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Whitney, Reimagined

The Chicago band became festival and playlist darlings with their brand of soul-tinged rock. This week, they return with ‘SPARK’—an album that widens the scope of what they can be by tapping into who they are.

Photo by Tonje Thilesen/Ringer illustration

Here’s a sentence I never expected to type: I’m currently getting run off the court by the band Whitney.

It’s a pleasant mid-July afternoon in their hometown of Chicago, and we’re playing a game of H-O-R-S-E at a school a few blocks from the walk-up apartment they share with an assortment of vintage synths. The affable, bespectacled duo at the center of the group—guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Max Kakacek, brown-haired and a shade over 6 feet, and drummer/singer ​​Julien Ehrlich, falsetto-voiced and currently a bottle blonde—are taking it to me. And not with trick shots or anything too technical: After shaking off some rust, Kakacek and Ehrlich begin draining corner 3s and jumpers. Before long, I’m sitting on “E.” When Kakacek hits a shot from the top of the key and my follow-up clanks, I’m out. (Score one for Team Musician in the eternal back-and-forth with Team Music Press. At least the Whitney boys were kind enough to not gloat.)

It’s not how I was planning to start my visit with Kakacek and Ehrlich, but the pair have been full of surprises since they formed Whitney in the mid-2010s. Rising from the ashes of Smith Westerns—a small but buzzy band that Max and Julien played in a decade ago—Whitney became playlist darlings thanks to their 2016 AM Gold-styled debut, Light Upon the Lake. That album’s sun-soaked soft rock was the perfect soundtrack for a Sunday morning stroll or sunset in the park. (Or later, an Instagram Reel.) Songs like “No Woman” and “Golden Days” broke out as modest hits, and none other than Sir Elton John declared himself one of Whitney’s biggest backers. (Here’s the Rocket Man himself interviewing Ehrlich in The New York Times.) By mining the past, Whitney created a comfortable present for themselves. Over the next few years, Kakacek and Ehrlich would become a Chicago institution, with a craft beer made in their honor and Whitney Day declared by the city to mark their second LP, 2019’s Forever Turned Around. It was quite the come-up for two guys whose previous band was more likely to be mentioned on Hipster Runoff than in a mayoral proclamation.

This week, Kakacek and Ehrlich return with perhaps their biggest surprise yet. On Friday, Whitney will release their third proper album, SPARK. Somewhere between a natural evolution of their sound and a total reinvention of it, SPARK expands the idea of what the band is. Light Upon the Lake and Forever Turned Around appealed to a certain type of listener obsessed with reel-to-reel recordings and analog instrumentation. SPARK does away with those notions, tapping into their wide range of influences, from early aughts pop to R&B to UGK and Outkast’s all-timer, “Int’l Players Anthem.”

Written mostly in the early days of the pandemic, while Kakacek and Ehrlich dealt with devastating loss and romantic heartbreaks, SPARK is loaded with synths and electronic flourishes. The drum parts were largely sampled from Ehrlich’s playing, then chopped up or looped. In some instances, songs were completely deconstructed digitally before being pieced back together. While most of these songs are unmistakably Whitney—Ehrlich’s voice and Kakacek’s ear for melody always shine through—it feels like an exciting (and logical) new direction for them. Take a song like lead single “REAL LOVE”: It’s a radiant mélange of keys over a pulsating drum break—poppier and more immediate than anything Whitney’s ever released before, but no less infectious than “Golden Days” or “No Matter Where We Go.” (The proof is in a recent Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance, where Whitney sounds like a band reborn playing the song.)

“If you really dig down deep into our souls, this is what we wanted to do and what we’ve always been working toward,” Ehrlich says. “It reflects what we listen to and what we’re inspired by in the same way that the first record did too.”

The simplest way to think of the difference in Whitney records is: If their earlier albums sounded like ’70s soul-rock records ripe for sampling, then SPARK sounds like the more modern end result of that process. But the new record isn’t a case of two talented musicians showing off some new tricks, flipping their sound to stay current, or even trying to surprise their fans. SPARK became a means of survival—two close collaborators and even closer friends finding a way to fight back when they may have been sitting on “E” themselves.

It was a technological miscalculation that doubles as a tidy metaphor. Midway through the sessions for Forever Turned Around, producer Brad Cook noticed that the vintage tape machine Whitney was recording to wasn’t properly calibrated. As he and the band experimented, they lost track of the tonal center of songs, which messed up the pitch and made overdubs and digital tracking a difficult—if not near-impossible—process. It quickly became the bane of the existence of mostly everyone involved. “We were still playing with tape speed all the time,” Cook says. “We almost ruined it because we weren’t really paying attention that much.”

