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Chicago Buzz Band Whitney Isn’t Burned Out Just Yet

“For the sake of my sanity, I’m not even going to call it a tour,” Whitney guitarist Max Kakacek says with a laugh. “That’s like a week-long ACL run in my brain,” the Chicagoan adds for clarification and self-preservation alike.

Kakacek is referencing the sextet’s short run of upcoming shows—the second of which takes place at the Georgia Theatre on Saturday—leading up to an appearance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas on Oct. 8. He’s potentially losing his mind because, ever since releasing last year’s critically acclaimed Light Upon the Lake, the band’s debut, he’s been swept up in a seemingly nonstop cycle of touring the world to promote it.

Though it’s been a whirlwind of press and shows since the album came out on Secretly Canadian at the beginning of 2016, Whitney’s formulation took a fair amount of time. After the dissolution of Smith Westerns, Kakacek’s previous band with fellow songwriter, drummer and lead singer Julien Ehrlich, the duo began writing material for a new and completely different project, allowing it to blossom organically. Where Smith Westerns dealt in slick, glossy indie-pop, Whitney took a markedly different stab at freewheeling folk and soulful rock, resulting in a warm and timeless album despite its being mired in heartbreak.

“In Smith Westerns, there was never really a way to make that kind of music,” says Kakacek. “I feel like the way that we started Whitney was a reaction to trying not to do that again—recording on tape, having everything have a little more soul, leaving a lot of mistakes in, not going to a big fancy studio.”

The approach has paid off for the band, as the record was included in a bevy of music publications’ year-end lists and has landed it a number of festival gigs, including Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Atlanta’s Shaky Knees. The album struck such a chord that it demanded the type of endless touring Kakacek jokingly laments, most recently a nearly 90-day trek from April to July. “By the end of it, we were just so tired that we became that band that went back to the hotel and slept,” says Kakacek.

With so much touring and so much buzz, one’s bound to wonder when there might be time for a follow-up to materialize. As it turns out, when Kakacek is reached by phone, he and Ehrlich are holed up in Rhododendron, OR, fleshing out song concepts in a cabin around Mt. Hood National Forest. “We’ve got a tape machine out here, and we’re just kind of starting the writing process and goofing off and watching Ryan Gosling movies,” says Kakacek.

“It’s usually me and Julien passing ideas around and then trying to make a vocal melody,” Kakacek adds, elaborating on their writing process. From there, they’ll create a “rough skeleton” for the rest of the song, for instance, where horns and other players should come in for emphasis.

“We don’t write something like, ‘You have to play this even if you don’t like playing it,’” Kakacek says. “We all kind of have, I think, a very similar musical brain throughout the six of us, where we don’t really argue about ideas very often. Usually, once an idea is there, everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I would have done anyways.’”

As strides are made towards writing a sophomore album, Kakacek says that, moving forward, finding a healthier balance in regard to touring is a priority.

“Part of the reason that it’s fun is getting to hang out with the people that come watch you play and be a part of the city for a night,” Kakacek says, before harkening back to the band’s free-willed roots. “We definitely want to get back to a point where we’re touring just the right amount—where we still have the energy to hang out with new friends.”

Fact Sheet: Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake

Best Track: “Golden Days,” a bittersweet look back on the golden days of a relationship that culminates in a sweeping outro of horns and “na-na-na-na-na-na’s”

Standout Lyric: “I left drinking on the city train/ To spend some time on the road/ Then one morning I woke up in L.A./ Caught my breath on the coast,” the opening lines of “No Woman” that set the tone for an album about picking up the pieces

Song We Hope They Play Live: “No Matter Where We Go,” an upbeat tune evoking open-road cruising with one’s partner by one’s side