Interview: Whitney’s Max Kakacek on process and relationship

Whitney w/ Helena Deland

The Mill — Saturday, April 1 at 9 p.m.

Lauded for their Light Upon the Lake and playing in their own backyard after an Australian tour, Chicago’s Whitney will perform at the Mill on April 1 at 9 p.m. A Mission Creek Presents show the weekend before Mission Creek kicks off (co-presented by Moeller Nights), Whitney offers concertgoers an opportunity to see a band as their career launches.

Although the core of the band comes from the Smith Westerns, the sound is radically different as it replaces the production-laden urgency of teenage angst with a wiser and more melancholy sense of joy. Whitney is supported by opener Helena Deland from Montreal. Tickets are $15; 19+ only after 10 p.m. Guitarist Max Kakacek took some time to speak with Little Village.

Members of Whitney. — still from “No Woman”

Could you provide a quick background of where the name Whitney came from?

There a few reissues of albums that just have names as the title — Lewis from a label called Light in the Attic and another album named Rob. We wanted something different, so we scrolled through a list of names and Whitney came up and we both agreed that was it.

The idea was this: When Julien (Erlich) and I were thinking about starting a band, we had played music together before but had never written together. We wanted something that would let us write collaboratively. “Whitney” forced us to look outside of ourselves and get a better perspective on what’s going on. It gave us distance, which you need.

How did this name/persona/perspective inform the sound that you produced?

Especially at the beginning it was learning to write together, but as it progressed it became more.

What felt right about Whitney and how does it sound?

It felt honest and natural and organic rather than other things, it was less processed and self-conscious. It came from our apartment. It was personal to us. And it translated to others who could feel the intimacy of it — fragility, almost, or how personal it was for others. It’s been great to hear messages from people who have lost loved ones or broken up.

So the name started by giving you distance, but you ended up with a record that you feel is intimate?

The distance is actual song writing — envisioning it from a perspective of the band rather than ourselves. But at the same time, we were also going through intense transitional phases. I had just left a band I’d been in for seven years, and we’d both just ended long, bad break ups with girlfriends, and those personal feelings crept into the songs.

The first songs were less personal, and were us distancing ourselves from the process. Later, when we were doing “Golden Days” and “Follow” it became personal. We wrote “Follow” when Julien’s grandfather was dying, and we played it as his funeral. When we were comfortable enough with the Whitney project we felt better about putting ourselves into it.

What’s the relationship between you and the bandmates, given that it was primarily you and Julien who wrote the music?

The others — they’re all of our best friends when we were writing it, so they knew songs and other iterations of songs. When we were writing chord progressions or lyrics, they were all around. They understood where we were trying to go with it. They all already thought they were in the band. We all quit our jobs together and went on the road. Everyone understood what the process.

The process — you keep referencing it. What does it mean to you?

The creating a space, learning it, then starting to inhabit it. “Dave’s Song” is the first one we made and it was kind of a joke. We were waking up in the morning, and he tried a voice that was a little different and we listened to what we did and were amazed. Then we went back to revise the lyrics and make the song more meaningful to us. We make an idea and we don’t know if it’s important but lay it down and eventually try to decide what’s important to it, what kind of story the lyrics are trying to tell.

What else makes this band’s music seem more at home to you than the work that you’ve done previously?

Age is a big thing. I was younger in the other tours, and so I ended up partying every night. I took my playing a bit less seriously. The personnel in Chicago that helped Whitney get started, that let us start to tour — we’re more close knit. We live within a few blocks of each other, we see each other every day. In other bands, we hadn’t had that kind of thing. People in Chicago treated Whitney as more of a native son. It’s hard to explain — everything is a combination of luck and being in the right place at the right time. My younger self was also a little less humble. After Smith Westerns I realized people don’t like arrogance. So I wanted to start again.

What has humility taught you about songwriting?

I don’t even know. [Pause] It’s more about approaching a collaborative effort with an open mind. The way Julien and I write — there’s no arguments. We both come in and go back and forth in a positive exchange that isn’t filled with arguing or anything like that. There’s a point where we agree when an idea is right. Patience is a big thing too.

How much will the songwriting change now that you’ve been playing with the whole band?

It will probably stay mostly with Julien and me. We develop a skeleton of an arrangement, deciding what instrument should come in and what register, then play it live and see where it goes. Everyone chips in with what they play on their instruments. We give guidelines, but they’re meant to be personal to each musician.

Were you surprised by the critical embrace of the album and its accolades?

It was really surprising. We thought we’d self release on SoundCloud. We were done with the demo-ed version of the album — and then we had a label. Things jumped out at us. It was a little over a year ago — we’d booked a European tour on a whim. We had no expectations. “No Woman” was released right before we left, but club shows were selling out. That not-knowing what was happening but being pleasantly surprised has continued to happen. We just got back from Australia three weeks ago, which was great.

What is it that you think helps to account for what music becomes embraced and what becomes discarded? What is it that you think you’re providing for the critical or contemporary zeitgeist?

It represents an honest, human form of music. We didn’t use computers at all. There are mistakes in there that you can hear, and you can tell people made the record. That’s missing in music right now. Honesty and integrity are missing everywhere now.

How would you describe the sound?
Country soul. That was our original idea, and, even now, a year later, that holds up. One thing that’s important to us while recording is having a dry sound with as few effects or reverb or things that adjust the sound of the instrument. We like mics in a room. Approaching recording in that way was a refreshing challenge.

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