Trundling round Europe in a white van, spending their time listening to The Band and Bob Dylan, drinking too much whiskey and beer: the antics of the six-man band Whitney have a something of a cinematic quality about them. On the icy Sunday that I meet them, they’ve just come over from a festival in Holland where they played to families and partied with the locals until the early hours. One small jaunt across the border and they’ve arrived in London, much to the delight of Hackney’s finest, who are queuing down the street to get into the small garage space which is already 100 degrees too hot from the expectant fans inside.
Maybe it’s just the home-made, half-drunk Tom Collins in hand, but as the band sound checks you can feel their magnetism entrance the crowd. By the time they’ve launched into their first song, the sense of joy from the stage and throughout the audience is palpable.
The band – made up of Max Kakacek, Julien Ehrlich, Josiah Marshall, Malcolm Brown, Will Miller and Print – are an exceptional live act. They literally move in rhythm, playing their separate instruments (trumpet, keyboard and a rhythm guitar alongside guitar, bass and drums) as though they’re all in sound together. It’s an unparalleled and unique chemistry. The lyrics are melancholy yet hopeful, expertly worked out by Julien, Max et al. Julien’s silky, pure vocals ride over melodies that swing from soft and searching to the downright groovy, led by ex-Smith Western’s Max on the guitar. Whitney are a band singing about crossroads and transience, about lost loves and moving forward and having a lot of fun together whilst they do it. “I’m searching for those golden days” Julien sings in one particularly enthralling track; judging by the reaction of the crowd, it feels like Whitney might finally have found them.
We caught up with lead duo Max and Julien to talk the bathrooms in Soho House, eyeballing audiences, Donald Trump and the new album.
How did Whitney happen?
M: Me and Julian lived together. After Smith Westerns ended we each worked on different weird projects that never came to fruition. Then one morning I bought this old cassette tape machine that sounded crazy and we were just testing out the machine and wrote two songs for it just kind of snowballed into something we wanted to make a whole album for.
J: We had never recorded my voice before. And this tape machine had a ton to do with it. It just made everything sound really good and appealing but dry, super dry. And that’s where the sound kind of blossomed.
M: The first song we recorded, if we ever release it, you’ll hear that the affect on Julian’s voice is so intense and ridiculous and we were kind of going way way far to figure out a voice and then scaled it back.
J: During the demos I was more experimenting with my voice a bit more and we were experimenting with recording it, and right before we went out to LA to record the full length in LA I kind of hit my stride and figured out how to sing.
M: Once we had the unique voice or whatever we kind of built the band around it.
Was there a particular moment when it clicked?
J: I remember a moment that we decided that we were going to drop the other shit that we were working on. It was right after we finished the second song that we wrote. I think we took shots of molly water and were walking around Chicago because it was the first nice day and we were just listening to it out of our iPhones. We were insanely proud of it. We went onto someone’s roof and were still listening to it.
M: Did you almost pee on someone’s couch that night?
J: I think I peed on someone’s couch that night… And then we didn’t really follow up with any of the other stuff that we were doing.
The band; photo by Sandy Kim
And how did you find the other members of the band?
M: They’re our best friends. They all basically left their apartments, which were five minutes away from ours, and everyone moved in together. It was like an open door thing, like a family.
Do you think Whitney only happened because of your experience with Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra?
J: I don’t know if it was because of other bands, but we were just in the right place in our lives to put all of our energies and songwriting talents into this weird project in the hopes that people would pick up on it, and so far it’s working.
M: I don’t think there’s anything specific I took from Smith Westerns but it’s just learning on a personal level how to arrange things.
Are you still using the tape machine?
M: No that thing broke like after we made that song. We did record the whole album on tape though.
You recorded your album in L.A with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, what influence did he have on your sound and process?
J: We used basically all of his gear to record it, it’s obvious that he has gotten really good at getting the right sounds out of all the stuff he owns. He’s the type of guy that goes crazy if he’s not recording so we didn’t really have any downtime. Overall it was a great experience.
Do you write the songs together? How personal are they?
J: We really consult each other on mostly everything. Most of the time I concept where the lyrics should to but if I hit a road block we’ll just bounce them off each other. And it goes the same way with every instrument.
Why did you choose this particular sound?
J: Most of the songs are about transition in general. That’s where we were in our lives and it seemed like the sound suited the character at the time, but in no way is it going to define Whitney as a whole. We don’t want people to think that we’re going to come out with a sad record every time. We’ve been listening to a lot of Greenday today so…
How is it playing drums and singing vocals?
J: I’ve always done it, but for backing vocals. So it wasn’t hard to do four limbs and singing vocals.. It was more about learning how to assume the pressure of being a frontman, of learning how to talk in between songs and be more entertaining. But I’m past that roadblock now, I feel really comfortable. We toured with the idea of me standing up and playing guitar but then I looked like a fucking lame dude playing the guitar. I do not look good.
What’s the weirdest thing that happened on tour?
J: Our bass player drank our old guitarist’s piss, by accident. It was a really late night and we were hanging out in a cemetery and then our guitarist went and passed out in the van, and then peed in the half-full water jug. Then our bassist came in and busted off the top…
M: So many good thing’s going on! His name’s Josiah Marshall.
J: He routinely loses tour.
How are you finding the whole touring experience? What’re learning along the way?
J: I’m learning how to pace myself a little bit more.
M: I was pretty prepared for this tour, but I learned that Soho House as an institution is really nice! The showers.. Oh my god.
J: Just the most private bathrooms you could ever imagine, you can do whatever you want it in there.
Max and Julien; photo by Dominique Goncalves
Alright! What’s the plan for the rest of 2016?
J: Just non-stop touring. Our goal is to sit down and write more songs, but we’ll probably just learn to do it on the road.
How do you find performing the same songs every night?
J: Whitney is a band that changes things every night. We’re always working to put variations on the songs that we wrote a year and a half ago.
M: And at this point, the faces in the audience are always new, so the reaction to songs is always different.
What’s the worst song you ever wrote?
J: I wrote a song about that sci-fi movie Event Horizon with our bass player
M: I was in a really bad band called ADHD when I was in eighth grade, and we had a song called Sexy Police Officer. We sang about George Bush a lot, I was really active.
What’re you going to do if Donald Trump gets in?
J: We have a thing where during shows I’ve made the crowd flip off Donald Trump and yell “Fuck Donald Trump.” Besides that, I don’t think Whitney wants to comment on political affairs…
Light Upon the Lake is released on Secretly Canadian, June 3rd