It’s been a bittersweet few weeks for Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek. Shortly before the two Chicagoans set off on their latest U.S. tour with their band Whitney, their respective girlfriends broke up with them. The tour has been great. The band is as solid as ever and has sold out shows all down the West Coast. But every now and then, those tentacles of lost love grab hold.
"When the hangover is really dark, she’ll pop into my head and I’ll feel...” Ehrlich says, pausing before uttering, “sad.”
It’s fitting that the frontmen are both single in the wake of the release of their debut album, Light Upon the Lake. In its lead track, “No Woman,” Ehrlich sings in a Kermit the Frog-like falsetto: “I left drinking on the city train/To spend some time on the road... I've been going through a change/I might never be sure." And although his day-afters are now occasionally met with malaise, he gets it.
"It was just getting too hard,” he says, “and this tour will be like three straight months of shows. Maybe in a year we’ll reconnect, but I wasn’t being a good boyfriend."
It also seems appropriate that both girlfriends decided they’d had enough of the frontmen around the same time. The two are more than just founders of the seven-piece band; they’re like brothers, with a penchant for locking lips and a six-year friendship that purportedly began after Kakacek posed naked just offstage to distract Ehrlich while he was playing a gig with Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
"We both naturally just don’t take ourselves very seriously,” Ehrlich says.
There’s evidence of that fact in Whitney's Instagram photos. Each band member is naked in a precarious position at least once. They also share a few smooches — one of them, shot onstage, is captioned “just to make the security bros insecure."
Yet Whitney’s lack of seriousness makes for some of the most sincere indie-rock music around. The band's winsome first album — appropriately recorded in a cabin in the woods — is riddled with moments of insight and self-doubt like reflections seen in old mirrors. Every word of Ehrlich's fretful falsetto is crisp and clear, and Kakacek’s guitar is as cautious as it is occasionally complex.
“We made a point to cut out all the effects, to make the vocals super-upfront and the lyrics a bit more vulnerable,” Ehrlich says. “We’re not trying to be incredibly technical. We know we have pitfalls, and we’re not the greatest musicians of all time. So a lot of it is just feeling and instinct. It has to feel natural while also being a bit more complex than we’re used to.”
Their instincts must’ve been right. Beyond receiving high praise from everyday critics, the album attracted the attention and acclaim of Elton John, who called it one of his favorite records of the year.
"Individuality and authentic voices are so needed in this day of mass-produced crap,” John told Ehrlich in a joint interview for the New York Times. "I think you’ve hit on something very special. I know this is your first album in, but it seems to have done very well.”
Ehrlich was starstruck during the meeting, which he admitted to John immediately. Nonetheless, he surprised the veteran by asking a personal question: "When did you start feeling like you wanted to start a family?”
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"I don’t know why I felt like asking him about his family,” Ehrlich says, although he actually does know. "My parents met when they were superyoung and started a family when they were 19. So that’s one of the things that’s been in the back of my head for a while now. His answer to that was sick. He said, ‘Dude, just let it happen. Don’t worry about being too old to have kids. That shit will just take care of itself, basically.’"
Sir Elton John didn’t answer in exactly those words, but the sentiment was the same. And it was just the thing this 25-year-old up-and-comer, who'd been grappling with conflicting musical and familial aspirations, needed to hear. Now, Ehrlich might sometimes miss his ex-girlfriend, but he doesn’t dwell on thoughts of marriage anymore. He knows what he wants to do now and laughs when asked if he still considers settling down.
"No,” he says. “Not at all."