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The Milk Carton Kids Are Not Simple

on July 24, 2015, 12:00am

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Geoff Nelson discusses misconceptions that many have of folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, and discovers some truths at the heart of the project.

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Whatever you do, don’t call The Milk Carton Kids “simple.”

Things escalate quickly on the phone with Joey Ryan, one half of the duo. “Of all the things – how do I say this in a way that accurately reflects the way I feel about it? – the thing that I hate the most is when people write that our songs are ‘simple.’” His voice drips with a calculated and measured disdain. It is here worth footnoting that I have not yet called, nor will I here and now call, his band “simple.” All the same, Ryan would rather write the critical history of his band than leave it to chance. “Because what they mean is ‘pure’ or ‘minimalist’ or ‘immediate’ or ‘straightforward.’ I guess writers always betray themselves for having a lack of attention or depth as a music listener, in my mind, when they write that anything about our thing is simple.”

The Milk Carton Kids want you to know what they decidedly are not before you begin thinking about what they might be, a suitable distinction for a band that has generated so much energy from what they have stripped away. What they are, Ryan explains, is far more complicated than “simple,” and he effectively removes the descriptor from my lexicon. I suppose this was the point; it works. On writers, a subject on which he spends considerable time during our conversation, he often feels the warping power of mischaracterization: “There are people who write about music in a professional or a semi-professional way that have no business writing about music. And I don’t base that on what they write about us. I base that on what they write about everybody.” Back on the topic of “simple,” he adds, “Even if they write it in an endearing way, it’s not usually meant as a dig. It’s just that they go, ‘Oh, this is simple folk music,’ and I’m going, ‘Well, you didn’t listen.’”

I am listening, and so are the many thousands of fans who pack theaters across the country to see the band. So the question is, if the Milk Carton Kids are anything but simple, what are they?

It starts with two failed solo artists. Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale met in Eagle Rock, California, one of the most progressive parts of Los Angeles. Lodged awkwardly between the bad zoning laws and strip malls of Glendale and Pasadena, Eagle Rock is a place where Occidental College and its liberal, even radical mores drive the cultural zeitgeist. Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine calls the neighborhood home.

Ryan and Pattengale met after nearly a decade trying to make it on their own and in other bands. When asked what he learned in his career before the Milk Carton Kids, Ryan scoffs. “’Career’ is a generous term for what we did as solo artists,” he says. “A perpetual process of discovery and various levels of failed attempts at any level of artistic self-actualization. And that lasted 10 years.”

But in their individual failures lay some portentous moment of realization. Ryan explains, “And it sounds kind of contrived, but it did all sort of change when we stripped everything away, met one another, and decided not to add anything or anyone else, and decided to just rely on the sounds of the two guitars and the two voices. Somehow that’s what all our songs needed. It’s impossible to discover in a studio by yourself that what you need is less.”

That “do less” becomes something of a negative self-definition emerging side-by-side with Ryan’s rebuke of “simple” is no mistake. In a culture of the grandiose, the some-is-good-more-is-better aesthetic, the Milk Carton Kids are downright reactionary. They are a folk duo without amplification. They exist because they learned to let go.

The Milk Carton Kids - Monterey new album

Four albums later, the first two, Retrospect and Prologue, released for free before signing to ANTI- Records, the band offered their latest LP, Monterey, in May. They are darlings of NPR, hitting some sweet spot to the left or right of the folk revival, depending on your sense of these demarcations, not quite Garrison Keillor and definitely not Mumford and Sons. They occupy an interstitial place between a brand of fame that would find them moaning “I will wait for you” to a stadium of adoring fans and one of obscurity that would find them not selling out the theaters they sell out. They stand close to the fire, not in it.

None of this is to say the band doesn’t grasp their place in the world of the folk revival of the past few years. They’ve toured with Old Crow Medicine Show and the Lumineers. Ryan even tells me he likes Mumford and Sons, though, “What they were doing wasn’t folk; it was pop.” And the folk revival has provided the band with incredible opportunity. Speaking of Mumford: “I don’t think they were a folk band, but everyone else thought they were. We were great beneficiaries of that misperception because everybody thought that we had some commercial viability. People thought we were something more than we were, and that helped us find an audience. It helped the record label want to work with our band. So we’ve been the beneficiaries of this grand misperception of a folk revival.” Ryan often walks this thin line rhetorically, a sort of “of it” but not “in it” distinction between his band and the surrounding culture of folk and pop. What they are is often a product of what they aren’t.

The Milk Carton Kids, a name derived from the gray-scale pixelated faces of disappeared children staring back at you from your government-issued school lunch, know well what it is to be lost. They aren’t the poppiest bands of the faux rustic folk movement that briefly seized part of Top 40 radio. There is no “Ho Hey” in their catalogue. It’s noisy out there, and they’re proudly quiet.

