Whitney: „I can hear and feel all 30 years of my life in this music“

Where do you start? That is the central question my conversation with Julien from Whitney seems to spiral around. Where do you start making an album, when the world inside you and around you has changed so much and you feel like your old ways of approaching things don’t work anymore? Where do you start thinking, feeling, processing, when there is constantly so much change, despair and heartbreak happening? 

I wonder how long it will take, until we will stop talking about the pandemic in interviews . Will it actually ever happen? The more time has passed since it all started in early 2020, the more conversations I have with artists, the more I realize what a deep, unsettling cut it has been, to us as humans, artists, as society. One that might never fully heal. And once it starts to, the next big shift is waiting around the corner to rip it open again. At the same time, I often get to hear how vital the enforced break was, and that also counts for Whitney, who took the escape from the madness of constant touring to step back, overlook the big picture and reorganize themselves.

There is a soothing quality to the music Julien Ehrlich und Max Kakacek are creating as Whitney. It is weird, how consoling it actually feels, given the fact that there is also an overt sadness to it, while the lyrics often deal with heartbreak and anxiety. But in truly unsettling times, during a pandemic, surrounded by protests and actual wild fires, Whitney have found a new sense of peace and of letting go in their creative process, and it directly translates into their new album „Spark“. 

With so much going on, there is a lot to talk about, way beyond the creation of a new album. It was a spiraling conversation indeed, and it was  by far the most enjoyable 40 minutes I got out of that day. 

How are you doing, Julien?

I’m doing good.  Sunday night one of our band members and best friends got engaged and we had an engagement party at her house. It was fun. It wound up being a later night than I thought. We’ve been doing a bunch of interviews the past days. It’s been a mixture of zoom and in person. 

What do you prefer?

In person, for sure. I miss going to Europe. We haven’t been to Europe in a long time. I think we’re both itching to go back. 

The last time I saw you live was in 2017 at Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona.

Ahah, that was a funny trip. Me and the bass player in our band crashed on a scooter, the morning of our set. I broke my thumb and had to bandage up my thumb and play the drums with a broken thumb. It was rough. But it was fun. It’s like a little snapshot of the way we lived. 

Did you have time during Covid, where you thought of moments like that and were afraid, you might never have them again? 

Ahhh… not really. I’m usually sort of like blindly optimistic. I mean, it kind of sucks that the end of my twenties got taken away. But also I was pretty thankful to have a solid year and a half to just sit and write an album. 

I keep wondering more and more, how artists used to do it before it all came down. Also you – you’ve been touring more or less constantly. 

I don’t know. Making „Forever Turned Around“, we basically didn’t really stop touring. Max and I didn’t take a day off from finishing the first record, from 2015 until the pandemic. I don’t know if I would call it a problem, but we have like a habit of always saying yes to everything. The way a modern Indie band works, we didn’t really start making money until 2017. And that was probably around the point when we were all getting burned out. It was like alright, now the cheques are finally coming in, we can’t say no now. We split the live money equally and we felt like we had to say yes, because everyone was finally making money… Honestly, I guess that’s a long way of saying that the pandemic kind of felt like a blessing, in some ways. Obviously it was a sad, scary, depressing time and so many people lost loved ones and everything. It was freaky, but creatively I think it was something we needed. 

Do you think that saying yes to everything will change now? Or are you already dropping back into old patterns?

I wonder. I mean, obviously at this point we can’t wait to get back on the road. But I think we aged. We did a lot of growing up during the pandemic. I think that we are naturally slowing down in terms of staying up late and partying. We’re gonna say yes to shows, but we’re probably gonna conduct ourselves like the 30 year old men that we are now. Hangovers hurt a lot more nowadays. 

Well, get into your forties, like me…

I hope I make it. 

Do you really have thoughts like that? How old you will get?

Oh yeah. When I was younger, like in my early twenties, I think I used to like to talk like that, maybe in a reckless way. I used to tell people that I wanted to die young. I don’t necessarily feel that way now. I also want to have kids and get married, do that whole thing. So I think it’s like a give and take. I also like the lifestyle that I chose and that I am lucky enough to live. For a good chunk of it, it’s led  me and all my friends to live slightly recklessly sometimes. At least towards ourselves. We haven’t always treated ourselves that well. 

If I’m being totally honest, I like my forties better than I liked my thirties.

You do?

In a way, yeah.

I mean, I like my thirties better than I liked my twenties. 

It gets better. And I don’t necessarily mean what’s happening in my life, but how content I am with myself.

Yeah. Especially in terms of work, I feel like there is no way that 25 year old me or Max could have made this record. I can hear and feel all 30 years of my life in this music, which is… I don’t know. It’s beautiful to me. 

It’s so interesting, I don’t even know where to put your music. It’s not really pop, but it’s also not really Indie. One song I really love, „Twirl“, even has this slight Sixties Soul vibe to it.

That’s been a lot of writers‘ and journalists‘ and radio people’s favorite. 

Really? Dang, I thought I was special.

I mean, obviously we love them all. But „Twirl“ is a really special song to us. 

Can you sum up one thing you think you wouldn’t have learned in life, if it wasn’t for this album?

I think the main thing within our process that changed was just not being so precious about every single thing, like every single word on the record. Just making sure that we are moving forward at the right pace, because we would get really deep into our own heads. Like in the making of „Forever Turned Around“  – that record is a pretty blatant document of us getting lost in the creation of it. But not necessarily in a good way. Those lyrics are about anxiety and feeling confused. And I really love that record and I’m really proud of it. In this record there are so many specific moments, where I just hear us like we learned that we didn’t need to stress out over certain aspects… I don’t know. We’re just learning like what is truly important within our process. It was just a much more enjoyable creation process. You can hear us really free on this record, but then I’m also freely embracing staring into the void of heartbreak and losing someone that I really love and care about.

