'We’re just happy people at heart but we have our struggles': An Interview with Julien Ehrlich of Whitney
This past year has been quite a crazy one for Chicago indie rockers Whitney. Since releasing their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, back in June, the band has been touring seemingly nonstop and generating even more critical acclaim for their modern take on the classic styles of rock and pop. A year after the release of their debut, Whitney has just recently kicked off a new tour that’s taking the band across the United States and Europe, including a stop at Delmar Hall on Tuesday, May 9th. I recently caught up with the band’s singer and drummer, Julien Ehrlich, to ask for his thoughts on heartbreak, tour life, and the art of mixing Gatorade with sparkling water.
Matt: My first question is what are the psychological steps you have to go through to be able to play the drums and sing at the same time as that seems really, really difficult to me.
Julien: I don't know, I basically just don't think about it anymore, but in the beginning it was pushing more of the movement to my arms and not using my entire core to drum which is what I used to do. And then learning how to calm my core so I can have a steady falsetto that isn't shaky and all over the place. It's a constant struggle still, but I think I'm pulling it off.
Matt: So Whitney's album last year, Light Upon the Lake, was one of my favorites, as it's a really unique look at heartbreak, especially in the sound which is much more upbeat compared to other artists and albums within the current indie music landscape. On a breakup album it seems like there's a certain sound you have go for, but I think you and Max [Kakacek] took a left turn and went in a new direction with it. What do you think were your influences in taking this direction?
Julien: I think it has more to do with the fact that me and Max are pretty positive people who were going through a trying time and a number of different, crazy life transitions. Almost like quarter-life crisis vibes. We aren't the types to get truly down in the dumps, we have to look up and feel a bit positive. I think that's where the juxtaposition comes in with sad-sack lyrical content and then a little more upbeat melodies. I guess we were still just writing pop songs, translating a weird awkward time into pop songs.
Matt: I think I've noticed that, and this might not be the most apt comparison, but it's the one that I'm thinking of right now and that's the new Paramore song "Hard Times" about struggling with depression but trying to be positive and about it and say, "Hey, we're going to beat this." I think Light Upon the Lake gives that vibe -- maybe not in sound but definitely in feeling.
Julien: Yeah, that's definitely where we were at too. We're just happy people at heart but we have our struggles.
Matt: You guys are playing a show at Delmar Hall next week, and it's in the middle of this absolutely massive tour you guys are doing right now, so I have to wonder two things: How do you guys think your live show has evolved over the years? And how are you able to survive on the road for as long as you are?
Julien: This current tour that we're on right now is about three straight months, which is the longest any of us have been out consecutively. We're going home right now for about three days, but after that it's another two months. Our live show -- I guess at this point we're just telling each other inside jokes on stage -- we just have little musical jokes that we'll add to our solos or fills. We're basically just having a conversation with each other. We still enjoy it and it still is evolving and it's getting a little bit more ridiculous and a little bit better in some areas. And I don't really know how we're still surviving right now, [if anything] some of us aren't surviving right now.
Matt: Yeah, being on the road for three months is just...
Julien: Dude, it's intense.
Matt: I think I remember reading an interview where you said that it's much easier to be in a big band doing tours rather than being in a small, three-piece band just because you have more people to talk to and not go as insane by the time it comes to an end.
Julien: Yeah, if it was just me and Max on tour or something, we would have probably ripped each other's heads off just because it helps so much to have an entire crew where you just float around and spend too much time with one person.
Matt: Since last year, you guys have been working on the follow-up to Light Upon the Lake, any updates on how the record is coming along? It seems like you've been working on it since that first album came out.
Julien: After finishing Light Upon the Lake, we definitely took a little bit of a breather when it comes to writing. But yeah, we have three songs that we're super, super happy with and are deep into the next one. We're taking the whole month of September off and going to Portland where we rented this insane looking cabin to go write in. We'll knock out a few more songs then. We also have a couple weeks off in July. We don't really write when we're on the road because we're completely busy, but not uninspired because your head is just in such a wild rollercoaster ride. We need alone time at home to process everything and then translate that into the new songs.
Matt: I don't really have that much time left with you so I'm just gonna throw some rapid fire questions at you and you can try your best to answer them. So my first one: what's the best Gatorade flavor to mix with sparkling water?
Julien: Ooh....I'm kind of a fan of just classic orange but maybe Fierce Grape too.
Matt: What are your favorite alcoholic beverages?
Julien: The Negroni Slushy at Parson's in Chicago that's right around the corner from my house.
Matt: Favorite record of the year so far?
Julien: It's so easy to say Kendrick's new record [DAMN.] -- that song "LOVE." just gets better with each and every listen.
Matt: Favorite kind of sushi?
Julien: I'm into just like... sashimi vibes.
Matt: How does it feel to have an LSD and mushrooms reagent testing kit named after you?
Julien: Oh, what?
Matt: I was asking my friends about what questions they wanted me to give to you and one of them told me that there's this test kit for LSD and mushrooms that shares your name called "Ehrlich's Regeant Test Kit."
Julien: Oh, really?
Julien: Dang, that's news to me. That's awesome though.
Matt: Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain?
Julien: Woah...what are you referring to right now?
Julien: Oh, dude, I've never heard Pavement.
Julien: I'm sure I've heard their biggest songs but I have never really paid attention to them. Should I get into them?
Matt: Oh yes, I had friends who were obsessed with them for a while and eventually put me onto them and they're essentially the definitive indie rock band of the '90s. People usually describe them as essentially the Seinfeld of indie rock, whereas you know the "Seinfeld is bad" theory which is that people think it's bad, but mostly because of how much sitcoms took from Seinfeld. So basically there's a lot of indie rock that took from Pavement. At first you're wondering what's the hype behind this but then you realize how pretty much everything traces back to Pavement.
Julien: Like the Nirvana vibes. By the time I heard Nirvana, that was what alt radio sounded like all the time. So then when I heard Nirvana I was like, "This just sounds like mainstream." I just didn't understand how groundbreaking it was. So that's like the same Seinfeld thing. (I also don't like Seinfeld very much.)
Matt: Ok so, All Things Must Pass or Plastic Ono Band?
Julien: Oooh, oh man. Both of them have a lot of mediocre songs on them in my opinion, but probably All Things Must Pass because his cover of "If Not for You" is fucking insane, so good. Actually, All Things Must Pass all the way.
Matt: The last rapid fire question I have for you is, Six Flags or Dollywood?
Julien: Wait, Six Flags or what?
Matt: Or Dollywood.
Julien: What's Dollywood?
Matt: It's like Dolly Parton's theme park in Tennessee.
Julien: Woah... I would check that out before going to Six Flags. But also, I wanna give a shout out to this waterpark in McMinnville, Oregon that's also an aviation museum [Wings and Waves Waterpark]. If you up go to the top of the building you take a water slide out of a Boeing 757, as it's this massive plane. Yeah, it's a crazy water park so shouts out to that place.