How Chicago's new indie outfit made one of the year's sunniest albums

By Eric Renner Brown
Updated June 08, 2016 at 11:54 AM EDT
Credit: Dominique Goncalves

Some people watch Game of Thrones or argue about chores with their roommates. Max Kakacek and Julian Ehrlich started a band. “We were always working on something, so we were never fighting about cleaning the dishes or something, you know?” Kakacek tells EW as he, Ehrlich, and the four other musicians who fill out their band Whitney prepare to hit the road in support of their recent debut, Light Upon the Lake.

Kakacek and Ehrlich knew each other through playing in Chicago indie-rock group Smith Westerns, but it wasn’t until after that band’s 2014 dissolution that the two found common personal ground and began writing together. “It was a lot of breakup, heartbreak stuff,” Ehrlich says of the events that fueled the lyrics on their debut. “Max and I both had our first loves leave us.”

But the lyrical intimacy didn’t arrive immediately for Kakacek and Ehrlich, who initially created a third persona — Whitney — to narrate their songs. “I think it was easier for us to get acquainted with our writing process through another third party,” Ehrlich says. “We had a funny cartoon image of this person in our heads. It was probably an older person, not going to say male or female, that liked to drunk and was wallowing in his own loneliness.”

Though they kept the name, Kakacek and Ehrlich soon jettisoned that approach so they could, as Ehrlich puts it, put their “own actual honest feelings and hearts into it.” Dropping their defenses helped them create weightier songs like Lake‘s closer “Follow,” which is about the passing of Ehrlich’s grandfather.

Despite the lyrical content, Lake is one of the sunniest indie-rock records in recent memory. “We’re positive dudes, so we made a point to make the instrumentation and arrangements and stuff a little more hopeful,” Ehrlich says. “The music is also melodic — it’s not just a desolate background for these sad lyrics to sit on.”

Chock full of horns, strings, and keyboards, Lake some logical influences. Ehrlich, who serves as the group’s drummer and singer, says he’s “completely obsessed” with the Band’s Levon Helm, adding that Whitney would watch the Band’s concert film The Last Waltz “probably once a week” during the album’s sessions. And the band recently started covering “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” the twangy closer off Bob Dylan’s 1969 country turn Nashville Skyline.

But even if Whitney’s currently enjoying a meteoric ascent in the indie-rock world, Ehrlich says his experiences behind the kit as a member of Smith Westerns and psych-rock group Unknown Mortal Orchestra keep him and Kakacek grounded. “They’re as big as they are because they worked as hard as they possibly can,” he says. “That’s what I’d like to take from them.”