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On the road with Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids

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The Milk Carton Kids are deservedly taking North America by storm on this, their latest lengthy excursion around the US and Canada. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale have been playing to nothing but sold out venues as they wind their way toward San Francisco, where they'll appear at Great American Music Hall on June 18th. This collaboration between two former solo artists works on every level, from the incredibly beautiful folk harmonies to the comic relationship the pair invite us to share between songs. I spoke with Joey Ryan prior to their Boise, Idaho show. Our conversation began with a lesson in pronunciation.

Wendy:

I understand you're in Boise, Idaho, about to head onstage.

Joey:

We're in Boise, which apparently is not "Boizee", it's "Boissee". If you ever come through town and you say "Boizee" they look at you like you're not from here.

Wendy:

So it's "Boisee".

Joey:

Yeah. So just.... if you ever come to...."Boisee".

Wendy:

(Laughs) I'll keep that in mind and thanks for saving everybody the trouble of getting it wrong.

Joey:

The show's in about a half an hour. [We have] an opener with us, Tom Brosseau, who'll be with us in San Francisco. I do an introduction for him at the beginning of the night, so to welcome everybody to the show, let them know that it has, in fact, started.

Wendy:

Yeah, I don't think there's gonna be any question about that! How did you guys connect; how did you know of Tom's work?

Joey:

Kenneth was a fan of his for a long time. Tom is from North Dakota, but he'd been in LA [for] 10 or 11 years. He has a really well deserved and great reputation around town. He's a unique type of storyteller in his songs and he's got just the most beautiful voice. So, Kenneth was a fan of his for a long time and turned me on to his music, and by now we've both been friends with him, about four years.

Wendy:

Has he been doing the whole tour with you?

Joey:

He's doing the second half of the tour. The first half of the tour we had our other friend Brian Wright, who's also a storyteller but a very different kind. He's a Texas storyteller, sort of like a Townes Van Zandt. Tom Brosseau, I don't actually even know who he could possibly be compared to; he seems to be a thing entirely unto himself.

Wendy:

You and Kenneth are obviously storytellers with your music, but you also have this great onstage banter that has become part and parcel of what you do: it's something that you're known for now. I saw you early in 2011 when you were just staring out as The Milk Carton Kids, and that was part of your show, even back then. Have you always had that easy humor between the two of you?

Joey:

Yeah, I think from pretty early on that became a part of the show. It came from our wanting to acknowledge, and by acknowledging it, eradicate any sense of propriety and reverence, any sort of separateness between the audience and performer, which is a little bit ironic because every single other thing we do surrounding the show actually reinforces those same things. We've always felt the desire to shatter those pretenses.

Wendy:

That's awesome. I know you've heard this a billion times, but the first time I heard you guys, you reminded me a bit of The Smothers Brothers.

Joey:

Of all the comparisons that we get, Smothers Brothers is the one that I'm least familiar with. I've never really watched or heard anything of The Smothers Brothers even though for years now people have been telling us they've a thing that happens in a similar vein, but I think maybe because of that I've been a little scared to visit it and see what it's about.

Wendy:

Well you shouldn't be; they're fantastic. They have the greatest dry wit and their stuff is still relevant to this day, even though obviously they were of the '60s born. Have you always had that sort of sense of humor?

Joey:

I don't know. As a solo performer and in the early days of Milk Carton Kids, there was not a conscious decision to turn the banter into what it is. I guess I thought that I was always doing the same thing, but then one day people started thinking it was funny.

Wendy:

I saw you early in 2011, when The Milk Carton Kids started, and you were pretty funny.

Joey:

Kenneth and I played together informally for about a year before that.

Wendy:

And that's the time period that's represented on your first album, Retrospect?

Joey:

Retrospect marks the beginning of The Milk Carton Kids and the retiring of the solo careers, and it marks the end of the unofficial collaboration, which had been a year long. That's why we called it Retrospect; it's songs from our solo careers, arranged for the duo, and it's sort of a look back at the year that we spent becoming a duo. Those were the songs [where] we learned how to play together.

Wendy:

You and Kenneth seem to have such a natural, almost meant-to-be kind of relationship. Has it been really easy to work together?

Joey:

No! The opposite.

Wendy:

Really?

Joey:

Yeah, it's hard. Sometimes it's easy; musically it's easy, but early on we each gave each other this irrevocable veto power over every single decision, so we end up butting heads quite a bit, but I think there's a respectful disagreement which always comes from both of us wanting to do what's best for the band. Eventually we work through everything. I think almost everything we've ever done that's valuable has come from the tension that exists between us.

Wendy:

And if either one of you were to feel uncomfortable with any aspect of the music, it wouldn't really be able to work.

Joey:

That's exactly it; we both have to embrace every song, every decision as our own.

Wendy:

Would you call that the key to your success on the level of making the transition from solo songwriting?

Joey:

I think so, yeah.

Wendy:

It's interesting because you guys sound like brothers. When you hear brothers or a family singing together, you get a specific feeling, especially with the harmonies. You can tell that they've sung together all their lives too, and it sounds like that when you and Kenneth sing.

Joey:

I agree; it feels like that. It always did. I don't know how to explain that.

Wendy:

Well, not everything needs to be explained or can be explained. It also seems like you both agree on how you want to present your music, like initially putting it out for free and making sure that people heard it in the format in which you intended it to be heard. You and Kenneth have always called the shots in terms of that and also how you want to present your show: just two guitars, two voices. Now you're on a record label, ANTI-. It's a great label, but has that changed anything for you?

