Just over a year ago, I listened to Whitney for the first time. On a foggy Sunday morning, walking to a bus stop in Lansing, the luscious melody of sun-soaked “No Woman” grabbed ahold and wouldn’t let go. The Tuesday prior, Pitchfork had released its annual festival’s lineup, and the name “Whitney,” elusively enigmatic, found itself as the second-to-last listing on the bill. I was simply doing my due diligence, researching the artists with whom I was unfamiliar. Once on the bus, I couldn’t help but listen two or three more times, a perfect blend of nostalgia and earnestness suited for any season. When asked to describe the band’s debut album, Light Upon The Lake, lead-guitarist Max Kakacek pauses for a moment before settling comfortably: “country soul … it’s poppy, but melancholy,” he says.
A year ago, Whitney were known to only a few, but their relentless touring — the seven-piece outfit has played 165 shows in the past 365 days — and uniquely vintage-yet-modern sound have catapulted them to relevance. Given the intense touring schedule, it’s impressive how lively the band keeps it onstage.
“We like to improvise our way through our songs and keep it interesting for ourselves as well as everyone there,” says Kakacek. “We just have as much fun as possible.”
Light Upon The Lake may be Whitney’s first album, but the men behind the name have been in the scene for long enough to know how to put on a show — Kakacek formerly played guitar in Smith Westerns, while drummer-vocalist Julien Ehrlich played in Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Whitney’s live show is unbridled energy, with a setlist that is a healthy mix of original material and covers of classics that, Kakacek said “add a bunch of energy to our set. The covers we play let us flex a little bit more as musicians … we really push ourselves with them to show our technical abilities.” The songs off of Light Upon The Lake, as Kakacek mentioned, are fairly poppy and relatively straightforward, but they take on a new life performed live. If listening through the album is equivalent to watching your favorite old home videos, then the live performance is like reliving those same favorite memories in all their purity and all their energy.
Given the extensive touring, the Whitney members have no shortage of good memories themselves. At the end of their last leg in Australia, Kakacek recalls the band’s failed attempt to climb a buoy, only to be shown up by a 70-year-old Australian man who scaled the structure effortlessly — “but kudos to older Australian men. They stay healthy way longer.” Kakacek also recalls leaving his previous JEEP hat on a plane: “They said I couldn’t go back and get it and I was like ‘it was my grandfather’s hat’ and they still wouldn’t let me in.” Rest assured, he has since found an equally unique JEEP hat.
As we near the end of our conversation, I ask him about the social media — I cautiously invite you to visit the early days of the band’s Instagram — and the upcoming third season of Twin Peaks. Regarding the former, Kakacek modestly admits the steady increase in the band’s following and reflects on the changing state of social media. “I used to say it’s a great tool to read the news or to keep up to date on what’s going on in the world, but now it’s just a really unreliable tool, and I think people are still trying to figure out how to make it reliable. It’s kinda freaky at the moment.”
In regards to Twin peaks, he said, “less is more. I just hope they do it justice, because Twin Peaks was one of my favorite shows. There was this weird article a while ago like ‘it’s so annoying that bands like Twin Peaks and talk about it,’ and I was just like, you know what, David Lynch is amazing at what he does.” He takes a moment to lament the botched Arrested Development reboot and voices his desire for a world in which both remakes were done well.
Turning back to the music, the band just released a pair of singles on Spotify. In addition, Kakacek said, “Julien and I have been writing pretty much the whole day today. We have about three or four songs that we’re workshopping right now.” While we shouldn’t expect a sophomore LP effort for some time, there may be something coming up. In terms of direction, Kakacek assures me that their new material will sound similar to LUTL, but that they’ve been experimenting with “lots of strings.” If we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll get a taste of the new material when Whitney open for The Head & The Heart at Hill Auditorium on Tuesday, February 28.