INTERVIEW: The Milk Carton Kids

On Friday, August 3rd, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids and ask them a few questions. A favorite of the ChunkyGlasses crew (read the accounts of our previous run-ins with them here and here) the acoustic guitar duo was in the middle of a two-night stand at the 9:30 Club on their tour with Old Crow Medicine Show and The Lumineers. Now, for your enjoyment, we present the fruits of that hang session where the “Kids” opened up about their current tour, upcoming album, fried chicken sandwiches, and attempt to start a West Coast v. Rocky Mountain folk music battle with The Lumineers. 

To start off, I know you guys are only a couple days into the tour so far, but tell me how it’s going and how you’re enjoying.  I know last night at the show you said you’ve only been on the tour one day, but you feel like you’ve known the guys for three or four already. 

JR:       At least.  It’s the most fun I’ve had on a tour that we’ve been on in a while.  We’ve played more music on this tour than on any tour we’ve done.  I think it’s because Ketch and the Old Crow Guys were insistent from even before the tour and they followed through on it the first night that we would be up on stage with them.  We ended up on stage with them for two or three songs for the encore the first night.  So we’ve been learning their songs and have been doing a lot more backstage strumming than ever before.  Which is good because it keeps us out of our heads and makes it more fun.  It doesn’t feel like work because we’ve been playing so much music. 

So The Lumineers were somewhat of a last minute addition to the tour….

KP:      Yeah, nice guys, terrible music. 

JR:       I love the music, but think they’re terrible people. 

So, they’re kind of a meteoric rising star.  They just put out their album in April and they’ve been touring like crazy.  Had you guys heard their music before you knew you were going to be on tour with them?

JR:       We had crossed paths with them a few times in different towns and never heard any recordings.  I guess they didn’t have any out since they just put out their record.  But we’d run into them at SXSW and a couple other places but we don’t know them at all, we’re just sort of getting to know them on this tour. 

I want to know more about you guys and your music.  I know you came to meet each other while you were both already singer-songwriters on your own and you came together.  Tell me about that, how you guys met.  You know, “your story.” 

JR:       I thought he was handsome. 

KP:      We were both songer-singwriters.  Yep, you’re very handsome, Joe. 

JR:       I thought he was handsome. 

KP:      We’re both very handsome, then.  How fortuitous then, our meeting. 

JR:        I think there was just a physical chemistry between us instantly.  I just sort of saw him on stage and he was glowing…a halo. 

KP:      That sounds particularly homoerotic. 

So the music didn’t have anything to do with it then, it was purely physical?

JR:       Yeah, the music did, like it always does, came second.  And, you know, here we are on the day of the Chick-fil-A kiss-in, only two years later.  We did not have a chance to participate in that though. 

Joey Ryan: Singer. Songwriter. Handsome man.

Since corporate fast-food chains are having positions on these sorts of things, do you have a position as a musician on the Chick-fil-A controversy? 

JR:       I think Chick-fil-A is greasy and fatty and I never go there.  I’ve been boycotting it for years.  And then there’s some controversy about it recently that I haven’t paid much attention to but I just know that it’s fried chicken sandwiches…what do I want with a fried chicken sandwich? 

KP:      Mmm….sometimes you need a fried chicken sandwich. 

JR:       Kenneth loves fried chicken sandwiches. 

KP:      Without stating the obvious, the obvious is who really cares what Chick-fil-A thinks?  That’s all.  Whatever they think. 

JR:       Well, that is part of the obvious.  I would say the other half of the obvious is what they think is the wrong thing to think.  But who cares that they think it, anymore than anyone else thinking it?  They ought not be able to dominate the national debate on civil rights.  But they injected themselves in the middle of it so they deserve whatever they get in terms of boycotts. 

In that vein…I know we’ve gone off on a Chick-fil-A tangent…

KP:      I love how the words “Chick-fil-A” are now a proxy for the entire gay marriage debate—and beyond even gay marriage—gay rights and equality in general.  It’s really a spectacular thing that they’ve been able to put themselves in the middle of. 

