In Conversation: Whitney & Jeff Tweedy on Timelessness In Modern Music

Indie-rockers Whitney became a Chicago staple with their debut. Here, they discuss their new album, the support of their city to how playlists killed the album review.

During a music class in his freshman year of high school, Whitney guitarist Max Kakacek watched the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which chronicles the alt-rockers during an especially pivotal time in their storied career. “They were trying to teach us some version of a grass-roots way to make music and not go the major-label route,” he remembers. “That was ingrained in me. That’s how I figured it out.”

Today, the 28-year-old Chicago native is sharing this memory with Whitney vocalist-drummer Julien Ehrlich and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who responds with a stunned, “Oh wow.” Sitting in Tweedy’s Chicago warehouse/studio, The Loft, Kakacek and Ehrlich are taking a breather at home before going to Europe to play a few festivals. On Aug. 30, Whitney will release its second album, Forever Turned Around, on Secretly Canadian, pre-empting a tour that will run through the end of the year, capped by four Chicago dates at the 1,300-capacity Thalia Hall.

Kakacek first met Tweedy in 2011, when his former band Smith Westerns -- in which Ehrlich, 27, often played drums -- opened a week’s worth of shows for Wilco. After Smith Westerns broke up, Kakacek and Ehrlich formed Whitney and released the lush debut Light Upon the Lake. They’ve since racked up 110 million streams, according to Nielsen Music, and have performed at Chicago’s Lollapalooza and Pitchfork.

Lyndon French
Max Kakacek (left) and Julien Ehrlich of Whitney photographed on July 29, 2019 at Dank Haus in Chicago.

When Tweedy, 51, first heard Whitney, he remembers feeling excited to hear a new Chicago band, especially one “making music that was drawing on parts of my record collection that I hadn’t heard a lot of people exploring,” like Allen Toussaint. The guitar riffs, which provide a backbone for Ehrlich’s steady drumming and soft-spoken falsetto vocals, seemed immediately familiar.

Tweedy was born and raised in Belleville, Ill., but has become something of a musical mascot for Chicago. “When people talk about music here, they talk about you,” says Ehrlich, who hails from Portland, Ore., to Tweedy, who released his third solo album, WARMER, in April. On Oct. 4, Wilco’s 11th album, Ode to Joy, will arrive on its own dBpm label; before both acts went back on tour, they met up last month to talk about the reality of streaming in rock music while bonding over Leonard Cohen.

Max and Julien, you have recently talked about how touring informs your recording process.

Jeff Tweedy: When you made the last record and toured, did you wish that you had been able to record that version, the one you had after playing the songs a bunch?

Max Kakacek: We were playing Chicago, basically the set of songs that was the first album, for six of eight months. So when we got into the studio to record, it was kind of the tour versions. This album more so, Julien and I isolated ourselves a little more and wrote just us two. And now we’re figuring out the songs live; we played our first show at Pitchfork, and just from that, you can feel them changing. 

Tweedy: Your experience in Chicago is a lot different than mine. You’ve been at the center of a more grassroots scene with a lot of different musicians. I know a lot of [my son] Spencer’s friends know a lot of your friends. I had already been in a band for a long time when I moved to Chicago, and Uncle Tupelo always felt like a little bit of an outsider to all of the Chicago cool kids. And by the time Wilco started doing stuff, we were a national band. We weren’t really here that much, we just played hometown shows but we weren’t rubbing elbows all the time with other people, even though we did manage to make a lot of friends. Do you feel like that’s the case with the Chicago music scene, that everybody is pretty supportive?

Kakacek: Yeah, it’s insane. Across genres, across friend groups… the thing that I like about it the most is that everyone just works so hard. People who grew up in Chicago and are making music don’t really expect to get anything, they all tour their asses off and put in the work.

Tweedy: When you say across genres, it’s cool how all of a sudden there’s a merging of all these styles. It was not like that when I was growing up, there were many more lines in the sand and you had to make commitments to your tribe.

Kakacek: I feel like I had that attitude when I was younger and in Smith Westerns. I very much thought of music as an exclusive thing. My idea of being in a band was romanticized to be cool in a way that we were perceived as different or separate from other people.

Tweedy: Or more empowered than other people.

Kakacek: Yeah, and then I realized, when I was hopefully young enough, that that’s a terrible way to operate. 

Tweedy: Well, it’s not very empowering, ultimately. It’s much more empowering to be part of a supportive network and community. 

Ehrlich: That’s what’s happening here now. Did you ever have intense band beef with anyone in Chicago?

Tweedy: I refuse to be in beefs with other bands. I’ve been baited many times by people.

