On the road with Chicago easy-rockers Whitney
Things have been going well for Whitney. Drummer/vocalist Julian Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek formed the band following the breakup of their former group, the Smith Westerns. In their 10 years playing together, the Chicago-based musicians have gone from being indie darlings to a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, this past summer, to celebrate the release of Whitney’s second album, Forever Turned Around, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot went so far as to proclaim Aug. 30 “Whitney Day.”
Of course, with success comes lows along with the highs, and for Whitney the lows have been in the form of a heavy touring schedule that’s kept the band consistently on the road since its well-received 2016 debut, Light Upon the Lake.
“That’s kind of the reason it’s called Forever Turned Around,” Kakacek said about their new release during a recent interview. “[After] what Julian and I have done to our brains and bodies and what we’ve committed to over the past 10 years—when we’re home, we feel weird; when we’re on the road, we feel disconnected. We’re just weird nomadic people.
“The challenge is understanding that you pretty much have no control over what’s going to happen in your life in a lot of ways,” Kakacek said. “You’re just missing out on a consistent basis, so there’s always that question of, How much longer is this gonna work? That’s where we’re at right now.”
As the two main songwriters behind the current eight-piece group, the pair have created a sound with Whitney that’s sometimes country-tinged, at times jazzy, a little soulful, with echoes of ’70s soft rock. The breezy indie/throwback feel, plus the simplicity of the lyrics, makes the tunes on Forever Turned Around highly accessible.
Sometimes when a band has a popular debut, it’s common to see a more glossy, less artistic follow-up that feels like more of a pop force trying to capitalize on success. If anything, Whitney did the opposite. The second album includes layers of sonic subtlety, focused more on intricacies and clearly formed parts spread across the band.
“I think we cared more about arrangements,” Kakacek said. “That’s just a major part of our personalities. Conversations that we have, even the sounds we use. Not using reverb or delay affects that atmosphere. I think [it] brings people into [something that sounds] like we’re in a small room with them, like we’re playing in a living room that has a bunch of carpet everywhere.”
Lyrically the album maintains the simplicity of Whitney’s debut, but the subject matter is murkier. Both Kakacek and Ehrlich are in long-term relationships, and the songs address their disconnect from their partners while on the road, along with larger looming anxieties like climate change. These themes aren’t necessarily overtly present on first listen, maybe because they’re often shaped as questions to problems they haven’t quite solved.
With the new record, the band finds itself back on tour (including a stop at the Sierra Nevada Big Room, Oct. 30). Even if being on the road makes life complicated, Kakacek says, in some ways, it’s a home base of its own.
“What’s nice about having such a large band is we’re a big family,” Kakacek said. “Even when I feel left out [by not] being around my significant other, I have this family of eight people everywhere I go.”