On the night of the 2016 election, the Chicago indie rock band Whitney was playing a show at Islington Mill in Manchester, England. Julien Ehrlich, the band’s drummer and lead vocalist, says there’s a picture of him and the band’s keyboard player Malcolm Brown staring at a computer screen in disbelief as the map started to bleed red. Ehrlich’s eyes were rolled into the back of his head.
As they tried to come to terms with what was happening, a woman in her seventies, who Ehrlich thinks was living upstairs from the venue, came down for a chat. She told them that Britain had lived through a similar upset in the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister. “She was just acknowledging that it was a really dark time for us, but everything’s going to get better,” Ehrlich says. At a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn this July, where Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek are drinking before playing their album for fans at a nearby venue, I asked if he believed her. He says no.
The standard length of an album cycle means that a host of guitar bands are now releasing their first albums since the election, and whether or not they choose to acknowledge it, they’re crafting their responses to the Trump era. Some are more prepared for this than others. Sleater-Kinney, for example, sounded furious when they emerged from the riot grrrl scene in the Clinton years, and they sounded just as furious after returning from a decade-long hiatus. Younger bands like Prince Daddy & The Hyena and PUP are singing about their 24-hour-news-cycle-induced anxieties, and they have enough distortion pedals to seem suitably pissed off. Even members of the singer-songwriter crowd have the legacy of protest folk to carry them.
But for Whitney, whose blissful songs border on being escapist, processing global catastrophe is tricky. When they emerged in 2016 as a breakaway group from Chicago mainstays Smith Westerns — buoyed by Ehrlich’s all-falsetto vocals, Kakacek’s liquid guitars, and an endless stream of tranquil strings and horns — disaster seemed a long way off. Obama was still in office, the internet was only halfway to being a hellscape, and Whitney’s two core members were ready for a new start after the dissolution of their last band. They called their gorgeous debut, which they released in June of that year, Light Upon the Lake. They put out the album’s demos a year later; the cover art was a photograph of light upon a lake.
That record wasn’t entirely as utopian as its title or its sound suggested. Ehrlich’s lyrics mostly fixated on the past, and his nostalgia often got the better of him. “I’m searching for those golden days,” he sings on the album’s lead single, “Golden Days,” before an irrepressible trumpet hook washes the memories away. Still, with the exception of “Follow,” a eulogy for his grandfather, Ehrlich was more in reverie than in tatters. On “No Matter Where We Go,” he sang, “I can take you out / I wanna drive around / With you with the windows down.” Love and loss, however overwhelming, assume a different color when you’re staring out at a lake at sunset. There’s a difference between melancholy and misery.
The melancholy took them to unexpected heights. Light Upon the Lake received rave reviews from critics, broke into the top 30 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums, and sent the band on a stop-start two-and-a-half year tour of the world. But the question that plagued Whitney on tour is the same question that’s faced every indie band since the election of this blustering, paranoid, conniving President: How do you express or even begin to confront calamity when you trade in bittersweet guitar songs?
“In the beginning, it was really fun to do ‘Fuck Trump’ chants at all of our shows around the world,” Ehrlich says of their post-election tour schedule. “But then you ask, ‘Are these chants doing anything?’ Now it’s so ingrained that everyone hates the President.”
At the bar, sitting before two empty shot glasses and a half-dozen half-full bottles of Budweiser, Ehrlich says that Forever Turned Around — the band’s second album, out August 30 on Secretly Canadian — was, at least in part, their response. “I think it might be the reason that the band exists,” he says. “That we can articulate our anxieties in a way that we feel proud of.”
Whitney are uncommonly gifted as arrangers. They use familiar instruments — even Ehrlich’s falsetto will sound familiar to anyone who listens to Thom Yorke or Justin Vernon — but they combine them in uncanny ways. Take their version of Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” from the Light Upon the Lake demos, which keeps the guitar hook and melody but completely upends the original’s stomping bassline, pulling away from percussion to reveal a glistening keyboard refrain. It’s a point of pride for the band. In the middle of praising Cass McCombs, whose latest album, Tip of the Sphere, is playing over the speakers at the bar, Kakacek identifies some common ground: “The challenge is using what we’ve learned — using the same tools to make a song that you’ve never heard before. That’s hard.”
Ehrlich and Kakacek are instinctively obsessive songwriters, which seems like it would help in the creative process. But after the success of their debut, the two rushed to begin work on their new album, moving into an apartment together without taking any time to pause. “We left tour and tried to start writing right away, but we just didn’t write any good songs for six months,” Ehrlich says. “I think we were trying to skip the part of actually gaining some life experience, but it didn’t work out. The songs we were writing just sucked.”
They left their shared apartment and decamped to separate places with their girlfriends. But after spending such a long time trying to maintain long-distance relationships on the road, that presented challenges of its own. Overwhelmed, they began hanging out in a basement studio belonging to Ziyad Asrar, Ehrlich and Kakacek’s longtime friend and former bandmate in Smith Westerns, as well as Whitney’s off-again, on-again rhythm guitarist. Asrar — who went to high school with Kakacek — grew up in the three-story house above the basement. Smith Westerns played one of their first show there and, over the years, Asrar built up enough studio gear to turn it into a studio used by his bands and local acts like Twin Peaks. Eventually Whitney demoed much of Light Upon the Lake down there three years ago.
The sessions for their second album followed a similar path. They recorded the skeletons of the songs in Cotati, California in the Summer of 2018, and would later mix them in Ehrlich’s hometown of Portland, Oregon. But it was in Asrar’s basement studio in the winter of 2017, its ceilings so low that it was difficult to stand up, that they constructed much much of Forever Turned Around.