So, anyway…

JR:       I think we should stick on Chick-fil-A. 

Yes, like I said, it’s tangential to this question.  Last night, you’re up there with Old Crow and The Lumineers playing Woody Guthrie’s protest songs on stage along with “I Hear Them All,” and these sorts of powerful songs.  I’m wondering…

JR:       And there are a lot of dudes on stage, and they’re sweaty…is that what you’re getting at? 

It’s not…there were a lot of dudes on stage sweating, a lot of girls in the audience dancing.  But what I was going to ask you is what you think politics’ role in music is through these like great protest songs.  Do you see that finding a way into your songwriting or is it less political than that? 

JR:       I think you’ll see that on our next record there’s a little bit of indulgence in our own frustrations that arise from various societal states or political occurrences of the past few years.  Without become overtly activist, I think that….we’re both thirty years old, and we’re both conscious people and we pay attention to what’s going on, and I think especially as things get more and more frustrating that it can’t help but make its way into what we’re writing.  I think that’s appropriate.  We haven’t been around for a musical movement that was very inspired politically and was very influential politically—either being influenced by politics or having its influence on politics—I think an era like that is mostly bygone.  But the state of our country in the past few years is enough to inspire some strong emotions in anyone who’s paying attention and that does in one way or another make its way into our latest writings.  Which I guess no one has heard yet, but on the next album that comes out you’ll see some of those threads. 

KP:      It’s worth mentioning that our job is just to write a good story.  And if any of those issues lend itself to a good story, then terrific.  I think you’d have to concede that a good story is one that you can somehow make personal.  And if it has [political] elements, great.  It’s better than writing another song about a girl like The Lumineers’ “Hey Ho” song.  Not only did they just flagrantly offensive to women that they’re just calling this female protagonist a ho and are yelling at her from across the street, but just to write another song about a girl is not super achieving. 

JR:       I never knew that there could be an analysis of hip-hop lyrics infiltration into The Lumineers’ songs. 

KP:      It’s just, “Hey Ho!  Hey Ho!”

JR:       I think it’s, “Ho, hey.” 

KP:      Oh!  It’s not?  See, “Hey ho,” always sounded like the ho was across the street doing something bad.  But if it’s “Ho hey,” then it’s stating “come hither.”  Maybe it’s a song about soliciting prostitution. 

Yeah, and they’re also imposing societal expectations on female’s sexuality by telling them that classy girls don’t kiss in bars.  What’s up with that?  

JR:       I’ve kissed many a classy girl in a bar. 

Why do they have to make us all feel like hos?

KP:      Yeah, that’s some bullshit. 

JR:       We don’t do any of that.  We think girls can kiss in whatever sort of bars they want and be prostitutes without being summoned from across the street as though they’re some sort of object.  And that’s really the big difference between us and The Lumineers. 

I feel like we’re going into a sports match.  It’s the kind of interview.  I feel like I’m asking Rajon Rondo, “What do you think is going to go down in the game tonight?  How do you think Lebron’s feeling?” 

KP:      It’s like a boxing match. 

JR:       We’re trying to spark a feud in the media between us and them.  It’s like a West Coast v. Rocky Mountains feud, ya know? 

KP:      That’s stupid. 

JR:       We’re trying out a lot of new material on you.  Maybe ixnay on the feud thing. 

So we should just let the feud happen naturally? 

JR:       Yeah, let’s just let it develop. 

Milk Carton Kid Ryan Pattengale.

So, in terms of your songwriting process, how do you two go about that?  

JR:       We just fight. 

KP:      Not a day goes by that one of us doesn’t try to punch the other.  Mind you, it’s a very effeminate punch. 

JR:       Open-fisted usually. 

KP:      An open-palm bitch slap. 

JR:       We made an arrangement with each other early on that if we were ever to become physically violent with each other, we have to use our off hand, so it’s usually awkwardly thrown. 

KP:      More like a caress than an act of aggression. 

JR:       But after all the hitting, I think we’ve been doing some of our finest writing to date, surprisingly. 

