“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.” – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Almost Famous
I knew these guys when they were uncool. But, actually, they were always pretty cool.
Whitney is one of the newest up and coming bands in the US. They’re getting press like crazy from the likes of Pitchfork and Complex. And for good reason. Whitney’s music is something special. Plucked out of a different era. Rooted in Sam Cooke, it exhibits old school country vibes mixed with Beach Boys falsetto. The tracks make you want to hop in a convertible and drive down the 101. We love this band. But there’s so much more to who they are that makes them worthy of paying for a show. And buying the record.
I’ve known a couple of the band members since they were sixteen. We met in a bizarre way. A good friend of mine invited me to meet these young guys that he loved. At the time, we were all “musicians” (as most people in their twenties are). We had some studio gear, and they were about to start a project laced with high school sexual wit. Josiah Marshall, Whitney’s bass player, sang lead vocals. Julien Ehrlich, the lead singer and drummer for Whitney, played drums. Julien’s dad did the engineering. One of their best friends played guitar. It was fun music: classic high school garage band shit, but with really great recording gear. And, unlike most garage band shit, it showed promise. Their studio was in a warehouse in town, and I found myself stopping by on occasion to enjoy an underaged beer with the crew. It became a thing for us. We drank pinot together late into the evening. A few folks got group tattoos based on these nights. They held my son a few days after he was born. These guys became family.
Outside of my affinity for their infectious personalities (and drinking together), I always felt like they would ‘make it’, even in this infinitely challenging market. They had, in Julien’s case, a quiet confidence, and in Josiah’s, an addictive charisma.
At the time, Julien was a stand out. He was a prodigy on the drums. He was not only precise, but effortless. His path took a different trajectory from his peers when he took a gig as the drummer for cult favorite, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. As a 19-year-old, Julien started touring with one of the hottest indie bands in the US. He was on great industry websites. He toured Europe. Questlove tweeted at him after playing a show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. We all watched proudly. Eventually, he moved on from Unknown Mortal Orchestra and, through a series of events, landed in Chicago playing with the Smith Westerns. Max Kakacek, now Whitney’s lead guitar player, played guitar for the Smith Westerns at the time. He was (and still is) like Julien, a standout talent.
They hit it off, which, in hindsight, is not a surprise. The two of them, as well as the rest of the band, are dedicated connoisseurs of music. They listen to a lot of old vinyl. They talk about it and pick out nuances that none of us hear. They’re naturally gifted. And they practice. A lot. They love recording to tape. They’re opinionated about music in a way that the best are, without being bourgeois. They take care in leaving their soundscape natural, never over-doing it.
Julien and Max started writing together during the dark and cold winters that only Chicago can bring. Hours forced indoors with short days and long nights. And the songs, laced with youthful, melancholy lyrics, were paradoxically (and wonderfully) bright.
After a long stint overseas, Josiah moved to Chicago, reuniting with his friend, Julien. And with Max. They recorded a demo to tape in their old brick flat. They lived like 20-somethings, working at a local restaurant and drinking too much beer in the evenings (and the days). We stayed in touch. They sent me a few tracks. It was great. Then, upon shopping their demos, the buzz began.
Cut forward a year or so and I’m breezing through Chicago. I remembered they lived there, so I gave them a call to see if they could have breakfast on my way out of town. Julien and Josiah’s families were in town (whom I call some of my closest friends) by chance, so I decided to stay an extra night. I spent the next 24 hours catching up with the two young men and their dads. We walked their neighborhood. We had some wine, some whiskey, and a lot of laughs.
Then it was off to Max’s parents’ for a barbeque. A few hours later, I was sitting in Chicago, in a beautiful urban yard, with the band that is now called Whitney. At the time, they were just my friends, hanging with their local community. I met the whole crew: Malcolm Brown, who plays keys and sings backup (he’s extremely engaging, altogether heady, and curated in his approach to music), Will Miller, who plays trumpet (and, by the way, spent some time in a soul band as well as as a gospel horn player), and a slew of their great friends and family. We sat on folding chairs on a perfect Chicago summer day, later finding ourselves at an AirBnB in Lincoln Park with a rooftop patio deep into the morning. It seemed like everyone they had ever met in Chicago came by that night. All warm, young folks who understand how to sit up late and talk and laugh and listen to great music (and if you’re Malcom Brown, play a mean air piano to Bruce Hornsby).
The next morning, Julien got a call from a promoter in London. A few labels had the Whitney demo. All of them wanted a deal.
Months later, the band signed with Secretly Canadian. Weeks after that, the guys were in L.A. recording their record. Pitchfork called each of their singles the “best new track”. Paste gave the record 8.5 out of 10. They were on the cover of the best indie pub sites. Next up: press tours and shows in Europe.
Whitney is now touring the US. Their record, Light Upon the Lake has been released to critical acclaim. They have a new rhythm guitar player, Tracy Print Chouteau, who fits in with this crew like he was there from the beginning. They’re loaded into an old church van, fixed up by Max’s family. It’s romantic in its own way: a crusty old van, but reliable. And it’s ready for the next turn. The van is a symbol of who they are as a group: a product of community, of lifelong friends, of time, care, and a bit of elbow grease.
This road trip brings a fast adventure with a ceiling that’s probably higher than anyone can tell. But they have this music that’s connected with an older age. A slower time. And somehow, it’s perfectly current, hitting a much needed void in the synth-laced productions of today’s pop radio. The music is exactly what you want to listen to with your friends. Anthemic and thoughtful with the kind of sing-along endings that make you put your arm around your neighbor like everything will be okay (with a heavy dose of that ‘My Girl’ charm).
Whitney’s art stems from personalities that care, that are talented, that are laced (just like we all are) with long-standing time together, tethered to family. Though all the backstory may be cliche, seemingly told from an old family video, it is relevant. Every musician is a son, a sister, a friend. These friends are, however, special. And on to something. And you need to listen to the record, however cool you are.