Milk Carton Kids Found a Sound Through Subtlety

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Once upon a time, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan were stand-alone, guitar-playing singer-songwriters, both based in California, both around the same age and both experiencing some inertia in their careers.

Two short years later, they’ve transformed themselves into the acoustic duo the Milk Carton Kids with three albums — the independently released Retrospect and Prologue and their ANTI- Records debut The Ash & Clay — a slew of headlining club dates and a substantial bit of buzz to show for it.

Ryan and Pattengale may have built up steam professionally, but subtlety is their bread and butter — finessed melodies, the intricate twining of two voices and the combined effect of strummed chords beneath quietly surprising solos. And they’ve clearly learned a thing or two from the highly influential modern roots duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

CMT Edge: I’m not going to ask you to explain for the umpteenth time how you and Kenneth met and started making music together.

Ryan: You have no idea how much I appreciate that.

Being a solo singer-songwriter could be considered the ultimate mode of self-expression in popular music. You were each committed to that before you set it aside to do Milk Carton Kids. Why do you think you saw teaming as a duo as a more promising thing?

I’ve gotta say that in the beginning, any sort of potential for a bigger audience was completely lost on us. I think it came out of a real artistic dissatisfaction, definitely speaking for myself. I think I can safely speak for Kenneth.

It’s true that the solo singer-songwriter is the quintessential mode of self-expression but I don’t think either of us was achieving that on our own. I had the experience of falling short most of the time, even when I wanted to express. I wasn’t able to get to a place that I was confident that what I was doing was worthwhile.

All of the sudden, when we started playing together, we started pushing each other in ways that nobody else had ever dared to push us, and it started to very quickly feel like we were doing something worthwhile for the first time artistically. We were saying things that we had always wanted to say in a way that we wanted to say them, and it felt good. It felt fulfilling and rewarding.

It sounds like you did give at least a little bit of thought to what you were giving up and what you were gaining in return when you made that move.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we were very familiar with what we were going to be giving up, and I don’t think it was that hard to give it up. … Our relationship is like a marriage in a lot of important ways — and not like a marriage in a couple of important ways, too. (laughs)

Did it seem paradoxical that in doubling your lineup, you were simultaneously whittling your accompaniment way down? You’d each recorded solo albums with additional layers of instrumentation.

Yeah, many additional layers. Absolutely. It’s paradoxical. It’s ironic. But it’s the best thing that we ever did.

That also was sort of an immediate thing. I think the first song that we played together was one of mine called “Permanent.” Kenneth invited me over the first time, and we sat on his porch and played it. And when we heard the recording back, it sounded all of a sudden like what the song was supposed to be, like the message of the song was just cutting through so sharply in a way that it never had with all the extra instrumentation.

And it’s not just pure sparseness either. I could do [that song] solo and it would be even more sparse, but that didn’t quite capture it either. There’s something about the duality of a close harmony being sung. There’s a fundamental thing to our guitar playing that’s opposite from one another, but they fit together just right. They’re complementary, I guess. There’s something to that and the harmony singing that made that song work finally. One song after another, that was what we experienced on that first day. All this time we’d been chasing down these big, expansive arrangements, and they’d obscured the message.

When you stand next to each other playing, the contrast is visible. Kenneth has a tightly-wound quality when he’s playing all his guitar runs, and you have a more placid presence on your side of the stage.

Well, those presences come from deep within us. That difference between us runs through every aspect of our relationship pretty much.

You’ve noted how frequently you get compared to Simon & Garfunkel or the Everly Brothers. But I would say the influence that comes through clearest in your music by far is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Their Time (The Revelator) album would’ve come out while you were both in college. Did you get into it back then?

Absolutely. For me, that is probably when it came out, although I didn’t find that record, in particular, for a little while after that.

I never heard the Simon & Garfunkel or Everlys thing. I don’t know any Everly Brothers songs other than the biggest of their hits. I’m not sure that I know any Louvin Brothers songs. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a moment in my life of the Smothers Brothers, who we also get compared to.

But I do hear the Gillian and Dave influence in our music very plainly. I think both of us had really strong phases, when we either first discovered or sometime shortly after discovering their records, of becoming infatuated with them for a period of time. I will say, though, that that didn’t actually take hold of me in an influential way consciously at all. When we formatted this band and sat and played together as a duo and Kenneth’s playing chromatic dissonant runs on the guitar, then I said, “This has got a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings thing to it.” It’s gotta be a subconscious thing because it’s in there so deep, but it wasn’t something that we thought about.

We go out on tour with the Punch Brothers now and the new old-time string band that is Old Crow Medicine Show, and we start meeting people at festivals that also love and idolize Gillian’s records but that come from a background of old-time music or bluegrass music, which is not the background that we come from. Our peers don’t actually seem to write songs in a way that’s consistent with that infatuation, whereas Gillian does. She writes songs that sound like the songs that she would love.

And I think a lot of the people that we’ve come across, they can sit around with each other [and play] 500 songs in a row that they all know in common since they grew up with them, but when it comes time to write songs, they don’t seem to be taking many lessons from them. Which is fine. I mean, everyone’s got their own way of expressing themselves. But [Gillian has] adhered so tightly to a tradition that I think it makes her a little bit easier to receive.

The way that we’ve looked at it ourselves is to actually try and break from that tradition, lyrically and in the themes that we’re tackling and the imagery we’re evoking, even as the instrumentation and some of the aesthetics of the musical style of it all places us firmly within the fold of a tradition.

You do seem to write from your contemporary vantage points as men in your early 30s. How do you think that pairing of a sound that points back and a perspective in the present shapes the way your music is being received?

There’s an immediate benefit that we get, probably, in people’s perception of us that plays on their sense of nostalgia, their sense of tradition, their sense of familiarity. On the surface, what we’re doing becomes very accessible because of all those things. We’ve not been accused of inventing a new sound, for example, or credited with it, to say it the other way. Aesthetically it seems to fall in line with a tradition.

The downside of it is nobody’s gonna clamor over you like you’ve invented something new, but the upside is you get to have your own take on something that’s already firmly entrenched in our collective identity. Those sounds and this tradition run deep, and if we can extend it into a contemporary setting by speaking honestly from our own perspectives in 2013 as 31-year-old men, then I guess I think that’s an important job. Or at least it’s one that’s fulfilling to me.

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