The Milk Carton Kids make music for the quiet spaces in life. They’re prefect for warming up to on a slow morning or providing a nightcap for a long workday. It’s the kind of music that transforms your car into a bathysphere. And while it is seriously introspective music, that doesn’t mean Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are all that terribly serious of guys. In fact, as we found out in our recent discussion with Ryan, the folk duo also has a clever sense of humor. Although not be quite on the same level of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, they’re no doubt a quick-witted group. And they’ll prove it. Just challenge either of them to that triangle game at Cracker Barrel and see for yourself.
Brightest Young Things: I feel like this new album, Monterey, has a traveling motif. That landscapes had an influence on this album.
Joey Ryan: Yeah, I think landscapes are inherently boring and dull so that’s what we like to write about.
BYT: That’s not true. Painters are getting away with that shit all the time.
JR: I know. If they can paint it, why can’t we sing it?
BYT: The nature of traveling is also interestingly paradoxical. Because it’s exciting to travel and be headed towards something new, but it’s also a burden to have to leave things behind. And I think the album captures this feeling.
JR: Thank you very much. That’s exactly how it feels. In a literal sense, it reinforces the metaphorical sense that you’re always chasing something down; you’re always venturing into the future and into uncertainly, but there’s always this really heavy weight of things, the people you’re not with at home. For me, it’s my family. I have a young son now, so it’s a heavy thing to be away. In a very personal sense, it feels like we have to leave a lot of things untended to track down what we believe is meaningful.
BYT: So where is your spot on the road? Is it more of a Crack Barrel crew? Or is someone a vegetarian and so you’re stuck eating a crap ton of Subway?
JR: We have an eclectic diet I would say. I hate Subway, man; I hate Subway. Because there’s so many of them, and if they were ten percent better that’d be such a great asset out on the road but its just not. It’s just not. I do enjoy very much, although you can only have it about twice a year, like, for your own physical, and I’ll say psychological health, I enjoy a country-fried steak at Carrel Barrel. Also you always have to bone up on that little peg game, where you have to move them around the triangle.
BYT: The scoring system for that is brutal. It’s like if you have five or more pegs left than it tells you to abandon any aspirations of college. If you leave only one peg, however, that makes you a certifiable genius, and you might as well apply for the MacArthur grant at that point.
JR: It’s not a big spread between idiot and half million-dollar grant.
BYT: You guys get a fair amount of comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel. But what television duo do you think you guys most closely resemble?
JR: Television duo?
BYT: Yeah, like Charlie and Snoop or the Wonder Twins.
JR: Well I’m just going to say the most aspirational and self-aggrandizing thing I can possible say in this moment, even though I don’t believe we’re anywhere close to this peoples level, but I would love it if one of us were Jerry and one of us were Larry. Not that they’ve ever really been an onscreen T.V. duo—other than in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But, to me, if anyone asked me what my biggest influence in life was, and I was asking honestly, I’d say Seinfeld.
BYT: Really, they have been an onscreen duo because George is Larry.
JR: If you accept that George is Larry than yeah, but neither of us is a George. Like Kenneth is too much of a nihilist to be George. George cares too much. He cares so much at all the wrong times. And when he is supposed to care, he is too selfish.
BYT: So as a contemporary folk group, do you guys fuck with Pete Seeger?
JR: I try not to mess with him too much.
BYT: What’s the most potentially embarrassing influence you’re willing to claim? Not that there’s anything embarrassing about Pete Seeger.
JR: There’s nothing embarrassing about Pete Seeger. But there is a very big difference in the driving M.O. that we try to hold ourselves to and the one that he explicitly and avowedly held himself to, which was, that his whole point was to bring people together and for everybody to sing along. I mean he loved to get people to sing along. And if people start clapping at our shows during a song, we stop the song and tell people to stop clapping. We don’t want any participation; we don’t want any togetherness. It feels much more like a recital than a hootenanny. And I think that Pete Seeger was very communal in his approach, which was an incredible social force for good. It’s just not the way that we see ourselves. We don’t see ourselves as singing a sing along. We see ourselves as presenting a program or a performance.
BYT: Do you think the first musical moments in the history of man where vocal or percussion-based?
JR: Are you talking like evolutionary anthropology?
BYT: I’m talking about how it all got started, man.
JR: I wasn’t there, so I don’t remember. But from what I’ve read it’d seemed more rhythmically based. I think the most primitive forms of music were rhythmic, very driven by rhythm. So that’s probably the underpinning of our human desire for music. Unfortunately we make almost no use of sort of groove or rhythm in our music. That is actually the one itch I’d like to scratch more musically, because a really deep groove is incredible satisfying and we seem to occupy the realm of melody and harmony and more ethereally music functions. There is nothing I love more than singing vocal harmony (that’s why we do it so much), but its true that I think that’s leaving out something fundamental.
BYT: It does mean, however, that I latch on to the lyrics more and that subtler things can come through because it is so bare. In one-way folk music is softer than punk music, but I still think its the quintessential anti-establishment music, because it is the traditional music of the people. I feel like there are some really political songs on this new album. Are you guys politically minded?
JR: Yes. They are and we are. And not everybody seems to pick up on that. As evidenced by the fact that we recently played a fundraiser for Gabby Giffords’ lobby group that sort of raises money to support candidates that are being attacked by the NRA. So Gabby Gifford was the Arizona congresswoman that was shot in the head a coupe years ago, and now she is the poster person for gun control. Anyways, we played a fundraiser for her and put a picture of it on our Facebook page and the response was so vitriolic from a lot of people who have now disavowed us as a band, who said they’ve been such a big fan of us for such a long time and how disappointed they are to hear that. And that we should just leave politics out of it and just play our songs and blah, blah, blah. And I’m going, ‘man, you guys haven’t been listening to our lyrics.’
BYT: I think the reason people tend to treat all music apolitically is because they listen to it passively. We listen to it on the move or while we’re doing other things, but I don’t know if people are actually sitting down and listening to an album.
JR: That’s possibly true for a lot of people. And so they don’t like it when you so explicitly throw it in their face that you’re actually trying to say something, because they’d prefer to think you’re not. But I think most people—well I would hope, anyways, that people that tend to gravitate to a band as unknown as ours are in it for the right reasons, and are in it to see what people have to say. Because if you just want something to listen to passively you don’t have to dig as deep to find it. You can just turn on the radio.
Be sure to check out their spectacular new album, Monterey, and see The Milk Carton Kids this Thursday, Sept 10th at the Lisner Auditorium.