When Whitney released their adored debut album 'Light Upon The Lake' in 2016, adulation and two years of hard touring followed. The Chicagoans tell Ben Homewood how they came down from the high to seek solace in melody once more and write its emotional follow-up, 'Forever Turned Around'.
The guitar chords are unmistakable, then the beat comes in, like a snare drum booted down an alleyway. The intro to Last Nite by The Strokes resounds around Moth Club in East London, but the band on stage cut it short right before the verse kicks in.
The room is packed, and the front rows can’t believe they’ve stopped.
“Who’s gonna sing this, though?” asks Julien Ehrlich from behind the drum kit, front and centre on the cramped platform. The crowd, souped up on beer in plastic cups, breaks into playful jeering.
“Really, you’re booing?” Ehrlich says into his mic. Momentarily puzzled, he glances to his right at guitarist Max Kakacek, who’s grinning widely.
No, this is not The Strokes, this is Whitney, and Ehrlich isn’t about to wrap his falsetto around Julian Casablancas’ Lower East Side grizzle. Led by the singing drummer and his long-time friend Kakacek, the Chicagoans hold their breezy indie-pop too dearly to break into crowd-pleasing noughties covers. Indeed, the snippet was a birthday treat for their sound engineer Charles Glanders. They get the crowd back onside with a rendition of happy birthday.
Ehrlich, Kakacek and their live band – guitarist Print Chouteau, trumpet player Will Miller, bassist Josiah Marshall, keyboardist Malcolm Brown and multi-instrumentalist Ziyad Asrar, who previously left due to family reasons and rejoined – are at Moth Club for a last minute gig after a show at Green Man festival, a week or so before the release of their second album, ‘Forever Turned Around’. A few days earlier, Dave Grohl and Rick Astley were here for Club NME, a fact Ehrlich gleefully references.
Whitney played their first proper UK show at this glitzy joint in 2016, so it’s a fitting return. Also fitting is the fact that they turn up sleep deprived and glazed over, thanks to a summer festival run. Since that Moth Club show in 2016, Whitney have barely stopped touring, such was the rabid reaction to their lush debut album, ‘Light Upon The Lake’. Since their leaders left their previous band, dreamy indie crew Smith Westerns, in 2015, Whitney’s ascent has been rapid.
This latest London gig shows they’re well hardened to life in their new band. Ehrlich swigs red wine between songs, and his stage patter – not to mention his band’s demeanour – revolves around tiredness and excitement. Yes, they’re bleary-eyed and hungover, but they’re planning to stay wasted until their early morning airport call and are excited to envelop the room in the grassy fug of their new material.
A couple of weeks earlier, before they hauled themselves across Europe and America playing outdoor stages, Whitney were in London. Over a long night of dinner and drinks I hear how they came down from two solid years on the road to write their most considered songs yet, fuelled by their own fragile emotions and the general malaise of the Western youth as British and American governments have veered further towards the right.
“It was hard to figure out what we wanted to talk about, that dictated the whole experience,” begins Ehrlich, as Kakacek busies himself with some Padrón peppers.
“It turns out that the record is really about transition, anxiety, depression, love, thinking that you are about to be in a break-up. It’s about ups and downs. Every song is a different universal theme. We tried to leave gender and sexual orientation out of it, we wanted everything feel infinitely relatable, yet personal. It’s a hard thing to do.”
Really, Whitney have already done their break-up album (anyone in need of a refresher should look no further than the desolate country of their debut’s standout track ‘No Woman’), so there was a challenge to figure out what to address this time around.
“We connected so well with people after ‘Light Upon The Lake’,” says Kakacek. “We wanted to relate the same way this time, we’re addicted to that relationship with the fans and having a commiseration experience, explaining something that’s confusing and upsetting. So it was like, ‘What do we want to figure out? What are we going through that’s a human experience that we can help people with?’”
Relationship existentialism persists, but ‘Forever Turned Around’ is about uncertainty itself, viewed through the prism of two best friends, addling their minds with music, booze, drugs and wandering thoughts to get through the days. After a stalled first attempt, they tracked the songs in Cotati, California before relocating to Ehrlich’s Portland homeland and tiny lakeside enclave Antioch in Illinois (where they drank at a place where the barman, Gary, regaled them with tales of his favourite hobby: dog shows). Finally, they convened in bandmate Asrar’s Chicago basement. It was those hours underground, near where Kakacek went to high school, that proved most crucial.
