Whitney :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


It had been a weird two days for Whitney. Coming off of the first weekend of Coachella, the band was feeling kinda bummed over the experience. Or at least, that’s what they told the crowd the next night, at the first of three sold-out nights in San Francisco. The first night of the run was a tour-highlight for the band, and the excitement from the quick-turnaround was palpable.

AD sat down with principal members Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek the next afternoon, and went deep on their continuing inspiration and partnership, what to expect next from the band, and how they’ve maintained their love of the music in spite of playing it non-stop for over two years.

Whitney :: Red Moon

Aquarium Drunkard: Where are you at right now for your second record, and how is it going?

Julien Ehrlich: It’s good. Whenever we’re home it takes a few days but then we usually get an idea up and running — we’re just essentially making the same record… because you know, we have all the Light Upon the Lake demos, we initially thought we were going to release them all in that demo form — we’re kinda just doing it the same way. I imagine we’ll wind up re-recording it — we’re a few songs in.

AD: You played a new one last night — and you played live shows several times before you ever released any of that original material — do you like work-shopping material in front of an audience?

Max Kakacek: I think the way we play songs live versus the way they’re recorded is we have to rearrange things. The recording of the new song right now is super-string heavy, and obviously we don’t have those live, so a lot of playing it live is figuring out how to shuffle around, as musicians, to arrange it has a dynamic arc, that strings would have provided. So we’re learning, every time we play we’re learning how to make it a little denser in certain parts, and where to back off.

AD: For the rest of the band, having them in on it, for a full cycle, is that changing your process with how you’re writing? You’ve been effusive about your trust for the other members of the group and their contributions — is that a trust that continues to grow as you record this, or is is the same strong bond that’s always been there?

Julien Ehrlich: We still definitely need the songs to come from us two, but we spend so much more time with these dudes now — maybe we’ll write half their part, teach it to them, and ask what they think they should do there. Whereas the first one was entirely written by us. We’re still conscious that the songs need to come from our two brains, and only our two brains probably…

AD: The band’s success came very quickly, and has continued to grow steadily through touring. Do you face fatigue with the material, which you wrote over two years ago?

Max Kakacek: Honestly, it might sound cheesy, but I was thinking about this yesterday… yesterday was really special, I think for all of us; we came off a harder show at Coachella, we were all tired, we’ve been on the road for about two weeks, which is about when we start to get tired, but shows like last night invigorate all of us. When you play them in a way you think is perfect, and the crowd reacts perfectly too, it’s a perfect show and everything just goes right — it makes it very easy to keep doing it.

Julien Ehrlich: We still do improvise quite a bit though. And we add covers. We’re probably gonna learn this Jim Ford song next, replace “You’ve Got A Woman” [by Lion, the Dutch, 70s pop group] with “She Turns My Radio On.” I feel like we’ll always have at least two or three spots for covers, and cycle them in and out of the set, based on what we’re into. For the next album cycle I’m sure they’ll change.

Max Kakacek: Also, getting to play a new song — that’s the best feeling.

AD: When you’re picking covers, like NRBQ’s “Magnet” or “You’ve Got a Woman,” are you looking a song you’re into, one that fits with your sound, or a challenge to make a song yours.

Julien Ehrlich: We haven’t ever covered anything new, or modern, which is kinda crazy. Maybe we should try to do that at some point.

Max Kakacek: I think at its base, the way we’ve done it so far, and we’ll see how this changes… but is the song fun to play live? There’s also a sense of introducing that music to people who wouldn’t otherwise know it. Hopefully they’ll look it up afterwards, and a learn a little bit about what we listen to that isn’t as popular.

Julien Ehrlich: You know what’s funny — when we were still kinda ascending, and maybe we’re still ascending, I don’t know — earlier on we were playing classic songs that everybody knew, like the Bob Dylan one [“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”], and the Everly Brothers [“So Sad”], songs that I grew up hearing, that everyone knew — maybe if these people in the crowd don’t like Whitney, maybe they’ll like this cover. And now, I guess we slowly kinda flipped, and the covers that we’re doing are the rarest Dolly Parton B-side of all time, and “You’ve Got a Woman.” Now I guess we’re just assuming that if you’re at our show, you like us, and then maybe we’ll turn you onto some good artists. I don’t know where that flip happened, but it was somewhere between…

Max Kakacek: I guess it was just when we started doing Dolly’s “Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can),” which was a few months ago.

