By Brian Wise.
“Thank goodness nobody is comparing us to Hall and Oates,” laughs Joey Ryan when we talk about the comparisons that his partnership with Kenneth Pattengale – the Milk Carton Kids – has copped over the past few busy years.
Since the release of their Grammy nominated Ashes & Clay album they have won Group of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards, appeared on the T Bone Burnett produced tribute concert to the music of the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, performed twice at the Newport Folk Festival, featured on the Joe Henry-steered remake of Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears and appeared at the tribute show ‘The Life & Songs Of Emmylou Harris.’ They have also found time to record another album, mainly on the road as they have been touring constantly.
Bound for their second Australian tour, Joey Ryan spoke to me from Los Angeles about their last few years and, as always, his conversation is as pith and entertaining as the duo’s stage shows, which tend to be a combination of beautiful harmonies and occasionally bizarre repartee.
“Somebody was asking why we think that we always get compared to Simon and Garfunkel,” says Ryan, “and they offered that maybe it’s that there hasn’t been a particularly notable male harmony duo since then. Then, I was thinking earlier today, there were a lot of soft rock male harmony duos, like in the 70s.
“Loggins and Messina?” I suggest helpfully.
“Exactly,” comes the reply. “Do you remember England Dan and John Ford Coley and ‘I’d Really Love To See You Tonight’? I guess what we’re doing, thankfully, is not evocative of those memories!”
“Of course, there’s the Everly Brothers,” I say.
“But in the ‘90s there was the Indigo Girls, which is not a male harmony duo, but I do think that Kenneth and I look like them.”
ATN: There’s one essential different between yourselves and Simon and Garfunkel and, of course, the Everly Brothers, in that you talk to each other and you seem to like each other. Whereas in those duos, I think they hated each other.
If they didn’t always hate each other, I think they definitely do now, from what I understand. Don and Phil, from what I read, they had a rocky relationship towards the end and it is my understanding that Paul and Art are not on speaking terms. Kenneth and I have a long time to get to that level of animosity and trust and I’m looking forward to that phase of our career.
Let’s hope that phase is a long way away. I’m sure it is. There’s such chemistry on stage and that’s something you can’t just manufacture. It must develop over time and you obviously get on so well together. It’s kind of like you’ve got ESP sometimes when you and he talk.
I feel that way. There’s still a lot for us to do together creatively. We still have to go to West Africa and get our West African band and make that album. We probably have to grow some moustaches and do some yacht rock records. There’s a lot more for a male harmony duo to do before we enter into the non-speaking, separate tour buses, phase of our career.
I enjoyed very much your presentation last year at the Americana Awards with Kenneth. You were back doing a presentation for the nominations, weren’t you?
They asked us at the last minute to host the nominations ceremony which was the first time we’d ever done anything like that.
Well, I think your performance at the awards last year probably make people think that you would be perfect hosts for that because that was a brilliant, impromptu performance, I thought.
Well, thank you. We feel much more comfortable when they don’t have any structure and when it’s entirely impromptu and when there’s no script. It’s actually a very different thing to come in in the middle of something and just have your way with the process rather than being cast with driving the whole ship. I think we didn’t necessarily crash the boat. We’d clearly like to do more stuff like that.
The situation was that the auto-cue didn’t work, did it? You had to improvise for quite a number of minutes and it was probably the most entertaining part of the evening.
Well, yeah. What could be more entertaining than a hair competition between Jackson Browne and Rhett Miller and Robert Plant? I think they were all sort of silently having this friendly spirit of competition on the hair front. I was happy to jump in … throw my hat in the ring.
What a fantastic evening it was. You must’ve been thrilled for you to be involved in that.
The Americana Music Association has this way of bringing together musicians across generations and also across various points in their careers, from a band like us, who is just starting out, all the way to somebody like Robert Plant, who has clearly had a long and very influential career across various genres.
They have this way of presenting it all in the same … as though it’s part of the same world, which of course, it is. I think people need some help in thinking about it that way. To me, that’s what the Americana mission statement is, is to make people see across generations and across levels of accomplishment that everybody’s sort of after the same thing.
It’ll be a lot clearer once they figure out what Americana actually is, won’t it?
Yeah, well. Right. It’s intentionally broad, but I guess you can’t be too broad. Then you lose all sense of identity. I think so far, they’re doing basically a good job. Anytime they want to put some of the younger guys on stage for prolonged periods of time, I’m happy to see that and I’m also happy to fill that role.
Where do you think that the Milk Carton Kids fit into the spectrum of Americana? Where do you fit in there?
I think we identify with their whole mission statement because they see themselves like we do, as sort of perpetual underdogs and wanting to get by on their merits and on the appreciation of an audience who are in it for the right reasons. I think we identify with them on those grounds.
It’s really a question of taste, isn’t it? It’s kind of like the audience and the people involved share this good taste in music in a sense, isn’t it?
I think so. I think it also comes down to intention. I think there’s a sense of humanity in a lot of these songs that people value within that community. I think there’s a sense of honesty, I suppose, that seems to be valued above any sort of sense of trend or popularity for better or worse, or anything like that – or commercial viability. It’s the only place where completely commercially non-viable bands, like ourselves, can find a home.
