Underground Berlin DJ on the idealism of safe spaces in the electronic scene
To fully understand Whitney the band, it is first necessary to understand Whitney the man. Whitney is a character that formed, a couple of years back, in the collective consciousness of two men: Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek. Both had just left successful bands (Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns), both were in the midst of breakups with girlfriends and both were toiling over projects that would never see the light of day. In this period of painful transition the duo would daydream about a simpler world inhabited by an old-school guy who they named Whitney. This vision inspired them to write some beautifully uncomplicated country music, and quickly the side project became the main focus. They enlisted five friends from their hometown of Chicago and Whitney the band was born.
Skip forward two years and I find myself sitting in on a rare acoustic performance by Julien, Max and keyboardist Malcolm Brown at s105, Subbacultcha’s very own venue. Those first two songs are now successful singles, with the album release and tour just around the corner. Fresh off the plane from Chicago and four men down, this performance is slapdash but undeniably endearing, with Julien offering coy apologies in between tracks. Afterwards we all sit down to discuss the merits of camping, bath-taking and the genius of Fetty Wap. Whitney the man is with us in spirit.
That was a really fun gig. Did you guys enjoy it?
Julien: It was pretty hilarious; very loose. It’s the first time I’ve ever played guitar live.
How many other shows have you done?
J: In terms of full band shows, our next show is our 69th. We came over and did around 12 shows throughout Europe.
Max K: We didn’t play Amsterdam, I was pretty bummed about that, but we played Where The Wild Things Are, which was like a giant summer camp – really cool.
I’ve heard you’ve personified Whitney and keeping him in mind helps you write the songs. How does that work?
MK: That was something we used for the first couple of songs as a writing tool to get out of our own headspace.
‘I’m a romantic and I’m just coming to terms with that’
J: More and more, it was like this Whitney character became a reflection of ourselves and our own feelings of loneliness and wanting to be alone.
So Whitney is a bit of a loner and he lives in the middle of nowhere?
J: He’s a peculiar one, he’s an old soul. Whitney likes Asheville, North Carolina quite a bit. If he was gonna move to a city, that’s where he’d go.
MK: He lives in not Chicago. I don’t think Whitney would like any of us. He wouldn’t want to party with us.
J: Whitney parties by himself. I think on the next record he might get a little happier, though.
Right now, there seems to be a contrast in your music between the happy tone and the sad lyrics. Where does that come from?
J: I did an interview the other day where this guy found about ten different ways to say ‘sad but hopeful’. We were in a weird transition when we wrote the album, leaving old bands and going through break-ups but at heart we’re pretty positive people. So it’s pretty sad content but it’s written in a happier way.
So you’re generally happy people. What kind of things make you happy? What inspires the happiness?
J: I’m a romantic and I’m just coming to terms with that. I’ve been falling in love with females mostly. I haven’t fallen in love with a dude yet.
MK: For me, making a song that has depth is the thing that makes me most happy. I would even give up girls if that meant I could keep making good music.
Malcolm B: When it’s the right time of day and you’re just the right amount of stoned and you listen to a really good song, that makes me happy. When you discover something about a song that you love.
It seems like the songwriting process for Whitney is very natural. How did it all start?
MK: We were just living together and made a song, I wouldn’t say as a joke but it definitely had some humour behind it. When we listened back, we realised we should make it into a real song.
J: I think we were both involved in other projects post Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra and we were both working pretty hard on other albums that seemed almost too serious at the time. One morning me and Max made a song and it seemed like the perfect thing to be doing so we saw it through. That first song was written in 15 minutes and then the next one was written in 20 minutes. We were taking these other projects that never got finished, and this was like a weird vacation from that. It ended up being the thing that we loved the most.
You guys live in Chicago but your music has a very countrified, outdoorsy vibe. Do you spend a lot of time out of the city or is it just where you imagine Whitney to be when you write?
J: We take quite a few trips to the country but actually the bulk of the writing [for the album] got done during a really cold and sad winter. Chicago at that time of year is so ugly. First snow is cool but then beyond that it just turns to this nasty slush, the weather drops and there are Cheeto bags everywhere. You wonder, What the hell am I doing here? When we were writing we were dreaming of more beautiful places. We recorded in LA and the vibe we had out there was something we hadn’t experienced in a long time, it definitely found its way into the record.
