The 2016 Underground Music Showcase kicks off this Wednesday, July 27, at 3 Kings Tavern, with a performance from indie-rock band Whitney. The Chicago outfit began as a duo consisting of drummer/singer Julian Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek.
Ehrlich was an early member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra; he and UMO bassist Jake Portrait have known each other since Ehrlich was five years old. He became friends with Kakacek of Smith Westerns when the two bands shared gigs as stars of the indie-rock world. The two musicians found that they shared musical obsessions such as Southern California bands and artists from the early 1960s and ’70s, including Jim Fuller of the Surfaris, the Band and music that came out of Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon.
Ehrlich's father started teaching him to play the drums when he was two; he also learned to sing when he was young. Until now, he's been the backup singer in every band he's been in, but in Whitney, he sings lead. One listen to any of the songs on Whitney's debut album, Light Upon the Lake, and you are struck by how the singing seems separate from the intricate guitar work.
“It came very naturally, because I played drums at such a young age; I knew that language well,” says Ehrlich. “And talking to crowds at shows between songs is something I did. As a frontman, you're responsible for keeping the mood and not letting the crowd get bored.”
When Smith Westerns split in 2014, Ehrlich and Kakacek both found themselves without a band or a project and living in Chicago, away from their home state of Oregon. That relative isolation led to the musicians combining their talents to form Whitney. The band played its first shows last summer, after releasing just a single, and found an immediate audience. Ehrlich feels that Whitney has made more headway and evolved more quickly than any of his other projects. The act played Europe and has toured the U.S., yet somehow Ehrlich and Kakacek found time to finish writing and recording the introspective and delicately melodic Light Upon the Lake.
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“I just felt the lyrics [of the title track] summed up the entire headspace we were in while writing the record,” says Ehrlich. “The album is a transitional record, and that song encapsulates sitting, reflecting and watching, and almost removing yourself from the transition and gazing upon it and thinking about lost romance, a lost band, band breakups, lost family members and lost moments.”
Whitney is in the middle of a five-week tour, including stops at the George R.R. Martin-funded art gallery/DIY venue Meow Wolf in New Mexico and underground-music hot spot Diabolical Records in Salt Lake City on either side of its Denver date. Whitney may sound like it's taking time to smell the roses along the way, but it also seems to have plenty of forward momentum.
Whitney, with Bear Antler and Michael Rault, Wednesday, July 27, 8 p.m., 3 Kings Tavern, theums.com.