Published May 28, 2015The concept of a road movie is well-established. But with their new record Monterey, L.A.-based folk duo the Milk Carton Kids may have just created a new musical form: the road album. Monterey is an album largely conceived and recorded during their extensive 55-city North American tour last spring.
The duo of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale — who both sing, write and play guitar — sat down with Exclaim! to illuminate their process (after recording a performance for Exclaim! TV).
"When we set out on our tour a year ago, we said we were going to make an album on the tour," Ryan says. "We didn't have it written at the time. Some things had been started, but were finished on that tour. Others got started then, but never got finished until later. We got through half the album while on tour, then we did the other half at a church in Nashville."
Monterey was recorded during the day on the stages of the concert halls, theatres and churches the Milk Carton Kids would play that night. No audience was present for the taping, but the duo found that setting preferable to a studio environment.
"When we recorded our last two studio albums [2011's Prologue and 2013's The Ash & Clay], we went into the studio for four days and the album was done," Ryan says.
Pattengale explains, "In the studio, you go in and play it a few times, then all stand round the speakers listening to it, as if you have some kind of context in which to listen to it. Here, we'd just play a bunch of songs then move onto the next city. We didn't even listen to the songs for six months in some cases. I much prefer that. I feel every time we've been forced to make a decision 20 minutes after we do something, then we either make the wrong decision or it changes the process, and that is not necessarily productive for us."
The sparse sonic template of the Milk Carton Kids does make this on-the-road recording feasible, as their harmony-heavy sound is completely rooted in two voices and two acoustic guitars.
"Our entire record is six channels: two microphones, two instruments, two voices," says Ryan. "Travelling with the equipment needed to record a fuller band might be less practical."
This method also makes for a practical use of down time on the road, as Pattengale observes. "Joey and I realized that rather than sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the show to start, we could get a lot of work done. Why sit there and look at twitter for the 400th fuckin' time when you could write a song? That could also free up some other time for Joey to be a good dad, when we all know his predisposition would be to be an absent bad father."
Good-natured banter is a signature of the Milk Carton Kids' performances and interviews. Asked to describe their current personal rapport as a duo, Pattengale jokes, "It has deepened and worsened. The good news is that as I'm president and CEO of Milk Carton Kids Corporation, Joey has to operate with a certain amount of reverence and respect for me, so it is quite cordial. He's like the big dumb shaggy dog following me around for five years."
To date, the Milk Carton Kids have adhered faithfully to the duo format, on record and in performance, but this remains the subject of internal debate.
"We have definitely thought about adding musicians, but have also considered that it might just kill what we have going," says Ryan. "It is hard to know how much of what we do is intrinsic to the instrumentation versus the writing and the sound of our voices together, which I think could be maintained even with a fuller sound. Listening to the voices around you, an equal number say 'it'd be great to hear you guys with a band' and those who say 'please don't ever fuckin change this!'"
Pattengale notes, "We have done it a few times. We played the song 'Memphis' on A Prairie Home Companion, with Rich Dworsky, their brilliant pianist and musical director, playing the B3 organ behind us and another singer adding a third part harmony. It was pleasant but I don't know if we'd do a record like that. Time will tell."
The Milk Carton Kids are about to embark on an extensive North American tour, including Canadian dates in August. Find those tour details here.
Monterey is out now on Anti-.