AD: You’re planning on somewhat repeating the process of your first record — going into the woods, recording demos and then expanding them with a producer — what was so rewarding about the way you first went about things that’s making you go back and do it that way again?

Julien Ehrlich: For our songs, for the most part, it’s like, we need to fully realize them twice. We’ll write the song and do our own demo, but — we didn’t really realize this at the time, we did all the demos, and then we did kind of take a step back, took a week of no writing, made notes, and said, “Ok, on the final version…” You write a record, sit with it for two seconds, and then just completely re-record it. Other artists definitely do that, too, but…

Max Kakacek: A common question is, do we write on tour? We have trouble writing on tour, but something that was important with the last record was absolutely getting lost in our romantic view of what we were making of at the time. We had no idea what it would become, if it would be a band we were touring with or just playing in Chicago and keep bussing tables — but we weren’t regarding any future of the band, we were just lost in the project. Anytime we were walking around we were listening and trying to pick it apart, and I think we need to be at home and get lost in it — being on tour, it’s hard to keep that focus.

Julien Ehrlich: You also just don’t feel special when you’re on tour. I guess, this late in an album cycle — it’s hard to feel that romantic about anything. But when you get home, you feel so relieved that a song can just pop out.

AD: You’ve spoken before using this project as a different voice, in essence, Whitney being “other” — is that part of your recording process? Self-editing to turn a song more “into Whitney”?

Max Kakacek: I think there’s a feeling when we’re writing stuff, in our heads we know what — I don’t know how to put it — I don’t think we talk about it outright — but there’s a thing where a song idea comes around, this sounds like it. Or this doesn’t sound like us. But then you fall on something, an idea or sound you like… it’s who me and Julien are and who we are as a band, and it just clicks.

Julien Ehrlich: Mainly, it’s “are we going to be able to play this idea every single night?” At this point, we’re probably gonna do that until at least our mid-30s, so we don’t want to have to play a song that we hate. And we’re still happy happy playing the entire 10 song, 30-minute first album every… single… night… It’ll be really nice to take some of the songs out, and replace them with new ones.

Max Kakacek: It’s a nice thing because I think I have a least favorite song every night that’s different. It’s not because we play it every night, it’s more simply how I played the song — if I played it poorly, I like that song the least.

Julien Ehrlich: I see it going in slow waves. Last month, I think I enjoyed playing “No Matter Where We Go,” I felt like it was hitting a good point. Right now, I feel like it’s in a pretty deep lull. And honestly we probably play it the same every night…

AD: Well, you’re the only ones who see it every single night…

Max Kakacek: I think we are really hard on ourselves — when one of us has a weird moment of the show, afterwards they usually talk about it. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be as perfect as possible, in the most positive way.

Julien Ehrlich: We’re all at this weird point, at least the two of us, we were both in serious relationships — again… not the ones that the first album was about. We basically just… picked the band over what could have been marriages, to be honest. Like, we’re either gonna get married or keep being a musician… well, sorry… The friendship thing now is more like family.   I’m speaking for us two, but also for the other guys — we’ve given up a lot to keep this together.

Max Kakacek: People in Chicago, we see them rarely. And when we’re there, it’s randomly — so it ends up just being us all getting together instead.

AD: The last record’s narrative, around your own breakups and the breakups of your previous acts — are you excited to move away from those two things dominating the discussions, and many stock intros, to the band?

Julien Ehrlich: The narrative thing is always the label’s biggest worry. I don’t really know any artist that’s forcing the narrative down people’s throats — I feel like it’s always made up or exaggerated by press. For the next one, doesn’t every band have to write a couple of songs about being weary from tour — we’re not gonna write a whole album about it… it’ll probably just be the same.

