Indie Folk Duo Focuses on Live Show, Distributes Album For Free

Monday, January 9, 2012 13:01

An Interview with Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids

by: Casey Pukl

Full disclosure: I’ve transcribed this entire interview and now formatted this entire post while listening to, “Michigan” on a non-stop loop. We’re heading into hour two. Did I mention that I also listened to it twice on the bus this morning on my way in?

That’s just the kind of effect that The Milk Carton Kids’ infectious music can have on you. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are quite possibly the modern day Simon and Garfunkel. Their songs gently stomp on your heart and leave you humming them for days. Their voices and guitar playing perfectly weave around each other in the most understated and appropriate way. Not a single note is overplayed. You can imagine my excitement when I found out they’d be bringing their guitars and voices here to Anthology. I had the chance to speak with Kenneth Pattengale last week about their journey thus far, and I’ve got to admit, I was pretty floored. Having only been around as The Milk Carton Kids for less than a year, these guys have toured with Joe Purdy and are already headlining their own tours. Oh, and did I mention that neither of them had ever co-written before they got together and they’re also giving away their albums for free? Read on to find out why their show this Wednesday is one that you absolutely cannot miss.

CP: I know both you and Joey were both working on solo careers prior to becoming The Milk Carton Kids, but this whole thing blew up really quickly, correct? You guys are still a super new band?

KP: It is pretty new. We technically really only started in March of this year, well, last year now, but about 9 months ago. We had played together before lightly across the year before that, but it wasn’t anything really official. But it was across that year that we figured out taking the songs that both of us had created and arranging them for our really small arrangement of the two guitars and the two voices was actually much more interesting and entertaining than we thought it ever would be. This is coming from two guys who had previously played shows going up and doing the singer/songwriter on a stage with one guitar solo thing. But the minute we started playing together, it seemed to be something else. It came from a different voice, and ever since then, it just kind of stuck.

CP: So when you first started, you were only playing the songs you had previously written, you hadn’t started writing together right away?

KP: Right. I had spent the 9 years prior to that writing and recording different records, and Joey had three or four under his belt, so we had a lot of material to choose from. It was just a matter of choosing the material that was most appropriate to what we were doing. But yeah, we comprised an entire show of just trading back and forth lead vocals, and then it couldn’t have come soon enough when we started writing all of the songs for Prologue together. I think that brings the most interesting element to our stage shows, blurring the line between where anyone can tell what’s Joey’s voice and my voice. We’re now just letting the songs speak for themselves.

CP: It’s so neat— the first time I heard you guys, I thought it was just one person. [Take a listen to the song below and close your eyes].

KP: That’s the biggest compliment we can get.

CP: Now tell me a little bit about starting to write together— had you done much co-writing before? It can be kind of a terrifying experience if you’re not used to it.

KP: You’re exactly right. Co-writing is a terrible and frightening prospect when you’ve never done it (laughs).

CP: (Laughs) I still think it’s terrifying!

KP: I think I really spent a lot of energy avoiding it all together, but again, with Joey, we had spent so much time together and we worked so well together that I think in the end it really just defined the rules. That year of playing each other’s songs, by the time we were ready to write together, I think we both kind of knew where each other’s emotional boundaries were. With that said, never have I been in a room with anyone other than Joey where I’ve allowed anyone else as much access to myself than with him, as far as just meddling in what I was trying to get done. I think that both of us were approaching it from the same point of view. But yeah, in the beginning there were some trust issues, that needed to be approached and worked out, but in the end I think Joe and I both really believe in sort of the work that we’ve taken on now. It was a struggle at times, but I think both he and I understood that unless we gave each other that access, we weren’t going to accomplish it. We try our best to just throw things at the wall.

CP: I think you guys have such a unique project, and it’s so cool to hear how you’ve come to work so closely together. I think so many writers, myself included, think to themselves, ‘Oh, co-writing… I don’t know about this…’, but it can be such a cool process when it works.

KP: Sure, and I think that’s where the rule that really never needed to be stated but always reigned supreme with us, was I guess that someone always had to come in with something or some idea to bring to the table. One of us has to come to the table with an idea or something that emotionally speaks to them that we can work with. And that’s when the other person can kind of say, ‘Ok, let’s roll up our sleeves and get messy here.’ Each song, and with Prologue it’s about half and half, but each song started with somebody. So it wasn’t like a work-shopping exercise where we sat down and said, ‘Let’s write a song today, and let’s write it about the color blue.’ But yeah, like you said, it is such an interesting thing. Anytime I ever have an idea like that that I’m attached to or that I want to chase down, I definitely don’t want to share it until I know it’s ready. And then I have to learn to trust Joey and share it with him and trust that he can do the song some honor.

