Spearheaded by singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek, Chicago-based band Whitney embodies an ever-evolving headspace for the two talented artists.
Accompanied by a five-piece band, the duo self-identifies as “country soul”–an eclectic label that encapsulates their genre-defying, under-the-radar sound. Ehrlich, who began as the drummer for Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns, and Kakacek, a guitarist in the latter, lay the groundwork for Whitney’s melancholy-yet-uplifting sound.
Max Kakacek helped us navigate Whitney’s winding path to present day, with a critically acclaimed Light Upon The Lake album under their belts and all seven members headlining world tours, performing at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Shaky Knees, and more.
OTW: How did Whitney initially form?
Max: We met in Oregon, while Julien was playing for Unknown Mortal Orchestra and opening for Smith Westerns. He was around 19 and I must’ve been 21. A few years later, when he wasn’t doing UMO anymore, I called him up because we had hung out, drank and whatever you do when you’re young on tour. UMO had been opening for Smith Westerns for two or three months, and so I called him up and said “Do you wanna drum for Smith Westerns?” and he said yes, so he moved in with Cullen (Omori) and slept on our couch for a while. Over the next year we became really close friends, and after Smith Westerns broke up, we were just buddies who were working on our own single projects. I was making some weird, kind of crappy solo music, and one day we made a song together, almost as a joke just messing around. It ended up being something we really liked and from then on we just started working together.
OTW: In the early stages when Whitney first formed, what steps did you take to make sure that it remained an individual force apart from your previous work?
Max: An important thing to know is that we didn’t really sit down and have that conversation. I think that we had been out of those bands for long enough that we weren’t going to make songs that sounded like previous projects. Of course Julien’s voice is very different from Reuben’s or Cullen’s, so that was obviously an easy distinction to make. Especially in the very beginning, our recording process was very limited–they were very lo-fi, folky, country songs, and I think what inspired us was that it was so different from the stuff we were making before. But we never really sat down and had a conversation that was like, “We should go in this direction because other projects that we’d been involved in did this.” I think it was important that we never had that conversation, because that puts you in a weird headspace, comparing yourself to previous things that you’ve done.
OTW: Understandable. So, who is Whitney anyway?
Max: I’m not really sure at this point–it kind of changes around. When the band first started, we used the name as a way to get perspective on songs we were writing outside of ourselves. I don’t think we ever gave that character any sort of real life characteristics. It was just more of a tool for us to use if we got too close to a song, if we were working on something for a long time and lost perspective on what it sounded like, or a way for us to back up and take a look at it from afar.
OTW: We’ve often seen you guys described as country soul or folk soul. What does “soul” mean to you in the context of your music?
Max: At the very beginning of Whitney, we were both obsessed with these weird lost recordings by people like Abner Jay and Jim Ford. The soul of the recording came from the idea that they were never found, and existed in this weird music vacuum of bands that should’ve probably been much larger than they ever became. The music was lost and people now reissue it and find it. We were pretty obsessed with that idea.
OTW: We’re big fans of the label you guys are on, Secretly Canadian. What is it like being a part of that and how have they shaped your career?
Max: Everyone who’s a part of it is awesome, especially when we were first starting out, and they first signed us. We pretty much talked to them every day.
OTW: How did you find them?
Max: They found us–we had a good friend that was working for them. They heard our demos and then brought us to Bloomington where the label’s based. We played a show and the only attendees were people from the label, and the next day they sat us down in this really bizarre, semi-official room, and told us they’d like to buy our record. All of us were super excited and happy, and then moving forward from there, we didn’t really have management until after the album was completely recorded. So every step of the way we were talking with them about mixes and artwork that we liked, and they were very easy to deal with without needing a manager. Whereas with a lot of labels, you need someone as a liaison between you and the label, but for us it was just really easy to talk to them and trust them. It was nice to develop that relationship very early on.
OTW: What other band members and instruments are involved in the live show right now?
