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Milk Carton Kids find themselves on "Monterey"

By Brian Baker, June 2015

Joey Ryan, half of acoustic folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, is girding his loins for the long trip from the band's Los Angeles home base to Australia. Although he's made this trip before, he's yet to acclimate completely to it.

"The flight overshadows every single other thing about going to Australia," says Ryan. "The last time we were in Australia, the last show of the tour, I was still having to take a nap between sound check and the show. I've never been there long enough to get over the jet lag. It's just one big haze."

That haze has permeated the Milk Carton Kids' mindset over the past year, bannered by the heady success of the duo's third MCK album to date, the recently released "Monterey."

Ryan and musical partner Kenneth Pattengale (he's the tall one with glasses) were going full tilt when they recorded it, and they've been in the same gear ever since.

The Milk Carton Kids sing

"The tour that we recorded ('Monterey') sold out most of the shows three or four months in advance," says Ryan. "We were scrambling to move into bigger venues or add nights at the venues we could, and we couldn't move fast enough to do all these things. It was the first time we'd played rooms so big, and the shows sold out a long time in advance."

The Milk Carton Kids' massive 55-city tour last year spawned more than just great reviews. Pattengale and Ryan used the copious downtime that accompanies roadwork to create "Monterey" in a variety of unusual locales; two churches, a hall and a musical instrument museum.

"Kenneth called me three months before the tour started with the crazy idea of writing and recording the album and having it finished by the time the tour was over," Ryan recalls. "Part of it was inspired by the fact that there's so much wasted time on tour, and we were dreading wasting eight hours a day for the hour and a half of revelation that we're afforded during the show."

Downtime notwithstanding, any tour is a grueling grind of timing, travel, road food and boredom, not exactly the Zen formula for successful songwriting.

And actually recording whatever musical nuggets could be extracted during that process adds another daunting layer of complexity to an already chaotic experience. Somehow, Pattengale and Ryan managed to mine gold from an incredibly challenging vein.

"It ended up informing the writing process and the performances in a more profound way than either of us anticipated," says Ryan. "We didn't really give a shit about any given performance because there was always tomorrow to do it again. We listened back to all the takes months later, and we were going, 'Man, I didn't remember performing in such an unfettered and spontaneous way that night in Edmonton, but there's really something here.' There's this hyper-focused intentionality and microscopic attention to detail that we and others usually fall into in the studio, and that's completely avoided here."

The duo recorded everything for "Monterey" live, in the sense that there was an immediacy to the performances, but not to the extent that actual audiences were involved. As songs were fleshed out during the tour, Pattengale and Ryan found spaces to record during the day before their evening shows, essentially documenting what amounted to rehearsals of their new songs.

"That actually was not any different than our previous albums when we've been in the studio," says Ryan. "We always record live. We've always stood as close together as possible, sacrificing any isolation between any of the channels; it limits us a lot in what we can do in post production and editing because there's too much bleed in all the microphones. We pretended we were playing our show and then tried to pick the best takes from across the tour and edit them together if necessary."

Most artists don't like writing on the road because the distractions leak into the creative process. Pattengale and Ryan circumvented that problem by relying on their tried and true songwriting equation.

"Basically, our methodology was the same," says Ryan. "One or the other of us will start a song, get as far through it as we can and then bring it to the other one for cruel and harsh criticism, deconstruction and reconstruction, a couple fights, a couple drinks and then it's done."

Given the collection of songs on "Monterey," the Milk Carton Kids didn't have much trouble coming up with the material, but that doesn't necessarily mean the experience was a rousing success.

"We only got halfway through the album by the end of the tour. It turns out that it's hard to record on tour," says Ryan with a chuckle. "We spent the next few weeks and months finishing the album from a writing and arranging perspective and going into the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, which we considered to be the 56th venue on the tour, to finish the album. We spent about three days there to do the second half of the album."

There's a case to be made that the Milk Carton Kids' success on last year's tour and the reception that has greeted "Monterey" is due largely to their appearance in the T Bone Burnett/Coen brothers concert/film, "Another Day, Another Time," a star (and not so star) studded tribute to the music from and inspired by the Coens' period folk film, "Inside Llewen Davis."

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