After Years of Bouncing From Band to Band, Whitney's Julien Ehrlich Finds Satisfaction—and Acclaim—by Only Playing for Himself

Whitney's Julien Ehrlich has played more live shows than a lot of musicians twice his age. But when you've been commanding the drum throne since age 2, perhaps it's not entirely surprising.

Ehrlich learned to keep time from his musician father while growing up in Southern Oregon. Upon graduating from high school outside of Portland, he joined rising psych-pop outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra, creating complicated beats on stages all over the planet.

Chicago is loosely called home now, at least when Ehrlich isn't touring. The Windy City is where he and then-roommate Max Kakacek formed Whitney, the much-hyped retro-rock band. The two recorded a track on a whim after Kakacek bought a tape machine and felt compelled to feed it some material. The soulful track, fit with noodling guitar, melodic lures and Ehlrich's polite falsetto, would become "Dave's Song," the fourth song on the band's impressive debut, Light Upon the Lake.

"Touring is still a good thing," says Ehrlich, sounding at once like a grizzled veteran of the trade and a pie-eyed newbie. "We'll take all of these experiences and turn them into the next record."

After UMO and Ehrlich split due to what he calls an "age gap," he went on to play with Kakacek in catchy indie-rock act the Smith Westerns. After that outfit broke up in 2014, Ehrlich was again without a musical home, but had held onto Kakacek amid the split.

"With the new project, it was never meant to be something where we go out and take over the world," he says. "After Smith Westerns, we just took a year to focus on our own stuff."

For the first time in a while, Ehrlich and Kakacek aimed to please themselves instead of outside interests. The result is a triumphant album produced by Jonathan Rado. Expectedly, the sound is timeless, pulling from Pavement's slack swagger and the twisted soul of Rado's band Foxygen. Ehrlich says the recording process was pretty aimless until they found a collection of music by pioneering country-soul singer Jim Ford, which left an obvious imprint on Whitney.

Ehrlich is back on the road and slated to tour Whitney's debut LP through next year. The road and notoriety aren't new, but leading the songwriting charge is. So too is the banter.

"The hardest part of fronting an act," he says, "is knowing what to say in between songs."

SEE IT: Whitney plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with Michael Rault, on Wednesday, Aug. 3. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.

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