INTERVIEW

Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich used to be in The Smith Westerns – it’s taken heartbreak, loss and crashing on couches to journey to their new band.

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On his Twitter feed, Julien Ehrlich has posted a message from his father. It’s a screen grab of a comment about Whitney, the new band he has formed with Max Kakacek, since the Smith Westerns, of which they were both formerly members, went on permanent hiatus. “I come to Whitney for the guitar,” says the comment, “and stay for the cute fuckable post-hipster bros.” It’s funny because it’s true.

The band I meet are certainly cute, certainly, erm, fuckable, although they wear it lightly (Julien and Max have teamed up with five new recruits to make up Whitney: Tracy Chouteau, Malcolm Brown, Josiah Marshall, Charles Glanders and Will Miller, whom they have just given a rather fetching haircut). But the thing that strikes me most about them is their sincerity; their unabashed, unapologetic passion for the work and the obvious excitement they have for this new venture. If the hipster movement encompassed a counter-cultural cool that was about irony, kitsch and detached insincerity masquerading as depth, then Whitney, as the antithesis of that, are definitively post-hipster. “We’re not going to pop up with a synth record any time soon,” they tell me halfway through the interview, as if to prove a point.

The forthcoming album sounds archetypally American, which struck me as odd given the Smith Westerns’ well-documented Britpop influence. But this is a new project and the sound reflects the journey. “We discovered this dude called Jim Ford halfway through making the record and we realised his music is so awesome. It fortified the idea that we already had in our heads about the record we were making,” Julien tells me. “We wanted to write poppy songs that also kinda sound like country songs.”

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You can hear that country influence in Whitney’s music – it’s epic, transitory; there’s a sense of change and movement, with an enchanting, narrative quality. It’s a cinematic sound. I tell them that ‘No Woman’, their latest single, could be on the soundtrack to a Coen brothers film and I’m relieved that they are pleased by the comparison. “I completely see that,” says Max. “I don’t think it was necessarily conscious, the transitional thing – but writing the album we were both in moments of transition. We were in and out of relationships at that point, we had both just left a band, things that had been steady in the past were gone.”

They are keen for Whitney to be recognised in country music circles. Max tells me that they sometimes describe themselves as a country band. “People tell us, ‘that doesn’t sound like country music to me,’ but to us this is what country music is. For us it was the most authentic way to make the kind of music we wanted to make. With a different style of music we might have come off as cheesy or overdramatic. Country has this nonchalant way of being really serious, but it’s presented in a way that’s listenable, and really pretty.” Julien cuts in, as Max rolls his eyes, (“here we go”), “We make a point in every interview to say we wanna play Stagecoach, which is the country music version of Coachella. It’s our goal to play there – but we know we’re in more of an indie sphere, so we want to get that into every interview until they see us.”

You want me to put that in print: Whitney wants to play Stagecoach? I ask him, because I can’t quite tell if they’re serious. They are. “Yeah. Definitely. That would be awesome.”

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The lead single, ‘No Matter Where We Go’, is folky and pastoral, its on-the-road theme evoking vast American landscapes. “We imagined making the record as if we were not in the woods – that shit’s so played out – but somewhere beautiful.” Julien tells me. They wrote some of the album at Max’s family cabin in Wisconsin, although Julien is quick to point out that any Bon Iver connection is purely coincidental. “Our lives were kind of fucked, for a while we didn’t even have an apartment; we were finding places to sleep in Chicago. We were recording while we were more or less homeless for a couple of months in the middle of winter last year. All we had was writing this album.” The trips to Wisconsin were a necessity rather than a choice, and although it can’t have been fun writing an album between homes, the process sounds idyllic, told retrospectively. “It was cool to be out there, without any distractions. There was a nice out-of-tune piano that was fun to bang away on – it hadn’t been tuned in, like, fifty years.”

That nostalgic quality has seeped into the music; listening, I drift into imaginary lives: I’m a character in a John Steinbeck novel, dreaming of a better future, or somebody’s high-school sweetheart, cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in a Camaro at dusk.

Julien concedes that their unsettled personal lives have led to something of a heartbreak album, in more ways that one. “For me there was a specific girl; Max was also going through a weird breakup at the time. So, lyrically, there’s one girl. Some of the songs are about getting drunk. But my grandpa passed away in the middle of winter, while we were homeless, and there’s a song written about him that they played over speakers at his funeral, which was kind of…” he breaks off. “Yeah. Heartbreak in general I guess.”

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But the heartbreak is over now, and Whitney are having fun. They are touring Europe in the lead up to their album release, and they arrive in England in mid February, playing at the Moth Club and Soho House in London. ‘”We haven’t been to England since 2013,” Max says, “and the band we were in wasn’t in a very happy fun headspace – but now everything’s 180-ed and we’re having a blast at the moment.” And, to add to the fun, they hope to bring a twist to the tour in the form of avoiding hotels and crashing with fans and friends. “Every other UK/Europe tour we’ve ever been on has been hotels, and we’re trying to make a point of crashing on people’s couches and floors and stuff like we do in the States.”

I’m sceptical about how this will work out, never having toured myself, but the band laugh at my concerns. They’ve done this kind of thing before, in Italy and the US. “Both of us have toured enough,” Max reassures me. “We’ll maybe try and find places to stay from the stage. And I have this great friend called Jack Shankly who lives in London. He has his own label called Weird World. They put out awesome music – so shout out to Jack Shankly.” (I resolve to put this in the write-up of the interview because, frankly, I’m a little worried that if Jack doesn’t step up, the boys might find themselves homeless again.)

They are hoping to replicate some of the buzz around their US shows in Europe. “Our live show is really important to us. We put a lot of work into making the live version of the songs as powerful as they can be.” Julien gestures over at Will, who hasn’t spoken yet, apart from to debut his haircut. “This guy, this guy right here does some crazy shit on horns. He plays horns and keyboard at the same time. You just have to see it. It’s a one-man horn section. He uses the keys to harmonise the horn while he’s playing the horn. It’s crazy. That’s something specific to our live show – that experimental stuff that should be fun for people to see.”

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But it’s not just the experimental edge that they hope will attract people to their gigs. “We get real emotional. It’s fun but emotional,” Julien says. “A girl fainted at our last show. We didn’t realise but there was a real buzz about it. It was sold out and a girl fainted in the front row. That was our first show in three months in Chicago, our hometown. It is so great to feel that support and that emotional atmosphere.” He laughs. “I mean, fainting’s not healthy but we were psyched that we’d created that emotional connection.”

That emotion is there in the music, and it’s there when they talk about the music too. “We want to create music that’s beautiful but not too crowded,” says Max, describing how Whitney have built on their experience playing in other bands to create the sounds they make now. “Finding that balance is really hard to do. I don’t know that we’ve achieved it completely, but we aren’t taking this lightly. There’s something about our music that resonates as soulful. We enjoy playing music. We love it.”

The atmosphere has become serious; the sincerity, that post-hipster passion for the work, is palpable. “We just want to keep playing music,” Julien says, looking me straight in the eyes. “We want to write songs that we want to listen to over and over again. We like stuff that seems like it’ll last forever. We just want to write songs that’ll last forever.”

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