Whitney formed from the ashes of Smith Westerns and blew everyone away with their incredible debut single ‘No Woman’ a few weeks ago. As they arrive in the UK for their first live dates here, NME’s Ben Homewood speaks to them about break up’s, break down’s and finding redemption in drinking loads and getting naked in the Wisconsin countryside.
Last Valentine’s Day, in a freezing cold Chicago, the six members of Whitney got so stoned they had panic attacks. Their hometown was in the grip of a freezing winter and they were all single, so they stayed in their apartment and got high. Too high. “It would have been cool in moderation but… God damn,” says singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich grimly. “I wanted to get the fuck out of there.” Guitarist Max Kakacek – who founded the band with Julien months earlier – remembers that “No one could move. It was really scary.”
Today the pair – who met in 2011 when Julien joined Max’s old band Smith Westerns – are sitting in a different Chicago apartment. Much has changed in a year: they’ve moved house (via a stint at the Kakacek family cabin in the Wisconsin countryside where they “wrote songs and drank our asses off”), posed naked on Instagram, toured in America and recorded a debut album of gentle countrified soul produced by Foxygen keyboardist Jonathan Rado and mixed by Julien’s longtime friend and Unknown Mortal Orchestra bandmate Jacob Portrait. In the process, they’ve become America’s most exciting new band.
Whitney are a proper gang and their sound is a peaceful mix of falsetto vocals, percussion, brass, keys, twanging guitar and plenty of hopeless heartbreak (see first single proper ‘No Woman’). Their songs sound timeless. There are shades of Neil Young, and of the introverted spirit of UMO. Fans of the corkscrewing lead guitar Max brought to Smith Westerns should be excited too.
The band is based on a fictional songwriter called Whitney who Max and Julien invented around the time Smith Westerns broke up in December 2014. They started writing songs with the intention of making them feel like lost classics (see forgotten singers Jim Ford and Lewis, whose music was recently unearthed by Seattle label Light In The Attic). They recruited a band of childhood friends – Ziyad Asrar (guitar), Malcolm Brown (keys), Will Miller (trumpet) and Josiah Marshall (bass) – rehearsed hard and hit the road. Asrar, who also toured with Smith Westerns, recently quit for family reasons and has been replaced by another friend, ex-Bass Drum Of Death guitarist Print Chouteau.
The blonde, shaggy-haired Chouteau arrives midway through our Facetime conversation to say hello, but leaves his bandmates to do the talking. As they guzzle water and vitamin supplements, we talk about what happened with Smith Westerns, Whitney’s fun-loving image and their sad, sad songs.
Why name your band after a fictional character?
Max: “The first song we wrote was very effected to sound like Lead Belly and Abner Jay, weird personas where the music is interesting because of its persona. The reason you’re drawn to them is the crazy character and whatnot but the music is really good too. We used ‘Whitney’ as a tool to write. That idea was there from the beginning.”
Julien: “We were doing everything we would normally but when we got to a roadblock during songwriting we’d be like ‘How are we gonna make it true to the character?’”
Is it true Whitney is also the name of your first kiss Julien?
Julien: “Yeah it totally was, that’s not why it’s called Whitney at all, it’s just a coincidence. We thought it was a good band name. I realised afterwards, that was my first girlfriend, she follows us on Instagram and shit, she knows what’s going on.”
Were you feeling bummed out about Smith Westerns ending when Whitney started?
Julien: “I was never bummed out, that wasn’t a good environment at all.”
Max: “I was nostalgic it was over, but the way it ended… I don’t think there was any way for the band to continue that would have kept making good music, so in that way I was happy but it was also…. I’d been in it for seven years so like any relationship it was sad to see it go, but it’s time when it’s time.”
Do you look back fondly?
Max: “Yeah. I learned a lot about making music and I can use that now and forever, and pretty much right until the end it was awesome. There was obvious…. it just had to end. Up until the last four months all of us were having the time of our lives. Now we get to do the whole journey again and start fresh, that’s exciting.”
Are you still in touch with Cullen and Cameron (Omori, ex-Smith Westerns bandmates)?
Max: “I was for a little bit but not as much anymore, not really. Cullen came to a couple of our shows when we first started playing, that’s the last time I saw him in person.”
Have you seen his video for his single ‘Cinnamon’ where he sets fire to a Smith Westerns poster?
Max: “Someone sent it to me, I don’t know what that’s all about. I don’t get it. Your guess is as good as mine…”
I think it’s a joke…
Max: “I hope, I mean it seems like a joke. I don’t feel like he’s not proud of Smith Westerns in any way or anything like that.”
