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‘sing a song i learned out on the road’: the story of the milk carton kids

October 11, 2011
The Milk Carton Kids

The Milk Carton Kids

Tucked into the cozy Aster Café on an unseasonably chilly Minneapolis fall evening all chatter has ceased. Even the industrious wait staff seem to be distracted. The owner of the place leans over to me and says that he and his team hardly even hear the musical acts anymore but they’re all tuned in right now, there’s “something different” about these guys. “I think you’re on to something here.”

“Something different” could easily be the tagline for The Milk Carton Kids. In a world where modern recording technology and assorted audio wizardry dominate the musical landscape there really is something different about two guys alone with their vintage guitars delivering powerful sets night after night that ring completely true to their outstanding recorded work.

Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, a pair of Los Angeles based singer-songwriters with nearly a dozen solo albums between them, have forged a new musical identity in their partnership as The Milk Carton Kids. They’ve been on a pretty meteoric rise since their serendipitous meeting just over a year ago. As Ryan tells it he walked into The Hotel Café in Los Angeles, where Pattengale was singing a song written from the perspective of a dog “and it just really struck me. There’s a lot of people that play around Los Angeles and he stood out. The song and his performance and everything about it, there was something different.”

Ryan introduced himself after the show and the guys ended up getting together to play some music. It turned out that they were mutual fans of each other’s writing, which was a good start, but when they began playing together Ryan says “there was this odd sense of completeness to the sound that came out of the two guitars and two voices that was really striking.” Even their instruments seemed predestined for partnership. Ryan’s 1951 Gibson J-45 and Pattengale’s 1954 Martin O-15 sound like they’ve spent half a century lying in wait to be joined together.

After a few weeks of informal jamming through each other’s catalogs they decided to play a show together. Before long they were shelving their solo careers completely to devote themselves to this new entity. It was a leap of faith that is paying off in a major way.

In less than a year The Milk Carton Kids have released two albums and are in the midst of a national headlining tour, on the heels of a highly successful opening gig for acclaimed singer-songwriter Joe Purdy’s spring tour.

I happened to be at the kick off show of Joe Purdy’s tour in Austin, Texas this past April. Opening bands are notoriously hit and miss so I had little expectation of greatness. I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I got. Minutes into their set they had the crowd at attention, delivering one beautifully crafted song after another.  Between songs their deadpan stage banter provided a wonderful levity, digging them out of the morose singer-songwriter trenches. “I don’t know if you all know this or not but Kenneth here is going to be a father,” announces Ryan during one such moment. A collective “aww” sweeps the audience. “He’s just waiting for the right woman to be the mother.” The crowd erupts in laughter as the guys launch into Pattengale’s song “Charlie” an open letter to his as-yet very unborn daughter.

Their set was short that first night but they returned to play the rest of the show as Joe Purdy’s backing band. Here they had a chance to show off more of their impressive musical chops, while adding a brilliant new dimension to Purdy’s standout catalog.

I walked away that night knowing I’d just seen something big, and I wasn’t the only one. As the tour snaked its way across the U.S. and Canada The Milk Carton Kids racked up an impressive following, their music clearly resonating with Purdy’s devout fan base.

The Milk Carton Kids

Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan. Photo by Rachel Briggs, American Songwriter Magazine

Their first album, Retrospect, became my springtime album obsession.  Recorded prior to the announcement of their band name and released  under Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan, Retrospect is a live recording featuring the songs culled from their individual catalogs during their formative jam sessions. They would sit on the porch at Pattengale’s house offering up their own songs back and forth. Song after song just seemed to work. In our interview Ryan claims “There’s only a couple songs that we tried out that didn’t end up on Retrospect. If we brought up a song in those informal sessions and it didn’t work the first time through we just kind of moved on to the next one.” Pattengale is quick to retort “Not entirely true. We played a number of songs that didn’t end up on the record.” Commence brotherly dispute over how many songs were played and scrapped, foreign song titles drift past my ears as they grapple for consensus, ultimately deciding that it doesn’t really matter.  And of course it doesn’t, but the exchange illuminates one of the keys to the duo’s success: an easy fraternal camaraderie that pervades their partnership.

They can both agree that though the songs that made up The Milk Carton Kids’ original repertoire had been written and performed by them as solo artists, the versions put to tape on Retrospect are the “marquis and definitive versions.” Ryan adds that many of his songs on the album really benefited from the stripped down treatment. That bare bones approach to music making is what really sets The Milk Carton Kids apart. Beautifully written songs performed with two voices and two guitars, both in the studio and on the road. They steer away from laying down anything on a recording that they can’t faithfully recreate onstage. Pattengale explains, “Oftentimes in the heightened mood and excitement of making an album you spend a little extra money on that guitar player you can’t take on tour with you but you can hire for four days or you’re put in front of a bunch of microphones that don’t quite represent your voice the way a microphone on stage does. For Joey and I, we get about as close to what we get to do every night in that studio.”

