With their highly anticipated sophomore record on the horizon, Chicago “country soul” outfit Whitney was all smiles as they geared up to debut some of the new LP at this year’s Pitchfork Festival. “We are going to play half the new album basically,” drummer and vocalist Julien Ehrlich mentions the day prior to their festival slot. “There’s no better place to do it.” The new album, Forever Turned Around, will be released on August 30.
Ehrlich, along with bandmate and guitarist Max Kakacek, formed Whitney in 2015. The rest of Whitney is made up of keyboardist Malcolm Brown, guitarist Print Choteau, guitarist Ziyad Asrar, trumpeter Will Miller, and bassist Josiah Marshall. Trying to briefly escape the 100-degree heat of this year’s Pitchfork Festival, Julien, Max, and I found a shaded picnic table where we chatted about their new album over a couple Goose Island Natural Villain lagers.
If you go out for a beer, what are you ordering?
Max: Miller Lite.
Julien: I like Bud Lite sometimes, but a light beer for sure.
Do you typically stick with the cheaper, domestic stuff?
Max: Well, I’ve picked up on them from Julien and Josiah, but in the Portland airport for some reason, we’re always drinking heavier beers. What did we get the last time we were there?
Julien: It was Ninkasi. I’m from Oregon, which was maybe the leader in new craft beers for a while. I was really into Ninkasi, but then you get older and it’s like, ‘Man, these beers are making me feel like I’m a thousand pounds.’ They just slow you down and give you a sluggish feeling.
Max: Drinking heavy beers and getting onstage is terrible.
Outside the United States, where is a remarkable place you’ve enjoyed a beer?
Max: Favorite beer for me so far has been in Bergen, [Norway]. There’s a tram that you can take up to the top of this mountain and look over the entire city of Bergen and see the fjords. There’s a restaurant where you can get a beer and look out at the entire thing.
Julien: We went there in the morning and had multiple beers. It was just the right place.
Max: We had the day off, but we had been out the night before. It was perfect because it felt like you had exercised, because you have to walk up it a little bit. It’s a little bit of hiking, well you know, fake tourist hiking.
When we were 23 and writing the first album, we’d drink a third of a beer and then fill it with whiskey. We called it a ‘beer plus.’”
If you had to describe the sound of your new album, Forever Turned Around, by pairing it to a beer, what would that be?
Julien: Wow, what would you say, Delirium Tremens?
Max: Yeah, La Chouffe is another. There are two ways to do it. We can either say like a La Chouffe or Tremens, but I think part of it, you know, is that it’s kind of like a “Chicago Handshake,” Old Style and a shot of Malort.
Julien: I had a couple of those last night, I think that’s a good fit.
Max: We stopped doing this because we started losing our minds, but when we were 23 and writing the first album, we’d drink a third of a beer and then fill it with whiskey. We called it a “beer plus.” We still do a sort of mixed thing, but it’s a little classier. We put Campari in High Life.
How did you all get onto that move?
Julien: Ziyad, our guitar player, turned us onto that. He’s an amazing bartender actually.
Max: When he’s not playing music, he does a lot of work for this liquor company out of Chicago called Apologue. He’s been working for them for a long time and they make all naturally sourced Aperitifs.
Your go-to is cheap beer, but what do you think about the giant craft beer boom?
Julien: I’m all about it. Even though we don’t really drink heavy beers that often, experimentation is cool and we’re into it.
Max: My dad and I brew beer sometimes; not super seriously, but we picked it up as a hobby right before we started touring Light Upon the Lake. When I get back, if it’s a nice day, we’ll chill in the backyard and make some beer.
What have you brewed together?
Max: It’s more of the heavier ales and stuff. We did one lager and it was fine, but I just don’t have the patience to wait six weeks for a beer. In three weeks, we both just want to pop one open and see if it worked.
How does it feel to present some of the new songs for the first time in Chicago this weekend?
Max: It’s great, because we have Macie Stewart [Ohmme], who helped arrange all the strings on the album playing with us tomorrow. We’ll have a full string quartet. Having a string quartet here just felt really important for the songs to be heard for the first time.
Everything Macie touches is golden and both members of Ohmme have been on so many good Chicago projects. What was it like working with Macie?
Max: She has perfect pitch. It’s insane.
Julien: It works out because we’re all in a basement just talking about it, going ‘I’m hearing one more harmony’, and she would go ‘Well what about this one?’ Then she’d just play it.
Max: Usually, we’d have a Wurlitzer and her. We’d just go back and forth and try to play the notes that we think we hear.
Julien: She’s just so good at translating it all into full string sections.
Early on you all were considering moving to Portland and possibly making your second record there, which didn’t happen. What made you stay in Chicago?
Max: The people, but sometimes we need to find inspiration from a place like that.
Julien: I have a lot of love for Oregon but there are certain aspects I can’t handle. When we go to Oregon, we go to the middle of nowhere usually.
Max: We still use the area to inspire us when we can. That song ‘Valleys,’ we wrote that after a long drive through Bitterroot Valley Montana. Even though we’re Chicago based, we’re drawing from traveling. Sometimes, we’ll do writing trips for two weeks or so to Oregon or Wisconsin and just get out of the city. It’s getting the best of both worlds.
I heard you made it to April Base (Justin Vernon’s Wisconsin studio)?
Julien: A couple of times. We had one writing session there, and apparently this never happens, but it was completely empty. It was just us two and the studio manager. It was not very fruitful. But, then we came back when the record was in full swing and had a really short session where we wrote ‘Before I Know It’ really fast there somehow. We love that place. The energy is really good there.
What’s the idea behind the new album title, Forever Turned Around?
Julien: The reason why we liked it is because we saw multiple meanings in it. I think the more prevalent one is aging and just realizing that whatever childhood dreams you sort of had aren’t happening and making peace with it. A lot of the record is about the idea of ‘Where’d all that time go?’ The literal idea of forever or your idea of forever turning around and not happening. It’s pretty dark, but we’re happy with it.
It’s the same thoughts a lot of us in their mid-twenties to thirties grapple with when realizing ‘Shit, this life thing happened quickly and not at all as I imagined.’ A lot of the new record sounds like dealing with that sort of material.
Julien: We had some of the lines written, but deciding exactly how we wanted to frame everything, and choosing exactly which subject matter we wanted to talk about took a long time.
So you talked about the subject matter before even writing any of the lyrics?
Max: The hard part is how you convey loss and disillusionment without it being as simple as a breakup.
Julien: Oh yeah, we were talking about it the whole time because a lot of the songs were coming out as breakup songs and we didn’t want to literally do the exact same thing again. It just took us a while to figure out where we actually were in our lives. Now, instead of breakups, it’s more about our ups and downs and whatever happens when you fully commit to something or someone. I think that’s equally as relatable as a breakup record.