Embracing things kind of makes you free in the end, doesn’t it? Otherwise they keep creeping up at you again and again. 

Yeah… We wound up getting back together by the way (laughs). And then breaking up again and getting back together… it was like an on and off kind of relationship. I don’t know what it is about, the effect we have on each other. There have been times where I experienced the worst kind of emotional or romantic pain. At the time it was my greatest fear. And now I’ve got through it, so… I don’t know what else the world can throw at me. 

Do you think that love needs to hurt?

I don’t definitely think love needs to hurt. I don’t think it should hurt. But I do think it does. 

I think a lot of people do think relationships need to be hard, otherwise you don’t stick with each other. And I don’t think that’s true.

I mean, I definitely think that healthy arguments are a necessity. But it’s also a fine line between healthy and unhealthy. I just think it’s difficult. The past couple years of my life have been spent in and out of a relationship with this person, and sometimes I’m just like: why? How and why does it have to be so difficult? And also at the same time, I didn’t choose this. I don’t think you choose who you love. It’s hard to avoid the way that I feel. 

I’ve been in a relationship for 20 years now and I had never planned it that way.

Wow. Good for you. Was it hard during the pandemic?

It was hard in a way that our relationship and our whole family life is based on everyone living their own freedom. And that was completely taken away. We were four people locked inside an apartment. That did make me anxious. I was very scared that my life as I know it, with music and concerts and all that at the center, would never come back.

Concerts haven’t fully come back in the way that they were before the pandemic. The whole live music industry really feels like it’s in a terrible place right now. 

Did you already play some shows again?

Last year we did a thing where we toured around the US, took everybody’s phones away and played most of „Spark“. Which was really fun. It ’s weird, because I feel like with the initial return of live music, there was a lot of excitement. While now, ticket sales across the board for all of my friend’s bands are down the toilet. I don’t understand it. Hopefully it stabilizes a bit. 

Costs of living are going to skyrocket, there is a war going on and not even the pandemic is really over…

Yeah, and now monkeypox is causing people fear. I feel it’s just a shit storm. 

You do have plans to come to Europe, right?

Yeah. In November (laughs). It will happen. Whether it’s in November or at some point next year. It will happen. 

Tell me about the fires that you experienced while making „Spark“. 

Oregon was a really, really crazy place to be throughout all of the pandemic and everything. Just the political climate of that city is so intense and so anxiety inducing. There’s proud boys and antifa always clashing. Downtown Portland is the most apocalyptic looking place throughout the country to me. And then at the same time, the George Floyd protests that we went to were absolutely beautiful, they brought me to tears and shit. Then it was the wildfires. It truly felt like we were in the middle of the storm in Portland. I think you can hear that in the immediacy and the urgency of the record. I think we were trying to create the whole world that we could escape to and live in, when the social climate, the political climate and everything outside was just a lot to deal with all the time. During the wildfires, the air quality index was the worst in the world for a couple of days. It was like lasting damage to your body for you to be outside for longer than like a minute. It was really, really crazy. And we were living in an old house, not insulated that well, I had smoke pouring into my room, night after night. It was pretty fucked up. 

It’s a hard time to be carefree, isn’t it? Especially when you’re young. Going from pandemic anxiety to climate anxiety to a war happening basically around the corner. 

I don’t think there is much space to be carefree. There’s just too much going on. I feel like that’s been taken away from kids. 

That’s why I hope live music will survive. We really need that space to let go of everything.

I don’t think it will go away. I mean, another factor in America that doesn’t really allow you to lose yourself and exist in that space, is guns and mass shootings, which has totally taken away any sort of comfort I ever had in crowds. I had a conversation with a friend the other day who lives in Canada. We were talking about that too and I was like: „you know, it’s been like a little over a month or something since something truly horrific has happened.“ There was a shooting where my parents live and three people died. And I was like: „yeah, that’s not that bad.“ I was trying to rationalize it. It feels like it’s been a little while, since ten or more people died by the hand of senseless gun violence. So that came out of my mouth and she was like: „are you serious? Listen to what you just said.“ And I was like: „I know, it’s insane. But that’s just how I feel.“ I just haven’t read a truly shocking headline in a minute. That’s because we’re being desensitized to it. It’s sad. I really hate it here. I love my friends and obviously there are aspects of the United States that I love and that I’m attached to. But it really does feel like it’s close to completely unlivable. 

I wonder where you start as an artist, with all these things going on. With the inner world, with the outer world… isn’t it sometimes numbing, when there is so much going on at the same time you could write about?

I just don’t necessarily think that we’ve ever even tried to write about politics. I think we write about fear and we write about anxiety. Where we start is that we’re always trying to write something that’s universal and also specific enough for people to relate to. And for it to help people out. We haven’t been overtly politic like: „go out and do this!“ 

But I feel like once you talk about something personal like anxiety, it automatically becomes  social commentary, because everyone is involved.

Oh yeah. But I think it’s not so numbing. I don’t think we’re the type of band people are looking to for an „Ohio“ by Neil Young. Like making a specific song about Uvalde Shooting or a specific song about George Floyd. We have common sense and our heart in the right place on those issues for sure. I just don’t think people need to hear it from us necessarily. Or we haven’t figured out a way to overtly write about that stuff, in a way that would make us proud or that we feel is vital to society. 

Photo © Tonje Thilesen