(Writer’s note: This is an extended version of the interview that ran in our May issue)
The Milk Carton Kids are an acoustic duo from Los Angeles comprised of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale. Their songs and stagecraft harken back to a time when all you needed was a voice and an instrument to gain an audience. Through three albums, including their most recent, “Monterey,” the group has kept their solemn music relatively unchanged but still infused with a passion that is unmistakably theirs. We talked with Joey Ryan about meeting Emmylou Harris, playing folk festivals and exactly how many suits the dapper duo brings on tour.
KS: I saw recently that Tom Jones covered one of your songs on his latest album. How did that come together?
JR: That’s right! I’m pretty sure it came together because Ethan Johns was producing Tom Jones’ album, and Ethan’s a friend of ours and a fan of ours, I guess. He must’ve influenced Sir Tom to cover that song. It’s pretty cool.
KS: Is this the first time someone with a title has covered one of your songs?
JR: Definitely, definitely. It’s pretty much the only time that anybody other than somebody in their bedroom on Youtube has covered one of our songs, I think.
KS: If it’s going to be anyone, it might as well be Tom Jones.
JR: It might as well be him, start at the top.
KS: Do you have any other music legends that might fit one of your songs well?
JR: That’s an interesting question, I honestly never thought about it. I suppose the ultimate honor would be Emmylou Harris covering one of our songs. Or maybe Bonnie Raitt. As far as an interpreter of other people’s music, I think of Emmylou Harris so much for her track record of covers. We were involved in a tribute concert to her a year and a half ago, and everybody was playing songs that she had made famous, a lot of which weren’t her own songs. But we picked a song called “Michelangelo” which was one of her own compositions. I was surprised by how touched she was that we were singing one of her songs and she came up to us afterwards and said, “You know, I spent my whole life singing other people’s songs, and nobody sings mine.” That was really special, and we felt really good about it. It’s a hell of a song, too.
KS: On the subject of covers, I saw that you started adding “Wish You Were Here” to your live sets. What was the impetus behind that? A need to bring out the baby boomer classics?
JR: [laughs] You know, you’d have to ask Kenneth. Or maybe I’ll ask him. He came up to me one day and said “We should do this Pink Floyd song.” We’re always down to try new things in the hotel or on the bus or whatever, but it rarely makes it to the stage. Matter of fact, this is really the first cover we’ve ever done. It’s funny, people have suggested many different things to us over the years and we’ve considered many different things, but it was important and a very conscious decision to not do any covers for the first couple years.
KS: Just to establish yourselves as songwriters and make sure that people knew you were capable of making songs?
JR: Basically. That’s a slightly more calculating way of putting it than I think we actually felt [laughs], but yeah, essentially. The idea is that we’re singing songs, and we’re singing our own songs. So it had been a few years, and I feel like a band like ours would be expected to cover a more obscure thing. Not the song that literally everybody plays at the frat house or around a campfire.
KS: The first riff that someone learns.
JR: Right, the day one guitar lesson song. But when we started singing it and messing with the melody to make it work with a really lush two-part harmony, it really brought the lyrics to light in a way that I hadn’t really noticed before. It’s an incredibly intense, to me, politically-minded song, and I had never heard it that way before. I had never paid attention to the lyrics. I felt like when we got done arranging it, it was a song we wished we had written. It’s a song that we thought sounded like one of our own songs. I mean, it would be the best song we’d ever written if it were one of ours.
KS: [Laughs] It shoots right to number one.
JR: It’s something we’d aspire to. It’s such a famous song that it will never not be mistaken for a cover, but it feels very natural the way we play it and it feels very apropos and sort of thematically fits with the songs we play in our set. It ended up being the perfect fit which is something nobody, including us, would have expected.
KS: Do you think you’ll end up adding the song you contributed to the “Vinyl” soundtrack to any setlists?
