Empowered by Imperfection
Oct 06, 2016
Photography by Sandy Kim Issue #58 - The Protest Issue
Chicago duo Whitney has an uncompromising and bold personality in more ways than one. It's likely that some of that toughness in character came during writing their debut album during one of Chicago's coldest winters between 2014-15. At that time drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek had rented a small apartment and were dealing with excessive heat more than bitter cold.
"It was funny because our landlord set our radiator heat way too high," says Kakacek. "So we actually recorded with the windows open and the radiator blasting since it was so cold out. If we didn't have the window open it would be like 98 degrees in there."
Kakacek says they spent much of their time recording on a tape machine, casually experimenting with songs they were developing. When listening to Whitney's debut album, Light Upon the Lake, you'll notice that the imperfect spirit of those early recordings lives on.
"One thing about the tape machine is that it doesn't have any effects on it and everything was dry and nothing was hidden by reverb or delay," says Kakacek. "That was the first restraint that we put on ourselves was that we wanted to use as little of effects on instruments as possible. And get them to sound organic and like you're in a room together. We built on that as we played live."
As each of the songs took form, the band saw them taking on a distinct singular personality. The band concluded that the tracks sported a very human element, complete with its flaws, hence the name Whitney. But they are unashamed of their songs' imperfections. Ehrlich says the lack of effects and very upfront feeling of recording on tape caused them to write "bold songs and no filler."
"We had to make every song count and every melody that every instrument is doing," he says. "We wanted to be vulnerable and be honest."
Ehrlich and Kakacek have known each other for many years. The two had a chance meeting back when Ehrlich was a member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Kakacek was in Smith Westerns. When Ehrlich left Unknown Mortal Orchestra a year later, Kakacek asked him to join Smith Westerns. They would play in that band until it dissolved in 2014.
"Towards the end of Smith Westerns, we became really good friends and once Smith Westerns ended we moved in together," says Kakacek. "We started writing about six to seven months after Smith Westerns broke up."
The band didn't feel any pressure to live up to their previous band's popularity. Instead they just wanted to push themselves to see what they could achieve on their own merit. They bonded in that hot Chicago apartment over the fact that they were both grappling with the aftershocks of romantic break-ups.
"From the get-go we were in the same situation," says Ehrlich. "Max had gone through a break-up a year before we had started writing. So he was pretty close to those feelings. And I was in the middle of the nastiest, craziest breakup ever."
They used that emotion to craft songs honestly stating their feelings. "It came naturally when I would start to bring romantic content of being in the whirlwind that is a breakup," Ehrlich says. "We totally found common ground in that way."
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]
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