- Words Russell Dean Stone
- Photography Blue Laybourne
From the archives: Chicago country-soul comrades Whitney talk forever and friendship.
There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, ‘Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood’, in which the narrator (voiced by Kurt Russell) sums up the platonic bromance between its protagonist Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as: “More than a brother and a little less than a wife”. It’s a description you could apply to the relationship between Whitney’s leading men — bandmates Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek.
The brothers in arms are relieved that with the release of their second album, ‘Forever Turned Around’, they no longer have to “zone out” spend- ing most of every interview detailing their origin story. That said, for the uninitiated, Julien and Max first teamed up in 2015 when Max (the curly-haired guitarist) had split from previous band Smith Westerns and Julien (the drum playing, falsetto crooner) had finished playing the drums on tour with Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Together as Whitney, they make glorious, country-tinged, soulful indie. Their 2016 debut album, ‘Light Upon the Lake’, is as warm and pure as bursts of sunlight cutting through trees — despite its lowkey melancholy, it’s a nostalgic record with a hopeful gleam (courtesy of their signature brass embellishments). Basically, it’s the ultimate music to hop in your car, get in your feels and drive the hell away to any- where — or nowhere.
“I don’t think what happened in those three years is A-typical to anyone else’s sophomore record journey,” begins Julien, summing up the time that’s lapsed between the release of their first and second full-length releases. “There were definitely some moments when we were unsure whether or not the second record was fully gonna happen.”
In truth, the pair knew they could climb the mountain and write a second record, they just didn’t anticipate it being harder than writing their debut, a record that Julien describes them as stumbling across. Having given themselves to the road, touring ‘Light Upon’ the Lake for two years, they’d then spend the next year and a half working on it’s follow up; a process that Julien likens to “torture” at times but says ultimately resulted in an album they’re proud of.
“On tour, our brains are spread too thin,” says Max, explaining that as perfectionists when it comes to music-making, writing on tour wasn’t an option. “We’re not irresponsible on the road, but we’re not the most responsible either, so there’s no way you’re going to make something we actually care about in that mindset… On the road, there’s no space. Pretty much both of us are together the whole time when we write, but we still need to be alone together, if that makes sense.”
“The first record is this wonderful and sometimes anxiety-ridden joyride — the act of touring felt like a joyride — and then reconnecting to why we did music in the first place was hard to do at first with this record,” says Julien. “We started touring at such a young age, you know what it feels like to play music that you maybe aren’t as attached to or music that you don’t care as much about, night after night? As we get older I wanna make sure we’re still singing the stuff that we’re gonna care about even ten years from now, hopefully.”
In the intervening years between albums, commitment, above anything else, has been the biggest life-changer for Max and Julien — commitment not just to the idea of making music long term, with Whitney as their main project, but also committing to the relationships they’re in. “Before we were transitioning from being broken up with, to touring, to meeting lots of different people, and then after tour we both ‘settled down’ with the people we’re very much in love with,” details Max, “A lot of the album is navigating being uncertain, even in the space of stability or relative stability.”
“We became very unstable people because we never were in the same place and constantly moving around. Friendships suffered from it. That’s one part of our life, at least we have the band but then every other aspect has been totally withering away,” still Max says they fully “embrace the destruction to our lives it causes.”
Friendship is clearly something at the heart of not just Whitney as a band, but Julien and Max’s entire existence — something reflected in the ‘Bubba’s tattoos they and their Chicago friends all have. Despite the crazy ride, Whitney has put them on, their own friendship has only grown tighter. The duo talk about their feelings a lot and confide in each other, with the music they make being a continuation of those open and very deep conversations, while Max offers that Julien undoubtedly knows things about him that no one else does.
“Something we understood from the perspective of making music together,” says Max, “Was that the second we started actually having ego, we’d start making some really bad music. We’ve always tried to keep that side of it out of it. The worst we’ve hurt each other’s feelings is when one of us has an idea that we’re really attached to and the other is like, ‘I don’t really like it’. Then eventually you’re like, ‘oh right, you’re probably right, we should just move on’.”
When, on the rare occasion they do ever disagree, it’s only ever about as dramatic as watching two siblings fight. As Julien says: “It just takes a night, you gotta fall asleep pissed off at the other person sometimes and of course you wake up and you’re all good… Usually, it’s about driving the other person to be better and striving to be better for the other person, rather than one-upping each other all the time.”
“One thing we did talk a lot about on the last record that carried through, and I think became a theme, is just like being really honest about whatever the
songs came from,” continues Max. “We just want to accurately represent ourselves and our emotions and capture those in the period of time we’re writing for.”
Though ‘Forever Turned Around’ is a record inspired by personal emotions, it’s themes are intentionally universal, with some of the bigger picture turmoil
on planet earth and global politics seeping into its overall mood. The first time they were able to vote in an election was back in 2009 when Obama was first elected 44th President of the United States; since then, Trump’s election has evoked some cynicism with how the system works (though they’re currently Elizabeth Warren fans). “We couldn’t make a blissfully unaware record,” clarifies Julien, though he’s clear that in terms of political discourse, the voices of cis White guys are not the peoples he’s looking to hear:
“If people are going to take up that political space, I’m not looking for straight White dudes’ opinions right now. I don’t necessarily feel the need to put our opinions forward when we’re talking about politics. Unless we’re just in an interview and we can be like ‘fuck Donald Trump’.”
Where ‘Light Upon the Lake’ was a sunlight record, comprised of songs like “Don’t Matter Where We Go” and “The Falls”, that channelled pure ecstasy, it’s predecessor is a reflective, golden hour record with autumnal tones; reflected in lyrical turns like “There’s fire burning in the trees / maybe life is the way it seems”, and the album’s title itself, “Forever Turned Around” — which Julien defines as the childlike idea or dream of ‘forever’ revealing itself to you as “totally a lie”, but one they’re stuck romanticising. “I don’t think we wrote this album about autumn or anything, but in general, the changing of seasons is more inspiring than just one thing that’s constant,”
Max offers. “As much hate as we have for Chicago winters, the nice thing is that you have four seasons.”
“Fall in the north-west is pretty substantial, it’s a good time to be alive,” laughs Julien. “It’s not really known for anything else other than that. Chicago’s like, the weather’s pretty much awful, it’s a very, very long winter and then spring is really short and then it gets all super humid — yeah it sucks.”
Do they miss Chicago when they’re on tour? “It’s really just the people that we love and both of our relationships are based there,” Julien smiles.