Someone To Be: A Spotlight on Mark Whalen
A sultry, smooth guitar riff bursts to life in the opening moments of the track. It rolls on before ceasing suddenly, allowing space for light piano arpeggios to pick up the slack before the lo-fi, subdued voice of the lead singer joins the fray. If you’ve kept a close ear on the Detroit indie scene this year, then you must be familiar with the tune. Moody, romantic, laid-back and brutally honest, “The Things You Do (To Me) is arguably the best and most widely-acclaimed track Mark Whalen and his band the Buttermilk Boys have made thus far in their fledgling careers. “Yea dude, that’s everyone’s favorite for sure,” Whalen tells me, “It’s one of those songs where I’ve had multiple romantic situations like that before, and I’m sure the audience can relate.”
This stripped-down and practical approach to songwriting makes sense to anyone who has met Mark. The leading man is six-feet-something, long and lanky with a mane of shoulder length straight black hair. His dress is modest yet purposeful; his khakis, while heavily worn, keep a pristine cuff at the bottom, his tee shirt is usually tucked in, and his canvas sneakers are beat up and scuffed. He hasn’t failed to greet me with a warm smile, handshake that turns into a bro-hug, and his appreciation for the opportunity to get interviewed. His bandmates carry a similar vibe. It’s this humility and desire to make music for the love of expression that has been drawing many to their work. The songs capture authentic moments. They are soundtracks of the normal teenage existence featuring soothing, swaggering guitars, quirky keyboards and laid-back drum beats. The lyrics tell an important narrative, yet never take themselves too seriously, almost as if they were written in one go. But, this only adds to the charm.
Music comes naturally for Whalen, its in his blood. Both of his parents are musicians and Mark followed suit early, learning piano, violin and plenty of other instruments throughout his childhood. “The defining day, for me, was when my dad bought me an audio interface box when I was a freshman in high school. I started just recording ideas and song snippets and kept getting better until I was comfortable enough to release some stuff,” Mark explains. As far as the band itself, the “Buttermilk Boys” have all known each other for years, however, they did not coalesce their talents as a band until around August of last year. “I got an offer to do a show, and I needed a band. It helps that most of my closest friends are musicians, so we were able to come together as a unit pretty quickly,” says Whalen, “We were going to be playing songs that I had released as a solo artist, so we decided we needed a band name to sound more legit. One night in the studio we were fucking around and doing these goofy freestyle raps as ‘The Buttermilk Boys.’ That’s just the first name we thought of, and we thought it was pretty damn funny, so that’s how we introduced ourselves that first time on stage.” The rest is history.
Since that day, the band’s tendency to not take themselves too seriously is apparent. Mark has hours’ worth of stories to tell of various antics, pranks, inside jokes, party stories, and sticky situations he and the crew have gotten into over the years. Aside from normal teenage ruffianism, their music reflects this relaxed and humorous ethos. Take, for example, the first track referenced in this article, and the band’s most popular at the time of writing, “The Things You Do (To Me).” The croon has a soulful and sultry sounding instrumentation, headlined by that guitar riff as the anchor of the composition. The song tells the tale of a young somebody who is enamored by this love interest. The protagonist is keen on gaining the attention of their beloved, insisting in the chorus, “Love can’t hide, love won’t hide.” However, these sweet lines about the idealism of love are interjected with sharp doses of self-deprecating realism. Like when the love interest is frustrating Mark, he doesn’t want to play it cool, he instead deals with his frustrations in a much blunter way, saying he’ll keep his bad thoughts to himself and “…maybe crank one out tonight.” Or on the song “Complications,” a song about how a love interest has changed him for the better, Mark sweetly notes the beautiful blue color of his girl’s eyes right after, how can I put this lightly, ejaculating in her mouth. There are only two reactions to lines like these: pure disgust or laughter. Regardless of how the consumer feels, that is how Mark decided to act. No matter how personal the situation, he is not holding anything back.
During the afternoon I spent with Mark in his studio in Oak Park, I gained a new perspective on the indie rock scene in the city. Indie, in a lot of ways, has gone mainstream. Its revival is spearheaded by figures like Mac Demarco. His style of lyric writing is similarly self-aware and lighthearted, his guitars are twangy and lively, and his appearance is grungy, yet purposeful. “Yea, its easy to draw that parallel, and most people think I’m chasing after that same aesthetic,” Whalen tells me wryly, “But, at the end of the day, most indie bands are trying to hit that combo as well. And I don’t blame them; it’s mad popular and sounds great. But I want to keep it moving and keep progressing. Our first EP (Someone to Be) is just the beginning. I want to make songs in the future that show off a wider range of influences.”
With experience in the music game, usually comes growth. Mark and his band are indeed doing just that, attempting to outshine the initial indie niche they have found themselves currently occupying. With one EP already released, the question was where do the Buttermilk Boys go from there? How will they continue to keep it fresh and authentic? Mark has no plans of being a flash in the pan and promises some vibrant and exciting sounds on the upcoming project. “We’ve been trying out some more funky stuff. We are really going for more groove on the next project. Someone to Be was slower and more like quirky love songs. This time around, I want to make people dance,” he explains to me. With all things considered, the Buttermilk Boys prove that, sometimes, being authentic to yourself is enough to propel you down a successful path. This writer, and many others, are excited to see what’s next.
Words and Photos by: Avery Naman
If you want to support Mark and the Buttermilk Boys, check out their newest track, "Happen Twice" and click the link here: fanlink.to/MarkWhalen-Hap…
Mark will be playing live at Dally in the Alley on 9/8/18 at the Alley Stage at 2pm
He will also be hosting a Disco-themed release party called “Friday Night Fever” on 11/16/18