It’s Going to Get Dark: An Interview with the Milk Carton Kids

The Milk Carton Kids
Milk Carton

Although contemporary culture has embraced the post-Internet age, ushering in such memes as “Gangnam Style” and the Vaporwave movement with equal weight, some people are still making music with their hands, and delivering it directly to the people. They used to call it folk music, music handed down from generation to generation through performance, music of, by and for the people. Now, we have a global village, and though the aesthetic may be adopted and adapted, in a fundamental way, folk music can never be the same.

Enter the Milk Carton Kids. Born out of the unforgiving and unexpected city of Los Angeles in early 2011, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan create lively, pristine folk music. Comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers are read in just about every article and review that even mentions them. Yet, for how deeply they tap into the spirit of the aged form, resonating across all demographics, they took a unique approach to engaging their audience, building their fan base by releasing their first two albums, Prologue and Retrospect, for free through their website.

Their style may be timeless, but they aren’t antiquated. As the duo performs in their Sunday best with just their voices and their guitars, the intricate style of Pattengale’s play balanced out by the levity of Ryan’s humorous banter, they accept reality for what it is, and what it can be. In this, they transcend many of their contemporaries, both as hardworking performers and as savvy businessmen, their abilities acting as their best form of advertising. Playing the Media Club in Vancouver as they toured in support of their 2011 albums, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan sat down with PopMatters for a lively conversation.

* * *

KP: Joey got some new clothes today. He’s very excited about that.

JR: I brought my LA clothes and then got Canada weather. I had to buy some Canada clothes. I got a jacket.

It was warm up here until yesterday, and then it went grey.

KP: When we’re coming, you know it’s going to get dark.

JR: That was a double entendre.

KP: Right on. Shall we start?

JR: We don’t even have to do an interview. We can just hang around for 20 minutes. You want a whiskey?


JR: Alright. I’ll bring it here. [walks away to get whiskey]

KP: You’re right in the middle of an interview, Joey. Like an appointment, you know?

JR: This is real life here.

While we wait, Kenneth, what’s the story about the kerchief on the guitar?

KP: It’s a very old guitar. It’s a 1954 Martin 0-15. It’s just old, so when you get above fret four or five, it starts to buzz a little bit, so you wrap it around there and it takes the buzz off the strings. It looks okay too. It looks decent. That’s the real reason. There’s something very subtle it does to the way the guitar sounds that’s also quite nice.

Is there a sentimental reason behind the guitar?

KP: No, not personal or sentimental. Joe also plays an early ’50s Gibson. They just sound better. That’s all. It’s like anything else around in the sense that… [Ryan returns with whiskeys, talking on cell phone] I’m trying to answer a question because we’re doing an interview, Joe. [Ryan approaches Pattengale’s MacBook] Don’t touch my computer, thanks. Do you want to join us?

JR: I just gotta get off with my wife in just a second.

KP. Great. Tell her you’ll call her back in 20 minutes.

JR: This is the real Milk Carton Kids.

KP: It’s like anything else. If you’re a racecar driver, if you buy a fast car, you’re going to look like you do your job better than maybe you actually can. Same thing with those guitars. Those guitars make us sound a lot better than we might actually be, I think. [Ryan touches Pattengale’s computer] I was going to wait until we’re done with the interview to re-cue that, now that there’s a snag.

JR: I think it’s more valuable if we just hang around and drink whiskey. You can run the tape and we can ask questions. You’ll gain more insight into seeing us bicker like this and me talk to my wife than you would asking…

KP: I’m not sure you talking to your wife is gonna be actually interesting.

JR: Well, insightful. For example, now he knows that I have a wife.

How’s that going?

JR: That is the pertinent question. Good, considering. We tour too much.

Is this the biggest tour you’ve been on?

JR: Yeah, it’s tied for the most number of shows in one tour, although we’ve done about four tours that have been this length so far, like 30-some shows. It always gets long in the middle of it, as far as being away from home. But, considering all that, home life is really good.

KP: You’ll also be home in 36 hours.

JR: I know. Can’t wait.

Is there a big folk scene in LA?

JR: I dunno. I think so. Haven’t been there very much in the past year and a half. Before, two years ago, when we were hanging around, yeah, there was a good scene. I think we made more friends than we did…

KP: Enjoy their music?

