Pastoral Past

Chicago's Whitney waxes nostalgic on the golden days of young love and heartbreak

Whitney has only been together a year, and already they're making a big splash in the industry.
Whitney has only been together a year, and already they're making a big splash in the industry.

Signing fans' skin with permanent marker was once a rock 'n' roll rite of passage, the more illicit the location the better. It was proof that your band had "arrived." But times have changed. The Chicago-based septet Whitney, darlings of this summer's festival circuit (including pit stops at Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, and Pitchfork Music Festival), say fans are instead beginning to clamor for John Hancocks on quite a different bodily appendage — their cellphone.

"I've never had anyone ask me to do that [before Pitchfork]," says Julian Ehrlich, the band's singer, drummer and co-writer.

In millennial parlance, Whitney has "blown up," and the hype surrounding the group's debut Light Upon the Lake, which dropped in June, is warranted. It's music that sways and romps through melancholia, change and loss without pretense or hackneyed posturing. And the songs reveal a compositional maturity that is striking for a guy gang of 20-somethings.

At barely a half-hour long, it's also a taut testament to the earthy tones of the guitar, Memphis horns and barroom piano — all through the prism of young love and heartbreak.

"You have to live with your imperfections ... and leave them out in the open instead of hiding behind something," says guitarist Max Kakacek, the other half of Whitney's core songwriting duo.

He's referring to the dry and ramshackle analog sound of the record, but it also refers to the events that prophesied the band's formation, and ultimately, their inspiration.

Whitney rose from the ashes of myriad implosions, both personal and professional; for the group's co-founders Ehrlich and Kakacek, out of breakups and the end of their previous band, the Smith Westerns. Light Upon the Lake confronts the wreckage head-on (see "No Woman," "Golden Days" and "On My Own").

"Will life get ahead of me?" asks Ehrlich, his falsetto hanging above gently plucked strings on the wistful title track. Answers are in short supply, but it's hard not to hear these songs as they really are: bittersweet, footloose and bewildered anthems to days gone by.

The seriousness of their art, however, betrays their eccentric personalities on and off stage. "We're not like a straight-edge band or anything," says Ehrlich over the hum of their repurposed church van barreling down I-55 toward St. Louis.

"It smells terrible," says Kakacek, who's made an effort to seat himself by an open window.

But they wouldn't have it any other way. For Ehrlich, life sans Whitney would probably be devoted to his passion for soccer. Meanwhile, Kakacek is stumped.

"We're obsessed with this movie called Heavyweights," Ehrlich admits with a chuckle. "We'd probably create our own version of Camp Hope for, like, overweight pre-teens."

Kakacek then chimes in, "We might do that, but with a rock element." ♦

Whitney with Michael Rault • Sat, July 30, at 8 pm • $8/$10 day of • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • • 747-2174

Piano Sunday with Athena Robinson @ Pend d'Oreille Winery

Sun., Jan. 31, 3-5 p.m.
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