"I found something a little more permanent" - An interview with the Milk Carton Kids
There's one kind of artistic impulse which would look out over an empty field and imagine the architecture and vitality which could dot that landscape. There's another artistic impulse altogether which might look at that empty field and imagine how beautiful it might be if - rather than filled with buildings - it's filled instead with flowers and laughter and high-sky evenings watching the stars.
It's hard to criticize the former. After all, we all need places to live, roads, schools, et cetera. But we also need fields. I'm not talking about infrastructure, though, of course. I'm talking about music.
This morning, I listened to the new album from Tori Amos - one of those old-fashioned-style recordings where she brought in a whole string section (or maybe even two). She has her kid and her niece singing on it (not in childish voices, either - these kids have chops), and there's a compelling love story which is told over the course of the entire album. It's poetic and provocative. It's thickly arranged, artfully orchestrated. There's a whole lot going on. Amos - a lifelong prodigy - could have pulled the whole thing off on her own, at a piano, but it's all for the better with her backed by a chamber orchestra. The musical equivalent of a small town erected in a giant field. Beautifully arranged. Sustainable, even.
Conversely, this afternoon, I finally finished transcribing an interview I conducted about a month ago with the Milk Carton Kids (it's been a busy summer). Revisiting their work, I've been struck by how fiercely it tugs at the same chords as Tori Amos's new album, but by going in a distinctly opposite direction. Figuratively speaking, they leave the field alone.
As I'm sure you've noticed, we've come to a moment in recorded music history where artists have the impulse to record more layers to their songs than they might be capable of creating in a live setting, simply because digital recording makes that possible. Many make incredible art this way. (James Vincent McMorrow comes to mind - his recent release was recorded in total solitude, but is full of imaginative multi-layered arrangments. Here's Hearth Music's review.) Many more simply relax into the too many options they're not sure what to do with - like stacking up mattresses on top of a pea. Often, this just leaves me, at least, feeling too far from the ground, still annoyed by the pea. Seems that happens more often than not with studio layering. So, I find it refreshing that not only have Kenneth and Joey opted to steer clear of that temptation, but they've done so in a way which is neither gimmicky nor boring.
It helps they're both remarkably talented songwriters and instrumentalists in their own right. It also helps they seem to be fiercely committed to this way of making music. As you can read in my interview with them below, they see the music they make as an artful challenge. Like making something out of what's already there, rather than turning what you see into something else. (Have I pulled this empty field analogy far enough?)
In short, it's excellent music, too much overlooked this year as far as I'm concerned, and you should make a point of listening to it immediately.
Now, I'll let you read the interview:
Kim Ruehl - We'll start with the basics. You've both been solo singer-songwriters in your own right. What brought you together?
Joey Ryan - Kenneth was onstage playing a song …from the perspective of a dog. I walked into the back of the room and I was just blown away by it. I went up to him afterwards and introduced myself, said something complimentary about the song. A couple weeks later we ran into each other again. He abdicated that I should come over to his studio and “hear him play guitar on my songs.”
Kenneth Pattengale – I never said that.
JR – You did. He doesn’t remember, but he said that. Although I thought it was very forward – which it was – I took him up on it. We started going through each other’s catalogs and learning each other’s songs that we had through our respective solo careers, which we were both pursuing at the time. We started playing and arranging them for fun, for what would become the duo, with our two guitars and harmonies with our two voices. I actually thought it sounded terrible until he played back a recording of it, at which point I realized it was really special.
[There was] this complete sound, even though it was very minimalist. I felt maybe it was something we’d both been chasing down not ineffectively in the studio with layers and such… but then it progressed from there. When it really hit a stride was when we started writing together and allowing each other into our writing processes, which we’d never done before with any artist. We really allowed each other to push ourselves. That’s when we made the transition from a casually-playing-together duo to being a band. We decided to shelve our solo careers and really have a go at it.
KP – The real interesting part to me was what was distilled out of scaling back to those four elements which were wild ideas Joe and I had for our own music. Having our hands tied in such a way forced us to be… not necessarily more creative, but maybe more directed in our positions musically and lyrically. There was something about stripping the fluff away and getting back to the basics. In the end I think it created something that has more imagination and more life.
JR - That’s the short answer. [laughs]
When you went from writing by yourself – a very solitary thing – to writing with someone else, was that a scary thing for you? How did you come to that decision to write together?
KP – It seemed to happen very naturally. We spent a long time on the road performing together and rehashing our [separate] catalogs. The good thing about that was that, we spent so much time doing that, we wound up learning each other’s boundaries musically and the way a song functions. We spent a lot of time up front learning what the rules were. When we decided to sit down and put some common work in front of us, the boundaries had been very clearly established. That’s not to say we haven’t had a healthy push-and-pull [relationship in] editing each other’s work along the way. But, I think spending so much time building each other’s trust was key in the process.
JR – The marked difference between this collaboration – which made me want to make it a permanent thing – as opposed to another songwriting collaboration I might want to push myself into, was that we were able to preserve that solitary process you’ve described, which is what songwriting had always been. To be able to preserve that and at the same time share it with someone you really trust enough to let into that space, to let them have a say about what goes on in that space, to me that was something really new and exciting.
KP – Songwriting is a fairly schizophrenic process, I think. Having your best friend around to do it with makes it a little bit of a less-lonely schizophrenia.
Are you still doing songwriting separately?
JR – No.
Do you think you’ll go back to that?
JR – Hopefully not.
KP – I guess if this whole thing fails.
JR – If I do another solo record, it means something went wrong.