Max: Julien plays drums and sings, I play lead guitar, Print Chouteau plays rhythm guitar, Will Miller plays trumpet, Josiah Marshall plays bongos and bass, and Malcolm Brown plays keys. We’ve got a sound guy that travels with us named Charles Webb, who’s just the man. It’s been pretty much the same crew since we’ve started. No one’s left, so since day 1 of touring this has been the group.
OTW: Are they all involved in recording the music, or is that just you and Julien?
Max: Yeah, they are all involved. Julien and I give a rough kind of skeleton of what we think the instruments should do. Usually, a lot of songs we play live before we record them, and as we keep playing them each part kind of takes its own meaning. Everyone gets to put their own spin on what they play, and when we go to the studio, we play it the way that we perform it live.
OTW: How has the tour been? Have you seen a good reaction?
Max: The tour’s been great so far. We’re doing a 90 day tour–60 days in America and 30 in Europe. We started in April, and we’re almost done with the first third, where we performed at Coachella, and we did a lot of other dates down the West coast. We’ve been to the West coast three or four times at this point and we’ve made a lot of friendships, so we got to see all of our homies that we’ve met from being on the road. And a lot of us have family out there, so it’s been kind of a breeze. We all got to see Kendrick Lamar at Coachella which was amazing.
OTW: That’s legendary. Anything in particular that you’ve learned from this tour?
Max: We should’ve known this a long time ago, but I was talking to a buddy Kevin Morby who’s also a musician, and he gave us the tip to try and drink 100 ounces of water every day before a show. So we’ve all been trying to do that, and then you can pretty much do whatever you want at night. (laughs)
OTW: Oh is that right? Has it worked?
Max: So far so good.
OTW: You’re playing a ton of festivals in the U.S. and overseas. Are there any in particular you’re most excited for?
Max: I think a lot of them are ones we haven’t played yet. Lollapalooza will be a homecoming show for us, which will be awesome. Osheaga I’ve never been to, and it’s legendary for certain reasons so we’re excited to go there. Primavera I played when I was 19, that’s in Barcelona and it’s an amazing festival, and right now we’re actually on our way to one called Fortress Fest in Dallas/Fort Worth, and it’s the first year of the festival. So it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to festivals that’ve been around longer.
OTW: Now back to the album Light Upon The Lake. What song do you personally connect with the most, and which would you say you most enjoy playing live?
Max: I think it kinda changes on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis for both, but I think “Light Upon the Lake” is the most personal to me. As far as live goes, at the moment it’s “Follow,” but again I think that’s pretty much per show, you’ll have a show where a certain song will play really well. “Polly” is usually a favorite of mine now too; that song is really fun to play live.
OTW: I know “Polly” is a song that deals with one of your breakups. What is your best breakup advice?
Max: Drink 100 ounces of water per day. (laughs) No, I’m joking. I’m not sure. Me and Julien are kind of going through breakups right now. We’ve had like a year of touring, and we’ve had girls that we’d been seeing and after a year of touring, things have gotten really hard. So we’re both dealing with that, and I think the vibe is to try and block them from all social media and not look at anything they post. Try to just block them from your life for a little bit before you can go back and talk to them again if you want to.
OTW: That’s good advice. So what’s next, have you started working on any follow-up to the album?
Max: Yeah, so we just recorded a couple covers that were released really recently. Tight now we’re playing a new song live that we’re all psyched on; it doesn’t really have a name yet, we’re still figuring it out. So we have about two and a half songs done. We have three weeks off in July where we’ll be writing, and then we have all of September off, and Julien and I are going to live in this cabin off of Mt. Hood in Oregon to write. We’re starting to get back to writing, but our tour schedule is pretty hectic. Whenever we’re not on tour, we try to put our heads down and get to work.
OTW: Who are some Ones To Watch artist on your radar that you predict will break in the next couple years?
Max: Well she’s just gotten a lot of press and was just on tour with us, her name’s Julie Byrne–she’s a singer-songwriter and she’s absolutely amazing. When we pick opening bands we try and pick people who we think are awesome and who we’d like to get into a bigger audience, so right now we’re on tour with good friends with a band called Golden Daze. One of the guys is an old Chicago guy and went to school at the same time as I did, so we’ve known each other since then.