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WhitneyPhotography Sandy Kim

Whitney on the heartache and solitude of their debut album

Ahead of their UK tour, the Chicago duo share a new remix of ‘Polly’ and reflect on break-ups, long distance relationships and their emotionally exposed debut Light Upon The Lake

Since Chicago band Whitney released debut album Light Upon the Lake, summer’s been and gone like a long-lost friend paying a quick visit, the group have toured the world twice over, and they’ve picked up a famous fan in the form of Elton John. But there’s a permanence to the album that stays true beyond the passing seasons. These ten songs became the soundtrack to every sleepless night, sun-soaked road trip and regrettable relationship – it’s not just tempting to apply your own situations to these songs, it’s gut instinct.

That’s in part due to how Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek express their own emotions. Whitney began as a means of breaking through a creative block, but both members were experiencing their own life-altering experiences at the time, each ending long-term relationships while their time in other bands was coming to a close (Ehrlich toured with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kakacek was a founding member of the Smith Westerns). Although neither decided that Whitney would be a fresh start, or even a ‘band’ in the strictest sense, it became their way of expressing feelings instead of locking up their frustrations and throwing away the key. Light Upon the Lake has become a 2016 mainstay largely because few debuts are this emotionally open – and it expresses an honesty mirrored by those listening in.

Ahead of Whitney’s next UK tour, Ehrlich and Kakacek talked to us about the album’s early impact, the pitfalls of long distance relationships, and why they decided to send demos to their exes. They also shared a new remix of album track “Polly” by UK songwriter Azekel, which you can hear below.

Is it fair to say you experienced a writing rut before work really started on Light Upon the Lake?

Max Kakacek: We had this long month where nothing was happening. We made a song in that month, it just wasn’t a good song. We spent a month working on one thing.

Julien Ehrlich: It was weird. It was just a really, really depressing part of the winter. It was rock bottom, I guess. Everything happens for a reason or whatever. That happened and then ‘No Woman’ came after, which is what we were searching for.

What was the most productive time?

Julien Ehrlich: When we made ‘Golden Days’ and ‘Polly’. That was a pivotal moment. I think those two songs came back to back. That was just stuff that we had never heard before. It felt really good to explore. We also did a Nico-sounding version of ‘Golden Days’, which we might put out in the coming months. That was a really good moment. It’s just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. It depends what we deem to be a progression in melody. When we find that, we expand on it.

Was the project an exercise in writing to begin with, a way of trying something new? Was it necessarily a band, so to speak?

Max Kakacek: It was more of a songwriting partnership. We had original versions of lots of these songs which we didn’t know what to make of. ‘No Matter Where We Go’ is one of the first songs we ever wrote. And in ProTools it’s saved as ‘Rock Song’. We didn’t really know what it was. And then after we made songs like ‘Golden Days’ and ‘Polly’ and started figuring it out, we went back to that one and made a different version to fit the theme. The whole process of arranging and writing involved applying new sounds to old songs.

Julien Ehrlich: And (Jonathan) Rado had a lot to do with that. It was his instinct to add a piano, so we went with that to help change the songs.

Would it be fair to say that previous bands and relationships were ending at the same time, before Whitney started?

Max Kakacek: Yeah, I was going through a break-up, although it was still one of those things where we were talking too much. And then (the Smith Westerns) was on an indefinite hiatus. We hadn’t been hanging out for like half a year.

Did you really send ‘Golden Days’ to your exes?

Max Kakacek: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s a good move or not but it was definitely a sensitive moment, really intense.

Julien Ehrlich: I think they probably appreciated that we were putting so much work into the writing that was about them. I would appreciate that if a girlfriend painted something inspired by me.

Did you get responses at the same time?

Julien Ehrlich: The same day!

Max Kakacek: I think we sent the lyrics too.

How did you package this?

Julien Ehrlich: A straight-up Gmail delivery. I sent ‘Polly’ and ‘On My Own’ too. Because we were still kinda on and off.

The record covers the weird situation of a long distance relationship in vivid detail. Are you in long distance relationships now?

