They’ve come a long way in a short time span of four years, and now that they’ve miraculously returned with their third studio album, Monterey, The Milk Carton Kids have served up yet another savory, harmonious folk compilation that speaks to the mind and soul alike. Only this time, their album holds a bolder, more thriving outlook on the world. Founded upon the fearless pursuit of spontaneity and intelligent musical style, the dynamic duo of The Milk Carton Kids, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan’s Monterey delves deep into the valuable aspects of human life, and impactfully expands upon the importance of compassionate recognition on a personal and social level. As soon as you hear the first track, there’s nothing else that matters other than the exquisitely airy, light plucking of acoustic guitar strings and the lyrically conscientious, ethereal voices, all of which you could only experience in your dreams.

Before they officially embark on a nationwide tour, I caught up with The Milk Carton Kids’ vital counterpart, Joey Ryan, who dished out some of the details pertaining to their upcoming tour, Monterey, and the next step after their return.

Since you and Kenneth are a musical duo, how is the music writing process?

Hm, parts of it are easy and parts are more difficult than writing alone. I guess those two things are kind of related…the best part of it is having somebody that can sort of keep you honest when maybe you’re not doing your best work. Somebody can give notes, somebody to help refine an idea that you have, or a melody, or some sort of lyrical line that you’re pursuing.

Do you find that composing music between two people is easier or more difficult?

A lot of the time I think that we’ve benefited from the help of each other in chasing down the best version of whatever song we’re trying to write. That is also some of the harder stuff to do is to let someone else into your very personal process and sometimes very personal narrative, and trust them enough to let them get their hands dirty with it. We fight a lot about that stuff, but it’s always very productive and I credit the partnership with our ability to do our best work.

For your new album, Monterey, I heard that rather than recording in a studio, you guys chose to use the recordings of your live shows instead. What were some of the challenges that came along with that, if any?

Well, just to make sure, we’ve recorded in the venues that we’re playing on our last tour, but we recorded during the daytime when there was no audience. We were just recording standing on stage as though we were playing a show, but to an empty house. So we would spend about five or six hours a day writing and recording on stage, but it’s definitely not a live album in terms of, you know, being a live performance being in front of an audience.

We wanted to sort of approximate or salvage some of the feeling or playing a live showlike playing a theater of reacting to the acoustics of the rooms that we’re playing and capture some of that on the album, both in the way that it influences the sound of the recording and also in the ways that it influences our performance.

Since the release of The Ash & Clay, what would you say have been the biggest differences between that and Monterey, in terms of your approaches to writing songs and performing live?

We decided again very consciously to stay within the same framework of having just our two guitars and our two voices, and the thing that we were really trying to do from a performance perspective was to play as loosely and as uninhibitedly on record as we are able to do in front of a crowd or as we do in our shows, including The Ash & Clay. Some deliberate, very studio-like in our actual musical performance, and we wanted to get away from that and try to be a bit more impulsive and liberated, so that was a big part of the methodology to making the record.

As far as writing, I think we’re sort of trying to take the same approach, but we’re just different people now from what we were two, three years ago when we were writing songs for The Ash & Clay. We’re both getting to be to the end of our early 30s, you know, a wife and a kid, I’m not ready to say we’re in our mid-30s, because it sounds horrible and inaccurate. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t cop to mid-30s just yet. But when I’m 34, I’m not going to really have an excuse (laughs).

(Laughs) Gotta play that age card for as long as you can, right?

Yeah! Yeah, I’m clinging to this thirties thing, but you know, I think the theme seems to be a bit more mature, there a bit more about things that are permanent, things like family, social and societal issues that tend to not be going away, and I think some of the earlier writing was, you know, about some of the vicissitudes of transitioning from like adolescence into adulthood.

Now that you guys are on your third album, do you feel like you’re able to take more chances with experimenting new sound, techniques, and whatnot?

We have not done that, really at all (laughs). You know, the big joy, the big exhilaration, the big thrill for us, has actually been the opposite of that. It has been staying committed to this framework of two guitars and two voices and seeing what new things we can discover within that framework, rather than reaching outside of that for inspiration or for you know, something new. It’s infinitely rewarding. There’s still nothing I love better than being as exposed as we are with just two guitars and two voices. We are challenged to keep making that work, and that’s not lost, it’s luster for me.

A lot of people who have listened to your music, most notably that from Monterey, have compared you to Simon & Garfunkel, how do you feel about that?

This maybe makes me sound naive or something, but I think it’s a product of not having actually listened to much Simon & Garfunkel. I mean, I’ve listened to so much of the Simon & Garfunkel catalog and all of Simon’s solo records, which has played a big role in my life and musical education and development. But less so, Simon & Garfunkel obviously very familiar, wasn’t something I ever got really addicted to and dove deeply into, but when I do go back and listen to it now, I think, “Oh yeah, we sound just like them!”

