There are emotional journeys. And there are physical journeys. In both senses, you can end up far from home during a global pandemic. The Chicago band Whitney, led by Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, did just that and came home again, along the way pouring two years of heartache, COVID-19 and loss into a new album, Spark, dropping Sept. 16.
Soon, they’ll be packing up again to go on tour around the U.S. and Europe before returning to Chicago just before Christmas — another journey, and one that will end with a three-night stand at Chicago’s Thalia Hall in December.
” ‘Real Love’ was very much written in May 2021 when, like, the whole city was coming back,” Ehrlich said. “Still, in the lyrics it’s very much dealing with apprehension and paranoia, and stuff. But in the sound it’s meant to be played in a car with a giant subwoofer.”
Ehrlich plays drums and is the lead singer — like one of his heroes, The Band’s Levon Helm. Originally from Oregon, Ehrlich moved here to join Smith Westerns, where he met Kakacek, who grew up in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood and plays guitar and keyboards.
When Smith Westerns broke up in 2014, the friends and roommates formed a new group, spent a month at the Kakacek family cabin in Wisconsin, and created Whitney’s first album, Light Upon The Lake. It was an indie hit, as was the single “No Woman.”
Whitney’s second album, Forever Turned Around, was followed by Candid, a collection of covers.
In early 2020, Ehrlich was getting over a romantic breakup and moved back to Portland, Oregon. Kakacek followed close behind — he was hoping to dodge the end of another brutal Chicago winter.
It was March 14, 2020, “and that evening we were planning on seeing a basketball game — the Portland Trailblazers — and they shut down the NBA on my flight, Kakacek said during an August interview in the friends’ Ukrainian Village apartment. “I got to Portland and they were like, ‘The game’s not happening’ and a couple days later it was like ‘You’re not going home.’ I ended up being there for a year and a half.”
Ehrlich agreed it was a sign the musicians should hunker down and get to work. “It was just the right time for us to be forced into album mode, honestly,” he said. “We knew that we had it all within us to explore and find the songs.”Ehrlich, Kakacek and their bandmates began to work on an album that would sound different from their earlier records: more direct, with Erhlich’s falsetto pitched lower. Somehow it involved going to the hardware store and buying a disco light for their home demo studio in Portland.
“A lot of times you go into the studios and there’s like a visualizer or a lighting setup, like a moody setting to kind of get you out of a sterile environment,” Kakacek said. “And that was kind of like our hack to do that in a cheap way.”
“When we talked to our neighbors,” Erhlich said, picking up the story, “it was like the signal that we were working. But it was just a funny signal, because it really did look like we were raving in the house.It was one of those things from an outside perspective, it seems like – we’re having a lonely party.” Kakacek concluded.
During this lonely party, the members of Whitney experienced losses like so many people did in the early days of the pandemic, including the COVID-related death of Kakacek’s grandfather at the end of 2020.
“It was one of those situations where you had to return to Chicago when travel wasn’t so easy, and neither was anything else.” Kakacek described that time as “slow and distant.”
“He had a flip phone and then went into the hospital and we couldn’t really FaceTime him or anything,” Kakacek said. “And I’m sure that’s common for a lot of people. It was very tough. We had to have the memorial for him last summer, so almost eight months later.”
When the duo moved back to Chicago last summer, they tested their new songs by listening to them in the car while driving up and down Ashland Avenue.
“We were both so happy to be back in Chicago,” Ehrlich said. “When we finish writing a song and we do a rough mix of the demo, we wanna test it out in every possible situation that you often hear music.”
Whitney also set videos for Spark in Chicago, filming them as dreamy scenes that are open to interpretation. Behind-the-scenes, they said they were on a new journey — one that required them to make the most out of a small budget.
For “Blue,” the band is riding on the Wave Swinger at Navy Pier. Ehrlich said that was an affordable alternative to what they’d first considered — renting Jet Skis and riding them on Lake Michigan — except for a mistimed meal: “We ate Billy Goat burgers right before getting on, and my stomach was definitely jacked up for the next hour.” He laughed. “It was rough.”
Mary Dixon is WBEZ’s Morning Edition host. Follow her at @MaryLDixon.