In Cook’s eyes, Kakacek and Ehrlich had placed unnecessary restrictions on themselves throughout the making of their sophomore LP. The pair—the creative engine of Whitney, which also includes a handful of other musicians who play with them on tour and in the studio—went into Forever Turned Around wanting to double down on the sound of the breakout Light Upon the Lake. But by doing so, Kakacek and Ehrlich boxed themselves into what instruments they could use or how they could record, Cook says. “I brought a little Mellotron synth with me, and it got voted off the island so fast,” Cook says. “It’s like, ‘No way. We don’t put a synthesizer on any of our records.’ That was the general vibe.”

Partly because of those limitations, Forever Turned Around became one of the most arduous musical processes Kakacek and Ehlrich had ever been involved with. While they both say they remain proud of the record, it didn’t come as naturally as Light Upon the Lake, even if it was largely a success thanks to breezy songs like “Valleys (My Love)” and “Giving Up.” “I feel like when any artist talks about what felt to them as a struggle or a dip creatively or working through some writer’s block, it can totally diminish the product,” Ehrlich says. “But we just have a really high bar of what we think a record should be, an official release needs to be. It was just so hard to get there on that record.”

Circumstances would ensure that wouldn’t be the case for their next album, however. In early 2020, Ehrlich decamped to Portland, Oregon, to stay in a Craigslist rental following the end of what he calls “the most important relationship in my life up to that point.” Kakacek followed soon after (he’d later experience his own difficult breakup). The idea was to regroup and work on new music before hitting the road later that year. However, a few days after Kakacek arrived in March, the plan changed—the pandemic had reached a tipping point, and suddenly they were sheltering in place in a city thousands of miles away from the Windy City. “We were supposed to go to the Blazers-Grizzlies game the night that the NBA shut down,” Kakacek says. “Then it was like, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to be here.’ That was the beginning of what became our life. We ended up being in this house in Portland for a year and a half.”

Of course, isolating 2,000 miles from home becomes slightly easier when you’re doing it with someone you trust. And over the course of the past decade-plus, Kakacek and Ehrlich have grown to trust each other as much as anyone else in their lives. They met when they were barely adults and first joined musical forces a little over a decade ago, after Ehrlich parted ways with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and joined Kakacek in Smith Westerns. While Kakacek and Ehrlich are disinclined to discuss the details, Smith Westerns split for good in 2014. Soon after, the two formed Whitney, named after a fictional long-lost musician they dreamed up. (Think: Jim Sullivan or Sixto Rodriguez.)

While the story behind the band’s name was fanciful, what they wanted out of their union was not: They sought stability in their creative partnership. Kakacek and Ehrlich have gotten that and then some—counting the quarantine sojourn to Portland, they’ve lived together for the better part of a decade, and they say they’ve learned how to process disagreements without threatening the things that matter most.

“In this band, it’s just always been a friendship first and it’s never felt like work at all,” Ehrlich says. “As much as we’ll sometimes complain about it and notice large cracks in the music industry and feel slightly depressed about it maybe, it still doesn’t feel like work because we love each other.”

Planted in the Pacific Northwest amid personal, societal, and climate unrest, Kakacek and Ehrlich had each other, but they didn’t have their typical tools at their disposal. (For starters, there were no drums in that house.) They began writing and demoing songs using samples, synths, and DAWs. And while those songs weren’t initially intended to sound that way in their final form, Kakacek says it ended up being a “happy accident.” Ultimately, those early sketches pushed the pair to make music that inspired them in ways Forever Turned Around hadn’t. The new tracks weren’t just utilizing different kinds of instrumentation and replacing guitars with synths—they also broke out of the traditional song structures that Whitney had deployed on their earlier work. No longer bound by fealty to the past, they could push their songwriting to new places.

“We are still the same band from 2016 or whatever, and we can bust out all the songs live,” he says. “I think that sonically, the tools that we were using on this new record and the tools that we were discovering just allowed us to write the best songs that we could possibly write.”

To prove to themselves that the music was coming across differently now than it had in the past, Kakacek and Ehrlich undertook a series of visual tests, so to speak. They had done something similar with Light Upon the Lake, where they frequently looked at a picture of the two of them canoeing in Oregon, hoping to harness that energy for their debut album. (“It made sense—we were in the woods back then,” Ehrlich jokes.) A half-decade later, however, the image they kept returning to while creating was drastically different: They envisioned Drake dancing on cold marble floors. Released early in the pandemic and dismissed by some as a TikTok ploy, the video for the Toronto rapper’s “Toosie Slide” became aspirational for the duo. They’d mute Drake and let the video play as they sync’d their own creations. When it clicked—like it did with the demo for “BLUE”—they knew they were onto something. “Usually we’d have eaten some mushrooms or smoked some weed or something,” Kakacek says. “We were just watching and imagining what Drake dancing to ‘BLUE’ would look like in his gigantic Toronto mansion.”