But on a certain level, it’s mainly the voices, you know? The first thing that hits anybody is the voices. And the sound of our voices and the sound of their voices, there’s really something-there’s really a kinship between the harmonies that we sing and the harmonies that they sing, and obviously it’s not something intentional, it’s not something you could possibly do intentionally. You can’t make yourself sound your voices sound like two other people’s voices on purpose, unless you’re a really talented voice-over actor (laughs).

Does that come as a surprise to you at all?

I was surprised in the beginning, but maybe that’s just—I wasn’t aware enough of how much that comparison was going to actually be appropriate. That being said, it definitely is a surface level comparison, so on the one hand, the similarities are obvious, but to me so are the difference, and I think everybody gets that. I think it’s very easy, very broad point of reference. I mean, if I’m getting on a plane and the stewardess asks me what my band sounds like, oftentimes I’ll go, “It’s like Simon & Garfunkel,” because everybody knows what that means, and it’s not wrong to say that (laughs). It’s just a really easy way to shortcut.

I am surprised when serious people try and say that, like it’s anything more than something to use when you’re getting on a plane and you don’t want to really engage with somebody on a deep level about what your band is.

Yeah, I’m sure it’s much easier to just be brief sometimes.

Yeah! Like, if I take an Uber and, based on discussion or other prejudgements I make about the driver, if they ask about the band, I’ll say, “We sound like Simon and Garfunkel,” because so many people know what that means.

As you guys have demonstrated, there is an interesting sense of fearlessness and spontaneity that comes along with each performance you guys take on. Would you say that those two qualities should be a universal law to all musicians?

No. I don’t think so. I think it’s very appropriate in certain genres and for certain bands. It’s important to be spontaneous and improvisational, and sort of liberated. But other musical works of art are intended to be very deliberate and very thought out and composed. And my favorite contemporary, though they haven’t put out a record in a while, is Radiohead, and there’s, to my knowledge, it’s not a big part of their performance in my mind to be improvisational or be spontaneous.

I guess maybe I’m betraying some lack of knowledge about Radiohead here (laughs), but it sounds to me like these are very deliberate brain child of a mad genius, holed up in the studio, really going over sounds, rhythms, and melodies until they’re just right, until it’s meant to be the way that it is, and that’s it, and it’s beautiful and incredibly inspiring.

Definitely. Along with your skyrocketing popularity since your 2013 Grammy nomination and winning a 2014 Americana Music Award, how has all of this changed your personal lives?

…I have two trophies now…on my desk. That’s a big change, because before, the only trophies I had were from Little League (laughs). And I don’t know, on the one hand it has to be our instinct to downplay awards for our creations, on the other hand, it really to me, is a big point of pride to have that sort of validation from your peers you know? The people that vote on these awards are people we respect.

People that we know, a lot of people that we look up to and idolize, and to have them say collectively, “Hey, you did a good job,” and that means a lot. I think it’s important to let it mean a lot. On that level, then there are some various business advantages like people when they book you for a festival-you can ask them to pay you more because you say that you got a Grammy nomination or whatever. That helps us a little bit, but you know, it’s nothing life-changing.

When we found out about the Grammy nomination we saw T Bone Burnett a couple nights later. I was kind of bragging about it, but I was also trying to play it cool, and he sensed that and he called me on it. He was like, “You know what? It’s hard enough in this lifetime to get any validation and when you get it, you should take it and be proud of it.” So, I decided at that point that that’s what I would do.

Wow, that’s some really great advice. Now, I know it’s probably still a little early to ask, since Monterey was just released this past spring, but as of now, do you guys plan on writing anything for a possible future album while on tour?

We made a very conscious decision and effort to write and record Monterey on the last tour and we’re not endeavoring to do that again specifically, but I do think that we’ll spend a good amount of time writing together. We’ve made a commitment to each other to do that.

What can we expect from you guys after the tour ends later on in December?

We’re going to go on for our winter hibernation, because we’ve gotten caught in enough snowstorms (laughs), and we have to be out in December and January for the most part, and then I think that we’re going to try and go to Europe, and next year we might go back to Australia, it remains to be seen.

There’s a film that we might score, and then next year we’ll hopefully get to do a big tour in North America and visit a lot of the places we’re missing on this tour. Believe it or not, you do 40 cities in North America, and there’s still a lot of work to do after that!

 

The Milk Carton Kids will be performing alongside Kacy & Clayton on Sept. 9 at Keswick Theatre in Philadelphia, PA and on Sept. 11 at Town Hall in New York. Their new album, Monterey, is on sale now. For more information, visit their official website at themilkcartonkids.com.

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