Reaching ears far beyond those of listeners from its humble Chicago homestead, psych-pop band Whitney has created art in the form of doleful lyrics and sepia-toned tunes. The band’s debut album Light Upon the Lake is poignant and languid, invoking nostalgia over experiences you might not have even had. In anticipation of the band’s Laneway Festival Singapore 2017appearance, frontman and guitarist Max Kakacek, who used to co-front the now defunct Smith Westerns, speaks with us about their music, the importance of smiling, and what it’s like having Elton John as a fan.
Light Upon the Lake is such a fresh take on modern indie rock. How did the record come together?
Me and Julien live together, so one random day we decided to mess around with this old tape machine that I’d bought, and “Dave’s Song” came about. We’d never really written together before, but we managed that track in half an hour and decided that we should continue writing songs. We worked hard over the next year, putting together the album. We showed it to Secretly Canadian and, at the end of it, they were really interested and wanted to put it up. Since then we’ve pretty much just been on the road, playing every night.
In terms of the dynamics between you and Julien, how different is it now compared to when you were in Smith Westerns?
I think our collaboration is a little healthier, like a genuine back-and-forth. I mean, I guess in the old band, after having known each other for such a long time, things just started getting slightly more competitive and less healthy by the last record. With Whitney, everyone’s really positive and receptive of one another’s ideas. It’s a better, creative environment; making stuff, good vibes. I feel like we’re all in it with the same vision: to create the best music possible.
One of the standouts of the album is “No Matter Where We Go”. How did that one come together?
That was the third song we wrote. The demo was a little more sordid and a lot slower. When we were recording the whole album, we had to re-record it; we couldn’t really figure out what we were going to do, how we were going to fit it into the album. Then Jonathan Rado, the producer of the album, played the keyboard part and changed the vibe of the song, and then we rebuilt it from there. Initially we thought it’d be a lot heavier, kind of like a rock song.
"I think having [Elton John] as a fan of the band definitely showed our parents that we were doing something right."
The album also has a lot of brass instrumentation, which is something you guys never did before in Smith Westerns.
Will Miller, our brass player, was the first person Julien and I asked to join the band, after he helped us record the demo. We went through the songs he’d written and gave them all input, which I think is a really important part when recording sounds in a live setting, because it really helps the show to have an interesting edge.
In 2016, Elton John said that Light Upon the Lake was one of his favourite records of the year. How does it feel to know that he’s a fan of your music?
It’s crazy. It’s awesome. It’s kind of magical. I heard from his management that he loved the album and that he requested that we do an interview. I think having him as a fan of the band definitely showed our parents that we were doing something right.
It’s known that you guys try to smile on stage. Is that a conscious thing for you?
Well, I think if you’re shy or conservative, people can think it means you think you’re cooler than them. We’re all pretty comfortable on stage, so smiling is quite natural. One of the best parts of our shows is when people just talk to us, like in between songs. Interacting and hanging out with people after the show makes it so much better. When people scream things at us between songs? I love that.