Recently arising from the winds of Chicago’s close-knit music scene, singing drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek formed their latest band on a whim. The two musicians played together in the short-lived indie rock band Smith Westerns (Ehrlich also played drums for the new-age psychedelic band Unknown Mortal Orchestra prior to that), and not too long after the band broke up, Kakacek and Ehrlich suddenly found themselves writing songs for their new band, Whitney. Currently signed to the label Secretly Canadian, the band is comprised of Ehrlich, Kakacek, guitarist Tracy Chouteau, trumpet player William Miller, bassist Josiah Marshall, and keyboardist Malcolm Brown, along with Charles Glanders on sound.
On their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, which the band released in June, Whitney blended melancholic folk, Chicago soulfulness, and stoned summer grooviness and touched upon the doldrums of heartbreak, while instrumentals packed with exuberant energy offered just the right amount of summer sweetness to Ehrlich’s lyrical lament. Critics have declared it the hit indie record of the summer. But, according to Ehrlich, the band doesn’t pay much attention to what the critics have to say, they’re just glad to be doing the only thing they truly know how to do: play music.
When I spoke with Ehrlich, who always sang backup in previous ventures before taking the lead role in Whitney, I got the impression of a meek songwriter with a newfound confidence. In the midst of a major touring journey that is just about to hit Europe, Ehrlich took some time to talk to MERRY JANE about the throes of heartbreak, his love for the Pax vaporizer, and why trying to mix a demo while under the influence of a potent edible isn’t always the best idea.
Ehrlich and Kakacek (center) with their band Whitney.
MERRY JANE: You and Max played in the same band before. How did you ultimately decide to start the Whitney project together?
JULIEN EHRLICH: After the Smith Westerns breakup, Max and I didn’t necessarily task ourselves to start some new project to take over the world, we actually went to work on our own solo stuff for about a year, more or less. We had been helping each other out a little bit with the stuff we’ve been working on, but we’d never fully written a song together until Max bought a tape machine. We basically wrote a song one morning, checked the tape machine out to hear what sounded like, and we liked both the tape machine and the song on it. So, we continued going from there.
Light Upon the Lake's lyrics seem quite personal. What inspired them?
As far as lyrical content goes, about seven out of the 10 songs are about a breakup. I’d just been dating a girl for about a year-and-a-half and Max had also gone through a pretty gnarly breakup the year before we started writing, so he was there to bounce the lyrics off of as well. It’s kind of cliché writing about romance or being alone, but I’m proud of the way we tackled it. It’s therapeutic in a way.
What are some of the biggest musical influences on Light Upon the Lake?
I haven’t talked about this much in interviews, but in the year prior to diving into this album, I had become super obsessed with Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. A lot of people have compared our sound to Neil Young, which isn’t anything that we tried to pull from, but he’s such a legend that I guess it just came through. Jim Ford is someone we discovered halfway through writing the record who totally allowed us to explore the lane we were writing. We took it way further thanks to him, because we felt we were in the same kind of musical space.
Ehrlich (right) and Kakacek.
What is your band’s craziest cannabis experience?
One story pops to mind. It was the dead of winter, on Valentine’s Day. Me, Max, and a few other dudes who were in the band were all totally single and it was near a polar vortex, so we couldn’t even go outside. So, we got our hands on these potent edibles, I think it was fudge. I had caught word that our dealer had eaten a whole dose of one of these and couldn’t do anything for a whole four hours, and I know for a fact that dude has a way crazier tolerance than me. So, I didn’t want to take the whole dose, but my friends pulled the peer-pressure card, so I did it. I couldn’t get off the floor for an hour at one point. All of us were stuck inside our apartment having panic attacks all night. The only thing we could will ourselves to do was go and mix one of the demos we had been working on.
How’d that go?
Pretty bad. [Laughs.] I think when you’re incapacitated on an edible it’s probably not the best time to work on the most important thing in your life. But still, the music made us feel like we were doing something productive instead of fighting those anxiety demons we had from that damn fudge.
What role does cannabis play in your daily lives and in your music?
When it comes to touring, we literally spend no less than three to four hours in a van every single day. There are so many dudes in the band that sometimes you don’t [personally have to] drive, so it’s pretty easy to smoke. We had a Pax vape for a long time and that thing gave me my favorite high, because I don’t like getting absolutely blitzed in the middle of the day, but I’m into that mellow high from time to time. It’s not an everyday for me, but some guys in the band definitely smoke on a daily basis.
How about the role it plays in your music?
We definitely use cannabis as a tool. I don’t prefer to write under the influence of anything, but if you need to view it from a different perspective to make sure what you wrote is good, that’s one of the best parts about smoking weed, for sure.
You can buy a physical copy of Light Upon the Lake straight from Secretly Canadian’s online store, or find it on all major streaming platforms. Whitney will be playing all around the world for the rest of the year, so check their website to see if they’ll be in a city near you!