Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan seem to be star-crossed bandmates. While both pursuing solo careers in LA, the pair met-up out of mutual appreciation, tried playing each other’s songs, and never looked back. This summer, their collaboration as The Milk Carton Kids saw the release of Prologue, an album chock-full of folk gems that are beautifully subtle and tell stories that stay with you.
On a recent evening at Edendale, I caught up with the duo to chat about their songwriting process, what “old-timey” really means, and why they’re giving their record away for free.
Jane McCarthy: When did you guys start playing together and how did that come about?
Joey Ryan: Think we met for the first time in December of 2009. Kenneth was playing a show with his band at the Hotel Café, and he played that song of his- Memoirs of an Owned Dog. I felt compelled to go up to him afterwards and tell him what a great song I thought it was. Then a couple weeks later we ran into each other and Kenneth I guess doesn’t remember this, but he said something to the effect of, “You’ve got to come over and hear me play guitar on your songs”. This was our second meeting, and I thought it was really kind of forward of him.
Kenneth Pattengale: Yeah, I’m not that brazen typically.
JR: Right. But you were.
KP: Joey claims I don’t remember. I insist that it never happened.
JR: But it did. And I thought it was particularly forward, but I went. That day when we played guitars and sang together, I actually thought it sounded horrible until Kenneth played it back (he had put up microphones so we could hear it), and I guess I wasn’t listening or something because the recording was incredible. That’s when I realized there was something happening.
JM: You guys were both pursuing solo work at the time.
KP: Very unsuccessfully.
JR: To varying degrees of un-success, I should say.
JM: But the work itself was good.
KP: Yeah, I think we both stand by that work. It never really caught on with a greater audience, certainly not the way this permutation has.
JM: What’s writing together like? It’s got to be a departure from having worked independently for quite awhile.
JR: Yeah, that’s the most profound part of it for me, because I’ve never felt comfortable allowing anyone else to poke their head in as much and to have such an influence over my writing. But I’ve always felt comfortable with allowing Kenneth that sort of access, and I think hopefully you know, it’s vice-versa. And I think that’s really brought both of our writing to new levels.
When you think it’s done, to put it to someone whose writing you respect immensely and say, “What do you think?” And to actually be open to the fact that they might want to change something about it, and then to be reassured almost every single time that what they do come up with is the right thing. It’s just really encouraging and sort of expanding. Or it has been for me as a writer, not to mention musically.
JM: Do you ever feel nervous sharing something you’ve been working on?
KP: No, not with Joe. That’s all been completely washed away.
JR: Only with everybody else…
KP: Mind you, I’m not easy. Joey’s like a battered wife at this point when it comes to songwriting.
JR: But I deserve it. You know, I deserve it.
JM: And he really loves you.
JR: Yeah, well you don’t see it when it’s just the two of us. You don’t get to see that side of him.
JM: No, but I can see the bruises under your eyes so-
JR: I have to re-touch my make-up…
JM: My favorite song on the record is actually Milk Carton Kid (followed closely by Stealing Romance). Did you write that song and then pluck the phrase from the lyrics? Or was that song written after you had the band name?
JR: The song came first. And I think it says something (or it’s meant to anyway) about coming of age. The thing that it represents in the song felt like an adequate concept to name ourselves- which is sort of like the slow vanishing of various uncomfortable or awkward or insecure aspects of youth…you know the terrible, terrible awkwardness of youth. You just kind of look back one day and you’re like, ‘Wow, I used to be a different person. And all that’s gone.’ And hopefully you have the feeling that, ‘This is better.’
KP: And not to sound too naïve, but I think the reference is sort of not necessarily that either of us has made full purchase of that idea but maybe that we’re right on that precipice of exploring ideas that have one toe in that adolescence still and another toe in seeing forward.
JM: The music is heavily rooted in the folk tradition. Is that the kind of music you’ve always gravitated toward personally? Have you always felt an affinity for folk more than any other kind of music?
JR: Basically, yes. It’s what I’ve always gravitated toward. It’s definitely the only way I’ve ever felt comfortable communicating. I’ve never been attracted to making music in any other genre. I think it’s the lyrical tradition. The permission to be highly personal and introspective and also to ask for the listener’s attention lyrically for many minutes on end, to complete an entire story where you have to have listened to the beginning in order to understand the end. And the more closely you pay attention to the lyrics, the more you’ll get out of it.