KP – I don’t think this project necessarily precludes any solo stuff in the future. We’re having so much fun and keeping so busy, I think Joe and I have a number of records on our horizon [together] before we do anything else. I know, during my downtime, I hear the same things in my head that I heard five years ago that make me want to lock myself in a room for two weeks and explore all that. But, I think until we see this through and push to see how far we can take this thing, I would guess neither of us will stray from this path.
You’ve released your records for free online, which makes me think of a lot of frequent discussion on No Depression and elsewhere about how that sort of thing could kill the industry and keep artists from making a living. What do you think about that?
KP – I guess I understand that point of view. I think we have a distinctly different one. We give our music away, but we also sell our music. People have the option of buying our music, and they’re actually doing so. The free element is a way to let people who enjoy what we do, and want to call it their own, have a guilt-free way to share it with their friends. There’s something about what a live show is that’s entirely based on people coming to really appreciate what we do. There’s no better way for the music to be heard than to have these passionate people sharing it with each other and sharing with their friends. I don’t think it’s giving away the whole package for free. It’s just another way for us to share our music with people. Anything to add Joe?
JR – Yeah I have a lot to say on the topic, but that’s a whole other discussion. We could do an hour on that. I don’t think it’ll contribute to any doomsday scenario any more than anything else that’s taking place. It doesn't seem like doomsday to us. It feels like a perfect opportunity and a perfect time to be doing what we’re doing in a place where we’re able to share it with people, remove any obstacle to getting our music, and just make it really easy to get it, share it, and do what you want with it. To me it’s more of an exciting time to be operating as an independent musician the way we are.
I want to go back to what you were saying before about the music being stripped down… I was thinking about how it’s easy for solo and duo artists these days to add layers on top of themselves to fill the song out. But there aren’t a lot of people these days just doing this very basic thing – two voices, two guitars – aside from maybe Gillian and Dave. That simplicity is something that used to be much more prevalent in recording folk music and singer-songwriters. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.
JR – It’s been a blessing and a curse to me in the past to have such freedom and infinite possibilities to recording as a solo artist. There’s a tendency to get carried awy with the amount of options you have – instruments, vocally, and the number of tracks you have. I started to get carried away. Some people are making really beautiful, effective music that way. But in tying our hands a little bit, as Kenneth said, it makes you get carried away in a different direction. Other than adding and adding and adding, it makes you refine and refine and refine. To see how much we can do with a limited number of elements has been a more interesting rabbit hole to go down. We'll see if we can make this a more tension-filled section here, or a more fitting guitar part here. Chasing every choice down that path instead of adding more and more on, has been a much more rewarding experience for me.
KP – Additionally, there’s a real great economy to the whole thing, which is in the spirit of Joe and I spending so much time on the road and playing for audiences, there’s a benefit to us creating the full arc of our music in that space. Then we can get on a stage in any town in any part of the country and recreate a reasonable facsimile of what people have been listening to, if they’ve fallen in love with the album. Every night we get to go and perform the whole thing – 100 percent of it. There’s something nice about shifting the focus toward that for us. A lot of time in the studio you create a beautiful musical accompaniment that you can’t go and recreate on a stage. That has to be at least a bit of a let-down for the audience. … You mentioned Gill and Dave in the question. Being a big fan of them myself, that is one of the wonderful things about their show - the delight I’ve had listening to their records then going to see the show and realizing they have everything there that they used to make the music I fell in love with.
Back to your childhood. [laughs] What was the first song you remember making an impression on you?
KP – Oh boy. Joey, you want to go and I’ll think about mine?
JR – It depends how far back you go. The first song I ever learned to play – which influenced me to pick up the guitar regularly throughout the years – was “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s sort of the ideal first song to learn on the guitar and it stuck with me for that reason. It’s got every chord, almost. If you learn that song, you’re pretty much set for folk music.
KP - Really? Your answer is “House of the Rising Sun”? Geez. We’ve got to re-evaluate this thing.
JR – Well, it’s had the most lasting impact on me because it was what taught me how to play the guitar. My dad taught it to me as his way of teaching me how to play the guitar. Surely, musically, I’d come up with a different answer, but I’ve got to think about that.
KP – Okay. Well, for me, my childhood was filled with, one, learning how to play classical music. I studied classical cello from age four. But also I think having an older brother and coming of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, most of my elementary school years were spent listening to Guns N’ Roses and Metallica and Alice in Chains, all of that stuff. I think at the end of that period, it finished off with Greenday and the Counting Crows of the world...
JR - You give me shit for saying “House of the Rising Sun” and then you say Greenday?
KP - I don’t think they really had an effect on me musically so much as copping to the fact that that’s what I enjoyed. I was also using it to differentiate… something changed in the way I consumed music. I went through a big phase of getting obsessed with singular records. It started with Duke Ellington and Count Basie records. I spent a great amount of time listening to big band jazz. I didn’t revisit any of the stuff I listened to earlier in life. Then there were various phases of specific people. There was a Gillian and Dave phase, a Tom Waits phase, a big Joe Henry phase. I think I would latch onto these singular pieces of music or singular artists and get obsessed with them. That was a musical consumption that really started to inform what I did with music. It focused the idea that I could do that myself – when I started to get obsessed with artists, particularly songwriters.
JR – I’m going to go back and revise my answer. Every Sunday my parents would make breakfast and my dad would play Blood on the Tracks, and my mom would play whichever is the Dolly Parton record that had “Jolene” on it. Those are the records which, most strongly, bring me back to a particular place and time in childhood, or in any time of my life. To eating French Toast as an eight year-old.
KP - That is a way cooler answer.
The Milk Carton Kids are on tour now through the end of October 2011. Check out their website for dates and videos, and for free entire album downloads to share with your friends. (After, of course, you purchase a copy for yourself.)