Ehrlich and Kakacek wrote about their suddenly intense romantic relationships, which had almost died on the road, and worked non-stop on their arrangements, crafting a set of songs that drift out of the headphones so easily that they almost contradict their own anxious lyrics. “I’m afraid / You’re letting go,” he sings over a lilting xylophone on “Used to Be Lonely.” On “Valleys (My Love)” he articulates the problem more starkly: “There’s got to be another way / I’ve been on my own all day / Pretending everything’s alright / We’ve been drifting apart for some time.”
Ehrlich and Kakacek say that they have the “same brain,” the result of a friendship so close that even their girlfriends feel left out at times. So it didn’t take hours of conversation to figure out a throughline, one tying the angst they were experiencing in their relationships with the fear of the political present. It was “seamless,” according to Kakacek. “We went back and reassessed certain lines of certain songs that we felt like led the theme straight from that idea.”
“The challenge is using what we’ve learned — using the same tools to make a song that you’ve never heard before. That’s hard.” —Max Kakacek
Asrar, who’s listed as an engineer in the credits to Forever Turned Around and has since rejoined the band as a touring guitarist, remembers the sessions being less breezy than the mix suggests. “It’s getting colder in Chicago, we’re in a basement — there’s a particular vibe down there,” Asrar says over the phone a few weeks after my meeting with Ehrlich and Kakacek, just before a Whitney show in Switzerland. “It became more pointedly sad in the basement. This record needs to be more true to what they had wanted to say, and I think they were able to get in touch with themselves a bit more.”
Forever Turned Around is also an album shrouded in loss. Asrar’s mother, who lived on the first floor of the house and always supported Asrar’s music career, died in June, just weeks after the band finished their last sessions in the basement. Asrar moved out to Los Angeles later that summer. “It was a very bittersweet thing closing the Forever Turned Around sessions,” Asrar says. “It was the last record I’ll ever make there.”
Forever Turned Around is every bit as graceful as Light Upon the Lake. It’s arranged with just as much care, its melodies are just as luxurious, and its moments of release — like the lapping horns and strings at the end of “Valleys (My Love)” and the stoned instrumental jam “Rhododendron” — are borderline anthemic. But, like a beachside vacation beset by mosquitoes, it’s bitten by allusions to disaster. The aching “Before I Know It” has Ehrlich singing: “I will fade into the sunset / I keep changing before I know it.” The almost acoustic “Day & Night” sees him trying to escape: “I’m here again, where the road turns / And I don’t know why / I’ve been drifting, feeling dizzy chasing the same high.” Forever Turned Around isn’t a political record, but it articulates, often obliquely, the pressure of holding things together in your mid-20s, in a country seemingly intent on destroying itself.
“Once we finished the record, all of the lyrical content and everything was, we thought, an accurate depiction of me and all my friends in America and how we’re feeling right now,” Ehrlich says. “A little bit of weary uncertainty — and sometimes extreme uncertainty.”
Kakacek, playing with the loose label on a bottle of Budweiser, cuts back in. “In its darkest sense, it’s giving into the idea of being forever turned around — being restless and confused, and being okay with that. That’s not being okay with what’s happening in America right now, but how over four years of repetition of terrible things happening, you get kind of numb to it.”
“Forever turned around is also the idea of seeing something that you can’t really unsee,” Ehrlich says. “You were blissfully unaware before, and now hyper-awareness needs to happen. Your idea of forever has actually turned around.”
We keep drinking beers. Ehrlich and I spend a while talking about the Portland Trail Blazers’ depth chart — he’s obsessive enough about his boyhood team to know Anfernee Simons’ rookie season three-point percentage. Eventually, we walk down to a slice shop to meet some of the band’s friends. There are more beers, and eventually some shots.
Around midnight, Ehrlich finds himself at a table with myself, Savemoney-affiliated producer Knox Fortune, and a friend of mine who has the rose motif from Light Upon the Lake tattooed on his leg. He’d always wanted to tell Ehrlich about the night he was arrested for hopping a turnstile in Bushwick while wearing a sweater with the band’s name emblazoned on the front. For one night, to a cell of 30 or so people, his name was Whitney. Ehrlich, grinning, has no idea what to say, so he says he’s sorry.
In 1971, shortly after the Pentagon Papers leaked onto the front page of The New York Times, Jimmy Buffett traveled to Key West, Florida. Recently divorced from his childhood sweetheart, exhausted by Nashville and its unforgiving confluence of music and business, he needed a drink. America had lost faith in its government; more than a million people had been killed in a needless war; and the President was losing his grip on reality, ready to drag the country down with him. “He’d gone searching for elsewhere and found it at the last American exit,” Ryan White wrote in his biography of Buffet, A Good Life All The Way. “Key West looked like a good place to lick some wounds and catch his breath.” What followed was a career defined by midday margaritas and unbridled escapism. But by checking out of the present, Buffett said more about his era than you might expect. With its day-drunk disinterest, Buffet’s 1973 LP A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean was still, in the absence of Richard Nixon, about Richard Nixon.
Whitney — whose practice sessions for the Forever Turned Around tour just wrapped up at a lakeside property near Grand Rapids, Michigan, near the last American exit to the north — could have checked out too. Instead, they tried to decode the present moment with the delicate tools at their disposal.
The next morning, I read over my notes and find that I’ve scribbled down a line that Kakacek threw out at the bar. He’d sent the record to a friend, who responded that it felt like a “warm hug — essentially a commiseration record.” Kakacek compared it to the plot of the Ari Aster’s sinister new movie Midsommar, in which the emotions of a group of villagers rise and fall as one, particularly when they suffer: “By the end you realize that all experiencing the same feeling at once is more positive than a community that makes people feel alone.”