JR: Yeah… I was gonna say fans. We found a really nice home among some people in LA, been away from them for a little bit too long too, so much so that I feel like both of us are out of the loop. Kenneth lives in New York now when we get off tour, and I still live in LA, but for so seldomly [sic] and for such short times that I pretty much just stay at my house, hang out with my dogs and my wife.

KP: I take issue with the idea of a folk scene existing, not anywhere but particularly in Los Angeles. Seems like the idea of a folk scene engenders more of a community that’s actually based around music that’s relevant to the time, and music that represents what this generation has to say. In Los Angeles, the folks that are writing songs, irrespective of genre, you can talk about singer-songwriters or you can talk about bands or whatever, whether or not there’s a camaraderie among all of them as friends, I don’t know if there’s necessarily something that’s being said collectively. I think a lot of our contemporaries, to be honest, with regards to us, there’s an element of it where people are in the trade of writing songs, playing shows and releasing albums as a goal that purely financial or purely desirous personally. I think there’s a real thread of honesty in me and Joe’s work, there’s something that we’re saying with the songs, but we haven’t found a community to be a part of as far as folks with a similar voice, similar idea, or a similar message. Whether or not there are places in LA where lots of people go and play music and people come and see music, I don’t know if that constitutes a folk scene. I don’t know if that exists any more.

JR: I think I agree. There is a lot of camaraderie and there is a lot of friendship, but I don’t think there’s a collective voice. I don’t see, amongst those friends, is people challenging each other, and pushing friends musically. I don’t see a single perspective or even a coherent perspective emerging from the group. That being said, like I said before, we’re pretty removed from it nowadays.

KP: By contrast, I see pockets of younger kids in New York that gather at a place in Alphabet City every Monday night, and they play songs. Their personal aspirations aside, there’s something that culminates in that moment. Whereas, in Los Angeles, I think there are some pockets around that maybe operate under that principle, but more I think you find that people take the stage, and invite an audience, and try to put on a show that more resembles something that you’d find a much bigger artist doing in a much bigger venue, and the entire affair is limited to the scope of how it relates to them. It’s not like they’re trying to be part of something. They’re trying to do their thing, and shine a light on it. There’s nothing wrong with it, that’s what we all have to do to make this whole thing work, but when the question is asked about a folk scene or community or social experience, one that’s conversational in nature, that I don’t see in lots of places.

Is that part of why you decided to release your first two albums for free on the Internet, to tap into these pocket scenes where they exist, rather than the traditional folk music notion of the people, as in local people?

KP: I do think it had that effect. The greatest effect of putting our music out for free in the beginning, like you suggest, was a way of offering to everybody who was willing to listen to it, and the people who hung on were people who respond to the music. They don’t feel swayed one way or the other because they’ve invested. They just get to make an honest judgment call. If they show up and stick around, well then you’ve got somebody there who’s there for a good reason. Still in that scenario, the focus was entirely on us, but it was a way of helping to build an audience that was ours and was honest.

I hear a lot of honesty in your songwriting, but as I saw at your k.d. lang show here in Vancouver a few months back and in your Tiny Desk Concert at NPR, you guys have hilarious back-and-forth banter. Are you mindful of how you present more heartfelt, sad songs with a bit of light?

JR: Yeah, I think so.

KP: Well, it’s show business, after all.

JR: It is sort of a thing that started to come naturally, over time, having a lighthearted, intentionally comedic relationship with the crowd. It wasn’t as premeditated as saying, “Oh, we’ve got a bunch of earnest, sad songs. We better do something light in between.” Although I do think it has that effect. My favorite thing about that aspect of the show, those times between songs where we’re interacting with the crowd in conversation, is that it’s my only real chance to be improvisational at all, ever. Kenneth gets to flex that muscle every song on the guitar, some songs more than others, but to a great degree, he’s inventing every night on the stage musically. I’m not that kind of player, and I’m definitely not that kind of singer, so the thing for me that makes every show different is the interaction we have between songs with the crowd. It’s become important to me personally for that reason.

Would you consider yourself the straight man?

KP: Are you asking if he likes dudes?

JR: I guess you’re not the straight man.

Well, someone’s gotta be Dick Smothers.

JR: Interestingly, we get the Smothers Brothers comparison a lot. I’ve never seen or heard a second of the Smothers Brothers, so I don’t actually know what anyone is talking about.

KP: Joey’s just generally not culturally informed.

