What it's like to be a band on the SXSW grind, as told by Whitney

'Gold Bond powder. Gold Bond in the shoes, in the pants.'

When I caught Whitney’s performance Wednesday afternoon here in Austin, it was under the worst possible conditions. A crammed schedule and a chance at a can’t-miss interview meant the band was rushing from gig to gig, and they didn’t make it to the venue until after their scheduled set time. That meant sacrificing their sound check and settling for a truncated performance, one that began with only half of the band’s six touring members ready to play.

It sounds like a stereotypical SXSW nightmare, I admit: rookie buzz band stretches themselves too thin! But Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek are by no means at their first rodeo, even if Whitney is. After spending time in minor indie rock bands like Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the duo’s friendship and songwriting partnership is coming into its prime.

They’ve spent the last year-plus writing loping country-soul ballads as Whitney, working on their debut album (due out later this year), and refining their work on the road, and the fruit of their labor has somehow managed to exceed their expectations. “We made the entire [album] ourselves, and then realized the songs were good enough that we wanted to record them better,” says Ehrlich. “We wanted to work with other people, people who knew how to make recordings sound better than we could do.”

Ehrlich and Kakacek know their connection is special

Even on their own, in unfavorable live conditions, Whitney killed it. Ehrlich managed to juggle his duties as the band’s lead singer and drummer, his reedy, lovelorn falsetto emerging from behind a full kit; Kakacek unspooled sweet, intricate guitar melodies a few steps to his right. Despite the trainwreck set-up, everyone on stage looked like they were having a blast. Imagine a half-dozen of your most talented friends getting together for a spontaneous jam session in the sun after having a beer or two each: that was the vibe. Before tucking into heartsick single "No Woman," Ehrlich apologized for the band’s tardiness: "I’m sorry, it wasn’t really our fault but it’s SXSW, shit happens. We love you." The trumpet player immediately borked the song’s opening riff. It was goofy and totally charming, and they went on to tear through the song like old pros.

When I talked to Ehrlich and Kakacek after the set finished, I couldn’t help but notice their quiet confidence. The two have spent enough time writing and playing music to know their connection is special, and they have total faith in the skill of each of their bandmates. And while they’re hitting the ground hard to promote themselves this year, both men believe they won’t have to pound the SXSW pavement with this kind of intensity much longer.

Jamieson Cox: Your recorded tracks are pretty tight and lean, but you guys are all really skilled musicians, and I could hear a kind of jam potential live you don’t quite get on the album. Is that something you’re interested in doing?

Julien Ehrlich: Oh, yeah. We’re booked pretty solidly for the next year, and we’re going to continue to book shows for the next year and a half for this album cycle. We’re totally planning on expanding the songs, because both of us have done this in past bands. We’ve had to play the same fuckin’ songs over and over again, and we’re fortunate to be in a situation where we have musicians that are confident enough and good enough to go off the beaten path.

How does it feel playing the Whitney material live compared to what you were playing before?

Ehrlich: It feels a lot better.

Max Kakacek: Watching SXSW evolve over the last five or six years has been crazy. We’re so busy, and it’s fun to do it that way. The other bands I’ve been in have all been wary of booking too many shows, and we just booked as many as we could.

"Album two shouldn't be a situation where we're grinding it out at SXSW"

Ehrlich: I think our whole trajectory — this might be a little presumptuous — but with our trajectory right now, this might be the only SXSW we play as this project. Maybe we’ll come back and do a couple shows next year or something, but this is the one where we’re going to grind it out and play as many shows as we can because we’re a new project. People are picking up on us, but you really want to check your bases when it comes to your first year at SXSW.

And in the future, you’re thinking you’re not going to have that kind of pressure on you.

Ehrlich: Album two shouldn’t be a situation where we’re grinding it out at SXSW. And it’s not like we feel like SXSW is beneath us in any way, either — I just don’t necessarily know if SXSW is the best way to put us on the scene anymore.

I’ve heard that a lot recently, that compared to four or five years ago SXSW’s power as a generator of new bands has diminished.

Ehrlich: A little bit.

Kakacek: It’s so fucking corporate now, and there’s still not that much money involved in it [for the artists]. But we love Austin, and every band does it — we’re just gonna do it.

What did you carry into this year from having done it before? What are your SXSW lessons?

Ehrlich: Gold Bond Powder. Gold Bond in the shoes, in the pants…

Kakacek: Yeah, and a few more pairs of underwear and socks. Music-wise, I think — well, look at today, for instance. Being able to hop on stage with half our band and make it through at least a song and a half while we all got on, that’s stuff you just learn to do.

Ehrlich: We would’ve been scared shitless if we hadn’t had the experience from our past bands. You know that you just have to play a fuckin’ show. You just have to do it. We showed up late, but we did it.

whitney-interview-verge-amelia krales-02
(Amelia Krales)

What’s it like introducing new material in a setting like this? How’s the reception been?

Ehrlich: It’s been so positive.

Kakacek: We get very good vibes from our crowd.

Ehrlich: People that only know the lead single are still pretty captivated, and you can tell — being on stage, there’s no bullshitting. You can tell whether or not the crowd likes it, and so far everyone’s responded really well.

What do you want a random person who happens to walk into your set to take away from it?

Kakacek: I think we want people to take away the simplicity — it’s good musicianship and good songwriting. It doesn’t have to be super complex or super crazy if you have people who know their instruments well and play things that are heartfelt and melodic.

Ehrlich: It’s also kinda cool when people come up to us after a set and say, "Everything’s so honest, you guys aren’t hiding behind any sort of effect or reverb or anything." That’s a nice feeling.

The set felt really familial to me. Seeing you guys on stage reminded me of hanging out with my own close friends.

Ehrlich: And that show wasn’t indicative — if we have a minute to sound check, we’ll all get into a groove, and by the middle of the show we’ll be doing stuff to make each other happy on stage.

Kakacek: We’ll try to fuck each other up.

Ehrlich: We’ll do little flourishes. We don’t do them every show, and it’ll make everyone smile and laugh. You’re watching us go from smiling and laughing to being really into it and then back to smiling and laughing.

You get into that zone where it’s like, "I know what you’re thinking before you even know what you’re thinking."

Ehrlich: It’s a crazy back and forth, and it’s open all the time. It’s like a constant conversation while we’re on stage. It’s really fun.