Max Kakacek, half of the indie rock duo Whitney, is busy telling me how his parents recently paid off their 30-year mortgage when his bandmate, Julien Ehrlich, interrupts. “Oh damn, I didn’t know that,” Ehrlich says. He sounds like he thinks he should have.
The three of us are in Jajaja, a sleek, festive Mexican restaurant that sits right on the corner where the expensive dive bars of the Lower East Side give way to the infinite variety of cluttered discount stores in Chinatown. We’re here to discuss Whitney’s new album Sparkgone now, but we took a detour after the enchiladas arrived and are now talking about Max’s childhood home, the one his parents just paid off.
As Kakacek continues to inform us about his parents’ house, I notice how attentively Ehrlich listens to him and I think back to his initial reaction. It seems strangely intimate to me. Who among us knows when our best friend’s parents have paid off their mortgage, let alone disappointed in themselves for missing the opportunity? It’s a mortgage payment, not a birthday. But for Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek, best friends and bandmates who have lived together for over a decade, it probably feels a little weird to miss a milestone, no matter how small. These two men haven’t been apart for much time, especially in recent years.
In the fall of 2019, Ehrlich left for Portland, Oregon after his long-term relationship ended. “I just wanted to give her space,” Ehrlich says, “and to avoid a situation where we were dating people in the same city.” Kakacek followed a few months later. His reasoning to follow is simple. “We’ve always lived together, and that’s just the way we work,” Kakacek says soberly. “It’s the way the company works.” Before I have time to feel stupid for asking a grown man why he flew halfway across the country to live with another grown man, Kakacek admits there was another reason: he also broke up.
The idea was that they would hang out in Portland together, lick their wounds, record some songs and eventually go on tour again. But the pandemic messed up their plans, and Ehrlich and Kakacek ended up in a tiny rented house for months together, with nothing to do but feel their feelings, and no one to talk to but each other. The intimate experience of seeing each other at their most vulnerable led the duo to create Spark— a glossy pop album that shimmers with details about the turbulence of the late 1920s and follows Ehrlich and Kakacek as they search for happiness on the other side of heartbreak.
Spark doesn’t sound at all like Whitney’s previous two albums, 2019’s Flipped forever and their critically acclaimed 2016 debut, Light on the lake (of which Elton John is a great admirer). Those albums took inspiration from folk-soul acts like Buffalo Springfield and evoked a lightness that made them great to play at a summer barbecue. SparkThe atmosphere is more “I just got dumped at the club.” It sounds nothing like the rickety rock music the two released as part of the defunct group, The Smith Westerns, nor the simple, serious guitar music that Girls’ JR White, a beloved mentor who passed away in October 2020, taught them. how to write. Indeed, Whitney has left the past behind Sparkand that’s exactly what it sounds like.
A striking contrast between sound and text flows through the LP. Think for example of the first single ‘Real Love’. In his trademark whistling falsetto voice, Erlich ruminates on a rocky relationship. “I can’t control how I feel / When our bad days keep repeating / And I can’t escape.” The lyrics describe a shitty experience, but the Wurlitzer-tipped melody that accompanies them is springy, damn almost lively. The same effect occurs with ‘Memory’. Just listen to the words, and it’s a desperate plea for a fresh start; mute them and it becomes a zingy ode to new beginnings; a celebration – not a prayer – for a change of seasons.
The contrasting elements are a “pretty close peek into our minds,” says Ehrlich, noting how hard it is to write a song that’s unabashedly positive and upbeat, a la Pharrell’s “Happy.” “They make me stressed,” adds Kakacek. Both men say their mental states are ebb and flow, but neither is completely lost in depression. They know that music can be a powerful emotional resource, so they try to write songs that push people in a positive direction. “Why not, while we’re alive, make things that people can use?” explains Ehrlich. In case of Sparkthat mission often resulted in a surprising use of techniques that came straight from Max Martin’s Guide to Pop Music.
See the sunny, synth-laden “Lost Control”, which is backed by a simple syncopated beat that recalls Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback” era, but thematically has more in common with other “crying on the dance floor”- stunners like Lorde’s ‘Green Light’, ‘Somebody Else’ from 1975 and Robyn’s entire body of work. “Lost Control” sounds exactly like you’d think a song written by two heartbroken twenty-something-year-old dudes cooped up in a shack who recently got their hands on a string of Christmas lights and some low-dose mushrooms. It is also more or less a true story.
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“A lot of this album is based on growing ourselves aesthetically as a band and giving ourselves the arena to just have pure fun,” says Kakacek. But having fun can be hard, especially when you’re surrounded by an unspoken pressure to succeed, like Whitney has been since the duo released Light Upon the Lake. Sometimes everything has to collapse, catch fire, or grind to a halt before you can allow yourself to want something else. A pandemic can force your hand too, and during the lockdown, Whitney just wanted to dance.
Looking back at that part of the pandemic when it became clear that no one was going anywhere for a while, Kakacek says he missed releasing tension in a “loud, dark place with a kick drum moving.” He wanted to feel that pure energy surge again that washes over him when he’s on a crowded dance floor in Berlin. Without access to those experiences, Whitney was forced to “make music that made us feel this way,” right there in the carpeted living room of their old half-timbered house. Kakacek cites the cautiously optimistic song “Back Then” as an example of a song they wrote with the dance floor in mind. “It’s the first time we’ve actually taken Whitney to a dark club at 1:00 AM.”
But did they really dance? That’s what I want to know. “I mean, the whole time we were writing it was just me and him. No one else was invited,” Ehrlich says, leading me to believe the answer is no. “But,” he adds, “we were definitely dancing across the room.” Can’t you imagine? The two gangly dudes work late into the night in their dimly lit makeshift studio, feeling dizzy and bouncing around to the beats of the songs they’ve just laid down. Kakacek attributes their chemistry to a “general humility and ability to laugh at moments that other people might take more seriously.” Ehrlich says it’s because they work together that way. “Max and I really lean on each other to make something so much bigger than ourselves.”
One of those things is “Twirl,” a hopeful embrace of new love that sounds unlike anything Whitney has ever recorded. Between the bridge constructed from an amalgamation of barely there horns and the chorus constructed from Erlich’s soft cooing, the song could almost pass through a T. Swift ballad. Of course it’s about a girl. Ehrlich had fallen in love with someone during the pandemic. “We finished writing and I sent it to her,” recalls Ehrlich, shy for the first time in our conversation. He hesitates and looks for what to say next. ‘It was as a whole… I don’t know. … It certainly worked.”
Surely it worked? Kakacek bursts into a hearty chuckle when he hears his best friend’s response, signaling to Ehrlich that there may be a better way to articulate whatever he’s trying to say. “Not that it certainly worked!” says Ehrlich. He’s smiling now too. “I mean, the connection deepened. It grew versus…” He wanders off, trusting that his best friend understands what he means, and it’s clear that Kakacek does.
Once the romantics, both boys are now in new relationships, and they go crazy talking about their new girlfriends. But as I sit there staring at the two of them in the late summer sun, watching them take sips of their Tecates almost simultaneously and hear them finish each other’s sentences now and then, I can’t help but think that this friendship might just be the real romance. is of their lives.
Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York, but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, the nation, Oxford Americanand pitchfork
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