There isn’t a single sound that encompasses what summer feels like. Of course one might think of an ocean’s waves crashing or sunscreen squirting out of a bottle, but never has summer been summed up in a sound. That changed in 2015 with the formation of the band Whitney. The band is the brainchild of members of indie bands Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Whitney, with their care-free sounds that were seemingly written on and for a beach, took the title for creating a seemingly unattainable sound.
Hailing from the Midwest, one might expect the band’s sound to be in tune with the thrashing guitars that have become a staple of the Chicago scene. The long lineage of loud rock that spans from Naked Raygun to Twin Peaks is nothing near Whitney’s sound. Instead they lean heavily on singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich’s beautiful falsetto, a brass section that taps into severely underrepresented instruments within indie, and guitar licks that are irresistible to dance to.
Whitney has seemingly shot into the the public’s eye ever since the June 2016 release of their debut album “Light Upon the Lake.” With a January appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” their quick ascent was all but cemented. The whole experience of gaining such a fan base has caught the members off-guard, considering it took years for previous projects to get to the levels they have achieved with Whitney.
The moment in which the quick success sunk in with guitarist Max Kakacek was “When we got signed. It all of a sudden became very real.” Kakacek then added “Also, February of last year, we all quit our jobs and toured Europe without an album… Despite this we were getting decent reactions and crowds, and kind of all realized that this could very well be something.”
The success they have garnered is more than justified by their magnificent album. It changes tempo at a moment’s notice, going from the dance-inducing guitar lick of “No Matter Where We Go” to the slow build of “On My Own” as if it were normal to have such an arrayed sound. The vintage vibe of each song adds to the album’s charm. In a time in which all artists are seemingly looking forward to find the next futuristic sound, Whitney looked backward and found a treasure trove of sounds entirely unique to today’s music landscape. And yet it all happened by accident.
The recording process started when Kakacek and Ehrlich decided to make a song out of the blue. The result of this writing session was “Dave’s Song,” which not only made it onto the album, but is one of its standouts. With the first attempt at making music being so successful, more songs were all but inevitable.
In regards to their retro sound, Kakacek said that it was very much a product of what the band was listening to at the time. “Making ‘Dave’s Song’ reminded us of an older American historical recording, like from a long time ago.” Kakacek continues “So we kind of got down to the folk and country artists we had always respected, but never considered as something to gain inspiration from before this point.”
Just as Smith Westerns seemed to be influenced by the lo-fi indie of the past two decades, it is quite easy to see that “Light Upon the Lake” was “inspired” by much older records. And although it is quite different from the Chicago scene they grew up and recorded in, the album and band are still very much a Chicago group.
When asked about the Chicago scene, and how it influences the band, Kakacek says, “In Chicago, everyone has a positive mindset, there is not much competition between bands. We will be asked to join sets to lay down some bass or trumpet, and always do because everyone supports one another.” He elaborated on his personal experience with the scene: “It has been interesting from different ages. I was big into punk and DIY when I was younger. Recently we’ve been hanging with Twin Peaks and Riley Walker.”
To have a scene in which everyone collaborates and works with one another is a seemingly rare occurrence in such a large city, in stark contrast to the often cutthroat images of New York City and Los Angeles. Much like their sound, the scene Whitney belongs to goes against much of what the music industry is today.
Whitney’s ascent can only go one place — upward. They went on the road with “The Head and the Heart” earlier this year, and will be spending a few dates with French darlings “Phoenix,” in addition to a massive slot of headlining dates and festival appearances.
They have already grown from a small to medium front act on festival lineups, and as they test out new material on this upcoming tour, they may just find themselves at headliner status before they know it.