JR: Yeah, I try to keep to myself. But, yeah, it’s not that premeditated to where one would be the straight man and the other would be whatever the opposite of that is…

KP: You’re a bit of your own straight man. You can set ’em up and knock ’em down all your own. You do that pretty well. I sort of chime in when it seems like you’re really flailin’ or when I need to blow off some steam.

JR: It’s not always a rescue mission. Sometimes you have good things to say, just on their own.

KP: Also, sometimes you’re down on the ground, and I like to walk over and kick you a few times.

JR: Mostly what Kenneth says on the stage is that whatever I just said is not interesting or pertinent or funny.

KP: It’s the truth.

The last time you were in Vancouver was opening for k.d. lang. How was that tour?

KP: That tour was great.

JR: The only three shows that sucked were the Vancouver shows, unfortunately.

KP: Well, explain why they sucked. They didn’t suck. They were more difficult.

JR: The crowd talked so loudly through our sets that we couldn’t hear ourselves or perform. Those were the only three shows where we had that experience on that entire tour. That experience is very rare nowadays, but it happened basically three nights in a row in Vancouver. I think we still were able to make an impact and make a connection with the people and everything, but we largely scrapped a lot of that banter that we were just talking about between songs because it just doesn’t work if people are talking over it. We altered our set and played louder songs, and did our best with it. We faced a lot of louder crowds this summer as we went out on some bigger opening tours, and had to learn really quickly how to deal with it better. Those three shows with k.d. were the first of the really loud crowds, so I think if those happened at the end of the summer, those would have been a piece of cake. Those three shows aside, and even those weren’t so bad, that was one of the best three weeks on the road that we’ve had, mostly because she and everybody that she keeps around, her band and her crew, are really class acts and wonderful players. Everybody’s so good at their jobs, and really nice to us. Her crowds, the vast majority of them, were super attentive and appreciative. We had a lot of fun for three weeks.

KP: Ditto.

So if your next album goes gold, what would be on your dream rider? What’s your bowl of green M&Ms?

JR: We don’t have many rider requirements. I think we’d like to — as ridiculous as this sounds, being a duo and commonly described as a minimalist duo — I’d really like to be on tour on a bus, and not in a van any more. That would be thing I would be a diva about first. As long as there’s a bottle of Maker’s Mark and some water in the green room, I think we’ll get by just fine. We’ve logged a lot of miles in the last two years in a van, and I know a lot of people do it in a van a lot longer than that, but the sooner we can get out of that, the better.

KP: That’s fair.

You want your own buses?

JR: Talk to us about three months into a bus tour, we’ll want planes.

KP: Yeah, I don’t need to be in that circulated air with you. You’ve probably got some shit going on over there.

JR: I’ll tell you what makes a good green room at this level… a private, backstage bathroom, so you don’t have to shit with the people.

KP: Or shit for the people, depending on how you see it.

JR: Of the people, by the people… a trash can! Most greenrooms don’t have a trash can. It’s weird. And ice, which we also don’t have today.

KP: You’re a bit of a diva now. You could use an ironing board a lot of the times.

JR: Oh, no, I’ll tell you what makes a good green room: a bathroom and access to the stage. It should be behind the stage.

Yeah, ’cause here at the Media Club, the public bathroom is behind the stage.

JR: When we go to play the show, we’re going to walk through the crowd, which is fine, but we don’t get to make our big entrance.

KP: You gotta have that big entrance.

JR: Got to have a big entrance!

Well, maybe we could get the crowd to make that pep rally arch thing.

KP: That’d be funny. “Everybody form an arch! They’re coming through!”

JR: And you play the NBA entrance song [starts humming “Rock and Roll Part 1” by Gary Glitter] and everybody cheers and we run in…

KP: This is Canada… I guess there’s NBA fans here.

We used to have a team here, the Grizzles.

JR: Don’t you have the Raptors?

KP: They’re in Toronto.

JR: I mean Canada, the whole country.

Yeah, that’s our team. That’s where our baseball team is too. Kinda sad.

JR: And Montreal.

They went to Washington years ago.

JR: Oh, there’s no Expos any more? They went to DC?

KP: The Expos became the Nationals. DC is in the playoffs right now. Jason Werth hit a walk off homer in the ninth to make it a 2-2 series. What do you think about that?

Joey: I saw that. I don’t care. I’m more interested in the CFL [Canadian Football League].

You have a favorite team?