JR: “Simone?” That’s a great song, too. I don’t know if that just works with the two of us. I think the arrangement of the full band is necessary for that one. But it’s funny, the scene was supposed to be kind of making fun of soft rock, but they picked a song of theirs that’s pretty cool [laughs].
KS: What’s [England Dan and John Ford Coley]’s other song?
JR: “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight!” And there are some others, too. I’m blanking on the names, but “Simone” is pretty good.
KS: Is that the first time that the two of you have recorded with a full band?
JR: It’s not the first time, we’ve done various other one-off things. Actually, speaking of Emmylou Harris, the first time we ever met her was for a project called “Bitter Tears.” Joe Henry was producing a remake of Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears” album. So Joe asked us to be involved and do a three-part thing with Emmylou Harris. So we were kind of s****ing our pants that day.
KS: I would imagine, that’s a very pants-s****ing moment.
JR: And not just because we had returned from Guatemala the day before.
KS: I can’t imagine that helped, though.
JR: It did not help. It made something that should have been psychological into something entirely literal and physical. You don’t have to write that [laughs].
KS: You know, I guess we’ll see how the rest of this thing goes. Maybe that will be the ending zinger, you talking about shitting your pants. But I wanted to ask about the tour you’re embarking on now. You’re on the second leg of the tour behind “Monterey,” which came out last year. For a second leg of a tour, are you shaking things up to be different even though you’re touring behind the same album or keep it roughly the same?
JR: This year, we got pretty sick of our set, so we changed it up a bit. That being said, I think we are the type to try and perfect a set. So would can imagine by the end of this tour, there will be a kind of new, modified set that comes together that’s hopefully…I don’t know about better, but just different than what we were doing last year in some way. But we’re not the type of band that will play an entirely different set every night for the sake of it. I kind of look at it like a theatrical presentation, where you want to have a well-established arc, a beginning, middle and end. I don’t want to leave that up to chance every night just for the sake of whatever benefits you’d get from switching it up every night, which are real and definitely keeping it fresh and playing different songs and stuff. I guess it’s just a different approach that I value a lot.
KS: I guess since this second leg is going into the summer season, do you have any festivals lined up?
JR: Yeah, we have a handful of festivals coming up, mostly smaller ones.
KS: I was curious about that, because when you guys play festivals, is sound bleed ever a problem? Since it’s the two of you playing through one mic generally, has there ever been an instance of, maybe a metal band across the field and it totally drowns you out? How do you work through that in an open air space?
JR: We have to be a little more careful about the bookings that we accept and the stages and stage times that we get booked into because that can be an issue. We’ve only very marginally ever actually run into a problem like that, but I imagine we’d be a hard band to book at Lollapalooza or Coachella or something, and we’ve never played festivals like that. But all the way up to the biggest folk festivals, like especially in Canada, Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton, we’ve played in front of 10,000 people with just one microphone, which is encouraging.
KS: That is the word that was coming to my head, too! It’s so encouraging that that actually works and you can pull it off.
JR: Yeah, it’s incredible. That being said, it’s a festival where people are there to hear that kind of music and a lot of them know that that’s what our set is going to be. I don’t know if we went on, you know, the second stage of Coachella and tried to make a big noise if that would really cut through, but we’ve never really tried it. One of the best performances we’ve ever had was at the Calgary Folk Festival last year and there was 10,000 people listening like it was a theater, just sitting in lawn chairs on a lawn. It was an incredible achievement by both the audience on and us, I thought.
KS: Oh yeah, just to not have on guy shout out something stupid in a sea of 10,000 people is amazing.
JR: Oh yeah, he absolutely could have and everyone would have heard him.
KS: This leads me to a question you probably get every day, but now that you’re years into the band with three albums, do you see a need to expand the band with more people or are you comfortable keeping it at two?