Julien Ehrlich: I am just realising that I’ve never not been in a long distance relationship. And it’s kinda fucked up. I want to try out a normal dating situation. Because long distance is so heavy. It’s so off and then it’s so on. You’re spending way too much time together or none at all. It’s really high stress, all the time. And I don’t like it.

Max Kakacek: The worst thing is trying to talk to them from different timezones. You’ll figure out the only time to talk to them is at an actual show. When we’re soundchecking and stuff, trying to FaceTime.

Julien Ehrlich: There’s something about being on tour. You don’t get much alone time. You hang out with friends a lot. There are some times when you should be calling them but you’re also struggling to find those moments to be by yourself.

“In the beginning, we were writing from a third person perspective because I don’t think either of us were ready to bare our souls completely, laying it on the line emotionally” – Julien Ehrlich, Whitney

There’s a Real Estate song, ‘Talking Backwards’, which expresses these exact same things. Their point is that everything’s so disconnected, you ‘might as well be talking backwards’.

Max Kakacek: I feel like the way we communicate over phones now is weird. It’s so hard to express what you’re actually saying. It’s not the same as being around a person. In real life, there’s an energy and a chemistry but when you’re texting them… emojis won’t do.

Julien Ehrlich: I never thought about how that ‘Talking Backwards’ song was about being on tour and trying to navigate your way through love. That makes me like the song a lot more. I already liked it, but that’s awesome.

Being in a band isn’t new for either of you. After those projects finished, did part of you want to get away from the slog of touring forever? Whitney have been on the road for months now.

Julien Ehrlich: We spent two straight years in Chicago. There was the lost year when we were working on Whitney. By the halfway point of writing the record, we were dreaming of being on tour. By that point we were like, ‘We’ve gotta do this man’.

Max Kakacek: I think the way the other bands ended, too. Saying we had bad tastes in our mouth might not be the way to put it. But there was a sense of that. Last time we were in Europe and travelling, it wasn’t as fun as it could have been.

Julien Ehrlich: We didn’t want to go out on that note. I wasn’t ready to give music up and have the last experiences be ones that involved a lot of turmoil and drama.

Max Kakacek: I think as well, we’re with five other dudes who really like travelling and seeing new places. Although the long distance thing is a detriment to relationships, it’s a positive thing for yourself.

The record doesn’t feel rooted in one location. It’s like you’re travelling the world in your own headspace. Did you dream up journeys, when writing songs?

Julien Ehrlich: We took some trips while we were making the record. Not even to help with writing. We were just getting inspiration and getting out of Chicago. Because we wrote a lot of it in our apartment, and it was really nice to get away.

Max Kakacek: One of the cooler things we also never touch on is how ‘The Falls’ came about. Julian was going to this place called Dillon Falls. We started writing it from the perspective of being in that place. But as the song progressed, we took out the ‘Dillon’.

Julien Ehrlich: I remember when I got really stoned and really drunk sitting by a fire, I wanted to call it ‘Mood Swings’. That was in my head. But we ended on ‘The Falls’.

Are you documenting everything now that you’re back to travelling the world?

Julien Ehrlich: I’m always doing Voice Memos and stuff. I’m documenting more of my emotions. A lot of times it can be weirdly weird to listen back to. Our brains are experiencing extreme highs and lows because we’re touring ourselves into the ground right now. Sometimes I’ll listen back and go, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’

The record is emotionally exposed. Was it easy to put everything out in the open?

Julien Ehrlich: We talked a bunch about vulnerability. In the beginning, we were writing from a third person perspective because I don’t think either of us were ready to bare our souls completely, laying it on the line emotionally. But losing our apartment was a huge thing. I went to Wisconsin and my grandpa was literally in the middle of dying, on his deathbed. I came up with a few lines about that and told Max we should probably complete this song about my grandpa dying. That was ‘Follow’. We sat down and completed that song together.

Max Kakacek: We don’t sit down and talk about what each lyric means to us. And I think some lyrics that are specific to Julien are specific to me in a different way. And fans relate their own experiences to our songs, which is the best part.

Whitney tour the UK from November 8-10