Joey:

No. We've only done one record with them and we didn't sign with them until after the record was done, and so there was not even an opportunity for any meddling in the music in the process. I don't think they - we're working on our next album and it's not in their nature to breathe a word about it. All they do is say, "Let us know when it's done". So, I think that's what you want. It's what we want anyway. They [will] assert some expertise in various marketing decisions or strategy decisions, but I will give them a lot of credit also that ours is always the last word. They'll really go to bat strongly for an idea that they believe is right. Sometimes we take their advice and other times we veto it and they're fine with that. So, they've been pretty ideal.

Wendy:

That's great to hear and it's reminiscent of other great bands who've followed their instincts because obviously they've known what's best, what works for them.

Joey:

And not everybody does; not everybody has even an interest in having a vision for shaping their careers. They just want to make music and not think about it. That's fine too, but for us, I don't think we could survive if there were more than just the two of us deciding what to do.

Wendy:

You seem to be a band, too, that evolves and improvisation is part of every show.

Joey:

Yeah, [that's] definitely true for us musically. Kenneth is a very improvisational guitar player and for me, the between song banter is the time when I get to be spontaneous, and that stuff is very important to us. I think we, as much as possible, actually try to plan ahead and try to stick to plans when it comes to career stuff. I think we get a little nervous when we start flying by the seat of our pants and things start changing. So maybe there's a bit of a contrast there in the way that we approach the musical performance versus the way we approach more career based decisions.

Wendy:

Even with musical improvisation of course, there's usually some type of framework from which things can take off.

Joey:

I don't think Kenneth ever plays a song the same way twice; at least not the whole way through. He never plays anything the same way.

Wendy:

You and Kenneth are doing so well: your shows are all selling out; you have festivals lined up across the country, and all along you've been touring quite a lot. How has the tour been going for you this time out?

Joey:

This one is great. It's the first time we've not had to worry when we show up whether or not anybody's gonna be there. That feels nice. And we've rented a bus for the first time, which is a big upgrade from a minivan. We feel like human beings again after about three years in a minivan. We're writing songs; we're learning other people's songs, and we're being productive, doing the things we wanna be doing. I think that's the best part of this tour, is feeling like it's not such a sacrifice.

Wendy:

The Milk Carton Kids were recently part of an amazing concert and documentary: Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, which brought together folk musicians from different generations to perform music from the days of the '60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, and also music that was or could be inspired by that time. I don't mean to imply in any way that I see you as a retro type of band, because you're certainly timely, but the songs you played made me think that you would have been just as big of a hit if you'd started out back then.

Joey:

I think bigger. I think those were the days when you actually could be a hit playing this kind of music. Now I think the most we hope for is basically exactly what we've got going on right now, which is a relatively small and dedicated fan base to support what we wanna do. I don't think they're ever gonna play our songs on the radio in any real way; I don't think we're gonna play to half a million people in Central Park anytime soon, but all that's fine with me. As the name of that concert special implies, it was another day and another time. As much as everyone wants to say there's another revival going on - we are beneficiaries of it to a degree, but we don't partake necessarily in the radio friendly and stadium friendly aspects of it that would allow us that level of success.

Wendy:

Obviously a lot of the best music isn't on the radio, mainstream radio anyway. Thankfully there are a lot of other ways that people can access your music now, along with seeing you live. Speaking of which, you just put out a great live DVD: Live from Lincoln Theatre.

Joey:

Yeah, I think that about captures one of our normal performances.

Wendy:

I love that you use such beautiful old guitars for your shows. It seems like you and Kenneth always use the same guitars. Do you have a collection of guitars?

Joey:

I don't. I only have one. Kenneth is a collector. He has a lot of different guitars but he never plays any other guitars in our band. Our guitars, we've felt from day one, go together as much as our voices do, so those seem to me to be inexchangeable. The guitars are not old for the sake of it; I guess they're old because they sound how we want guitars to sound. I think more often than not that old wood sounds the way that we [imagine] guitars are supposed to sound, more so than new wood does. Same goes for, we're down to one microphone at this point which, on the surface, could be considered an older approach, but I think it's important for me to emphasize that we would use in-ear monitors and plug our guitars in, if we thought it sounded better. We use a microphone now which is a new microphone, a hand built microphone. We're going to meet with a company - they're in Seattle, but there's a theater in the Bay Area that has these speakers that they design, which are supposed to significantly reduce feedback. I think we have, not only a lack of aversion, but a real appreciation for the new, as long as it's better. I don't think we have any real romance with the old, unless [it] happens to sound better.

Wendy:

Absolutely. Would you be willing to impart the names of the microphone and speaker makers that you were referring to?

Joey:

The microphone is called Ear Trumpet Labs; it's a company in Portland, Oregon. [There's] a guy that built these microphones by hand, Philip Graham. We're very happy with our relationship with him and his microphones, and again, when he offered to send us his microphones, we took them into a soundstage and tried them against seven or eight of the best vintage and brand new microphones on the market, and his sounded the best. The speaker company we've only just read about and I actually don't remember the name of it right now. My point is to say that we're seeking out a very high tech and newfangled solution to an otherwise seemingly retro presentation.

Wendy:

So we'll see you around one new microphone at the Great American. You've played there before. How many times?

Joey:

We played there once. a year ago. We were there as a guest of Vienna Teng, as part of her Christmas show about two or three years ago, but we've only played there once, and that was a year ago on our tour, right when our album [The Ash & Clay] came out.

The Milk Carton Kids will appear at Great American Music Hall on Wednesday, January 18th. Show is at 9.

For more information please visit:

www.themilkcartonkids.com

www.slimspresents.com

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