JR: Um…both. I don’t know, that question becomes tricky now that it’s years into the band, especially cause….well, I guess I’ll just give you the honest two sides of it, which is that we love doing what we’re doing. It’s exhilarating and different and nerve-wracking and all the great things about playing music are contained in this little format night after night. As far as playing live goes, we love it. That being said, every time we’ve been forced into a situation like for “Vinyl” or the Johnny Cash album or anything else where we do play with an ensemble, there’s incredibly more opportunities for different types of fulfillment. We’ve always talked about eventually stretching out and doing something that has a slightly bigger sound, but I also don’t think it would necessarily have to mark a committed shift in the band.
KS: Right, it’s not like the band is lacking anything or needs something else.
JR: I think that we feel like this is complete, but also that there’s a lot of different other things out there. At the same time, I think we could do both, like we could make an album with a band, but that doesn’t mean that half of the album couldn’t just be the two of us depending on how we wanted the album to play and how the arc of the songs turned out. It could be that some of the songs or some of the set has more or less accompaniment and some songs have no accompaniment or whatever.
KS: Since stage banter seems to be a big part of your live show, do you feel like you have to be “on” every night comedically as well as musically?
JR: I think creatively for us, we love it, we enjoy it, we enjoy talking to the audience so much. All of that stuff came about because it’s a big part of standing in front of a group, engaging them in that way and it’s really fun to do. But also, I’m conscious of the fact that at this point, it’s kind of expected [laughs]. After this much time, it is part of the thing and I think people might think something was weird if we played twenty songs and then said “goodnight.” But getting a rise out of an audience is as fulfilling to me as playing a song and connecting with them that way.
KS: Is that a thing you were doing before you were in the band, trying to make people laugh and get a rise out of them?
JR: I think both of us were doing that in our solo careers, kind of. But it comes from both of our instincts that there’s this real intensity that happens when you ask a room full of people to sit down, be quiet and listen to you sing pretty serious songs. It just feels like something that shouldn’t be so precious. Like, you want it to be precious in the moment, but it just feels like the wrong thing to do to not break that tension every now and again [laughs]. The reverence or the solemnity of the moment needs to be punctured otherwise, I don’t know, you’d implode.
KS: Yeah, there would be a lot of tears.
JR: Yeah! Maybe. And then they would stop because you can’t make people cry for that long.
KS: It would irresponsible as an artist.
JR: If not impossible. You know, obviously, the emotional impact of anything is made stronger when its juxtaposed against the opposite. It’s easier to make someone laugh if they’ve been made to cry and vice-versa. I think it gives a fuller emotional experience to the audience, and it’s just fun for us.
KS: One last important question: How many suits do you bring on tour with you?
JR: One each.
KS: One each?? Maybe this is just something I’m curious about, but what do you do between towns? Do you get them dry-cleaned?
JR: Is this a question of hygiene?
KS: I would say confidently that this is a question of hygiene [laughs].
JR: [laughs] Well, we have various shirts, so keep that in mind. The other thing to keep in mind is that we’re only wearing the suits for ninety minutes a day.
KS: That is true, but are you sweating through the suits when you’re playing?
JR: The other thing to keep in mind is that we hold very, very still while we play our show. There’s not a lot of jumping. So basically, no, we don’t sweat, we wear the suits for ninety minutes and lately, for the last while, we’ve only been touring for two weeks at a time. And they’re dark suits, you know.
KS: True, so if you were sweating, you wouldn’t see it anyway.
JR: It’s a very civilized engagement here, we’re not sweating through our uniforms. The exception to that is various festivals that have been 100+ degrees and we are committed to wearing the suits anyway. So then, yeah, we have to get the suits dry-cleaned.
KS: So even in 100+ degree weather, there’s never been a time where you’re onstage and you’re thinking “All right, today’s the day these jackets have to come off, let’s roll up these sleeves.”
JR: That is correct, we have not yet succumbed.
The Milk Carton Kids are playing at The Strand Capitol on Tuesday, May 24 at 8 p.m.