THE INDIE ROCK WORLD is still subconsciously taking cues from humorless dorks like Thom Yorke and Win Butler—masters of the solemn and cerebral. Which is exactly why the blogosphere loses its collective shit over a band like Whitney, whose grand ambition is simply to write good pop songs.
“All we want to do is write the most honest music we can,” says Julien Ehrlich, the Chicago group’s drummer and lead singer. “It’s probably a little bit selfish, but we just want to write stuff that gets stuck in our heads.”
Whitney is a low-key supergroup, formed around the creative nucleus of Ehrlich, who drummed for Unknown Mortal Orchestra before joining guitarist Max Kakacek in indie darlings the Smith Westerns. The duo formed a songwriting partnership in the beginning of 2015, following the dissolution of that band.
“We didn’t start Whitney right away; we didn’t even want to write together right away,” says Ehrlich. “We just needed to purge, and we weren’t expecting this to form into a cohesive project or album or anything.
“One day, Max [Kakacek] brought home this little four-track tape machine,” he continues, “and we just wanted to see how the songs we were writing sounded—it was all very organic, and we [didn’t feel any pressure]. The next morning, we wrote 'On My Own,’ and we freaked out after we wrote that. We finished the entire recording in 20 minutes, and afterward I remember we walked around Chicago on a sunny day and listened to it off our iPhone speakers, and then we did 'Golden Days,’ and I think realized that this was becoming a serious thing.”
The demos Ehrlich and Kakacek cut over that period became the basis for their staggering debut LP, Light Upon the Lake—an album that feels decidedly homespun despite some bold production decisions. The pair’s tightly constructed pop vignettes are punctuated with slide guitar and lavish string arrangements on par with Phil Spector’s early ’70s work.
The group’s deep-seated love for classic pop is exemplified in “Golden Days”—a song that warmly crackles out of the speakers like a time-traveling AM radio signal. It’s one of those singles that’s so wholly perfect, it’s indivisible by the sum of its components—like a Pollock in song form.
“Golden Days” also recalls the subliminal melancholy of sunshine pop forebears like Badfinger, Harry Nilsson, and Karen Carpenter. It plays like both a suicide note and missive to a former lover: “Oh, don’t you save me from hanging on,” Ehrlich sings in his signature Kermit the Frog whimper, though an ebullient chord progression and tuneful, McCartney-style bass playing belie this sentiment.
“We really thought that song just sounded like the Band,” Ehrlich confesses. “Like, I’m pretty sure the original filename we had for it was 'BandSong69.’”
Like all of the most vital pop music, Light Upon the Lake has a spontaneous quality—Ehrlich and Kakacek wrote these songs quickly and excitedly, free from the external pressures that frequently muddle the creative process. I ask Ehrlich if he thinks the project will be able to retain that sense of spontaneity going forward.
“We just had our first day off in six months, and the first thing we did was sit down and make another demo, which we really love,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m worried about future releases at all.”