band?!”
MF: It feels like there’s a nostalgic country-folk meets ’70s singer-songwriter element to the group’s sound. It seems to have really informed what you’ve gone on to create. What is it that drew you towards that period of music?
MK: I think in terms of the songs themselves, we were very much trying for an older, light in the attic kind of record. Old lost recordings and folk records. A lot of those older singer-songwriter and folk records have a lot of mistakes in them, just left in there. It makes the record more relatable. I think that’s what we were looking for and tried to do with our recording. We wanted to add this humanity in the sense that the lyrics and music we created would feel honest. And they are all honest because the music isn’t necessarily perfect. We didn’t go back through Pro Tools and fix mistakes. We decided that if something sounded good on the record we wouldn’t nit-pick it. We recorded it like we were a band performing as much as we could. I think that’s something important, these days those little imperfections are just so easy to fix.
MF: Light Upon the Lake seems like an emotionally intimate record, maybe even a little heartbroken. Prior to starting the group The Smith Westerns had dissolved and Julien and you were both coming out of the breakdown of some serious relationships. Were you worried about exposing some of your emotional vulnerabilities to public scrutiny?
MK: I don’t think so. A large part of that had to do with…we were really lucky in the fact that… it’s hard to talk about this. But our circle of friends in Chicago, before we started touring a lot and others started leaving, was a really large network where everyone inspired each other to create. There was a little bit of emotional turmoil in there relating to relationships, but at the same time, we were also just going through a time in which we were really inspired to make music. I think that hindered any double guessing or worrying about what we were putting out into the world.
MF: You seem to have a strong relationship with the city of Chicago…
MK: I grew up here in the city, as have many of the members of the band. We all went to public school in Chicago. Over here the school system is pretty broken. There’s been a lot of trouble with funding music and the arts. Chance the Rapper also went to one of these schools as did a group of guys you might know as Twin Peaks. We kind of consider ourselves brother bands. We went through the same or similar experiences coming up in this broken system. There’s a little bit of pride in that, but also there’s this shared desire to inspire younger kids with similar problems to keep making their own music. Despite this, it’s also a really inspiring place. No one is competitive here and everyone just sort of hangs out. While it is hard for young people here, there’s a lot of art and the city has been having a really great musical output over the last two years. There are so many great young bands coming out. There are also a lot of great bands who you might be just about to hear about in the next year too.
Watch: Whitney – Golden Days
MF: You’re coming to Australia as part of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. What else is on the cards for 2017? Are you going to stop to take a breath or just keep slogging?
MK: Yes and no. We are definitely still on the road touring the album. But we’ve also just had a couple of weeks off and worked on some new songs, which is pretty exciting. I’ve never been someone who can write on the road and I’ve never talked to anyone else who could. I think it’s kind of like a myth. There’s just something about being in your own home. I’m definitely itching for some more of that sort of time, but we’ll get there!
MF: Do you have any idea what the new material will be like?
MK: We’re approaching it by trying to be a little more open-minded. But, we’re still figuring out. Most of it… I don’t know. We’re kind of just recording demos at this stage, but I am really excited about it.
Whitney will make their debut visit to Australia for this year’s St Jerome’s Laneway Festival and two headline shows. Details here.