The Milk Carton Kids has done an awful lot in a very short time. The guitarists and songwriters Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale formed less than two years ago, but they’ve already captivated fans, critics and contemporaries with their subdued folk and intimate harmonies. The Milk Carton Kids is about to release its third album, The Ash & Clay, (out March 26), but don't stop short at buying the record.
In an interview with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Ryan and Pattengale explain why they really want you to check them out live, describe their fateful first meeting, and pay homage to some of their cherished folk forebearers. They also perform in the studio.
Ryan, on the first time he and Pattengale played music together:
“I had something wrong with my throat after a surgery and I couldn’t — I lost a little bit of the range off the top. So I took the guitar down a whole step so I could perform my own songs, and then I never put it back. And by the time we started playing together, when Kenneth invited me over to his house to sort of sit on the porch and trade songs for the first time, they just sort of sounded like this together, and our eyebrows raised.”
Pattengale, on why The Milk Carton Kids released their first two albums for free:
“We’re happy with it. It was sort of to the point. Joey and I very soon realized that we fashioned ourselves a live band. That was the thing. And two years later we’ve proved it by doing 250 shows or so. But, you know, to me it put sort of an exclamation point on that thought — giving away the albums. It meant to say out loud: ‘Here’s what we do, and if you want to see what we really do, please come to a show.’ And a lot of people took that and ran with it.”
Pattengale, on whether the duo sees their songs as fitting within a rock and roll tradition:
“We really love nothing more — and go to great lengths — to put on a show from start to finish for our audience…. I think that’s in the rock and roll spirit. There’s something about having obviously music that, when threadbare, has a particular meaning, but also adhering to the idea of showmanship, and putting the people who are paying attention in a place to experience something that doesn’t happen passively day to day for them.”
Ryan, on the importance of their folk duo predecessors:
“I remember my mind being blown by the Scaggs & Rice duo record that they made with two voices and a guitar and mandolin. And we get plenty of... quiet sibling harmony comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel. I think that’s obviously the most culturally broad reference. And then more recently, people like Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings have held up a torch and lit the way for that tradition. It’s hard to say whether we’re consciously following in a tradition, but it’s also — I’m not willing to say that what we do would be possible without what all of them did going back many decades.”