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It's Lit Upon the Lake: How Whitney Became a Real Band for Real People

The Chicago band's songwriters talk about Ludacris's Instagram and moving on from past projects with their new album 'Light Upon The Lake.'

Julien Ehrlich (left) and Max Kakacek (right) / Photo by Dominique Goncalves, courtesy of Secretly Canadian

Wintertime in Chicago doesn’t really inspire one to go outside. It’s quite the opposite, actually. That’s why in the chilliest season of 2014, two roommates who happened to be members of the recently disbanded indie rock band Smith Westerns—Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich—decided to hole up in their apartment. They’d both recently ended relationships and didn’t have the willingness to face the nightlife scene during the colder months, so they wrote music instead.


They kept their projects to themselves until one morning, a little hungover, Kakacek sat down to meddle with the tape machine he’d just bought. Ehrlich sang along to Kakacek’s summery, twangy riffs in a soft falsetto and in no time, they’d written a song. It’d end up being called “Dave’s Song,” the fourth track on their new band Whitney’s debut album Light Upon The Lake, out June 3 on Secretly Canadian.

Now the duo are far away from Chicago in Los Angeles—in indie songwriter Dent May’s backyard to be exact—playing frisbee when I reach them on the phone.

“Max just had a slapstick comedy moment where he caught the frisbee and slapped himself in the balls,” Ehrlich says buoyantly. You can hear in his voice how thrilled he is to be out of the van the band has been traveling across the country in for the last three days.

For Whitney—which consists of Ehrlich on vocals and drums, Kakacek on guitar, Malcolm Brown on keys, trumpeter Will Miller, rhythm guitarist Print Chouteau, Josiah Marshall on bass, and traveling sound guy Charles Glanders—the weeks leading up to Light Upon The Lake’s debut will be spent on the road supporting for Wild Nothing and Ehrlich’s other former outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Their live show will give them a chance to show off the still-unheard contents of the album, from the soulful grooves of “The Falls,” jubilant, Chicago-esque horns on single “No Woman” and “Red Moon,” and peppy licks on “On My Own.” Most distinctly, Ehrlich’s vocals hang delicately over the six-piece arrangements, light and with a hopeful tone that highlights the sorrow: “I’ve been sleeping alone / I’ve been going through a change.”


Where their music can incite wistfulness, lyrically, and timelessness, instrumentally, Kakacek and Ehrlich are very much giddy and in the moment. They enjoy a good selfie as much as the next person, but they take pride in their music, sobering up when discussing the process. But when it comes down to it, they’re just two best friends having a good time with instruments.

“We’re going to get famous as fuck,” Ehrlich says before both of them erupt into a fit of laughter.

Whitney / Photo by Sandy Kim, courtesy of Secretly Canadian

Noisey: I like that we’re Instagram friends. Who are your favorite Instagram accounts?
Julien Ehrlich: Let’s talk about who we just unfollowed, that sounds like way more fun. I just unfollowed Cara Delevigne.
Max Kakacek: I unfollwed Drake a little while ago, he was really bugging me.

Ehrlich: Cara Delevigne posts dumbass inspirational quotes. [Laughs] My favorite person to follow is Ludacris. He has this “Now that’s ludicrous” series where he just posts videos with the hashtag #nowthatsludicrous and I’m pretty into those.

How does that inspire your own Instagram style?
[Laughs] Our Instagrams are devolving into selfie mode. We have the band Instagram so I took the liberty of posting the hottest selfies of myself on my personal shit.
Kakacek: We had a selfie stick once, those are fun. I gave my dad one for Christmas.
Ehrlich: Jonathan Rado [of Foxygen] bought one when we were in LA recording with him and we used it a couple times, it was sick.


You guys have been stuck in a van for a while, how’s that going?
Oh, you follow the Twitter?

Of course.
I’ve been getting pretty scandalous on the Twitter, I’m taking it over now.
Kakacek: My DMs are definitely way more private.
Ehrlich: I’ll air my DMs out on Twitter sometimes—not if there’s pictures involved, I’d never do that to anyone.

Do you think you could ever write a song based on a DM conversation?
Yeah, totally. My DMs are getting more and more elaborate anyway.
Kakacek: Do you think you’d ever DM a girl a voice memo of you singing?
Ehrlich: [Laughs] Like a selfie video of me writing a song for a girl? I’d maybe do that as a joke and I’d totally do that.

As far as songwriting that doesn’t include DMs, were you ever worried of revealing too much to each other?
We were living together and we’ve been best friends for awhile, so we know everything about each other. We talk to each other about that shit like that even when we’re not writing music.

It seems like it’d be a process to find someone you work so well with.
Max and I always probably assumed that we were going to write together at some point. We didn’t want to force it after Smith Westerns ended because that’s not the way we go about things, like “We have to start our own band! Fuck that last band!” We don’t think that way at all. We kept flexing our music muscle while working on other projects and then this one just popped up and ended up being the best album we’ve ever worked on.


Do you think that time working on your own stuff helped you to be able to go into this full force?
Kakacek: It helped us find the sound in a way. I’d been in Smith Westerns for seven years and I had a specific role in that: arranging and playing the guitar in a certain type of way. So finding a new voice for myself through the instrument took a second. The stuff I was making was exactly not what I wanted to make. I made half an album of weird bedroom pop songs and then looked at it like, “This is not what I want to play.” Then when me and Julien made that first song, I started playing in a different style and it fit his voice really well. It kind of purged the shitty ideas we had in other projects, and we got lucky together coincidentally.

How does your role within Whitney differ from previous projects?
The whole band is seven people together. It’s more like a family vibe than some of the other projects I’ve worked in. We never really fight. People are really open to changing parts that they have ideas for. Everyone takes criticism really well—and doesn’t consider it criticism—it’s more collaboration. No one really gets cocky or egocentric when it comes to what they’re doing. With six of us, you have to leave a lot of space for six people in the arrangements. Sometimes people shouldn’t play at certain times. In Smith Westerns, there was always an argument about who should play what sometimes. This band is more like, “I’ll stop playing here so you can take this part.” It’s way more good vibes, to put it simply.
Ehrlich: I think the experiences of our last band put us in a mindset of being really, really happy to be working and be in the line of work that we believe that we were meant to do. We know it’s really hard to get to a point where we have an entire year booked of touring and people are receiving the music well. Maybe in the last project some people took it for granted and we’re not the types of dudes that want to do that.


Do you think that has to do with the fact that you’re older now than when you first started?
Kakacek: I think when you’re younger and do interviews and stuff you’re a lot more shy and you don’t know who you are yet, and your quiet nature comes off in the worst way possible. We both feel a little more confident to stand behind this work than other work I’ve done in the past. It’s a little more complex and meaningful to me on a personal level than any of the other music I’ve worked on.
Ehrlich: There’s a lot of bands that get by on style over substance. I’m not trying to call out any fucking band, but I think there’s a lot more substance than some of the other shit we’ve been involved with.

The record is coming out in a month. What are you anticipating leading up to it?
We’ve said this before in interviews, but we always get really psyched when someone sends us Facebook messages saying, “Hey, your song has helped me get over a breakup” or the death of a family member or “It just made my day better.” That makes us the happiest and that also translates over to playing live shows when you can tell that someone is being massively affected by one of your songs.

Are you sick of getting asked about Whitney being a third-person character?
Kakacek: It did happen for a second, those comments. I think the record it means a lot to both of us and to put the whole thing under the third person thing, it cheapens that a little bit.
Ehrlich: We’re real people, you know!

Who tweet real thoughts.
Hell yeah. We tweet about real chicks and real car rides in LA with rich girls.

Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.