Mariah George and Alec Reid have been on tour for the past few years, traveling from town to town, discovering and perfecting the sound of their band, Whole Milk.
The group started in 2016 as a five-piece. Then it was Reid on vocals and guitar, George on vocals and bass, and a drummer. But after their van was broken into in 2018 and the drummer left the group to marry a woman he'd met at a show in Tijuana, Reid and George were all that was left.
But it was enough. They upgraded to an RV, where they now live. “We tour full-time,” says George. “We spend ten months of the year on the road and spend the time between in a couple different cities.”
Even when they return to Colorado, they tour the state aggressively, playing not just Denver venues like Lost Lake and Fort Greene, but also spots across the state, up in the mountains and along the Western Slope.
They usually perform at coffee shops and brewpubs by day and a mix of bars and larger venues by night, scraping by on whatever merch they sell and the measly $50 to $75 that comes from the door. They supplement that income with George’s 24-hour-a-week music-publicity job, which she can do from the road.
At least that's what they used to do.
Back in January, George’s father, who lives in Taiwan, called and warned that coronavirus was coming stateside. He begged the couple to cancel their tour, to skip Florida over spring break, to stock up on supplies and go home to Colorado.
At first they shrugged off the warnings. But by early March, when they were in New Orleans for a show, they'd decided that George's father was right: They had to take a break, head to Colorado Springs and wait out the global pandemic with family.
Not long after they made that decision, venues started voluntarily closing or were forced to shutter by state and city governments, and the live-music business went on hold. Now they’re facing the predicament plaguing many professional touring musicians: What to do when they're off the road?
Fortunately, before the shutdown began, Whole Milk had recorded new songs and shot a couple of music videos in Texas. The initial one, “Growing Pains," dropped on Wednesday, April 15. It’s the first song off the band’s upcoming EP, End of the Rope.
“It’s a tune about growing up, being an artist,” says Reid.
Throughout the video, the musicians wander around desolate landscapes and a Texas quarry, singing from abandoned industrial equipment, sitting on a hobby horse next to broken-down bikes and other mechanical detritus, at times accompanied by a larger-than-life puppet flamingo. They’re sporting Western wear from a Great American Thrift Store that's a little too tight for comfort.
The song has almost nothing to do with the West, outside of the sound of the rhythm guitar; the lyrics are about an encounter with an old friend in a Brooklyn bathhouse. The duo's performance style is flamboyant yet coy.
In one scene, Reid runs from a semi at night in a dramatic moment that's resolved as he stands on the street looking like something from Midnight Cowboy, wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and a sign over his privates that reads “PRIVATE.”
The music is sultry and slow. The lyrics are poetry of the road, weary and anxious, with the pair wondering whether the traveling-troubadour lifestyle is really such a good idea after all. The money’s bad. Their parents doubt them. Now, a few years in and almost too old to admit that they made a mistake, they’re worried.
The song signals a stylistic shift for Whole Milk toward alt-country, inspired by their tours through Texas and the rest of the South.
George describes herself and Reid as “Colorado kids.” They cite the Lumineers, Esmé Patterson and Tennis as influences.
“Where would we be without the Fray?” adds Reid.
But they have also drawn inspiration from the various states through which they’ve toured. When Whole Milk started, the members called themselves a “beach goth” band that borrowed the surf-rock sounds of Southern California, where they went to college. Bookers didn’t bite. Trying to pinpoint their sound through the insufferable limitations of genre, they next called themselves “surf jazz,” then “surf folk,” but neither worked.
Now George and Reid think of their music less in terms of genre than region.
They spent a lot of time going up and down the West Coast but eventually headed south, despite reservations about whether people there would enjoy their music. Turns out that Texas, in particular, embraced them. As a result, they’ve added some Western twang and old-timey country to their sound.
“I think a lot of our style as performers is kind of theatrical and communicative, and breaks the third wall in a huge way,” says George. “We love being able to engage with the audience. You play to your audience. We were getting great responses in Texas, so it’s like, let’s lean into this further.”
Even from hundreds of miles away. Slowing down to work on their music is a welcome shift for Reid and George. “The work we’ve put up the last couple years is a little rushed,” Reid admits.
They're using the unexpected time created by the roadblock of the pandemic "to hone our craft,” says George. “We don’t have a lot of new material. This will be all recorded. We’re working on evolving. We’re writing a bunch of new stuff.”
They also have time to dream.
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“From being on the road, we’ve started to romanticize this idea of rural America,” George says. “The more we’ve toured, the better experiences we’ve had in rural America, where people are really excited to be seeing something new. Through all of that, Alec and I have cultivated the creative dream of buying a ghost town in eastern New Mexico and buying a venue. That’s the direction our life is taking.”
They're focused on Nara Visa, New Mexico, a ghost town with a little dive called Ira’s Bar.
But right now, it's only a dream. They don't know when they'll be able to get there again, and they sure don't know how they'll pay for it. Besides, Reid says, “The damn real estate agent won’t call us back.”
Listen to Whole Milk and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.