What have you learnt from your time with Smith Westerns and UMO?
Max: “I’m not saying Smith Westerns was bad at this, but one place UMO excel is their live show. It’s made them a band that can play anywhere any time and people wanna see them. That’s something we focus on, making the live show different. The record sounds a little more peaceful and the live show is… epic? I don’t like the word epic but it’s bigger.”
Julien: “We bend the instrumentals, there’s more energy, some stage banter. I think my stage banter has been A+ recently.”
Max: “We try to make each instrument and what it’s doing essential to the song. With Smith Westerns I got obsessed with giant arrangements with too much going on. It was really fun to piece the puzzle together, but Whitney is all about simplifying every instrument to sound good and be important but also be really subtle. The lead guitar is sparser compared with what I was doing in Smith Westerns, it hits for a second and then disappears.”
Julien: “The mentality that Whitney has taken on that I maybe learned from UMO is that they are where they are because they write great songs and tour the fuck out of them. That’s what I want to do. I think that’s what you have to do to have a career in music. I think Smith Westerns as a whole didn’t want to do that [tour hard]. That’s a bad sign.”
What was it like working with Jonathan Rado?
Max: “He’s super smart and he really understood the project. It was also cool to record with someone our own age.”
Julien: “We slept in a tent in the back yard.”
Max: “Six people in a five person tent.”
Julien: “I fell asleep in the studio some nights. I licked the air while asleep one time, we got it on camera. We only had a few sober nights while we were there. It was productive too though.”
Your Instagram makes it look like you have a lot of fun…
Julien: “Even when we’re home we pretty much hang out every night.
Max: “We meet up then spend the rest of the day together, usually practice and then just hang out. It’s not like we’re a party beer band, we just enjoy hanging out loosely.
Julien: “We like wine.”
Whose idea was the naked stuff?
Julien: “Mine. It was summer and I felt like we should all be naked sometimes. But now it’s winter and I bought a onesie, so now I’m on that vibe. I got a white one. Our guitarist is gonna get a red one and we’re gonna be like a walking candy cane and wrap our bodies around each other.”
Was this Chicago winter easier than last year’s?
Max: “It’s been pretty good recently. When we were writing the record it was a lot harder which is probably a good thing.”
What do you mean by ‘harder’?
Julien: “It was just relentless cold, you couldn’t go outside. We’d both had break-ups too, it’s never the right time to break up but it really was the worst – newly single and then winter hits.”
Max: “We also didn’t have an apartment for a couple of months. That’s when we went to stay in the countryside. That experience of being kind of homeless and in transition was good. The area was serene and beautiful but you just drink, that’s what you do. Maybe it’d have been different if we’d had jobs.”
Julien: “We wrote the songs sober. We wrote one about my grandpa dying, that one was very clear-headed.”
Julien, your lyrics have a timeless quality often associated with country music, was that deliberate?
Julien: “Yeah from the get-go that was conscious. We also deliberated about everything.”
Max: “We’d go through each line, drink pretty heavily, pace around our apartment and figure out which word should be changed. That’s the process for everything – get something set up musically, then drink and work all night and when you wake up and either you like it or you don’t. The concept to begin with was to make a reissue-type record, but it changed as the songs got more personal and it became more about us.”
Julien: “Two or three songs in we thought about touring and how we needed to make these songs amazing enough to want to play them every night, so we did [laughs]”
How did you settle on how Whitney would sound?
Julien: “There was no agenda behind starting Whitney, we were just doing exactly what we wanted to do. We like tasteful reverb but I’m really sick of vocals being drenched in reverb. We want to put everything up front and make all the arrangements really obvious and blunt, but still as good as possible.”
Max: “There’s no delay. There’s reverb on maybe two tracks, everything was sounds we got out of the room, instruments straight up. That’s the way our band sounds good. Mixes with reverb on them just didn’t sound like us. It sounded foreign.”
Julien, your falsetto is very distinctive, have you always sung that way?
Julien: “We got really into ‘Nashville Skyline’, y’know, ‘Lay Lady Lay’. My voice has always leaned this way and I hit my stride right before we recorded. It took a few months to get it perfected but I’d call it my voice yeah! I’ve always had the mentality of a vocalist.”
I think it lends added weight to what you’re singing
Julien: “There are a couple of moments on the record where we succeeded… do you ever cry when you listen to music? Because there are a couple of moments on the album I could pinpoint, I’m not saying where, where if someone was to cry, they would cry and I may or may not have come close to crying.”
Whitney: ‘No Matter Where We Go’
Whitney: ‘Southern Nights’ (Allen Toussaint cover)