Talking Cowboy Country with Chicago Rockers Whitney


Talking Cowboy Country with Chicago Rockers Whitney


Photography: Sandy Kim

After romantic break-ups and the dissolution of glam-pop band, Smith Westerns, Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek found themselves homeless in Chicago. Instead of giving up, the two retreated to Kakacek’s family cabin in the middle-of-nowhere, Wisconsin and started writing. The result was their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, an alt-country ode to heartbreak.

Filled with Kakacek’s electric Neil Young-inspired riffs and Ehrlich’s earnest lyrics about lost love, Light Upon the Lake is a refreshing mix of indie-rock and Americana. Lead single “Golden Days,” showcases Ehrlich’s fluttering range, while “No Matter Where We Go,” brings together honesty and ’60s era soul. Emotional track “Follow” shows the boys pop influence, mixing The Everly Brothers’ sincerity with drawn out, dreamy guitars. Album opener “No Woman” is a highlight, proving that sometimes simple is best.

Though the boys are quick to clarify between real country and cowboy country, Light Upon the Lake combines the best of both worlds, employing the sorrow from country classics and the rolling guitars from folk, with the attitude of a modern rock ‘n’ roll band. We called Max and Julien as they ate pizza and drank wine before breakfast, on their first day off in months. As they paced around their kitchen, we talked about the new album and scouring the Internet for hidden country classics.

Tell me about Whitney.

J: Our band was just born out of slight boredom and loneliness. We created a positive space around us as a songwriting duo where we are really just hellbent on making songs that we want to listen to over and over again.

Why did you originally want to put your music out under a third-party pseudonym and then decide not to?

M: At first, we didn’t even know if we had started a project or not. We were just making songs together. At times it was a little more comedic than it was serious, but then when we wrote ‘Golden Days,’ which was the third song, it became a little more personal. In the beginning, it definitely made the breaking of the creative barrier between Julien and myself easier because we had never written together. But when things became a little more personal, it just became clear we weren’t really writing from that head space anymore and were taking things a little more seriously.

Describe your process when making Light Upon the Lake.

J: We spent so long on the demos because we actually had originally thought we were just going to release them as is. It was just like, every song we were working on just completely took over our lives. We would be heading to go out to dinner with a friend or something, on the train, listening to the voice memo of it or the demo, and just literally thinking about whatever we could add to the song that would make it better or any other ideas we could show the other person. We were totally obsessing over this thing that we didn’t really know whether or not was going to work, but we knew that we were making ourselves really happy.

Lyrically, where did you draw from for the record?

J: Max had gone through a pretty intense breakup like a year before we started writing and I was smack dab in the middle of a really messy one—it was just like a storm of a break up, we were in and out of the relationship. When we started putting our own personal feelings and stuff on ‘Golden Days,’ that was very specifically about the break up that I was going through. It also really helped that Max had gone through that as well, because then we could bounce some of the lyrical ideas off each other. Especially because I had never really been a lead vocalist before. It was fun, taking baby steps.


What bands were you listening to when you started writing?

M: One of the first bands we listened to that we really agreed on was Amanaz. They’re a jam rock band from Zambia, and there’s parts of our early demos that are somewhat un-listenable now looking back at them, that we were really drawing from them. Like, all their instruments are out of tune, and we were really into the charming aspects of music that has been kinda lost and for a lot of reasons sounds kind of terrible, but there’s something very special about it. So we were really, really into them when we first started the project and that’s kind of the origin of the band. Then as we started polishing things up, we got more into Jim Ford, and more country, and revisited Neil Young. I mean, I know everyone listened to Neil Young and the greats of that era, but we kinda revisited those artists with a new perspective.

How would you describe Whitney’s sound?

J: Vulnerable and honest. We’re making every single lyric count and every melody that every instrument is playing, we had to make it count because we didn’t hide behind any effects or behind any cool aesthetic.

Do you have a favorite song on the record?

J: ‘Follow’ holds a very special place in my heart. We wrote it as my grandfather was dying, and all of the lyrical content is about him dying. Then, I went to his funeral about a week after we finished it, and they played it at the church at the funeral over the loudspeaker. It was very tear-jerking. It was a really intense three minutes.

What are you most excited to do with Whitney that you couldn’t do in your previous bands?

M: The writing process is so much more exciting in this band than other bands I’ve been in, and we have a really good family and support system in Chicago. But even more than that, there are so many good bands coming out of Chicago right now. So even more than this band, I’m just really excited because I think a lot of good friends of ours are going to be doing things that are really good in the next year that are going to help put Chicago on the map as more of a music center, and it’s really exciting to be around.


I’m curious about your musical backgrounds. Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to become a professional musician?

J: When I was like 16, Jacob Portrait from Unknown Mortal Orchestra and I went to lunch or something—he is older than me and was kind of like, not a big shot, but he was popular in the music scene in Portland, which at the time was a pretty big hub for music. But we just went to lunch and I was just a young kid he had known for his entire life basically, and he gave me 10 highly influential records that I was just young and dumb and didn’t even know of.

Which records?

J: It was like Brian Eno Here Come The Warm Jets and stuff like that. I think he gave me The Velvet Underground and Nico. It was like, I was talented at the drums but I didn’t have any sort of taste level and he played a really big part in shaping it when he gave me all those records.

I know you especially love country music. What are some of your favorite records or musicians?

J: Early Dolly Parton is awesome. Leadbelly is a good one.

M: We found this record by this dude F.J. McMahon that we’ve all been obsessing about recently. And then I feel like if you dig into the dregs of the internet, you can find a lot of good mixes with a lot of weird lost country mixtapes where you can’t even really find the names of the songs. I think that’s one of the reasons I love the genre, because a lot of it is still so hidden and archived in a weird place on the internet that’s hard to find. That’s kind of the fun about it.

What attracts you to those songs beyond mystery?

M: Aside from the idea of mystery and weirdness behind the idea of a lost recording, and the romanticism behind making a song for no one, I think that applying to us, one of the hardest parts was finding a way to say the things we wanted to say on the record without sounding really cheesy, or too self-deprecating, or having too much of a feel sorry for me type vibe. I feel like that type of music does it the best. It combines all the elements of an organic band which is something that’s really important to us—where instruments sound like instruments and they don’t sound super digital, and with sorrowful lyrics. If you listen to cowboy country—and I always make a big difference between cowboy country and real country, because cowboy country is the epitome of cheesiness and poor use of sorrow. But the country music we like helped inform how we represent these lyrics that are about intense experiences without making them silly or hokey.

What’s next?

J: Now we have two weeks off starting a few days ago, and we are sitting down to write the next record, which is way needed. I think we both were craving to have an idea take over. We’ve had a few wasted nights on tour where we were just like, ‘Ughhhh.’ You get depressed when you’re not furthering your creative brain, and tour can stop it up a bit, which I guess is the plight of a musician. So it feels really, really good to be focused on an idea that is, I guess, worthy of our focus.