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Chicago Indie-Rockers Whitney Are Finding That it Pays to be Sincere 

Wednesday, Aug 3 2016
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For the last six months, the seven members of the Chicago band Whitney have been homeless — sort of.

Though they've been living out of suitcases and backpacks, they haven't necessarily been sleeping on the streets. Instead, they've been touring — first across Europe, then through North America — staying in hotels, at fans' houses, and, occasionally, in a 10-person tent, if they happen to be near a national park.

"We've pretty much given up our entire settled lives to go on the road and support this dream," says guitarist Max Kakacek.

The only constant in their lives has been their van: a powder blue 15-passenger 1997 Dodge Ram with "Grace Baptist Church" emblazoned on its sides. The septet bought the clunker in February from a church in "the middle of Indiana" that they found through Craigslist. In the seven months they've had it, they've racked up more than 30,000 miles thanks to their relentless gigging. (Case in point: Their upcoming performance at Outside Lands on Friday will mark the band's second visit to San Francisco in less than four months.)

Though its AC is busted, there are perks to driving a former church van, Kakacek says. Thinking they're a religious group, hotels will sometimes give them discounts, and occasionally, when the car is parked, people will drop donations through the open windows.

"It's really weird," Kakacek says. "I feel like [society] commiserates more with religious people."

In fact, the only time they had a problem with the van was when they were crossing the border into Canada. Border patrol simply couldn't fathom why a band would be driving a van from a religious organization and proceeded to "grill" the 20-somethings for a solid 10 minutes before letting them enter the country.

Formed in 2015, the majority of Whitney's seven members, including singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich, hail from Smith Westerns, a band from Chicago that broke up in December 2014. For seven years, Kakacek and Ehrlich were in Smith Westerns, which disbanded for a number of reasons, including the mundane fact that it was simply time.

"By the time we were 21," says Kakacek, who joined the band as a teenager, "our personalities were completely different. We liked different music, we wanted to make different things."

And with Whitney, Kakacek and Ehrlich are doing just that. Sure, publications might categorize both bands as "indie rock," but the two acts sound nothing alike. Overlaid with Ehrlich's saccharine falsetto — similar to the Bee Gees' Robin Gibb and Bon Iver — Whitney, which released its debut Light Upon The Lake in June, makes pastoral, mid-tempo ballads filled with harmonic guitar chords and a touch of whimsy. There's something genuine and naïve about the album, and you can hear it in Ehrlich's voice in "Golden Days" when he coos about still being in love with his ex, or muses in the standout, drum-less hit "No Woman" about the perks of being single after a breakup.

The sincerity of Whitney, Kakacek believes, stems from the simple fact that the guys have matured. Though they're still young — "everyone is between the ages of 23 and 25," he says — they're past the ages of drinking to oblivion in an attempt "to absorb all this culture that you felt left out of for 21 years," Kakacek says. "By the time you're 25, it's like, 'Yeah, I get it.' It's not as exciting. There are other things that matter in life more."

Perhaps the biggest secret behind Whitney is that there is no secret. They're not trying to be cool or follow whatever is trendy in the music world. They're simply making music that feels and sounds right to them, and living a vagabond life in the meantime.

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Jessie Schiewe

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