Ryan talks about the harrowing experience of opening for some of those bands that they are decidedly not: “The thing about opening for other bands is more of a survival story. The feeling of being on stage at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC, the first of three bands on a bill with the Lumineers and Old Crow Medicine Show, and we’re up there with four microphones, and we’re not plugging in our guitars. There’s a good 60 decibel level difference between our show and the other shows that are going to come after us. And there’s a good 20 or 30 decibel level difference between our show and just the sound of the audience drinking their beers and waiting for ‘Wagon Wheel’.” It sounds like a dig, but he later explains his vast respect for Old Crow, despite the dilettante-ish portions of their crowd, a tense balance between the essential qualities of a band and the maybe despicable qualities contained in portions of their fan base.

He even finds similar difficulty in audiences for the Milk Carton Kids’ headlining shows: “We have a song that touches on that very phenomenon on our last album called ‘Heaven’. It starts with the line, ‘Go ahead and stomp your feet on the floorboards, clap your hands if that’s really what you came here for.’ And I really enjoyed playing that in the beginning of last year because our audiences, the first time those lines go by, they would start stomping and clapping, not realizing it’s an ironic plea for them to shut up and listen.” The Milk Carton Kids attract a different crowd, to be sure, but even in this context, Ryan and Pattengale still seek focus, engagement, and seriousness from those self-selected fans of their band.

Ryan is careful, sometimes funny, in his vaguely dismissive framing of what sets their music apart from other bands united by the genre of folk. “You can’t blame a band who has a hit song on the radio for having an audience that is not sophisticated. More than anything, it’s probably our lack of mainstream exposure that causes us to have an audience that most would consider more sophisticated. You have to dig a little deeper to find us. We have not had the success that they’ve had. We’re not more sophisticated; we’re less successful.” Ryan is funny, wry, another distinguishing element of Milk Carton Kids from their peers. Ryan quips easily during the band’s live show, the funnier, by degrees, of the duo, and the self-described less skilled guitar player.

When discussing the differences between his audience and the audiences for other popular “folk” acts, Ryan waxes serious: “But the whole thing is very quiet. The show is very quiet. We require seats. We require silence. You do have to be up for that experience. It’s not a thing where you can go with your friends, have a couple beers, and have a good time.” As if to countervail the sanctimony, he jabs, “The last thing we want anyone to think when they come to our show is that they’ll have a good time.” The Milk Carton Kids exist in both spaces: relentlessly self-serious and deeply irreverent.

Grappling with the band’s cultural positioning is one thing, a macro-narrative that Ryan says he tries to avoid, but understanding the duo itself, the unsexy micro-developments, relies on unpacking the relationship between the studio albums and the live show. Much of the band’s evolution on Monterey involved recording songs “live” on the stages of the theaters at which they toured – minus the audience who would arrive later that evening. The band recorded their previous albums in studio, something that Ryan says created a barrier between the band and its best self, the iteration that shows up in the live environment.

The results prove to be powerful. While careful not to deride the version of the band that appears on its previous three records, Ryan is his most expressive when talking about his partner’s work on Monterey. “The most salient feature of the album to me, which I think requires an intense level of engagement, is the degree to which Kenneth’s guitar playing is just properly inspired performance,” he says. “Very whimsical, fearless, a little crazy, the things he plays and the phrasing he employs. It’s really risky and exhilarating.”

You can hear the reverence, the thing that makes Ryan joke about his own pedestrian qualities as a player in the face of his partner’s brilliance. Ryan returns to the subject-object distinction between the band as they see themselves and the band as they are viewed, saying “I have always wished that people would hear the fear and danger and exhilaration in our music that I feel when I play it and that I hear when I listen back to it. But more often than not people say, ‘It’s nice to fall asleep to.’”

The last line is barely audible, almost despairing, a sort of “this is why we can’t have nice things” capitulation. It’s brief. He pauses, returning to his partner’s playing: “It’s some tightrope shit that Kenneth’s doing. And we captured it on this record for the first time.”

As much as distinctions between studio recording and live performance drive the band forward, another duality, the duo themselves, holds the cypher to grapple with the Milk Carton Kids. In the relationship between Ryan and Pattengale, there is already unity. “The sound felt complete from the first day,” Ryan says. “And it still does. We have an equal number of people saying, ‘I really wonder and I can’t wait to hear what it’s going to be like when you add a band someday’ as people who say, ‘Don’t ever fucking change what you’re doing.’ To me, it always has felt, and it still feels like, the sound of the two guitars and the two voices is just a complete thing.”

It is simplicity of a kind, but decidedly not simple. Pattengale and Ryan lean in on each other, and trust each other implicitly on stage. Their harmonies and flat-picked guitar work represent labors of intricate architecture and partnership. The band learned to affirm what hides in the darkness, the silence of an audience that you desperately hope understands you, that negative space where what’s left out says as much as what’s included. If it isn’t simplicity, absence explains the Milk Carton Kids. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale will be exactly where they are not.

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Geoff Nelson writes for Impose, lives in Brooklyn, and tweets.

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