But seriously. 

JR:       I am being serious in that we antagonize each other in every way through the creative process and I think we’ve always pushed each other really hard and really earnestly, and there’s really no boundaries between us and I think that the work benefits from it. 

Do you think that songs are uniquely one of yours or the others?  Or is more collaborative? 

JR:       Both.  Except that all the songs have the real marking of both of us to some degree or another.  Whether they came from scratch from both of us sitting there or whether one or the other of us got a good start on it before we came together on it. 

Do you envision adding any instrumentation in the future?  On recordings?  Or on tour?  A lot of acoustic musicians plug in or add more stuff eventually. 

JR:       Well, when we first get invited to Newport Folk Festival, we’re gonna go electric.  I think that would be a novel historical event. 

Someone did that once before…I hear it didn’t go well…

JR:       Ah, shit.  We’ll look into it. 

Bob…something or other…

JR:       Zimmerman. 

KP:      Do you want to answer the question earnestly though?

JR:       I was gonna leave that to you. 

KP:      I was gonna leave it to you. 

JR:       Okay, I’ll answer.  At least for the next record and so for the foreseeable touring future, it’s just going to be the two of us, our guitars and miking the and not plugging them in, exactly what we’ve been doing.  I think there’s a lot of space we have yet to explore in that format with those constraints…although they don’t really feel like constraints.   Although we’ve talked about theoretically, some point in the future, there being a limit to what we can do with this instrumentation and curiosity and desire to bring more elements into the fold and see where that pushes everything.  So, no promises, but theoretically someday. 

Along those lines, how do you—and let me preface this by saying that I think that you do—stay away from the acoustic guitar trap of sounding like the guy in the dorm who’s trying to get laid? 

KP:      Well, that’s cuz we’re GOOD, for starters. 

JR:       I still feel like the guy in the dorm trying to get laid…and I’m married. 

KP:      No, it is very different.  While it may not look it, what Joey and I do is, while not highly orchestrated, has enough direction to it so that there’s some through lines and some themes that are deeper and have more elements than just someone strumming three chords.  I like to think of it as something entirely different than that. 

JR:       Well, here’s what it is, and I have to give you the credit, Kenneth.  Kenneth is a skilled and sophisticated producer.  There’s a lot of production work to be done for any acoustic guitar duo who are only using two guitars and vocal harmonies because as simple as it can be, there’s an incredible amount of complexity that can be achieved if there’s someone who is good—as Kenneth is—puts the extra time and attention into actually making each part do something worthwhile at every moment.  And never settling whether it’s in the writing of the lyrics or the melodies, and especially the guitar parts and then the harmonies.  Never settling for what I think you’re referring to—something that just comes easily and naturally.  Sometimes that’s the best thing, and it has to be the best thing.  It’s not always the best thing and you’ve got to find something that’s going to be engaging to listen to two guys play guitar and sing harmonies for an hour and ten minutes, they better put a lot of thought into it.  So maybe it’s just that: the intentionality of all of it. 

KP:      Well, that and we generally don’t sing songs about how we’re sad and because how we’re sad about someone of the opposite sex. 

JR:       We’ve got our share of love songs though.  Though the new, recent material is shifting away from the self-indulgence in that way. 

Speaking of love and trying to get laid…did you guys get any asterisks for auditions for Charlie’s mom on your mailing list? 

JR:       No, that nightly pitch never seems to bear any fruit…  Actually, that’s not true, we get asterisks on the email list all the time, we just never follow through because Kenneth actually has a girlfriend, so I don’t know if that would work.  Maybe we could be getting you laid every night if only you didn’t already have a committed, loving relationship. 

KP:      Well, there’s that.  I don’t know if my chosen method of tracking down the opposite sex is from a list that was conjured from a night club.    

JR:       Normally you just stand out on a street corner and yell, “Hey, ho!” 

KP:      Yes, you just yell, “Ho, hey!  Let’s do this.” 

So, following from that, do you guys feel like the personalities you project on stage are who you actually are?  Or do you feel that you’re putting on a show and adopt different personas? 