JR: I have a friend that played in the CFL. We went to college together, and he played on our college team, then he came and played here. I forget what team he was on here.

KP: But that’s the team you root for.

JR: Yeah, that one. His name is Tom Canada, an American guy, all conference defensive end and just didn’t have the size to go pro. He set all kinda of records at cal, division one pack 10 football, and played in the CFL for a few years after that. Now, I think he leads river rafting exhibitions. His name was Tom Canada, so when he came here, they did all their promo shit around him.

We’re really happy when anybody mentions our country. Every time they show Canada on The Simpsons, it’s front-page news here.

KP: That’s great.

JR: The one Canada reference that always sticks out in my mind, from the Simpsons, is when someone suggests that they’re going to go to Canada, and Homer Simpson says, basically, I think this is a pretty good quote, he says “Oh, man… Why would we leave America to go to America Junior?”

KP: Oh, my God.

I think that’s the one where Marge gets off the bus in Toronto and says, “It’s so clean and bland. I’m home!”

KP: I think they got it wrong. I love Canada. I think people are nicer, shit goes on a whole lot more efficiently.

JR: We didn’t write that joke.

The Simpsons had a few Canadian writers, so they can get away with it.

JR: That’s the thing. Canadians are stealth. In music and everything else, I think Canadians are much more aware of it, but as Americans, we don’t realize how many of our favorites are actually Canadian. Like I didn’t have much of an awareness that k.d. lang was Canadian until we started talking about going on tour with her. Just never occurred to me one way or the other. I’d never considered where she was from. Growing up, it didn’t occur to me that Neil Young was Canadian, even as I was a huge fan of his as a teenager.

KP: Well, that’s good. I’m glad we cleared that up ’cause you’d shined a light on the downer Simpson-Canada quotes.

JR: He brought up The Simpsons.

KP: Right, well, I’m glad we went back the other way.

JR: I don’t think it’s America junior.

KP: Put that on the record. Now it’s on the record.

JR: For the record.

KP: There you go.

JR: It’s a better place here, man. You can’t argue with that.

The Byrds wrote a song about us, “Blue Canadian Rockies.”

JR: Now, the Canadian Rockies are not part of the same mountain range as the American Rockies, is that correct?

KP: That’s correct.

JR: Like the American Rockies end, and the Canadian Rockies then start back up, is that right?

KP: Yup.

JR: Like in Idaho and Montana and Washington, you don’t have the Rockies, but then due north is the Canadian one.

KP: That’s right.

JR: So what’s the deal with that?

KP: It’s the Rocky Mountains. It’s not like a place name. It’s a geographical reference.

JR: Geological.

KP: Geological and geographical.

JR: So they are related then, they take a break there but they’re the same thing?

KP: No, there could be Rockies in India for all you know. I imagine it’s a reference to the type of mountain, so they’re related in the sense that…

JR: I don’t think so. It’s not like igneous rock. It’s not like a type of mountain.

KP: I know. It’s a blanket nickname for what’s going on there.

JR: So they looked at the one and they looked at the other and said, “These look the same.”

KP: No, like the Blue Ridge Mountains in Kentucky could be called the Rockies if somebody wanted to call them that, but there was already a Rocky Mountain range.

JR: Yeah, so why are those two unrelated, if they are unrelated, mountain ranges called the same thing?

KP: If you owned a BMW and you called it affectionately a “beamer,” and then your neighbor down the street had one and called his a “beamer,” and one day you threw a big shit-fit because you’re like, “They must be related.” No, you just happened on the nickname in the same way.

JR: No, they are related. They’re the same car. They’re both BMWs.

KP: Yeah, but these are just mountains, man.

JR: So you can call any mountain range the Rockies if you want to?

KP: If you wanted to, but you didn’t get there first. Whoever was there first did so. It’s a coincidence.

JR: They right north and south, and it seems like one runs into another.

KP: That’s your problem, and your supposition.

JR: We could Wikipedia this.

KP: So that’s how they solved the Rockies. They could be related, but they don’t have to be. It could just be a coincidence.

JR: It’s not a coincidence.

KP: Well, there you go.

JR: What else you got for us?

I dunno.

KP: My favorite interview ever. I love it.

JR: This is the best interview.

How many Maker’s Marks have you guys had?

JR: Tonight?

KP: You’re having the first with us. Boy, I’m exhausted, though. We woke up extra early in case we met trouble at the border, but they were very kind to us.