Thousands of miles away and presumably not watching Drake videos on shrooms, Cook couldn’t see what Kakacek and Ehrlich were seeing in those video sessions. But as soon as they began sending him demos, he heard the difference. These songs sounded like the type of music he had been hoping they’d explore since he first linked up with them—stuff that utilized beats, loops, and synths and pushed past whatever self-imposed rules they had set. “I felt like the floodgates broke open and they let their actual creativity shine,” Cook says. “They’re so talented and their musicianship exists in so many places that from the minute I met them, I felt like it was something I was definitely trying to encourage them to explore as much as possible.”

In 2021, Whitney enlisted Cook and another producer, John Congleton, to help them bring the vision for the new album home. While the latter hadn’t previously worked with the band, his presence solidified that LP3 would be a different proposition than its predecessors. Congleton’s production credits include some of the best-loved and progressive rock records of the 2010s: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy and MASSEDUCTION, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors, Cymbals Eat Guitars’s Pretty Years, and Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe among them. While all being nominally “indie rock”—to the extent that term exists or signifies much in 2022—those albums take a different approach to guitar music than Light Upon the Lake or Forever Turned Around. They each draw on drum programming and the kinds of studio flourishes that Whitney was working toward in those demos.

The results of Whitney’s collaborations with the two producers are apparent from the first seconds of SPARK, which was fully tracked on ProTools and took what Cook called a “very modern approach relative to the other two records.” Where Forever Turned Around begins with a whispery piano melody, SPARK begins with “NOTHING REMAINS” and a naked kick-and-snare drum beat, sampled from Ehrlich’s playing. It’s followed by a technicolor burst of keys and the opening verse. While Ehrlich is still doing what he does best by blending deceptively forlorn lyrics with poppy melodies, his pinched voice is clearer in the mix than ever before. After the first chorus, a twangy Kakacek guitar riff plays over a synth-filled instrumental break—a reminder of their previous work amid the metamorphosis. From the thousand-foot view, it plays like a declaration of intent: This may be the same Whitney you first fell in love with, but this time, they’re more concerned with what lies ahead than with what came before them.

“There’s no song that isn’t drum samples on the record,” Congleton says. “It was primarily a lot of live performances manipulated, and then I would take those live performances, sequence them, and then usually turn them into drum samples. So they would start as a live performance and then just get manipulated to the point and mangled to where it was basically just a sequence.”

Other songs on the record extend that spirit of reimagination even further. “TERMINAL”—dedicated to Kakacek’s grandfather as well as one of the band’s early mentors, Chet “JR” White of the band Girls—is built atop a fractured lo-fi loop. Standout early single “MEMORY” begins with an infectious riff not dissimilar to the ones Whitney built their career on before it breaks down to a gorgeous instrumental outro that wouldn’t be out of place on an Air record. And “TWIRL” may be the biggest departure of all. In its original form, Kakacek and Ehrlich say “TWIRL” sounded more like Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”—to the point where they actually tried using a broom for percussion. But in the studio, it fell flat. With both of them feeling stuck, they say Congleton took over, deconstructing the guitars and ultimately pitching down the entire song a full octave. The final product is a haunting, but warm (and drumless) track that Whitney wouldn’t have been capable of on previous albums. (“John Congleton did some GOAT activity in the studio,” Ehrlich says.)

As Cook sees it, SPARK is a stark departure from Whitney’s earlier work. And that may run the risk of not connecting with the same fans who jumped on with Light Upon the Lake. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says. By finding new ways to show off their talents, Whitney has opened their career up in a way that’s more sustainable than repeating a tried-and-true formula, which has doomed countless bands before them.

“If you’re stuck on one style of music or you’re limited in that way, people don’t have the ability to grow with you in the same way that if you push them outside of their comfort zone,” Cook says. “They’ll be able to grow with the band now. It may take them a minute to catch up to where Max and Jules are, but I think that the thing they’re doing now is very exciting.”

Kakacek and Ehlrich’s hope, naturally, is that Cook’s instincts are right, especially in a difficult musical landscape for small to midsize acts. They note that tens of thousands of songs are released each day to Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company), and that the streaming numbers that appear next to each title create a strange quantification of art. Whitney has certainly had success with those metrics in the past—their biggest hits clock in at tens of millions of Spotify plays apiece—but now they’re entering a new, more experimental phase of their career. They’re taking their shot—and not just a corner 3 or a top-of-the-key jumper. Maybe it clangs off the rim, maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe their existing fans have an easier time following them—metaphorically speaking—than this writer did at that schoolyard blacktop a few months back. But either way, they’re happy to grow as artists—and to be able to do so together.

“Living your life in a way where you stick with what works just because it’s easy doesn’t progress you as a thinker or a creator,” Kakacek says. “I think at a certain point, you really have to push yourself to get out of your comfort zone.”