JR:       Both.  In a short amount of time as we do in an opening set and even in a headlining set, you can’t present your entire self effectively other than through the material that we’ve written.  The best way to get to know either of us as a person is to listen to the songs that we’ve written and the lyrics.  But as far as the between song stuff, it’s a side of us that’s authentic, but it’s certainly not the whole picture. 

So you guys are finishing up this tour, putting out an album, and then going on a solo tour?  Is that the agenda?

JR:       No, we’re recording an album, not putting it out.  We’ll do another tour before the album’s out in March…ish. 

The Milk Carton Kids perfoming "Stealing Romance" at The Birchmere late last year.

Are you excited about the new album? 

JR:       Yeah, I think it’s the best writing we’ve done.  Hopefully we’ll perform it well when they put the microphones up. 

KP:      The only thing that I’m not happy about is that after we finish the album, we go out and tour with the Punch Brothers for a month.  I secretly long for having the time to let that influence the material that we come up with, the thing that we’re going to spend the next year of our lives trying to disseminate to the world will have missed that little window of Chris Thile influence.  That’ll be the next record. 

JR:       That’s true, I imagine they might change the way we look at things. 

KP:      In just the short amount of time we’ve spent with Ketch [of Old Crow Medicine Show] I feel has added a certain filter that is actually going to greatly change the way we go about recording this next record.  And I think it will go in a positive way and in a way that was outside our scope previously. 

How deliberately do you think about who you go on tour with?  How do you fit into a bill?

KP:      We just follow the green!

JR:       Highest bidder, baby.  

On this tour, you’re playing to an audience that’s here to get drunk and dance to blue grass.  Is it hard to play an acoustic set to a group like that? 

KP:      Yes.  [Laughs.]

JR:       Yes and no.  This fall has really stretched us in a way that we’ve never planned on being stretched.  We’ve played to several large outdoor audiences who have no idea who we are.  We’ve spent our entire first year and a half trying to get into—whether we are responsible for selling the tickets as a headliner or we’re touring with someone—trying to get into theaters where people will be sitting down and shutting up and listening to us.  And that’s where we feel we can really put on a good show.  But being on the shows with K.D. Lang—some of them were beautiful theater experiences and some of them were these big outdoor things—and now being out with Old Crow and being the first of three before The Lumineers and Old Crow, we’re getting challenged in a way that I think is really good for us.  I think it’s valuable for us to learn how to value the energy that a crowd like this can have and not always rely on the completely still environment of a seated theater. 

KP:      I think at the end of it the theater thing will remain our preferred direction, but that being thrown up there the way we have been this fall is going to prove to be influential and valuable to us.  To learn how to make a little bit of an impact on a large and energetic room being as quiet and small as we are.  I think we’re really cast as the underdogs in this situation and having to fight for it in that way is good. 

Do you feel like you’re picking up new fans?  Are you getting a lot of downloads of the free music on your website?  How’s that working out for you? 

JR:       None of that stuff we could ever complain about, all that stuff is always going better than we ever think it’s going to go or better than we ever thought it would.  It’s hard to find anything to complain about in terms of people hearing our music, liking our music, and responding to the music.  We always have a great response live even if it is a partially noisy thing like this; I think it still goes over.  That being said, for the next record, we’re excited that it looks like it’s going to be in stores, the way that it’s supposed to be and widely distributed.  I think we’re making a big point to take it over to the U.K. and Europe and Australia and Japan and hopefully other places that we feel like some people have taken notice but we haven’t yet had occasion to go over to those places.

Alright, thanks guys, I’ll let you go warm up. 

JR:       Thanks, and make sure you put in that Chick-fil-A stuff.


You can check out the rest of The Milk Carton Kids upcoming tour dates here, and believe us when we say that this is a MUST BUY ticket.

Also, if you haven't already be sure to head on over to their site and grab 2011's Prologue, and their "debut" Retrospect for absolutely FREE! Then give them all your money because if there's any artists who deserve it, it's The Milk Carton Kids.