Milk Carton Kids: In their heads and in the moment
On their new album, Monterey, the Milk Carton Kids — singer-guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan — deliver the kind of vocal harmonies and gentle folk music that made Simon & Garfunkel superstars. In addition, the duo is featured on Shovels & Rope’s collaborative cover album, Busted Jukebox, Volume 1, delivering a rendition of Guns n’ Roses’ “Patience.” Ryan phoned us from his Los Angeles home to talk about the band’s decidedly retro approach.
You met in California. Talk about how you first connected.
Yeah, Kenneth and I met for the first time at one of his shows. We were both sort of playing around the same clubs in L.A. He had a show, and I was invited. Somebody recommended to me very strongly to go see a person that they referred to as the new guy on the scene, a Kenneth Pattengale. Turned out he’d been making records for about ten years, but he played one show every time he put out a record and that was it. He didn’t really focus on touring as much as we do. Being in his own studio was sort of going down various rabbit holes. I went to the show, really liked it, and introduced myself. So, I would say we met through whatever sort of scene was happening here in L.A.
Did you have some sense you could harmonize with one another?
We ran into each other again two weeks later at someone else’s show, and he said, “Hey man, nice to see you. I went and listened to your albums after we met the last time. I’ve been learning your songs and you gotta come over to my house and hear me play guitar on your songs.” Which I thought was sort of inappropriately forward and self-confident. I took him up on it. Maybe he had an idea that we would be able to harmonize together, but I think he just liked playing guitar. So we got there. He set up some microphones and we played through a few of my songs. Then we played through a few of his songs and listened back to it. It wasn’t until we listened back to it that I thought it was any good. I actually thought it was terrible as we were doing it.
How did you come up with the band name?
That comes from a lyric in our song. We have a song called “Milk Carton Kid” and in that song the phrase ‘milk carton kid’ is used like a darkly backwards metaphor for coming of age and the awkward uncertainties of youth that hopefully vanish as we become adults.
You’ve been on Prairie Home Companion. What is that like?
Prairie Home Companion is one of the most fun things to do out of all the high profile performance things we’ve done. We’ve also been on Conan twice and that’s just like holding on for dear life and hoping everything goes okay. It’s really cool to be there and be able to do it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of fun. Whereas Prairie Home Companion, first of all is like a master class; watching Garrison Keillor work for two days. Then there’s a bit of an improvisational bent to it because he interviews you on stage. Standing face to face with the master like that on live radio is pretty exhilarating. He’s always funny and spontaneous. And then we always get to play with their band. In our own shows we never play with anybody so it’s been a cool experience to incorporate other musicians and do a new and different thing each time.
Tell about the songs for Monterey.
I think the directive that we gave ourselves was a little bit of a reaction to the directive we gave ourselves on the previous album, The Ash & Clay. On The Ash & Clay we thought it was important to really get away from our natural instincts to write super introspectively and instead to focus outwardly on more socially conscious or even political songs . . . just sort of singing about the world around us rather than the world inside of us. And I think on Monterey, having just done that on The Ash & Clay, we gave ourselves permission to get inside our own heads a little.
What was the recording experience like?
We decided to record it on tour. At that point we were playing 150-200 shows a year and then we would go into the studio for like four days to make our albums and it just felt so different from the thing that we felt comfortable with, the thing we felt like we were good at, the thing we felt like we were practiced at—performing on stage. There’s a paradox to performing live, which is that on the one hand the performance matters so much because you only get one chance at it and everybody is there watching you. You don’t get to do it again. Whatever happens, happens and everybody sees it and hears it. So in that sense there’s a lot pressure to it. On the other hand, paradoxically, it also really doesn’t matter because it’s gone the moment it happens. It doesn’t last other than in people’s minds and in people’s memories. That feeling, I think, elicits a different performance from us and I would imagine from other performers too. Being in the studio is entirely different. The end result of what you get out of the studio has this incredible pressure on the quality of that being perfect and it capturing some sort of definitive performance of the song. But, paradoxically there, each individual take doesn’t really matter because you always know you can do it again. I think we wanted to reverse that dynamic and get to a point where we were making our albums with a mindset that each individual take matters a great deal, and the revisionism and perfectionism that happens afterwards doesn’t matter as much. It’s more about emulating the emotional arc of a live performance. So, we did the album on tour, we did it in the venues during the daytime where we had our shows each night. What it did was give us a limited amount of time every day to perform, and it caused us to not listen back to the takes after we performed them. Even though there wasn’t an audience there, we were standing on a stage and we performed sort of in the moment, and didn’t go back and obsess over what was happening right after it happened. We obviously did go back and listen, and take the best takes and do some editing and stuff. But, that wasn’t until a month later, so you’re much more removed from the process and it was a really wonderful way to do it. I would do it again that way every time.
