“Hopeful, I guess, concise… and melodic.”
These were the words chosen — carefully, mind you — by singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich as he described Whitney’s debut album in as few words as possible, per my request. He’s spot on. Light Upon the Lake, released June of 2016 catapulted the Chicago-based Whitney from complete obscurity to near-ubiquitous indie renown, carving out a uniquely nostalgic place in the genre for itself.
Despite the nostalgia that hangs over the album, sometimes threatening to come crashing down on the listener, Ehrlich said “(Nostalgia) wasn’t anything we were thinking about. We were just kind of emulating the old records that we love.” He mentioned Jim Ford as well as The Band — “we’re super-duper obsessed with them” — as some of their influences. He also mentioned, though, that “post Light Upon the Lake, we’ve gotten super into Labi Siffre. He has some pretty intense, and kind of indulgent, like, bad songs. But at his best, his songs are super crazy good.”
It will be interesting to see if and how Siffre’s influence plays out on the band’s next release. There’s no expected release date but, based on the Daily’s interview with Whitney guitarist Max Kakacek, it sounded like the next LP could be here as soon as Summer 2018. Based on my conversation with Ehrlich, summer sounds possible, if not likely.
“We have three songs — three and a half songs done — that we’re excited about that will definitely make the record. We think they’re better than the last record,” Ehrlich said, adding, “We’ve been playing one of the new ones live and have gotten an overwhelmingly positive reaction, which is cool.”
Now known for their wicked touring schedule — Songkick reports 190 shows between the album’s release and the publication of this article, just under one show every two days — Whitney has just come off of a three-month run. It’s clear that touring so heavily sometimes takes a toll.
“When we were in Asia and Australia I was living super unhealthily, and basically wanted to cancel that tour,” Ehrlich explained. “It definitely tested our love for music… but bottom line, we’re just happy to be doing what we love for a living.”
Now that the intensive touring is done, though, Ehrlich and Kakacek, the primary songwriters, can begin focusing once again on new material. So far, “The (new songs) still have a similar juxtaposition as Light Upon the Lake, where it’s hopeful-sounding music mixed with some pretty fucking dark lyrics,” Ehrlich said, “We’re still having a lot of fun with that.”
Light Upon the Lake is certainly characterized by a very sunny sound, perfect for summer drives and lounging on the beach, but the lyrics can be disheartening, to say the least: “The songs that came super naturally were the the kind of sad sack ones,” Ehrlich said, of writing the band’s debut. “I think on the next record there’ll be a little bit more to dance to. We’re not gonna make a dance record, but you can actually, like, maybe shake it to a couple of songs or something.” Ehrlich’s language is sometimes noncommittal or unsure in tone, but this veneer drops when he talks about the music itself, betraying his enthusiasm.
“The [song] that we’re working on right now is — when we initially wrote the foundation, we were both just like ‘holy shit, this is maybe the best song we’ve ever worked on,’” he said.
While in the future the upcoming record’s material may provide the energy needed to get the crowd dancing, the band for now makes use of a number of covers. The band has released official recordings of their covers of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” by Bob Dylan, “You’ve Got A Woman,” by Lion and “Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can),” by Dolly Parton. They also regularly play “Magnet,” by NRBQ. Wondering where the idea to cover these songs in particular came from, I asked. The Lion song was shown to the band years ago, and only recently did the band’s label (Secretly Canadian) approach them about covering it. “Magnet” has a more interesting story.
“That song in particular was pretty funny… I think one of the dudes from Twin Peaks actually showed it to us, and the initial conversation was like ‘Who could cover this better?’ We tried it first and it worked so well, I don’t think they wanted to necessarily even try after that,” he said.
Ehrlich’s self-assuredness is warranted here. When they play live shows, Whitney takes the game to another level entirely in a way that is unique from almost any other current indie act. They inject their own songs with solos from almost every member of the seven-piece band, and bring this same energy to the songs they cover. Ehrlich mentioned playing the sole instrumental track of Light Upon the Lake, “Red Moon,” for 10 minutes at a show in Grand Rapids, and said that they’ll “probably wind up doing that again. When you’re playing the same set every night, creating little challenges for you to overcome is fun.”
Creating challenges for themselves, he said, is a key part of the mindset that the band has when they approach their live shows: “We just try to impress each other.” This is what makes their shows so much fun, the spontaneity of the performance, the discreet smiles that band members share after a particularly good solo or awful moment.
Other gimmicks also help keep energy and shock factor high, such as Ehrlich and bassist Josiah Marshall’s kisses during “Polly,” which he confesses came out of boredom. “I think it just happened one time and then last year… that was probably when that moment peaked for us. I took my shirt off and Josiah got on top of me and Max opened a beer and dumped it all over both of us.” Although the mid-show kiss is well-rehearsed by now, it remains a good indicator of the spontaneous environment that Whitney tries to curate when they play live.
In closing, I mentioned a series of almost-nude photos from the earliest days of the band’s Instagram, asking if there were plans for a reprisal of any kind. To my surprise, Ehrlich said that he and Kakacek were recently shot by a famous photographer — “I can’t actually tell you who it was” — and that he has hopes for a nude shoot in the future. “If we actually became as good of friends as I thought we did, then you might see some pretty revealing photos of us.”
Until then, he said that he and the band are excited for their upcoming festival performances, especially Waking Windows, where you can catch them headlining this Friday at El Club in Detroit. Three-day passes and single-day tickets are available at El Club’s website for $75 and $35 per day, respectively. See our interviews with festival organizer and El Club general manager Nick Mavodones III here and Katie Alice Greer of Priests here.