Forever Turned Around: Indie Heroes Whitney Return To The Road

Olivia Bee
– Whitney
Cover of Pollstar’s June 24, 2019 issue

Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, who together head indie-rock band Whitney, built a legion of fans around the world touring the band’s critically acclaimed 2016 debut album Light Upon The Lake

Whitney opened for Phoenix, The Head And The Heart, Wild Nothing, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Ehrlich’s old band), and The Decemberists, and sold out headlining shows at clubs including West Hollywood’s The Troubadour, Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre and, in 2018, three nights each at Chicago’s Thalia Hall and San Francisco’s The Independent. Then they disappeared.
Kakacek and Ehrlich spent a year-and-a-half in the studio, building on the catchy songwriting, masterful musicianship, and falsetto vocals for which Whitney became known. The break, Kakacek and Ehrlich tell Pollstar, was largely because the band doesn’t write music on the road and needed lots of time for the creative process that led to their sophomore album, Forever Turned Around, due Aug. 30.
“We were talking to Ben [Swanson, co-founder of the band’s Secretly Canadian label] about it, and it’s the nature of the sophomore album,” Ehrlich says. “It’s always going to be the hardest record that you have to make. But he’s happy with it. You can tell that we worked really hard on it, hopefully.”
“The record didn’t come together in a flash of creativity, we pored over it quite a bit. Making a record can be torturous but we’re very happy with it.”
Whitney formed from the ashes of critical darling Smith Westerns, where Kakacek and Ehrlich played guitar and drums, respectively, and Kakacek says he and Ehrlich have consciously tried to avoid the pitfall of becoming too formulaic, which he feels might have contributed to their previous band’s downfall.
The duo, who were close friends living together in Chicago when Smith Westerns ended, started writing songs about various themes important to them, with drummer Ehrlich deciding to try his hand at vocals. Whitney’s songs incorporated horns, country-inflected vocals and guitar patterns, and heartfelt songwriting about love, loss, loneliness, and the general experience of being twentysomething. Kakacek and Ehrlich built a live band and began performing when John Chavez of Ground Control Touring heard rumblings that two guys from Smith Westerns had a new project. 
“They were one of four acts at a DIY venue in Brooklyn that no longer exists, Shea Stadium, it was a Frankie Cosmos show. … It was a very hot, 200-cap room in New York in August with no AC,” Chavez says. “It was refreshing and unique to see a band playing its first NYC show, already fully formed. Six [skilled musicians] onstage, they were touring with their own sound guy, the drummer was singing.”
Chavez saw potential and offered to start booking them. And book shows he did: Whitney has logged hundreds of dates since 2015. 
“I was blown away. From the moment we met and the few shows I saw from them at SXSW, I was fully committed and in,” manager Ryan Matteson of Ten Atoms tells Pollstar. “These guys have worked their tails off to get into the position they are in. I can’t overemphasize the lengths they will go to be successful.”
Whitney will test its endurance again in 2019 and 2020. With nearly 60 dates already announced, the band will tour North America in two legs, along with Europe, Australia, and Asia. Says Matteson: “They want to take these songs everywhere.”

– Whitney
Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek
The touring starts with a hometown appearance at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival on July 21. With venue upgrades in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and more, Matteson says Whitney is currently making decisions about venue size market by market, with lots of theaters and clubs planned for the initial run.  
“The nice thing about working with a band that’s done the legwork, there are a lot of places they have had successful shows, we have a nice base to build on,” Chavez says. “We are being aggressive with this tour, tickets are a bit more expensive. 
“But we are mindful, we can look at doing multiples in a market rather than needing to take every ticket off the table in one show. Maybe the band prefers to spend three nights in New York, to spread out our Chicago plays over a week.”
Whitney will take the new tunes live with a full band including Josiah Marshall, Will Miller, Malcolm Brown, Print Chouteau and Ziyad Asrar, as well as audio engineer Charles Glanders. 
Lala will support one leg and Hand Habits the other, probably without any local supports, says Chavez, as consistency is important with so many dates. 
The guys have previously shared that stage banter may always be an awkward part of the job for them.
“All we really care about is the music,” Ehrlich says. “When we’re not playing … we feel weird being on a stage, on a pedestal.”
“And that’s not complaining,” Kakacek adds. “Who we are is kind of weird when we’re not playing music. If we changed that it would destroy the integrity of the whole thing. We’re gonna be ourselves onstage and maybe that’s a little weird sometimes.”
Once known for posting nude photos and spicy tweets, Whitney has remained quiet recently, partly because they needed to go away to write songs and partly because nowadays, according to Kakacek, “the internet is an evil, strange place.”
Matteson says the band put its all into Forever Turned Around and has grown a lot since Light Upon The Lake.
“I know the guys felt pressure,” he says. “I’ve heard them talking about how important it is to deliver something stronger than what you’ve previously done. I think they’ve accomplished that and so much more. I can point to other times where I’ve seen artists … not take it to the lengths Max and Julien did on this record. I think the extra work, care, hours and dedication will be apparent.”