Ehrlich: So back in the day, pre-Twitter, how would you bait someone to get in a band beef?

Tweedy: We had homing pigeons, smoke signals. Nah, people would come to Chicago and assumed that would be the place we would most likely see somebody talking some shit about our band. But I always thought that that’s such a waste of time and energy.

Kakacek: Sometimes it seems like two bands get together and they’re like, “Hey, we have a new album coming out, let’s get some press and fight on Twitter.”

Tweedy: Should we do that? Like, we want to be the biggest W-band in Chicago. Fuck you guys.

Zoran Orlic
Tweedy in Wilco’s studio, The Loft, in 2011.

Within the music scene here, the independent community seems to be especially thriving. 

Tweedy: Chicago has had a really strong independent music scene for a long, long time. There are still a number of independent labels, for indie-rock especially, like Drag City and there was Touch and Go and there was so much community around that for such a long time and now, I think the hip-hop world in Chicago has pioneered a certain type of independence. 

Kakacek: I think the biggest difference that I see is just not needing a label anymore. It doesn’t even matter if it’s an independent label, the artist is the label. It’s definitely an effect of the streaming era. In the beginning, you don’t need a ton of money to be able to produce records, you can just put it on the internet.

How do you consider the streaming landscape and playlisting when you release music, if at all?

Kakacek: It’s interesting you bring that up, because we were talking about music criticism now. When we first started releasing music as Smith Westerns, there were always track reviews. You put out music and then you get this criticism back, and how much you value that criticism is up to you but it’s always interesting to see people’s perspectives. And now, when you release music you just put it into the world and when it gets added to a playlist, that’s the review. There are no words spoken about it, someone just hits the “add” sign. 

Tweedy: It’s the algorithm, man. 

Ehrlich: I remember one of the producers we were working with on this record started talking about streaming in the studio and I just left the room. It’s a vibe killer, for sure. But it’s a reality.

Lyndon French
Max Kakacek (left) and Julien Ehrlich of Whitney photographed on July 29, 2019 at Dank Haus in Chicago.

When Wilco surprise-released Star Wars, that felt like the first time that release strategy had intentionally permeated indie rock music. Was that a response to the rise of streaming?

Tweedy: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaked when it was finished and we got dropped. And we ended up embracing it because touring was the part of our lives that was the most successful, the most fun, the most musical. And we wanted to go out on the road and play these new songs that we were proud of. [With Star Wars], it was looking like it was going to be a year or two before we could get a new label and get it out, so we ended up streaming it ourselves. It was a no brainer so that we could keep touring.

Kakacek: What’s your take on the whole single rollout, instead of just dropping an album at once?

Tweedy: It’s important to do it a different way each time, it’s not a one size fits all approach to putting music out. Most people your age just don’t have a real fear of streaming, and a lot of people my age have seen it cut into their paychecks. And I always think that they’re kind of short-sighted or just looking at the inevitable decline in a certain way or blaming something that’s technologically out of their control. But the technology has mostly democratized the whole thing.

Kakacek: Something we were thinking about a lot on this record is how do we want to timestamp it with lyrical content? Sometimes it takes us a while to achieve making a universal song that won’t be heard later on and feel like, “This is so 2019.” Searching for timelessness is the easiest way to put it, but it’s a weird thing to do.

Tweedy: I don’t really think about it. I’m trying to make something that’s exciting to me, based on how I feel about music in this moment. Of all those records we made, there’s only a handful of things that sound technologically dated. Like Summerteeth, that record sounds like early digital music to me. 

Ehrlich: How do you feel about lyrics?

Tweedy: I think it’s probably wise to consciously avoid timestamping your music with cultural references. That’s one of the things I think it going to be hilarious about hip-hop in 30 years, is how totally tied to the technological world we live in it is. It’s going to sound so hilarious to talk about tweeting. But maybe it’s not all meant to last forever, sometimes you just have to say what you have to say in the moment.

How does the idea of a “career song” that defines an artist influence your creative process?

Kakacek: There’s a famous quote by Leonard Cohen where he’s talking about “Suzanne” because he didn’t get any of the rights to that song. He signed all the rights away, and he said something along the lines of: “I got paid because I got to write that song.”

Tweedy: I’ve always been mesmerized by pop artists that go at it like, “I’m trying to have a hit,” whereas I’ve always looked at that as a miracle if it happens.

There are a lot of pop hits now where several songwriters are credited.

Tweedy: Which is really interesting, because music isn’t that fucking compllicated.

Ehrlich:  It seems wrong. It’s not wrong, but… maybe we’re just scared.

Tweedy: Scared of what you could unleash.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.