Golden Days: Whitney interviewed

In the midst of a harsh Chicago winter, Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich were heartbroken and adrift. Two years later, they've turned pain into prettiness as Whitney

Feature by Joe Goggins | 01 Nov 2016

The history books are going to show that Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake was one of the finest records of 2016. Whether it’s one of the year’s defining albums is another matter entirely, and one that’s certainly open for debate; it might require some creative thinking to say with any conviction that a work this introspective, this tender, fits neatly alongside perennially depressing news cycles and a chaotic political climate. There’s little in the way of wheel-reinventing – pretty, melodic guitars set against strings and brass, with lyrics that drip melancholy – but that doesn’t mean that Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich’s debut effort together is anything less than remarkable, both sonically and in terms of the story surrounding it.

Put bluntly, Kakacek and Ehrlich were never supposed to make it this far, this quickly. This is a collection of songs that they didn’t ever envision reaching beyond the Chicago arts scene that they were recorded in the midst of, that might only ever be of interest to their friends and local contemporaries. They certainly couldn’t have known that they’d be touring the album worldwide, or becoming unanimous darlings of the indie press, or being interviewed for the New York Times by their self-professed biggest fan – Elton John.

Plus, there was never any way for either of the pair to be sure that this collaboration was going to bear much fruit in the first place. Both were still finding their creative feet again, Kakacek after the dissolution of his previous band, Smith Westerns, and Ehrlich in the wake of his departure from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, for whom he’d drummed. Neither were totally sure of their next musical move, or even if they wanted to jump back in with both feet so quickly. Add to that the fact that both were dealing with the fallout from failed relationships at the time and you quickly realise that there’s more than a touch of pathetic fallacy in play; Light Upon the Lake was written in the thick of a particularly bleak Chicago winter.

And it is an album that sounds like the product of its environment, that musically and lyrically taps into the tentative melancholy of fading heartbreak, that sense of the first days of spring – still in the distance – slowly sliding into focus. That, you suspect, is why the critics have gone wild for this album and why its appeal has been broad enough for mainstream outlets like the NYT to pick up on it. Of course, the band themselves – deadpan in interviews and consistently daft on social media – might tell you something different. From their perspective, their swift rise to prominence might just be the product of two solid years spent on the road – a fact neatly underlined by the fact that Kakacek’s in the back of the van, halfway between Georgia and North Carolina, when we ask him for his take.

“Yes and no,” he laughs, on the point of whether the group’s journey has felt as whirlwind as it looks. “On the one hand, every time we get a big new offer, something like Laneway Festival in Australia, we’re always a little bit shocked by it. At the same time, though, we’ve always really heavily valued our work ethic and we’ve been on the road non-stop since early 2015, at this point. It’s meant that we’ve been able to see things grow in every city – the venues getting bigger each time we come back, more people coming out. We’ve watched it build, so it’s felt gradual. That’s the view from on the road.”

From the outside looking in, there seemed to be a spontaneity to the way that Whitney shot to the top of the tastemakers’ pile, the kind of sudden upturn that suggests a band plucked unsuspectingly from obscurity. That, of course, is only half true, partly because of the duo’s indie pedigree and partly because, for all the hesitancy that characterised their early writing sessions, they were always ambitious. 

“Whenever you make anything,” Kakacek says, “you want to reach as many people who might connect with it as you can. We were part of this scene in Chicago where the apartment we were living in had an open door policy, so musicians and people making art in general were coming over to hang out on a daily basis. If the songs had never made it past that group of people, I wouldn’t have been upset; that was special enough on its own. But the ambition to get ‘bigger’ was always there. It’s what we wanted, but it didn’t define us, or the songs.”

Given how personal a lot of the writing is on Light Upon the Lake, you can’t help but take Kakacek at his word. It’s that side of the record that seems to have truly resonated with listeners, with heartbreak and mid-twenties reflection the sort of universal themes that resonate well beyond the confines of the band’s hometown. “I think things were a little guarded at first,” explains Kakacek, “and the idea of Whitney, of involving this third persona, was meant to kind of help Julien and I bounce ideas off of each other indirectly.

"It wasn’t until around the time we wrote ‘Golden Days’ that we started to make the songs more personal; we were pouring what was going on in our lives into the lyrics, and that played a huge part in making the record what it is. There were songs we’d make and then send them to the people they were about, the people who’d inspired them, and the reaction was always really awesome. In a weird way, that seems to have crossed over to people who are way outside of our little social circle.”

There’s a sense now in the band that they’re capitalising upon the momentum that the record’s success has lent them; they’ve scheduled shows well into 2017, thrown together ambitious live arrangements that do the songs justice on stage, and have already broken ground on album number two. Both Kakacek and Ehrlich know the pitfalls of burnout from too much touring and overexposure, but sound confident in their ability to avoid it in the build-up to a second LP.

“Julien and I have been in bands since we were like eighteen or so, so we know how to deal with everything by now. What’s important is writing at our own pace, and coming up with songs we know we’ll like playing for a long time, rather than rushing and putting something out for the sake of it. We just had two weeks off in Chicago, and we started writing again. It just felt really nice to sit down together again and get some ideas out. I think we’re both optimistic about where the next record is going already.”

Light Upon the Lake is available now via Secretly Canadian. Whitney play Glasgow’s Art School on 5 Nov and Manchester’s Gorilla on 8 Nov