It’s become a local Twitter meme to joke that you’re dressed like a member of Chicago’s indie rock group of the moment: “78% of men at Pitchfork Fest are in the band Whitney,” read a tweet from this year’s festival, where the duo’s set was one of the most buzzed about. The look is the default uniform of chill Logan Square bros — wireframe glasses, Carhartt beanie, some corduroy or flannel. It has become so sneakily ubiquitous that on my way to meet up with Whitney at Archie’s Tavern in Humboldt Park, I realize I am dressed like a member of Whitney.
If the gently rumpled duo — guitarist Max Kakacek, 29, and drummer and singer Julien Ehrlich, 27 — is shorthand for a quintessentially Chicago sartorial sense, it’s because since Whitney formed in 2015, its cozy, infectious soft rock has placed the group in the upper echelons of the city’s indie scene. The release date (August 30) of its second record, Forever Turned Around, was proclaimed Whitney Day by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — not bad for a band that began with a couple of roommates having a laugh.
Which isn’t the whole story: Ehrlich and Kakacek had previously played together as members of Smith Westerns, the glam-garage outfit that shot to fame at the beginning of the decade before breaking up, somewhat contentiously, in 2014. “Between the end of Smith Westerns and the beginning of Whitney, we were just screwing around,” Ehrlich says. “But I think in order to make something powerful, you can’t try to force it. There was no agenda. We were just trying to write a better song than we had the song before.”
The duo is eager to stop talking about its past and focus on the future, which for now looks pleasantly hectic. Our meeting falls on an off day of a marathon international tour that’ll take Whitney across Europe before wrapping up with five straight shows, most of them already sold out, at Thalia Hall — a proper homecoming to close out the band’s biggest year yet.
Forever Turned Around features lush and pastoral tracks buoyed by Ehrlich’s sky-high falsetto. “This song makes me want to quit my job, smash my phone and live on the road,” wrote a YouTube commenter about “Valleys (My Love).” But even the feel-good jams are shaded with melancholy, the kind of existential bewilderment the album’s title implies. Lines about lonely nights and long winters are tucked into lovelorn folk songs. “I don’t think either one of us listens to purely happy music,” says Kakacek, “unless the whole band’s together goofing off.”
Whitney’s first album, the wide-eyed Light Upon the Lake, was released the summer of 2016, before the presidential election; the contrasting weariness on its new full-length LP isn’t coincidental. “We wanted to slightly mirror the current mood, which is why a lot of the lyrics deal with anxiety and paranoia,” Ehrlich says. “In 20 or 30 years, I wonder if some kid is gonna look back and think, That’s the record they made during the Trump era.”
The band’s name was initially conceived as a fictional character, a cabin-dwelling recluse whose recordings might be discovered much later and reissued as cult curiosities. More than a persona, it functioned as a writing tool, a way for the musicians to get out of their own heads. In that sense, it’s still useful, even though Ehrlich and Kakacek are writing as themselves these days. “I don’t think Whitney loves being in a cabin anymore,” Ehrlich explains. “I think he can evolve.”
That’s a good thing, because Whitney’s in it for the long haul, no matter where the band ends up. “If we’re still going in our 50s, that’d be sick,” Kakacek says. “We’ll probably look fucking terrible, but we’re down.” Just then he breaks into a grin. He sees a terrier relieving himself on the leg of the bar’s pool table.
Details:Dec. 4–8. Thalia Hall. Pilsen. $30–$55. eventbrite.com