Out of the Ashes and Making Smashes: Welcoming Whitney

Jon Harvey
Photo: Ryan Lowry

Born from the ashes of Chicago's beloved rock stalwarts Smith Westerns comes Whitney: a sly pop duo whose sharp changes in direction and sound may very well change your life.


Light Upon the Lake

Label: Secretly Canadian
US Release Date: 2016-06-03
UK Release Date: 2016-06-03

In the world of 21st century revivalism, there comes a fine line between emulation and inspiration.

Where bands like the Black Keys arguably owe their essence to Junior Kimbrough and She & Him acts as more of an ode to the leading ladies of the '60s, it's not unreasonable to argue that some acts merely recreate a sound rather than build upon what some of the greats had started. From 2009 to 2013, Chicago's Smith Westerns were the frontiersman of rock 'n' roll to a cult following. Having been broken up since December 2014, Guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich have taken their gift for picking up where era's had left off to form Whitney.

Where the Smith Westerns built a foundation on a glam charged riffs within shimmering cerebral atmospheres, Whitney take that same song crafting sophistication and strip everything down to the bare essentials. With folk- and country-rock driven songs that rely on the strength of their own compositions without the glossy polish of their previous works, their debut album Light Upon the Lake stands a testament to love, loss, and friendship.

So what's happened in between Smith Westerns and now?

"Well, it wasn't like we started writing and then Smith Westerns decided to end," said Kakacek, "the chronology was Smith Westerns ended and then Julian and I started writing. But I think what initially drew us together to collaborating is that we were really good friends, and luckily lived together. Then one day it was like we both play music, we both live together, lets just make something together and on that first day we ended up making 'Dave's Song'.

The reason why I think we decided to pursue it further was how easy it was for us to write music together. I don't wanna say thoughtless, 'cos that's kind of a bad word, but there was a sense of things being very organic. A lot of things that would go unspoken worked with our personalities."

This then leads to the question on everyone's mind: who is Whitney?

"The character thing was something we used for like the first two weeks together," notes Kakacek, "then it kinda fell by the wayside when we realized that we were making a really good album. [laughs]"

"We realized we were going to have to play these songs," adds Ehrlich, "we were going to obsess over these songs, so we kinda said fuck dealing with a third-person character and we put our actual personal lives into the songs. We wrote about our real lives."

Kakacek picks up: "It's definitely a really personal album. I think the Whitney character was a useful writing tool, but were pretty apprehensive about it now because it is such a personal record. To the point of sending songs to significant others, or writing songs about family members and stuff like that. We wanna make sure it remains personal and doesn't get written off another character writing it."

"Me and Max went through finding our first real, true loves then losing them," says Ehrlich. "For whatever reason. A lot of the songs are about that obviously ['No Woman', 'On My Own]. And then the last song on the record is about my grandfather passing away ['Follow']."

While Light Upon the Lake may initially seem to lead with it's '60's and '70s pop foot forward, the album at times carries a harkening to almost an entire centuries worth of music. "Something that we haven't touched upon ever in an interview as much as I'd probably want to," says Julian," is that the whole thing grew out of an affinity and love for Lead Belly, and really obscure -- I don't wanna say lo-fi -- but just weird acoustic recordings that should have never seen the light of day. And we wanted to make a whole album of recordings like that, and It didn't end up sounding like that obviously. [laughs]"

Even though the album doesn't sound like a worn out blues record, the timeless aura of those recordings manage to make their way onto Light Upon the Lake. Along with that aura comes a natural and intrinsic psychedelic quality to the chosen melodies and progressions. The same kind that could be found in bands like Buffalo Springfield or the Doobie Brothers.

"There's this band called Amanaz that we were kinda binging to on repeat." Max beams, "In the summer of 2014 we decided to start working on it more seriously. And we were listening to Amanaz and Zambian rock bands. Leading up it didn't seem like there was that much psychedelic on our Album, but I think due to just the overall quality of the recordings the kind of vibe given off by that kind of music was resonating and stuff." Julian also wages that, "Amanaz was a huge moment for us when first started listening to that together. It definitely influenced the way this project has gone."

Filled with gorgeous arrangements and lush climaxes, the songs on Light Upon the Lake are as longing for the past in both lyrics and sonics. "Julian and I kinda write this structure of every song," says Max, "Even structure bass lines and keyboard parts. Then members of the band came in and recorded it and added small flourishes and stuff, but pretty much all of the arranging we -- I guess the best way to put it is when we release the demo versions to the world you will understand how the process works better. It's hard to describe but you can definitely hear it if you hear the demo version compared to the final version, you can hear peoples personalities more."

To record the album the band camped out in the backyard of fellow retro-fueled rocker Jonathan Rado of Foxygen. Recorded in his home studio, the vintage analog equipment and tape recordings provide the crisp atmosphere Light Upon the Lake exudes. Julian, "It was like a friend of a friend situation," Julian explains, "I guess one of our friends played him one of our demos at a party and he was like, 'Yeah I wanna work on it.' We got a text message, it was like Jonathan wants to produce your record and we thought going to LA sounded pretty cool, and we said yes."

"I don't think we really reduced it to decade necessarily," claims Kakacek, "It's more like we wanted to use instrumentation and gear that showcased people playing instruments more so than effects. I'm not hating on other bands, but the way we want to sound is not to use any effects ever. Use of reverb or chorus is super minimal. So his setup was like, I dunno, it was like a really homey, cozy place where their were a bunch of really good friends challenging themselves to make a record. And not really using pedals or or effects units to help that.

When trying to adhere to working with that super dry recording philosophy and also sticking to showmanship, what is the most difficult challenge?

"I think the challenge is that it forces you to make things more simple," continues Kakacek. "You realize without a bunch of effects, every instrument needs to have a melody that works together even the baseline we challenged ourselves to make them melodic somehow. Even though the vocal melody is the strongest part of the song, when you listen to it 20 times it hopefully than means that later you start to find the bass part to be catchier and sneak up on you."





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.