“What would Whitney do?”
Holed up in a Chicago apartment during one of the city’s worst winters, Max Kakacek and Julien Erhlich were on a songwriting binge. The duo was working out the angst from a series of breakups, both romantically and of their previous band.
They used their own experiences as inspiration: death, fear, moving on, hope. But they wrote from the perspective of a single person — Whitney, an invented personality through which to filter their emotions.
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That presence became the name of their new band, and through their songwriting efforts, Kakacek and Erhlich crafted one of the most lauded albums of 2016. “Light Upon the Lake” is an airy, ethereal record, with lulling strings and easy rhythms that belie the heavy subject matter.
Critics from Spin Magazine, Pitchfork and Esquire named it to their end-of-the-year best-of lists. The band has performed on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” and will play the famed Coachella festival in April.
Local music fans will have the chance to see the band tonight during a show at the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre in Indianapolis. As Whitney prepared to embark on two weeks of supporting folk rockers Head and the Heart, Kakacek shared what the past year has been like for the band.
How did you and Julien come together to form this band?
We were both in Smith Westerns together. We’d known each for a while being in different bands. He was in Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and then joined Smith Westerns at the very end. After that band broke up, he and I ended up living together for a while. While we were living together, we ended up stumbling onto this sound that we were really into, and we decided to make an album. It was a simple as that.
What was it about this sound that seemed to appeal to you?
It was a little bit different than anything we’d done before. He was a part of (Unknown Mortal Orchestra), which had a little bit more roots and soul, a more soulful vibe. Smith Westerns didn’t really draw much from that genre. For me personally, it was a whole new area to explore, tapping into a different set of emotions.
Musically, “Light Upon the Lake” is so laid back, but the lyrics are heavier. How did you reconcile those two things together?
We were both going through a weird, transitional moment. We had both recently been broken up with, and Smith Westerns was ending. Our head space was kind of weird. But also, the music we were listening to was a lot of soul music, older country music, where the subject matter was usually pretty dark. A lot of that we drew from.
What was it like for you exploring this sound?
When I was younger, I was a little bit more into glam rock and this really over-exaggerated version of music, with the makeup and giant production. Now, it’s more about paring something down to being essential and emotional, and that’s a really nice change of pace.
As you were writing these songs, what kind of approach did you take?
Right at the moment, we’re starting to write for album number two, and it’s reminding us that it’s just me and Julian being in a room, being able to pace around and bring an idea to the table. It’s one of those things where whenever we’re in a room together alone, in the same space, we just start writing. It’s not conscious; we just kind of do it.
What is your impression of the finished album?
I haven’t listened to the album in a while. We play the songs live every night. But I think, in a way, we got really lucky because everyone in the band likes to push themselves and change things live. Everyone has the autonomy to change things on the spot. We change up how the songs are while we’re playing every night, which keeps us interested. It would be interesting to go back and listen to the album, now that the songs have taken on their own life on the road.
What’s it been like since releasing “Light Upon the Lake” last summer and supporting it on the road?
We left for our a first tour almost exactly one year ago. I remember because I quit my job on Valentine’s Day last year. It’s been easier than I thought. The group of guys in the band, we all get along pretty much all the time. The only thing to complain about is van fever from being in a tour van for too long. But that’s a good problem to have; we like it.
Band members: Guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer-singer Julien Erhlich
Debut album: “Light Upon the Lake”
Standout tracks: “No Woman,” a stripped-down reflection on life transitions; “No Matter Where We Go,” a windows-down ode to searching out better things.
See them live: 7:30 p.m. today, Murat Theatre at Old National Centre, Indianapolis; opening for The Head and the Heart.