Milk Carton Kids Aren’t Lost in Folk Realm

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The Milk Carton Kids may hail from the West Coast, but their musical roots are in the East Coast folk revival of the early 1960s, when acts like Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and some kid named Bobby Dylan were playing small venues around Greenwich Village.

Earlier this year, the L.A. duo — Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale — joined a lineup that included many of their heroes for Another Day, Another Time, a concert film companion to the Coen Brothers newest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.

The release of Another Day, Another Time caps a big year for the Kids. In March, they released their Anti- Records debut, The Ash & Clay, which showcased their folksy strums, catchy hooks and Garfunkular harmonies. It will compete for best folk album at the Grammys later this month.

Also in 2014, the duo will appear on Austin City Limits, launch a headlining tour and release their own concert DVD.

Another big event: Ryan became a father in the fall. When CMT Edge caught up with him just before the holidays, the conversation was punctuated by the cries and gurgles of his 1-month-old son, whom he watches between tours.

“I’m a full-time babysitter,” he says. “That’s all I do. I just sit around and wait for him to get hungry again.”

CMT Edge: How did you end up in Another Day, Another Time?

Ryan: We got a phone call asking us if we wanted to be involved, and it seemed like it was already half-formed when they asked us about it — enough for us to understand what a special thing it was going to be. We had to cancel a show and reroute ourselves to get to New York.

T Bone Burnett and the Punch Brothers seemed to be wrangling the herd, and we developed a close friendship with them. I guess everybody feels like there’s something going on with this kind of music right now, and it was a good excuse to make this film that would serve as promotion for, and be promoted by, Inside Llewyn Davis.

Do you feel like there’s something going on with this kind of music right now?

I do. But I also think that it’s always been going on. There are a few bands in the last five years that have thrust banjos into the mainstream, so if that means there’s a folk revival … I think that’s a weak argument because all of the bands that played in the film have been doing what they do for a long time now. But it’s nice that there’s a spotlight being cast a little brighter on it.

What was it like making the concert film?

Chris Wilcha, the director, did a wonderful thing where he focuses equally on the concert that happened at Town Hall on Sunday night and on the preceding days of rehearsal at Avatar Studios in New York. He includes some of the backstage jam sessions that took place throughout the show. It was almost like when you were onstage doing your part of the concert, you felt left out because the real party was taking place backstage where people were jamming together.

For us, the experience of being at the concert was literally doing one song, but it was a three-day process of creative development with the other artists — meals and bonding and new friendships. It was like summer camp.

Was there anyone in particular that you were looking forward to meeting?

The people I was most excited to meet, I didn’t know if they would even be there or how they would be involved, but Joel and Ethan Coen were in the rehearsal studio all the time that weekend. They just liked being there and hearing the music. That was unexpected and very meaningful. It made a very powerful statement. It was nice meeting them and talking to them about this film. There were so many musicians there who have affected our lives, but [the Coen Brothers’] movies had had just as much of an impact on me.

And Joan Baez. It was clear from sitting with her for even a few minutes that she has lost none of her passion for music and also the principles that her music has always stood for.

When did you first become aware of folk musicians like Joan Baez?

My parents played that music at our house. Growing up, that’s all I had. Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison and Neil Young. … That was my entire formative experience of listening to music, that sort of 1960s and 1970s folk. My mother is obsessed with Joan Baez and played her records at our house all the time.

Did she get to meet her at the show?

My mother didn’t get to the come to the shows. When we had the concert in New York and when we were in Los Angeles for the screening, Mom had some sort of commitment that she couldn’t cancel. Joan was there, but Mom had to miss every opportunity to meet her idol.

What did you think of Inside Llewyn Davis?

Like all Coen Brothers movies, I enjoyed it immensely more the second time. I liked it the first time, but I didn’t understand it was funny. The second time, I couldn’t stop laughing.

With O Brother, Where Art Thou, it took me four or five times to realize it’s one of the funniest movies ever made, but before that, I didn’t even realize it was a comedy at all. I think you have to get to know the characters before you can realize they’re funny. They just seem offbeat until you get to know them. Then they’re hilarious.

And even when they’re making fun of their characters, the Coens always seem to identify with them and how their struggles make them sympathetic.

They’re like novelists. I’ve watched them do interviews or Q&A’s after a screening, and they don’t like to talk about the symbolism in their movies. Somebody asked them in New York about the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis. “What is the purpose of the cat? What does it mean?”

I think Ethan said, “We had this character and we realized that nothing really happens to him, so we figured we better give him a cat.” That’s his answer. The cat, of course, can symbolize any number of things and adds an incredible layer of depth to the movie. But the Coens just want to leave that to us. You can ruin it by talking too much about it.

I think assigning a specific meaning to something like that does a movie a considerable disservice. It can only mean that one thing and nothing else.

One of the purposes of writing in any form is to get at things that are impossible to get at with language, so you just have to talk around it. You have to use suggestive imagery and metaphor and allegory to make people feel something. The minute you tell somebody what something means, you’re removing all the power of the literary tool that was meant to say something that is not sayable in language.

Is that a rule that you apply to songwriting?

I think so. I think you always have to leave a lot of ways into a song.

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