It was a sunny, hot Easter Sunday afternoon in the California desert, and Whitney’s performance of “Polly” had already entered a second phase, becoming a vaguely nostalgic, jazzy improvisation. The Fader called this song the “languid, folk-rock antithesis” to the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and it does privilege the confusion of summer love over the optimism.
“If only we were young / You’d make me feel warm,” sang Julien Ehrlich, who founded the band with his friend guitarist Max Kakacek two years ago. Then Ehrlich was up, leaving his drum set unattended as trumpeter Will Miller soloed, stealing a kiss on the lips with bassist Josiah Marshall before dashing back. He counted off again, and they kept playing, “Polly” becoming a distant reference.
“How you doing now?” Ehrlich asked their Coachella crowd when they finally finished their fantasia. “Still alive?” Later he would check in again: “How’s the festival? I’ve done a few of them in my day. They’re not fun; they’re OK.”
Ehrlich and Kakacek played Coachella once before, when both belonged to the indie-folk band Smith Westerns.
Mostly Ehrlich was looking forward to September, when he and his bandmates would hole up to write together, maybe in a cabin outside his hometown of Portland. “When you tour this hard you just get kind of depressed because you’re not getting the high that you get from creating something that you love,” he said.
Ehrlich joined the Portland-based Unknown Mortal Orchestra as a teenager, then moved to Chicago to join the Smith Westerns in 2011. “I was sleeping on Max’s couch basically,” Ehrlich remembered. They remained roommates after Smith Westerns broke up, both of them working at Chicago restaurants to make ends meet. “We were both totally broke. We were grinding and partying really hard with our friends and living the dream of, like, the 1990s Portlandia thing.” They had started making music together in their downtime. “Me and Max kind of knew that what we were making was probably going to take us around the world at some point.”
They chose the name Whitney early on as a “little bit of a spirit.” Ehrlich had never written a song before and he thought doing it through another character—an ambiguous figure named Whitney, in this case—might help, though they’re not sure what role, if any, the character still plays in their music. “At the end of the day, we’re always going to put our own feelings and emotions into songs, because I wouldn’t be able to go out on the stage and, like, act my way through every single set,” explained Ehrlich. They knew what they were writing was working because it felt good and sounded unlike music they’d heard. If there’s “some real agenda of which kind of people you want your music to appeal to or something,” said Ehrlich, “you’re just probably gonna fall flat.”
He learned a few things from UMO and Smith Westerns about how to make the music he wanted. “You should just write melodies that you didn’t necessarily think you were capable of writing, because you’re probably going to have to, like, sing them every day,” he said. “Really, lazy melodies are just going to make you want to fucking die if you have to hear them over and over again.”
When Ehrlich and Kakacek were ready to perform, they realized they needed a band. “We just looked around and saw all of our friends that just happened to be really good at their instruments. And, yeah, we just got down in a basement.” They practiced for two or three months before playing their first show in Chicago, in summer 2015.
They released their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, a year later, in June 2016. It’s a youthful and nostalgic tribute to life in transition, with a sound that mixes folk and soul but has no allegiance to any one genre. Ehrlich quit his day job right before the band headed out to tour Europe. As exhausting as the travel is, it’s nice to travel as friends, especially after being in bands where tensions between members could run high. “We don’t give any importance to weird little bickering. We genuinely like being around each other,” said Ehrlich.
They played a new song at Coachella, near the end of their set. “I think the title is ‘Rolling Blackout,’” said Ehrlich when he introduced it. It has an easygoing, upbeat motion to it and some big instrumental choruses, all this contrasted by lyrics about crawling away at break of dawn, feeling the days flow by in a fog and losing track of time.
The band has been writing when they can, and holding themselves to a high bar. “We just threw out a song that we’d worked on for a week and a half.” They’re not sure exactly what the album will include, or what it will feel like. “I mean, it’s definitely going to reflect a little bit the craziness that we’ve seen this year—just the crazy peaks and valleys that you eventually experience when you’re touring this much,” said Ehrlich. “I guess we’re going to let the story tell itself, in a way.”
Left / Glasses ARTIST’S OWN / T-Shirt VINTAGE /
Belt KELLY COLE / Jeans AGOLDE ‘BLADE’ IN BRADLEY
Right / T-Shirt CAST OF VICES / Sweater RICHER POORER /
Jeans AGOLDE ‘SPLINTER’ IN SONIC