Their follow-up album Prologue was recorded in just four and a half days. The studio process, which tends to be a notorious quagmire for more technically inclined bands, is a fairly straightforward affair when capturing The Milk Carton Kids’ unadorned aesthetic. That’s why, when you hear them perform songs from Prologue live they ring completely true to the essence and spirit of their original form. There is something uniquely gratifying about hearing a band play a song live as well or better than they played it for the version you know by heart. Of course you don’t want a direct recitation a la Milli Vanilli, as every live show is its own unique experience, but an accurate representation seems harder to come by then you’d think. The Milk Carton Kids take it a step further, by relying solely on their voices and their instruments in the grand folk tradition.

Joining forces to make Prologue, the guys had to adapt their intensely personal solo songwriting process into a more collaborative effort. They agreed early on that if any level of co-writing were going to work they would need to not only be able to critique each other openly, but that they would both wield an important veto power. Neither one would let something on the record that they couldn’t both be proud to put their names behind. That high critical threshold benefited them greatly, as the nine songs that made it onto Prologue are each well-crafted, gorgeously presented numbers. Pattengale likened their joint-songwriting approach to their life on the road: “I’d like to think of it in the sense that it’s actually kind of like when Joe and I tour, we’re both in the damn car together but only one of us can do the driving. There’s definitely a driver on each song. We were both in the room for the duration of the road trip and when I was in the passenger seat I was yelling at Joe quite a bit, and I think the same was true when the positions were reversed.”

Milk Carton Kids

"Sing a song I learned out on the road..."

And they do spend a lot of time together on the road. Just this year they’ve done 40 shows with Joe Purdy, plus their own 46-date tour, and they’ve just announced six more West Coast dates opening for Over the Rhine this November. Do the math, and that’s a lot of nights away from home. “I’ve probably spent more on hotels this year than I have on rent at any time in my life” quips Pattengale who often Tweets the tally of his nights in his own bed vs. nights on the road this year.  But no one is complaining, well, not really… “Joe’s got a wife, he’s got someone else very clearly on Earth that he’d rather be spending 24 hours a day with than me. I would happily trade Joe out of the seat [in the car] for my girlfriend for that amount of time, but here we are stuck together doing this thing that we really like doing.” But Ryan is quick to correct him, “I wouldn’t trade you for my wife in that seat. I would add my wife. I would never want you gone Kenneth, never.”  Aw.

I had to ask the guys how their backgrounds figure into their songwriting, because much of their music is infused with a real sense of Americana. Knowing they are based in Los Angeles I asked the question expecting some kind of hard scrabble story of a migration to Golden California from a small dead-end town in the Midwest, maybe even a Dylanesque tall-tale about riding the rails out to the land of opportunity. But my romantic presupposed answer wasn’t to be. Turns out, they were both born and raised in sunny Los Angeles. Though they grew up on different sides of town, Ryan offered an interesting take on how their L.A. upbringing figures into their music: “There’s a feeling that I get, that I notice in other people from Los Angeles and in myself, that, as cliché or as cheesy as it sounds, everything is possible. That everything is kind of right in front of you and just there for the taking. I think it has to do with the culture of the city, being full of people that are pursuing dreams. But there’s also something about the topography. Both of us grew up in the hills of Los Angeles and there was always a sense that I had from driving around and walking around and living up in those hills looking down on the city that this whole world was very manageable. It was expansive and it was labyrinthine, but at the same time there it is, and you can see it all before you and all you have to do is go down and make what you want of it.” The Milk Carton Kids certainly are doing just that.

Their albums, Retrospect and Prologue, are available to download completely free from their website. Both albums, though released several months apart, have surpassed 24,000 downloads. While they jest onstage that the free download policy was born out of them “just wanting to have a policy of some kind.” It really has a lot more to do with the grassroots spirit of sharing their music. When asked if they envision ever changing this “policy,” they both agree that there would have to be a pretty compelling reason for them to change what they’re doing. And that goes for more than just the album distribution. The Milk Carton Kids must be doing something right, they’ve come a long way in a short time by making their own particular kind of music magic. As Ryan says, “So far I don’t think we’re in a position to really be changing anything that we’re doing.  I, for one, am really enjoying the way everything’s going and the spirit of it and the response and the gratitude for it that seems to be out there. I wouldn’t change anything.”  ♦

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 11, 2011 12:05 pm

    This was beautifully written and such a great portrait of these guys, Allie. Loved every word. You rock.

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