Interview: Milk Carton Kids Find Strength in Numbers on New Album
Some artists stay firmly planted in the area from which their success sprouted: heartbroken ballads, easygoing beach songs, five-part harmonies, a stripped-down acoustic sound. If it ain't broke, why fix it?
However, there are other artists who crave more than chart-toppers and fame; they live for the music itself. They're not afraid to color outside the lines and venture into unknown territory. They're serious about keeping their artistic fire stoked, and they listen to that instinct when it's time to make a change.
That's what the Milk Carton Kids, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, have done with their new album, All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn't Do.
Part of the musical change can be attributed to the personal and global changes that have happened since the Milk Carton Kids' last album, 2015's Monterey: Pattengale ended his relationship with his girlfriend of seven years and had surgery due to a cancer diagnosis; he's also producing records in Nashville. Ryan is now the father of two children and works as a producer on Live From Here With Chris Thile. The recent state of national politics also brought a lot of grief to him personally.
But, back to the music. Monterey was still within the realm of what the Milk Carton Kids were known as: an acoustic duo. But, between Monterey and All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn't Do, a desire for something different grew. Their newest offering is a sonic boom -- they brought a full band into the studio and on the road -- quite the departure from their simple, two-man setup.
"There's no better way of playing the musical truth than ... working together."
"When we wanted to expand the sound of the group, we had to find people we trust. We had to come up with a plan, write the songs, know what we wanted to say. We couldn't be so arrogant to think we could execute it all, orchestrate it all note for note or sound for sound," Pattengale tells The Boot. "When we knew we wanted drums on our album, we had to call up the best drummer we know, Jay Bellerose, and we had to make sure he was on the same page was us ... but we also had to trust him to do what he was going to do."
All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn't Do was recorded at the Sun Room at House of Blues Studio in Nashville last fall. It was produced by Joe Henry, engineered by Ryan Freeland, mixed by Pattengale and mastered by Kim Rosen. The Milk Carton Kids' studio musicians for the project included Brittany Haas (violin and mandolin), Paul Kowert and Dennis Crouch (bass), Bellerose (drums), Levon Henry (clarinet and saxophone), Nat Smith (cello), Pat Sansone (piano and Hammond organ) and Russ Pahl (pedal steel and other guitars).
"There's no better way of playing the musical truth than ... working together," Pattengale says. "Almost everyone's doing everything real time. It was important everyone was there while it was coming together."
While the most obvious difference between the Milk Carton Kids' newest album and their previous projects is that full-band sound, there are other smaller changes, too. Take "Nothing Is Real": On that track, neither Pattengale nor Ryan plays guitar. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but Pattengale says he and the band spent an hour working on it in the studio without making any real headway.
"We had 10 or 11 musicians there that day, and when you have that many people without instructions, it can sound quite dense, jumbled and undirected," he recalls. "I had a whole arrangement that I would play as I sat down at the piano, and it occurred to me, I had 10 fingers all doing three or four different things. I thought, 'What if we assigned what I did on the piano to others?"' and all of a sudden, we played it, and there was the arrangement."
Another anomaly on the album, “One More for the Road,” is the first song the Milk Carton Kids ever wrote together eight years ago.
"This is the strangest story on the record," says Pattengale. He, Ryan and a couple friends wrote the song with three-part harmonies, with a trio in mind. But, shortly after, the duo was born and they forgot about the song.
"When the idea of making the band album came up for the first time, we circled the wagon to see what music was available for us. We remembered ["One More for the Road"] and threw it on the pile," Pattengale explains. "It was very clear that song was unique to the rest of them. It was really a standout and ... it needed a place on the album."
But, Pattengale was worried that the song (which is over 10 minutes long) would be "boring." It was written with an intro and outro, and then four of the same verses right in a row. "When you add the words up, nothing really happens in the song," he admits. Eventually, he had the idea of adding in a long guitar solo "that would really throw people off their feet."
When the band got together in the studio, the other musicians were pretty much in the dark about the track; Pattengale simply directed, "Nobody play an A or an A flat." They dove into the song without rehearsing, and the album cut was the first time anyone played or heard it.
"We went and did it a second time, and everyone knew too much. The second time, it sounds too scripted, or it sounds too self-aware. The first one sounds like we're all discovering something together," Pattengale muses. "And, truthfully, that's exactly what it was. It's sort of a metaphor for the whole 'taking on a band' for me and Joey. it was this very scary, strange, foreign thing that we didn't know what it was or how it was going to go until we just jumped into the deep end."
"I come from the school where goodness comes with age; people get better when they get older."
After the record came touring, and that was a new experience in and of itself as well.
"Joey and I spent eight years on the road just he and I together, and now there's seven other people," Pattengale says. "It's not just me and Joey fighting with each other -- there's seven other people to share dinner with and to put together a musical program for an audience and to struggle and figure out how this song goes together or how to put together this setlist.
"It's delightful!" he adds.
The band on the road with the Milk Carton Kids is different from their studio band. However, "[t]hey have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who played the parts on the album. so they sort of interpret what's there," Pattengale notes.
"Now, we get to play it with a seven-piece band that's coming fresh with their own identity," he continues. "It is different and vibrant and breathes new life into the material for me and Joey."
While they play new material for one-third of their live shows, another third is older material, and four or five other numbers are played simply by Ryan and Pattengale. After all, it's who they began as.
"Everything [feels] a little more adult," Pattengale reflects. "I guess I come from the school where goodness comes with age; people get better when they get older."