A lot has changed for Whitney since they captured hearts on their acclaimed 2016 debut ‘Light Upon The Lake’. One thing that has remained constant throughout the praise, sold-out tours and increased expectations, is the bond between the band’s core songwriting duo of Julian Ehrlich and Max Kakacek. It’s a bond of friendship and trust that runs through everything Whitney do and provides the emotional spirit that runs through their tender and touching second album ‘Forever Turned Around’.
The two best friends have had a long-lasting musical relationship that has endured across different bands. Julian has previously played in Unknown Mortal Orchestra and then joined Max in their previous band, indie darlings Smith Westerns. It’s with Whitney though that the duo really turned the pairing into something special. As they searched to recreate the magic of the first album, they found new depths in their songwriting partnership.
“We did feel a tiny bit of pressure but we remembered the lasting high we got from making ‘Light Upon The Lake’,” begins Max as the guitarist talks about the album’s gestation, firstly writing in Lisbon, Portugal and then back at home in the same Chicago basement studio in which they fleshed out the debut. “We knew what we were striving for. It took a long time to get there but when we finished ‘Forever Turned Around’ we had the same feeling where we were so elated. We’re really excited about it.”
One of the best things about Whitney is their recognisable sound, immediately characterised by the keening falsetto of singing drummer Julian. Those beautiful vocals are once again front and centre on ‘Forever Turned Around’, but this time they are set to songs that have a stronger sense of ambition. “Still being a relatively new band we definitely knew that we didn’t want to change the tools that we were working with, we just wanted to make the songs more interesting to us,” says Max. “This album was about maximising the tools that we had,” adds Julian.
There is definitely a maximal feel to the band’s beefed-up arrangements and songs which they are given the full Whitney treatment and are supplemented by the duo’s original rhythm guitarist Ziyad Asrar back in Chicago, giving tracks like the smooth R&B jam of ‘Song For Ty’ and the wide-eyed dreaming of ‘Valleys (My Love)’ added heft and power.
Friendship and loyalty are at the heart of the record and are themes that the band explore in the songs. In these increasingly godawful times that we live in it’s important to take solace and cherish the things and people that make us happy and it’s something that Whitney recognise both in their songs and in their own relationship as bandmates and friends. “There are definitely themes of grappling with anxiety and trying to understand being in a stable relationship and the weird ebbs and flows of a relationship,” explains Julian. “Pretty much every song has a different take on it.”
“I think the most important thing in our relationship is that it hasn’t really changed at all,” continues Max. “The circumstances around which we write music have changed a little bit. We now take this seriously as it’s literally our job and our life. We’re fully committed to Whitney. Our friendship has been the most constant aspect of the whole thing. It still feels good.”
While much of the lyrical content of the album is bleak and deals with the darker side of the human condition, it’s tempered by a gentle hopeful optimism that makes Whitney so comforting and compelling. “We always want to make every melody we write sound positive,” says Julian. “We usually know the lyrical content is going to be pretty dark. We’re just generally sad. We need to see a bit of hope in the tune that we’re playing.”
For the band, the difference between their two albums can be boiled down to the time of day and how it can create a distinctly different atmosphere. “It’s more of a nighttime vibe compared to a daytime record,” confirms Max. “We see ‘Light Upon The Lake’ as more of a morning record.” Befitting its communal feeling of strength in relationships and the power of strong friendships, ‘Forever Turned Around’ feels like the kind of record that is perfect for sharing around a campfire at night in a countryside wilderness.
Whitney are a band who are very conscious that success is fleeting and it was only a couple of years ago that they were wondering if anyone would be interested in their music at all. “When we were making the first album we were always resigned to the idea that is could just be him and I listening to this for the rest of our lives,” laughs Max. “It makes the moments when we do feel proud of what we made even better than before. When we feel good about things we’ve done, we now think, oh, people might listen to this.”
Despite their newfound level as a band touring the world and all the attendant expectations that go with it ultimately Max and Julian base their decisions and their future on their musical connection and the one thing they know is certain. “We still really make music for ourselves,” emphasises Max. “We put all the pressure on ourselves. If we impress ourselves, that’s still how we know it could be good.”
Taken from the September issue of Dork. Whitney’s album ‘Forever Turned Around’ is out 30th August.
Words: Martyn Young