Max Kakacek: Breakups are a simple way to think about it, looking back at the past and what could have been, that kind of idea holds true for when you’re on the road and not at home — everything that our lives are subject to, thinking about other avenues you could have taken…

Julien Ehrlich: I think there’s gonna be some past trauma on this record, like way past, like Middle School age events. Maybe some more intense family shit.

Max Kakacek: I think we’re really excited, we haven’t really dived into it yet.

Julien Ehrlich: We have so many musical ideas… we’re taking a month of writing in a cabin in Oregon, in September, and hopefully get some more songs done.

Max Kakacek: I just bought a dongle for my phone so I can record on it. It’ll go to analog… that’s nice.

AD: Your audiences ages vary wildly, just last night I saw tweens and geriatrics. Why do you feel your sound has resonated with such a diverse range of people?

Julien Ehrlich: I think it’s mainly because most of the songs have very simple sentiments. Maybe they’re just decent pop songs — but I don’t know. We just purposefully made them really relatable. And sonically it just sounds a bit older. We don’t do many all ages shows, and I think there’d be an even wider age range if we played those types of shows more.

AD: Going back to the source material for what you’ve written and played: what do you think it is about this friendship, or this project, that allows you to go back to that well?

Julien Ehrlich: When we started the project we were both were feeling incredibly vulnerable. We were at the point of wondering if we’d quit music forever. Asking ourselves that is an intensely vulnerable, scary thing. We made music that kinda sounds like that.

Max Kakacek: An underlying part of the band is making things that sound beautiful to us, and that kind of sentiment is something that I think is beautiful — being honest, and somewhat unsure about things… it’s a little prettier than being super happy.

Julien Ehrlich: We just found a sound that shows that off pretty well. I think at first it sounded pretty strange, but you can get in touch with your scared side.

Max Kakacek: I think that’s why, when we cover those older songs, or are interested in these “lost” songs, you can feel so much sadness from them because they were never found. Just the fact that they exist in this vacuum, these people put their lives in their music, and it just sits nowhere — it makes them immediately sad and pretty. I think that influenced us, not necessarily on the sound, but on the sentiment.

AD: Is that something that’s tougher to go back to, now that you’ve achieved success? When you created this project, it was for each other, for yourselves — and you have no responsibility to the audience to write a sad song, but you’re not gonna release something that doesn’t sound like Whitney.

Julien Ehrlich: What’s funny is, we haven’t thrown out an idea for the next album that’s too different from the first album. It’s not that we’re writing the same album — and neither of us has been like, “yo, this synth line would really hit right here…”

Max Kakacek: “The subs need to drop…”

Julien Ehrlich: We both know exactly what we want to make.

Max Kakacek: It’s fun to see how the new song we’ve been playing fits into the set — the place we put it in gives us so much energy, it just feels right. Going back to road-testing songs, you can see how they fit within the grand scheme of things, not in its own album, but our “catalog” or whatever you want to call it. If it seemed weird to us at the end of tour, we’d probably just not make that song. But right now it’s pretty good!

Julien Ehrlich: It sucks that one of the other songs that we are hyped on for the next record is this super downtempo, “Light Upon the Lake” finger-picking song — putting that in the live set is just… no. We can’t, we need tempo in the set.

Max Kakacek: It’s one of the coolest string arrangements we’ve ever done though. It’s very pretty, I’m really excited to make it.

Julien Ehrlich: It’s beautiful.

AD: Is Whitney your outlet? Is it it? Do you see yourselves creating material that won’t fit into this project, but you still want to see the light of day?

Julien Ehrlich: I’d say that at this point, Whitney is the only thing that we really care about. I’m not interested in creating a side-project or anything.

Max Kakacek: I have an acid-funk group… no. We love helping our friends…

Julien Ehrlich: Yeah, playing on other people’s things… that’s about it.

Max Kakacek: Also, it’s a different part of the musical brain. It’s not thoughtless… but you can play whatever comes to mind and not pick it apart. We have a lot of fun doing that. words / b kramer