Speaking of intentions and intent, what was the intent for the latest album, Monterey?
That’s a hard question. That’s a really nice segue but it’s hard to say. All of the themes that seem to be emerging as we listen back to Monterey, I can’t honestly say that any of them was part of a grand intention. It was definitely not a concept album. It’s just our attempt once again to write a collection of the best songs that we could and then arrange them in a compelling way for the two guitars and the two voices, that would keep ourselves and everybody else interested for the next however many years.
Monterey is a beautiful place and it’s probably not that far from where you live. It’s up the coast a bit from where you live. What inspired the title?
Monterey is a very dramatic place. It’s hard to be there and not feel sort of in touch with the geography. I think a big part of the song ‘Monterey’ … I think it uses the sort of restless feel of the, just the air, and the cliffs and the sea there, as a sort of metaphor for the restlessness that we sometimes feel in our lives our, desire for change, desire for progress, desire for something new.
We named the album after that song because that song, of all the songs on the album, seems to capture most of the themes contained in the rest of the album within itself.
There are some interesting themes. It ranges in emotional content, doesn’t it? There’s a wide range of emotions covered in those songs.
That’s good to hear. I hope that we were successful in creating a sort of, tangible, palpable world for the listener to enter into and live within for 38 minutes. I sometimes think that in order to do that, we sort of seek emotional consistency through some of the songs but it’s nice to hear that maybe it’s a more rounded emotional experience than that.
To me, it feels very coherent emotionally. Cohesive. To where you sort of live in this place for 38 minutes and then you come out of it and you get back to your life. I always hope that there’s a little bit of escapism for the taking in the listening to our album that we’ve made here.
Tell us about the song writing and recording of this album, particularly the recording of the album. You didn’t do it in the usual way, did you?
Right. We did it on our tour last year. There was a 55-city tour around North America and we decided to write and record the album on the tour. One of the benefits of being a minimalist duo, where we just play with the two guitars and the two voices, is that we can take a full fidelity recording setup just as it would be in a recording studio. We can put it underneath the bus and unload it and set it up on the stage every day, like an extended sound check. That’s what we did almost every day of our 55-city tour.
We would set up on the stage around 11 or 12 and we would have the room in some really beautiful theaters and churches and concert halls, and we’d set up our microphones and made a recording studio on the stage.
Some days we wrote. Some days we recorded. Some days we wrote and recorded. At the end of it, we were hoping to have our album done, which ended being overly ambitious. We only got half of the album done that way. Then we sought out what we considered to be the 56th venue on the our in Nashville, Tennessee called Downtown Presbyterian Church and we recorded the last 5 songs of the album in that church.
That is a fantastic venue. I think at the Americana conference, I’ve had a few things, a few special afternoons there. You might’ve even sung at some of them there.
We didn’t but that is how we found out about that church. The Americana people … we called them and said, hey what’s a good place … What’s a good venue in Nashville that we could record in? They recommended this church to us and of course it ended up being the perfect place.
It sounds like a great way of cutting costs, being able to record in the venues as you tour, but the advantage you’re getting of these beautiful venues, which I imagine also have beautiful sound in them for you to record in.
That’s right. Some of these venues were the ones we had aspired to perform in from the time we started our band. It felt really good to be able to capture the sound of the room on the record. It also did this really wonderful thing, which we anticipated that it would do, which was, it took us out of this head space of being in the recording studio, which is an environment where the pressure and the preciousness and the desire to be flawless can overwhelm what would otherwise be very natural instinct for performance.
In giving ourselves many, many chances to record and not listening back to the recordings as we were doing them, for example, we took the microscope off of ourselves – the microscope that you usually put yourself under when you’re in the recording studio. We just removed that from the process and tried to capture very natural, very free, very spontaneous and risky aspects of the performance, which we both felt had been stifled in our previous recordings processes. To me, that was the most salient impact that our process had.
Can I ask you a bit of a nerdy question? What did you record in on when you were traveling, touring? What sort of machine and microphones did you use to record it on?
That’s a better question for Kenneth. It’s potentially in our liner notes of the album if you have a physical copy. I know that for the vocals we used Ear Trumpet Lab Edwinas, which is the microphone that we use for our show. For the show, we just play on one microphone. The recording was done with six microphones: two for the voices, two for the guitars and two for the room. The vocal mics were Edwinas. The guitar mics, I cannot remember what Kenneth used.
Like I say, Kenneth will know all of the specifics of the equipment better than I will. Kenneth built a really high quality, custom signal chain for each of the channels and ran it into a laptop. Whatever pre-amps he decided on and cues he decided on, we bought them … Well, actually he bought them and then the band rented them from him because he wanted to keep them at the end.
It sounds fantastic.
I think it does. I think he did a wonderful job. Kenneth is the recording engineer and mixing engineering master. I think his approach was the right one which was to capture a recording that sounds just unadulterated like ourselves, without any sort of lens or filter over the thing. We just wanted it to sound like how we think we sound.
He didn’t ask for an extra fee for all this, did he?
He did, but he was denied.
Monterey is available now. The Milk Carton Kids are currently touring Australia.