Shortly after the breakup of Chicago indie-rock band Smith Westerns in 2014, Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich decided to try something new.
Taking cues from folk, country, pop, soul and the brassy New Orleans sound, Whitney rose from the ashes, carving out a unique sound that is difficult to pigeonhole into any single genre.
Now, after the release of 2016 debut Light Upon the Lake, Whitney has graduated to bigger stages, with an international headlining tour and a slew of major festival gigs on the docket to see out the year.
For guitarist Kakacek, pushing the boundaries of contemporary music while remaining true to his influences is a driving force behind Whitney’s eclectic style.
A guitarist since the seventh grade, he started out playing Judas Priest riffs before falling in love with the likes of Johnny Cash and Clarence White—a big reason why you can regularly see him on stage with his American Professional Telecaster equipped with a B-bender.
“In 2017, the electric guitar has been around for at least 60 years,” Kakacek said. “It’s a constant struggle between giving props where props are due and respecting the instrument’s history while still trying to add your own touch on it within those parameters.”
During a break in Whitney’s touring schedule, Kakacek connected with Fender to go deeper on his love of the B-bender, the songwriting process between him and Ehrlich, and how Jack White taught him to use a slide.
”I Grew Up Playing Piano Around the Third Grade, but in the Seventh Grade, I Started Listening to Jimi Hendrix”
“My parents wanted me to play music, I’m not sure why. But I asked to stop playing piano and pick up the guitar. My mom said that if I kept practicing, it was OK. I started learning Judas Priest tabs and ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. Everything that a seventh grader thinks is cool, the heaviest stuff. Then in high school, I took a break and learned the banjo. I took a trip to Appalachia and became obsessed with bluegrass music.
“When I started playing guitar again, I was like 18 or 19, and country and bluegrass music got its hooks in me. I wasn’t playing power chords anymore, it was more about the scales and things like that.”
”I Went Through a Really Intense Johnny Cash Phase”
“I went through a phase where I dressed like a cowboy and brought my acoustic guitar to school, things like that. Now that I’m older, I try to let those musicians have input into what I’m doing. It’s not like putting on a Halloween costume; I get to put my own stamp on what I think my guitar is supposed to do.”
”The First Thing that Really Stumped Me Was the Slide”
“One of the first shows I saw that meant something to me was Jack White on the Elephant tour. He wears his slide on his pinkie, which I do too. It’s a different way to approaching the slide, which is why I think it’s really special. Each player has a different way of doing it. He floats his hand around. I don’t think he uses his thumb around the back of the neck, and I do the same thing. I copied that. When I play slide, my hands floats a little, too, and my thumb doesn’t go behind the neck. It took me a while to control it. I was just watching what he was doing, and now I have it to where it’s comfortable for me. Whatever works.”
”I’ve Always Been Obsessed With Pedal-Steel and Slide Guitar”
“Pedal steel is insane. I have a lap steel, but I’m by no means proficient at it, I do play a lot of single string slide stuff. For pretty much every other song, I have a slide. I usually end of having to throw it off mid-song. Like, I’ll have a slide for the intro and halfway through the song, I have to figure out how to get the slide off my finger. I would lose slides all the time. I’ll throw it and then try to find it under my pedal board or something. I have to figure out a way to Velcro them to my mic stand. (laughs)
”Wanting to Play Pedal Steel on Stage Led Me to the B-Bender”
“I talked to the pedal-steel player in Phosphorescent—Ricky Ray Jackson—last year. I didn’t have the B-bender yet, but I had a volume pedal and was doing some pedal-steel emulation. I’d always wanted to do some pedal-steel playing, but for touring, he told me it’s one of the hardest things to bring with you. I started looking up ways to figure out how to create those sounds, and the B bender seemed like the best way.”
”The B-Bender Was a Passion Project of Mine
“!’ve been wanting to do the B bender thing for a long time. It was also a tribute to my dad. He’s not a musician, but he’s really good with his hands and making things. We always customized guitars together. Before I had the Tele, I had a Jazzmaster, and we actually melted the lacquer off of it with a heat gun and rebuilt it with customized electronics. I did the same thing with a ’67 Mustang body that we usually have on stage. It’s kind of cool because at some point we burnt the wood, which gives them a weird vintage look.”
”The B-Bender Is an Incredible Way to Mess Around With Open Chords Higher Up the Neck”
“I wanted to put a B-bender in the Jazzmaster and Mustang, but that’s impossible because of their body shapes. When the opportunity came about to get a Tele came through, I didn’t even see the guitar in its first state. I was on tour and had lined up a place to install the B-bender. I had my dad mail it away and so the first time I saw that guitar, there was already a B-bender. It’s amazing. Sometimes it feels like cheating. If I want to be really lazy instead of actually bending the note, I’ll use the B-bender.”
”Usually, We Come Up With a Chord Progression First”
"Julian can play chords on the guitar, so we can both play off each other. But usually we come up with a chord progression first. The song ‘Golden Days’ was written on the guitar first. I came up with something I thought was catchy on its own. He sat with it for maybe three days to a week, just put it on his iPhone and walked around with it. Then he came back with a melody, and it worked. After that, we’d figure out ways of putting in slide guitar and things like that off the melody.”
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