JM: There’s a richness where on the tenth listen, something new becomes apparent.
KP: Well, we had to pack sort of a small bag. A lot of my past records, and a lot of my past relationship with music has very much been about texture, and sound, and feeling- even before relying on a heavy narrative to tie things together. I’ve done a lot of experimentation with that. This is the first time in my career personally where I’ve been asked to bottle all of that in some way, and I think wrangle and contain it.
JM: So you made a conscious decision to strip down the number of elements. Did that choice feel natural? Or one day did you say, ‘We need to get some timpani in here!’ And then Joe said, ‘No! We need to keep it spare!’?
JR: There was something so rounded and full about the sound that we created on the first day when we recorded. You know, we picked up these two guitars that we both had, and they sounded like they were meant for each other. And then we sang each other’s songs, and it never felt like it needed anything more. To me, putting that limitation on it actually is liberating because you can get paralyzed by too many options. You know, especially in a studio environment nowadays. We would have unlimited time in Kenneth’s house, in his studio, to experiment and try things and you know, in the end you have a million layers, and it’s hard to tell yourself when to stop.
So rather than asking like ‘How many different layers or textures can we bring in?’ the rabbit hole we go down (which is way more fun) is ‘How can we make this harmony more interesting? How can I make this rhythm guitar part compliment more perfectly what Kenneth is doing with his leads and his picking?’ That’s a much more rewarding road to go down.
KP: It’s also a lot easier to go around the world and play music.
JM: Less luggage.
JR: It does feel nice to walk into any room with just two guitars and know that that’s our whole set-up and that’s all we ever rely on.
JM: When people review your performances and your records, the word “old timey” sometimes pops up. Not like old fogey or anything, but maybe it evokes a feeling of nostalgia. And I know for instance, one of Kenneth’s solo records is called Dustbowl Dreams. So I wondered if you guys feel a nostalgia for a past time or rather, maybe a longing for a past music era?
JR: I love that designation whenever we get it because I think it is meant in a positive way. And I have a great nostalgia and not on purpose, I don’t think, but I end up having a preference for either the method or something about the way records were made in a different time. I don’t know if there’s a specific time, but it does seem like in general, older records were made in a more live setting where there was a reliance more on the performance rather than on any sort of technology. That’s the way we perform. There’s not anything that really needs to happen on the record that’s not happening in the performance. So we may as well just put up some mikes and record it. And the guitars are old. They were made in the early fifties. So they sound like it.
But the songs are specifically not old-timey. We’re writing about things that are honest and present day for us in our lives. You know, we’re not in the dustbowl. It’s not the Great Depression. We’re not riding the rails. If I’ve ever been on a train it’s because there’s too much traffic between here and San Diego.
KP: The old timey stuff- it’s greatly stylized and it comes from a real strong tradition- the Bill Monroe’s, and the Ralph Stanley’s, and the bluegrass Appalachian music. We do get compared to The Louvin Brothers, and The Everly Brothers, and this great tradition of harmony singers that sing entire songs together with real close-knit harmonies, and it’s stripped down. But we’re starkly contrasted from that just in the songwriting. Neither of us has a bluegrass background or an Appalachian background. It’s music that I love but not music that I took great cues from when writing songs or playing the guitar.
JM: You’re giving Prologue away for free. How did you decide to go that route?
JR: The business model is - give your music away for free and watch the money roll in. There are some dots that need to be connected between those two things which we’re still working on.
KP: It initially comes from I think the identification that the live show is the thing that really holds Joe and I up. I guess we’re blessed with enough youth to have the stamina to go do it a whole hell of a lot. I think we sort of identified early on that if we were going to have a go as a band, we’d have to do a whole lot of touring. And what better way to get people to come, and be supportive, and listen, and engage then to give them the material first.
JM: You guys are playing at McCabe’s on Saturday, the 13th. Is that the start of a new tour?
KP: Yeah, you’ve caught us in between tours. The last three months we had the great pleasure of supporting and playing with a real wonderful fellow named Joe Purdy, and we traveled the whole U.S. and a bit of Canada with him. And we decided after that experience, what better to do than to just go out and do it all over again ourselves. So we start the tour just before that McCabe’s show. That’ll sort of mark the start of another 46 shows on our own to go and kind of test the water.