MK: I’ve spent a lot of time at my grandma’s farm in northern Illinois. Even though we don’t live in those areas they’re quite a big part of us. When we were in Austin for SXSW we bought a ten-man tent – the biggest tent I’ve ever seen. Our plan for the summer is whenever we can to stay in the tent in a national park because it’s cheap and really cool.
MB: Even if it’s just someone’s back yard, it’s nice to be able to bring our own shelter.
J: We could spend 100 bucks on a hotel or we could just spend 50 bucks on hot dogs and chips and build a fire and camp.
What else do you guys get up to, when you’re not camping or making music?
J: We like lying in girls’ beds. Whenever we get home from touring, we go and see our girls and literally become like cave dwellers. We try to stay away from drinking sometimes. We just lie around and watch something like Parks and Recreation.
MK: Our bass player is a passionate bath-taker. He loves taking baths all the time.
J: It’s not creepy at all.
Does he take it to the next level – candles, incense and all that?
J: Yeah, and a 23-ounce beer. You don’t sleep with him on the first date, you take a bath.
MK: Yeah he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s great to meet you, would you like to go take a bath?’ I used to live with him and you’d come home and he’d be in the bath with someone and I’d ask, ‘Did anything happen?’ and he’s like, ‘No, we just took a bath.’
MB: I’ve walked in on conversations where somebody’s telling him, ‘No! I don’t want to take a bath with you!’ and he’s like, ‘Come on, man, just take a bath with me!’
Do the rest of you guys take baths or just him?
MK: I just feel like after I take a bath I need to take a shower.
J: You’ve just been sitting in your own stuff and it’s a bit fucked up. I feel funny when I’m taking a bath and my penis is weirdly buoyant and floating up to the top. I hate that shit. I have to tuck it in between my legs just to get through the bath.
MK: I don’t have the patience to sit in the bath and chill anyway. The pages of the Playboy magazine I’m reading end up all wet.
Where are the other guys in the band at the moment?
J: One of them is in bed with his girl, the rest aren’t.
MB: We’re going to be out so much that none of us have apartments any more so we’re just hanging out at friends’ or family’s places.
MK: You asked what do we do other than music; nowadays, we just try to find somewhere to sleep.
Do you enjoy turning up in a random city every other day?
J: I think we’re kind of addicted to it.
MB: We were home the other weekend, the whole family was there. It was kind of stressful.
J: We’d spent four days hiding away in girls’ beds and then Easter Sunday was the first time I saw Max and went to his family celebration. We drank three beers and then it was like, What do we do now? Let’s act like we’re on tour and go party.
In a recent live session you said you were fans of Fetty Wap. What appeals to you about him?
J: I heard that he just straight-up freestyled ‘Trap Queen’. I think that’s tight. A lot of our melodies were like that where Max would just start playing the song and I would freestyle it and that would be the basis of the melody.
MB: He also keeps it in the family. That guy who’s featured on 12 of the songs who nobody knows is just his friend. He’s definitely mediocre; the only reason anyone knows him is because he’s on the Fetty Wap record. I like that he could have spent huge money and got all the huge producers but he kept it all close.
J: Also the harmonies on ‘Jugg’ are so tight.
What do you think Whitney would think of Fetty Wap?
[Long contemplative silence…]
J: I don’t think that he would pay any mind to it until one day he found himself humming the melody and then he’d be into it.
MK: Whitney is more malleable than you think. There’s two songs that never made it [on to the album] which in our brains were when Whitney went to LA and did a bunch of coke and wrote these crazy overproduced disco songs.
J: That song is still good. If Whitney is mostly an amalgamation of me and Max’s brains, then he’s definitely in tune to old stuff and new. My brain would be more new and Max’s would be more old. He just pulls the good stuff from both our brains.
Will we ever hear the coked-up disco Whitney?
J: It will be released as a demo.
MK: It kind of needed to stay the version that it was, but it didn’t sound anything like the rest of the album.
J: It’s catchy though.
Whitney will play together with Aldous RH at OT301, Amsterdam on Wednesday, 22 June.