The Milk Carton Kids' Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are studied craftsmen of the folk tradition.
Over the course of their five years together as a band, they have mastered the delicate vocal harmonies, sophisticated songwriting and subtle musical interplay set forth by seminal folk duos such as Simon & Garfunkel or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
Words like "enchanting" and "haunting" get tossed around when describing this intimate format, but the Milk Carton Kids have more than earned such distinctions.
The two singer-songwriters formed the group in 2011 and promptly hit the road, touring the country.
Since then, they have earned numerous accolades, including a Grammy nomination for Ash & Clay, the 2014 Group of the Year Award from the Americana Music Association and a spot in the T Bone Burnett and Coen Brothers-produced concert film documentary, Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’—in which their performance literally moved Marcus Mumford to tears.
When first hearing the Milk Carton Kids, Pattengale’s guitar jumps out immediately. His counterpoint accompaniment is tasteful and undeniably impressive, utilizing a mix of cross-kicking, double-stops and single-note lines to create an elegant style that has made him one of the most exciting contemporary voices on the acoustic guitar.
I spoke with Kenneth about achieving tone, his sense of harmony, playing in a duo and recording the Milk Carton Kids’ new album, Monterey.
GUITAR WORLD: You play a very small-bodied acoustic guitar. What model is it?
It’s a Martin 0-15 from 1954. Outside of the little turn-of-the-century parlor guitars and the guitars that predate the OM model, it’s the smallest short-scale guitar Martin has made in the modern era. It's funny; yesterday we were doing a thing with Béla Fleck in Nashville and he walked by the guitar and said, “What, did your guitar shrink in the dryer?”
So it’s from ’54 and it’s kind of beat to shit. I bought it off a lady on the Internet, sight unseen. I’ve bought a number of guitars that way, but this one just seems to have its own thing. And after touring it for five years with this band, it’s developed a kind of tone that’s hard to replace when I’m swapping guitars in and out. Every time that one’s in the mix, it seems to be saying the right thing.
You incorporate a ton of single-note lines into your playing while always retaining a very even, full tone. I know the bluegrass guys have a very specific approach to achieving their tone on an acoustic instrument, but you seem to be going after something different.
I feel like tone is the most important thing. My impression of the bluegrass thing is really funny. I think those players are really precious about tone, but often times I feel like those guys are relying on their instrument more than their technique in a strange way. That big, clear, open, bell dreadnought sound you hear out of all those guys is such a particular thing. For me, maybe I had access to too many guitars, or maybe I didn’t have an ear for it … to feel comfortable in what I was playing, the only thing I could manipulate or change was just my technique.
We’ll see if it hurts me in the end, but I think if there’s anything that sets me apart from other people is that when I know that I like what’s coming out of my instrument, it’s because literally I press down on the fingerboard harder than most players. I’ve always found that to get a really warm, sustained and clear tone that’s still sort of real and gritty, in order to get that out of the instruments I play, I always have to really take that string across the frets.
I guess you could compare it to the way you need to make sure joints in woodworking are sound. When you glue two pieces of wood together, the closer you can get them to existing as a fundamental structure, and the more you create that bond, the more structural integrity it has. In a metaphorical way, that holds true in my mind for the guitar. The more you can establish a totally firm intentionally with which you play, and in how that’s represented physically, the truer it sounds.
But then again I don’t know … I might be shooting myself in the foot. I might not be able to play the guitar when I’m 60 [laughs].
Is that something you’re aware of while playing? I’ve talked before with Julian Lage, whom I know you produced a record with, and he spoke of having a similar intentionality to his playing.
I think I’m more aware of it when I’m not playing. If I don’t play the guitar for a few weeks, and then I start to play again, the first four or five days I’m in excruciating pain. My calluses go away and my hand cramps up and feels overused. The opposite is like Joey, who doesn’t have light strings on his guitar, but to get the sound he gets out of his instrument he doesn’t have to press the guitar as hard. He can go months without playing and then do some strumming and it won’t really matter.
When I’m actually playing and in the zone and not distracted by anything, I think I’m far enough in where I don’t have to think about technique anymore. When you’re performing, technique probably isn’t a good thing to focus on because you might miss some artistic information.
You mentioned Julian; I’ve never had more conversations about technique with anyone than Julian. Not necessarily about playing the guitar but everything that surrounds playing the guitar. He’s given a lot of thought and made a lot of personal choices and corrections based on body posture and breathing and all of these theoretical ideas about what it means physically to play the guitar. Obviously, when you hear that guy play the guitar, anything that’s going into it is valuable information because what’s coming out of it is pretty astounding.
You have such an interesting and sophisticated sense of harmony in your playing. I hear half-step moves, close intervals, 9ths and 13ths. How did you develop this sound?
I think it comes from having global influences. I spent long stretches listening to Tom Waits recordings, long stretches listening to Duke Ellington recordings—composers that seem not to be afraid to work in the margins. Duke’s a perfect example of where there’s so much intentionally, and clearly composition, but he’s also not afraid to challenge the ear.