Did you rehearse the songs a lot?
Yeah. A lot of days we didn’t spend recording, we spent rehearsing. We would record the rehearsals just in case.
What made you want to write a song about the city of Monterey?
That’s Kenneth’s song, and getting Kenneth to give an answer publicly or privately about what his songs are about- I would say it’s like pulling teeth, but pulling teeth, eventually you get the tooth out. So, the most that he’s ever said to me about that song is that he wrote this chord progression and had a melody in mind, and to him the music sounded like Monterey, like the city of Monterey in Northern California. Whatever that means.
Are the references to places on record a theme of some sort?
I think we’ve always done that. That’s always been a part of our songwriting, and I think it’s because we travel so much, like all of our peers and colleagues or whatever you want to call them, all other musicians nowadays. Everybody travels so much. To me, as a writer, when you’re going through something or thinking about something that you want to write about you’re usually in a place that’s far from home. The fact that you’re there seems to take on a certain importance to the idea that you’re writing about. So, I find that it usually makes its way into the lyrics one way or another. If I’m writing a song away from home, that place, wherever it happens to be, will often make an appearance in the song.
“The City Of Our Lady” — what’s the story behind that song?
That’s sort of a reflection on the city of Los Angeles where we’re from, and the idea of the very obvious and easy-to-confront cultural collision between the history of the land here, having previously been Mexico, colonized and then taken over by U.S, and eventually becoming California. The Mexican and Latino culture pervades very strongly to the point that every street, every city, every place is still named the same thing that it used to be named. I guess it was that I was having a problem with it in that it elucidates the tragedy of the loss of culture. All that used to be here that isn’t anymore is sort of frozen in your face. The fact that we’ve kept the names seems almost to be more like a slap in the face and less a preservation of culture. To me, it was feeling at that time, more like a tragic reminder of some of the culture that we erased.
It’s like that on the East Coast too, where many cities and streets have Native American names.
Yes. On the one hand you want to remember, and on the other hand it feels disrespectful. That was sort of the emphasis for that song. It went off in a couple different directions after that, but it was definitely the emphasis.
To what do you attribute the new popularity of folk music?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I don’t know if it was bubbling up at all before the clear demarcation point of the Grammy performance of Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons years ago or however long that was. It must have, I suppose, been bubbling up before that in the mainstream. To be honest, while I do feel that we’ve benefited from it, I don’t feel as though we’ve really tapped into whatever it is, the feeling that allows music played on acoustic instruments to have infiltrated the mainstream in recent years. I don’t really feel like we’ve tapped in that. We just did two shows opening for the Avett Brothers this past weekend and they were actually some of the biggest shows we’ve ever played. One of the things I realized was that their show is incredibly high energy. It’s not us with more instruments. It’s a fundamentally different thing that they’re doing at this point, which is they’re putting on a very rock-ish, energetic and exciting performance for stadiums and amphitheaters. The enthusiasm of the fans is so palpable and so clear and everybody is literally jumping up and down the entire time. Nobody sat in their seat the entire night. It was like a revival show, like a Pentecostal revival. The atmosphere and the desire for connection on that level and on that wavelength is fueling the mainstream appreciation of “folk music.” We have not tapped into that. Our thing is much more subdued. We discourage dancing. We discourage clapping. We discourage singing along. We discourage having any sort of fun at our show whatsoever. Our thing works much better in a theater. For better or worse, we haven’t availed ourselves of the reach of the genre.
I think there’s a connection to the folk revival and the renewed interest in bluegrass, and I feel like I can hear that in your music.
Yes, that’s fair. We definitely straddle a few different areas, but it seems to me like the energy of it all is the main difference. It’s not the same participation vibe. I feel like our shows a lot of time have the feeling of a recital with some sort of a comedy show, which is just an entirely different experience for an audience. You don’t have to wear comfortable shoes if you come to our show because you’re not going to be jumping around.
Upcoming 2016 Shows
York, PA @ Strand Capitol Theatre
Cleveland, OH @ Playhouse Square Center
Bloomington, IN @ Buskirk-Chumley Theater
Iowa City, IA @ The Englert Theatre
Milwaukee, WI @ The Pabst Theatre