CP: Sure. Now did either of you have any formal training in your music background?

KP: For me, I have been a musician my entire life. I studied classical cello from a very young age, age 4. That lasted for 13 years, and I had some piano training in there and some other stuff. But when it came to the guitar and thinking of myself as a songwriter, that was something I learned from the tradition. I looked at musicians that I turned to for inspiration, and I just sat down and started learning. I’m sure the training helped with that, but I like to think that I put my shoulder to the wheel and figured it out myself (laughs).

With Joey, it’s much more that sort of story you hear. He has no formal music training whatsoever. He just sort of tackled it himself. Joey also has that great luxury of working with that really beautiful vocal instrument that he inherited somewhere along the way. Nobody else has that except for him. I think he’s spent a long time rising to that occasion, and he is making good use of it.

CP: Absolutely. Now, listening to your album, Prologue, it sounds so polished, but I was reading that you guys really don’t do a lot of additional production and editing. Is that true?

KP: Yeah, that entire album is actually all live takes. We were in a really nice studio with really nice microphones and it was dead quiet. But what you hear is exactly what you get. All four things were firing at once. No one went back and did any overdubs or anything like that. We did spend a lot of time pre-producing Prologue. All of our choices harmonically and dynamically were purposeful and chosen, tackled, and addressed in the rehearsal stages. Often times, rehearsal would take place on stage in front of an audience (laughs). We’d put a few of the new songs into a set of material and sort of road test them. Those experiences proved really valuable. By the time we hit the record button in the studio, it was basically there, and we just needed somebody to take a picture of it. By the time it was all said and done, Prologue was recorded over three days in June, and then we reserved a fourth day to go back with the engineer and choose takes and make sure that everything was mixed properly. The actual playing, we would just sort of play no more than three or four takes, choose a take, and then move on.

CP: That’s really cool. Let’s talk a little bit about how you guys are distributing your music. We’re really in the high point of artists experimenting with how to make money, how to reach the largest audience, and essentially survive. How did you come to the decision to distribute the albums for free?

KP: For us, it wasn’t a super hard decision to make at all. As proven day to day, Joey and I consider ourselves really a live band first and foremost. While we’re quite proud of the record, we do have the luxury of going on stage. We played 115 shows in 2011, and every single one of them was lovely because we never felt like we had to go up on stage and do something to sell the record. We could go up there and kind of explore each song on it’s own merit every single night. There’s something Joey and I wanted to accomplish with the album that’s a product of what we do, but we play shows. Live shows are where the music lives and breathes, and as lovely as the record is, it’s much more enjoyable to be in a room where we’re a part of it. In the end, it was quite easy for us to decide to just put it out for free. You know, most of the albums are put out for free anyway these days. Unless I was given the Justin Beiber CD as a gift from somebody, I would probably go on Spotify or Youtube or something else if I wanted to hear it. So we figured since everyone is wrapped up in that anyway, let’s just make it easier for people. It also gives us a really nice story, you know, we can say to the press, just go to our website and download it. But I do think for someone like Katy Perry, that’s not an option. But also, I’m not sure that her show every night is necessarily about live musical expression as much as it is about making sure the lights happen at the right time and the costume changes happen smoothly. It’s a much different job than what we do.

Distributing the record for free was really just a way to promote what we think our real job is, which is what we’re coming to Anthology to do. We’re coming to play for a room full of people and hopefully make them smile.

CP: I’m sure you will. Thank you so much for your time. It has truly been a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to seeing your show on Wednesday!

KP: Thank you! We’re really looking forward to coming!

Again, special thanks to Kenneth for taking time out to chat for our blog! Be sure to get your tickets for their show on Wednesday at the link below! You can also download both of their albums, Retrospect and Prologue on their website:

The Milk Carton Kids Official Website

WHAT: The Milk Carton Kids w. The Brandon Hines
WHEN: Wednesday, January 11, 2012, 7:00pm
TICKETS: $10-$15 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile