Interview: The Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale on growing up

Credit: David McClister

How to keep the sound minimalist as well as fresh and exciting.

Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale got together as the Milk Carton Kids over ten years ago and are six studio albums into their successful career based on their own take on folk music. They faced a challenge when recording their new seventh album, ‘I Only See The Moon’, how do they maintain the key characteristics of their minimalist sound that was so exciting and fresh at the start of their career, while dealing with the career and personal baggage accumulated as they approach middle age. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattendale in Los Angeles over Zoom to discuss how they have managed to refresh and renew their sound on ‘I Only See The Moon’, and what it is like growing up as a Milk Carton Kid. They explain that part of the reason they were successful in rising to the challenge is that they re-engaged with their songs and made the songs central to the recording process. They also hint that they may not be a hundred per cent happy with their chosen band name. The Milk Carton Kids may be based in Los Angeles, but they shared their love of  the UK and UK audiences, and share why they decided to hold the launch show for ‘I Only See The Moon’ at the Union Chapel in London. In the interview, you get a sense of the dynamics of the relationship between Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale that helps make their partnership so productive, though Joey lets slip that Cameron Crowe’s movies are a big influence on him.

How are you?

Kenneth Pattengale (KP): I’m fine, I’m just here in West Hollywood waiting for a breakfast of avocado toast.

Joey Ryan (JR): I’ve had a morning with the kids but I’ve got an empty house for a few hours, and the tornado will strike when they get home.

You have been together for over ten years now, why do you think The Milk Carton Kids have been so successful compared to your earlier individual solo careers?

JR: It is like Cameron Crowe wrote in that great movie, ‘Jerry Mcguire’, “You complete me, Kenneth”.

KP: I don’t think you are joking, but boy are you cheesy, Joey.

JR: I do think it’s true, we complete ourselves, and I’m sorry to say it again like I did. How did we propel ourselves so successfully to the forefront of sad folk, I don’t really know. We both spent over a decade before we met trying to find a musical identity to express what we were trying to say. We were both solo singer-songwriters trying to find our voices, and we didn’t really find a voice until we came together, both literally in the voice that emerges from our voices singing in harmony together and then as songwriters, stage performers and recording artists. We pretty quickly realised we could find ourselves authentically and forge an identity if we worked together as a duo, rather than individually as solo artists. Some people are just that way, some people need somebody else.

KP: That wasn’t so hard, was it?

JR: I know, but Cameron Crowe said all that in one line, well Tom Cruise said it to Renée Zellweger.

Sad folk has been mentioned, do you class your music as folk?

JR: Yes and no, it is the best descriptor of where we fit into the modern music landscape, I think. If we are getting on an elevator or in an aeroplane with our guitars and someone says what music do you play, we say folk music because that is the quickest way to get them into the right universe of understanding what it is, and when they ask what do we sound like we always say, Simon and Garfunkel. Do we, I don’t know, but that is the shortcut. So, for what we all understand folk music to be in 2023, we can be found squarely in the middle of that. Folk music is a lot broader than what we are doing and a little different, and some of what we are doing is a little outside more traditional folk music constructs and ideas. I like the label, I like the genre, and I like the community built around what we understand to be folk music today wherever we go globally. If we play at folk festivals for a folk audience that is our people, if we go to Folk Alliance Conference that is where we find our community. So yes, I like to call us a folk band.

Who are the go-to influences for the Milk Carton Kids?

JR: We each have really different influences from each other. My influences growing up were Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, and the Beatles.

KP: What you’ve just described I’ve always understood to be your parents’ jukebox.

JR: Maybe, but when that stuff comes on it is what I feel most deeply inside and makes me feel nostalgic and warm and fuzzy.

KP: For me, it was more the music of our actual childhood, I guess Joey didn’t listen to any of that, he was in his parents’ childhood. For me, it was Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, and Counting Crows, and then the early days of American commercial hip hop, not that that was a big thing, but when Snoop Snoop Dogg started singing about gin and juice in the early  ‘90s I was ready to listen.

JR: That I did listen to. I got ‘Doggystyle’  and ‘The Chronic’ by Dr. Dre on cassette for my tenth birthday as a gift from my paternal grandmother.

KP: After that, I kind of went on my own ride with Tom Waits, Duke Ellington, and Gillian Welch, discovering what spoke to me at the record stores of LA. By the time we got together, I don’t think there was much as far as the overlap of tastes.

JR: One might say we complete each other.

Where does your name come from?

JR: We named ourselves after one of our own songs, unfortunately. I love our band but I am self-conscious about our name, I don’t really like our name, after all these years I haven’t come around on it. Like most things with our band, there is a serious and earnest answer to your question, and people may know that there was a phenomenon over here in the US in the late eighties and early nineties where they would put photographs of missing children on the backs of milk cartons, in an ill-fated attempt at finding them. It was actually a spontaneous thing that certain dairies in the mid-west started doing to help mid-western law enforcement locate missing children. I thought it was some government programme, something the FBI put together, but it was just these mid-west dairies who decided to publish these pictures of these children.

Then all the dairies started doing it, and for a few years, you couldn’t have your morning cereal without being part of the search effort for these missing children. A lot of elements of that phenomenon are very specific to people of Kenneth’s and my age, elder millennials if you will, or xennials because we were both born in 1982 and turned eighteen in the year 2000, and it is kind of a hyper-specific generational phenomenon that happened when we were kids and it felt like it captured what it felt like to come of age in the time that we did. We used that metaphor in one of our song lyrics, and it is the name of one of our early songs, ‘Milk Carton Kid’, and we just decided we liked it enough to call our whole band after it. The problem is that that background and context aren’t widely known enough, or aren’t easily referenced by people, so when we tell them that our band is called the Milk Carton Kids, they are like, oh that is cute. It is supposed to be pretty heavy and morbid and specific, but it just doesn’t come across that way. Alas, it is too late now.

How much of a pandemic record is ‘I Only See The Moon’?

JR: We basically made the whole record after the pandemic to the extent it has actually ever ended, and we may disagree on this, but think this is a 100% pandemic record even though none of it was written or recorded during the acute part of the pandemic.

KP: Joey is very passionate about COVID, he writes all of his songs about COVID.

JR: It’s funny because we specifically wanted to write inward-looking and personal songs, we didn’t want to lean into commentary or evaluation and reflection of what was going on in the world, I think we really turned inward on these songs from a lyrical standpoint. Then, of course, everything existed against the backdrop of the whole world changing before our very eyes, everybody in the whole world went through the same things together. So when I look back on the process, and not only the songs that came out of it, I guess it is meaningless in this case, but every record made during these times is a pandemic record, you can’t escape that. We did try and specifically avoid dealing with it in any global sense beyond our personal and internal processes.

What is the songwriting process for the Milk Carton Kids?

KP: It kind of happens every way, but mostly one or other of us will get to start on a song that at some point feels promising, and we will then share it with the other one, or we might be like, I need help with this idea, but usually it comes from one person wanting to write something. With my awareness of how all the other co-writing partnerships in popular music versus the way people have scheduled co-writes in Nashville or other parts of the business, I like to think that Joey and I keep what a song is to ourselves, and we are trying to figure that out rather than thinking we know what this song is about, let’s just track down some ideas and flesh it out. I think it is more like we are giving birth to this idea, and we try and discover it as it comes, and it just so happens we have somebody else to help figure it out. It is not like sitting down and saying I want to write a song about when my cousin went boating and there was that tragic accident. I’m sure the whole world watched  ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ documentary, and we got a glimpse into some of the songwriting process there and it is this really ambiguous thing where nobody is sitting down directly talking about what they are trying to express intellectually. It has to do with feeling, it has to do with aesthetics, it has to do with energy and style, and it has to get to the core of an idea that is been written and sung about.

JR: You also need some funky bass riffs.

KP: We all know you’re not the guy for that. I got one hot tip for the readers, if you want funky bass riffs do not call up Joey Ryan.

JR: That’s kind of the meanest thing you’ve ever said to me.

KP: No it’s not, I can get a lot meaner.

Kenneth, how easy is it to self-produce the band?

KP: It is pretty easy in the sense that Joey is eminently talented, and the parts of his personality that are burdensome or have to be endured are easily ignorable at this point. It was a great experience actually, contrary to previous iterations where we’ve spent ten years feeling our way through life with various social cues and unsaid understandings, the relationship of me being officially producer on this album meant that we actually set some expectations for ourselves and assigned some tasks that previously would have been felt out. I think that this structure was very good for us artistically, and allowed us to set up a scenario where we worked together in a way we hadn’t done before, not necessarily life-changing or better, just different.

We were trying to figure out a way of doing it differently that felt just as good as the early days, that felt as inspired as the early days. It was a perfect construct to explore that, and for that reason, it was a breeze producing. We came up with some different little rules and we put a name to the responsibilities which in a lot of cases fell to me anyway but you never really knew, oh is Joey comfortable with me being that forward? A lot of the time it was a younger me who was even more arrogant and unaware of what was going on. So you would take a position for yourself and carve it out, and then later on you would feel a little insecure or you would question whether that was the right thing or is that what we want to do. This time I think it was a little more mature and healthy process, maybe.

You have a minimalist style and you are ten years into your career, how do you envisage keeping the style fresh for the future?

KP: You’ve just said it exactly, how do you attempt to do something that feels like it did ten years ago but has some excitement to it? The big secret about the music business, which of course is no secret but everybody forgets about it, it is really just about the song, it has always been about the song. You go back hundreds of years and the things that endure are the songs, these stories that people invent out of their heads and write down in a way that moves people. So how do you keep it minimal and fresh at the same time, we had to rediscover what felt invigorating for us writing songs together again. A decade ago that was very natural because Joey and I were at the height of the part of our lives when we were devoting everything to carving out a career, we were really ambitious, we had a lot of energy and time and a lot of ideas. So when we came together the ideas and the sensibilities that clashed together, and for the first time in both our careers there was this other force that really made sense of all the things we were bringing to it. There was somebody else who said this is good, this is bad, and you trusted them because they would get in the car with you and drive around the world, but there was a lot of preparation going into that.

Obviously, the same energy doesn’t exist at the outset of a prospect like this, but if I’m really testing my memory, I think it is true that we pushed each other during this process to try and bring stuff to the band that felt as energised, relevant, and ambitious without resting on our laurels, or wasn’t tapped into the things we’ve been doing for the last ten years. On that level, it was just about songs, so when you are asking that of each other then all of a sudden we are in this room with all these songs we are excited about that don’t feel like they were ten years ago, but we have our hands and voices to render them again. So that’s how I think we chipped this one off. I won’t speak for Joey because I know how he feels because we’ve talked about it a lot going into the release of this album, but I think we both felt successful at finding this new thing that also feels exactly like it was ten years ago.  That is really comforting and inspiring and pleasing to us.

JR: That was beautifully said, and captured how I felt about the whole process. The only thing I will add is that through the process we discovered a few new elements in our recording process and our instrumentation, in our use of backing vocals and singing in unison. I also started playing the banjo, and I played the banjo on a couple of songs. I agree with Kenneth that the thing that fundamentally invigorated the process and made it feel like new again was that we challenged ourselves and succeeded in writing songs that we really loved, and I think that led to some still minimalist, but still new for us, sounds and approaches in the studio. This made it even more exciting for the entire time and made the final result even more gratifying. It is just the two of us in the room for the entire time, and it feels like us and our centre, but there are a lot of new colours and flavours involved and I think we were successful on that front as well.

You have an album launch at the Union Chapel in London on the 20th May, what can people expect?

KP: Well it is our only record release show. We were drawing up the plan of how we are going to promote this album, and all the touring in America came about in this coming fall, and we have a tour of Australia planned, and all these different things, and we both live in Los Angeles and we thought where is the most special place we can go and celebrate releasing the album, and we both thought of the Union Chapel in London. It is an important venue for us, we’ve played there a number of times and the London audience has always been wonderful to us, and the UK audience in general. So it was let’s fly to London, and it sounds like the stupidest idea when I say it out loud, let’s deal with jetlag, blah, blah, blah. So we are going to go there and leave it on the floor, that’s what they can expect.

JR: One of the most gratifying things on our last few tours and having finished the album, we have been playing almost all the songs from our album in our concerts, and they feel broken in and they are part of us now and they are a natural part of the show, and they feel like audience favourites already despite the songs not being released. That is really gratifying because it has been a while since we felt like we wanted to play most of the songs from a new record in our live shows. So in terms of what to expect, you can expect to hear most, if not all, of the new record in addition to the old favourites, we are going to play all the hits.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

KP: There is a guy Raphaël Feuillâtre, a classical guitarist who has just put his first record out on Deutsche Grammophon, and boy is it good, incredible. There is a UK band called The Flight that I love, a duo, I just saw them the other night. I actually played their show, I went down to see the show, and then I thought I’m in a band some people know so I will just pop into their dressing room and say hello before the show, and between that point and the show it was settled that I would play with them during their last song, and our friend Madison Cunningham also sang. Those fellas are phenomenal. There is also an act, Vera Sola, who should be putting a record out in November. Full disclosure, I co-produced it with her, but keep an eye out for that. That is some phenomenal music right there, too.

JR: We’ve just been doing some performing and a little bit of writing and singing with an artist called Charlie Hickey who is here in LA, and his new songs that he is working on I think are phenomenal. It is some of the best songwriting I’ve heard from anybody in a while. He has a record out and he has new stuff coming and hopefully, we will sing some harmonies on his new record when he records it soon. One of my long time favourites, who I’ve just gone back to her first album, is Kaia Kater. She is a wonderful mostly banjo based singer-songwriter, but she does play guitar as well, and she plays clawhammer banjo, and I’ve taken a lesson or two with her remotely and she’s joined us on some of our shows. She has a bunch of records and I hope I don’t embarrass her, but I actually texted her and told her I’d gone back to listen to her very first record, and I know some of us artists don’t like to hear that, it is kind of like I love the very first thing you ever did. I was self-conscious about telling her that, but I love all her records and her first record is ‘Sorrow Bound’.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

KP: We will see you in London, and we hope to see you a little more next year though it’s not all firmed up just yet. We love going to see Donald  Shaw and all the boys at Celtic Connections up in Glasgow, and usually when we do that there are a few more UK shows in the mix. There are no promises for 2024, but I would keep an eye on the calendar anyway.

JR: The show at the Union Chapel has sold-out already so we are trying to schedule a return visit for 2024.

KP: The other tip for the Union Chapel is to get there early because Jesca Hoop is doing a show, and she is the best thing you will ever hear.

JR: The very special guest we are honoured to say is Jesca Hoop, the ex-pat. I also just want to apologise for not quoting from the other Cameron Crowe movies.

Maybe next time, Joey.
The Milk Carton Kids’ ‘I Only See The Moon’ is released on 17th May on Far Cry Records/Thirty Tigers with an album releases how at the Union Chapel.

About Martin Johnson 387 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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