Secondarily, not to be bashful about it, but I’m not the most consistent guitar player around. I feel like I kind of backed into this job. Joey and I started a band where there are only two guitars and two voices. There are a few ways to arrange those four elements, and to our ear the best way is to really be interesting with those four things. When we’re striving to sing as one with our voices, and Joey’s fundamentally providing rhythm, there’s all this wide-open space for me to play the guitar as counterpoint in and around that. There’s a lot of room to fill there and I guess I was the guy for the job.
And I’m not the greatest guitar player, so a lot of that comes from trying to be ambitious on the guitar and then landing in the wrong place and having to find my way out of it while trying to make it musical. In that a lot of discovery happens. Sometimes I’d land in the wrong place but I’d really like how it sounded and what it did for the music.
In some ways this feels like a running experiment for me trying to seek out the guitar in the public forum. I’ve also got a band mate and collaborator who can tell me if I sound shitty or if I’ve gone too far. I’m not necessarily stuck in my own world thinking this stuff sounds great or not. There’s always somebody else to tell if it’s working.
Even though you play a lot of very defined single note lines, it never sounds like you’re playing “lead guitar." It seems like you always make an effort to accompany the song even while you’re doing all this cool guitar stuff.
Yeah and that’s intentional. When we perform we do maybe 20 songs, and of the those 20, there are only ever two or three songs where we get to a point and it feels like, “Oh and now for a guitar solo.”
There’s a song of ours, “Girls Gather Round” that has a guitar solo in the middle. But it’s really only there because the structure of the song is so traditional that when you get to that point in the song, everybody knows that it’s time for the guitar solo.
We’re conscious of writing parts in our songs, sections that while they’re instrumental, usually have different chord patterns than in the verses and chorus. Sometimes these songs, over the course of a year or two will change from the recorded version to something we feel more comfortable in or something that can be lightly improvised around. Throughout that process we try not to reach points in songs where it’s just time for me to show off on the guitar.
First I’m not capable of that, but more importantly, we found to have a clear idea of what the direction of my guitar part is really strengthens the songwriting. Or at least it gives an identity to the song that without it our band doesn’t actually work. It’s never supposed to feel like a guitar solo. It’s exactly like you said, it’s supposed to feel like accompaniment; it’s supposed to feel like it’s contextual and that it’s purposeful and serves the song.
If somebody was going to pick guitar solos over our tunes there are plenty of other guys that would do that better. Julian Lage or Elbridge or Rawlins can all play a way better guitar solo than I can.
For the new album, I read you recorded it in empty rooms and halls to utilize their natural reverb. Was that the concept for making this record?
You know, that’s actually how I thought about the Critter [Chris Eldridge] and Julian album. That duo-guitar thing is a format that’s happened a few times, and my frustration with those recordings is that it seems like those type of players, who are so good and so detailed, the production aesthetics are always … you get this really close-mic’d, precise, pristine sound. It sounds so close and detailed; it’s hard for me to hear the context when I listen to those.
I wanted to get them into a room where I could back all the mics off so that the context would be more firmly established before the listener hears it. In fact, we recorded that album in the middle of the tour that Joey and I recorded our album on. It was the same recording rig, and I found a hall in Easton, Maryland, to take them into. What ended up happening, standing on stage in this empty room with all of this reverb, is that all of a sudden everything was different. Just playing guitar sounded different than playing in the studio or sitting on the edge of your bed. You’d strike the guitar and hear the sounds in just an entirely different way. And it seemed to not only make you play differently, but that different context alone painted the whole picture differently.
For Joey and me, it was important because we’ve done close to 500 shows, and we’ve only been in the studio eight days over those five years. At this point, he and I are much happier thinking about our accomplishments onstage rather than our accomplishments in the studio. And we’ve spent so much damn time out there; it occurred to us, “Why don’t we just record it here?” We thought it would feel a lot more natural and take away the preciousness of what going into the studio means. Every time you go into the studio, everyone gets emotionally psyched up, and you can’t expect that it’s not going to change what you do.
I know that if I sit down at the studio and try to cut a song for three hours, knowing that at end of it I’m going to have to move on and that’s going to be the one, it means that I’m less ambitious playing the guitar and that sometimes I’m thinking about the wrong things—worrying about how the guitar sounds rather than thinking about how to make the guitar sound good.
On that tour, I think we played 55 shows. We’d set up the recording studio every day on stage in these halls and play for a few hours and then take it down. We didn’t even listen to anything for about six months. So during that whole time we never thought, “Oh, this has got to be the one,” or “We gotta play this right.” Instead, we’d set up for the day and either we’d play or we wouldn’t.
When we went back and listened, we found that the songs sounded totally different than if we were in the studio and precious about it. As a result, I think it’s much more reflective of what we do every day. It captures a side of our music that definitely hasn’t been captured on any of the previous records. But more importantly, it represents what we think we’re good at and how we think we found it.
For more about the Milk Carton Kids, visit themilkcartonkids.com.
Ethan Varian is a freelance writer and guitarist based in San Francisco. He has performed with a number of rock, blues, jazz and bluegrass groups in the Bay Area and in Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.