“There’s the end in sight,” sings Ehrlich on ‘Day & Night’. “When it hits me, it feels good, but strange at the same time.” With its sense of aimlessness, minimal lyrics and dewy instrumentation, ‘Day & Night’ is emblematic of ‘Forever Turned Around’. So too, is ‘Friend Of Mine’, a countrified ode to missing someone or something (“You’re drifting away, like a cloud hanging over the pines”). Keys and guitar are augmented by surging trumpet that creates hopefulness and euphoria. Whitney used this trick on their debut, but they enhance it here.
“We know this record sounds kinda happy, but we actively involved less hope, because our country is pretty fucking screwed. That definitely seeped into what we were writing,” says Ehrlich. “We’re still so obsessed with a major key and a hopeful sounding instrumental mixed with some more realistic, sad and nostalgic lyrics.”
Kakacek glugs his drink before chiming in.
“Julien and I relate the most to what’s considered pop music in terms of melody and catchiness,” he says. “But modern pop sometimes is a little bit shallow. Our music sounds a bit more positive because it’s our tendency to write that way, to pack a lot of melody into a small space. The challenge is making that have some depth by writing lyrics that are more thoughtful, hopeful or engaging.”
Asrar – who moved to Los Angeles after recording finished, following the death of his mother – was crucial in helping Whitney realise everything they wanted to on ‘Forever Turned Around’.
“This isn’t something we’ve ever talked about,” says Kakacek of reuniting with his friend, who was also temporarily part of Smith Westerns. “It was important that the first person other than us two who imparted legitimate songwriting was someone we hadn’t toured with for years. We were so isolated in our heads, having someone we weren’t so familiar with was a useful tool. He was a completely clear head who hadn’t experienced the loss of soul that happens when you go on tour for two years.”
The studio is restorative for Whitney, and a sense of healing emanates from ‘Forever Turned Around’, its 10 songs served to replenish and rebuild its makers. Focusing on nature and what’s outside (clouds, falling rain, trees) Ehrlich and Kakacek explore their emotions via simple lyrics. In fact, the guitarist says, those natural objects are the only “living things” on the record.
“If I’m going through a bit of a mental breakdown, I’m thinking about very simple things, the sky, the wind… Just trying to fixate on those so I don’t have to think about the more complex ideas that are screwing with my head,” offers Ehrlich, by way of explanation. “That’s why we have settled on those lyrics, simple ideas. That’s what we’ve wanted to aim for the whole time.”
The only time a person is referenced is on ‘Song For Ty’, which germinated from Whitney’s take on ’90s R&B and is named for their friend Tyler, who they don’t see so much since he moved to LA.
Whitney would often party with Tyler, and their hedonistic streak helps inform the escapist, freeing quality to their sound. It’s best exemplified by the groovy instrumental ‘Rhododendron’, which closes side one of ‘Forever Turned Around’. They made it on the now traditional ‘instrumental night’ that marks the end of a recording session. For ‘Light Upon The Lake’ they smoked weed, but this time they took a leaf out of Harry Styles’ book and did some mushrooms. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Styles revealed he bit the end off his tongue while tripping in the studio, Whitney merely chose to lock into a headspace to dream up a song named after a woody plant.
“It was five of us in a room with the tape running,” says Kakacek, grinning at the memory.
“It was the highest I’ve been on mushrooms for a while,” adds Ehrlich. “Not to dumb it down, we got fully centred onto the vibe we wanted to be in.”
Songs like ‘Rhododendron’ are important to Whitney because they allow a release from the meticulous deliberation that characterises their work.
“It’s important for us and the listener, every single other song has been chiseled down to this specific thing, ‘Rhododendron’ is literally our brains making music as it comes, unfiltered,” says Kakacek.
Even so, he admits, the song still has a clear formula.
“That’s the lucky thing about our band, we’ve all been playing for so long that even tracks that seem less thought out can be better than something we’ve worked on for a long period.”
This intrinsic care and attention brings us back to why Whitney won’t go through with their Strokes cover on stage at Moth Club. The noise they make is too precious to use up minutes mucking around when they could be meandering through their new material.
They may be short (all but one song comes in under four minutes) but the songs on ‘Forever Turned Around’ are patient, mirroring Whitney’s explorations of both their music and their minds. They even chose its artwork based on the fact that it doubles as a magic eye puzzle. Warm, but complex.
Now the album is out, they’re excited to see how their work will impact their fans.
“It takes a little longer to reveal itself, we don’t make all the conclusions on this record,” says Ehrlich.
Kakacek says they’re “addicted to the uncertainty” around everything they release.
“It’s this strange, debilitating thing we’ve done since we were 18,” he finishes.
“Making music people will listen to and judge our character and what we have to say… It’s so fun. The most basic interpretation of the album title is about confusion. We’re very confident and it’s what we care about, but who knows what the future holds…”