Photograph by Joshua Black Wilkins
The American duo who have been compared with Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, recently released a new album which breaks away from their sparse, simple sound. Reviewed HERE.
With the possibility of a tour at the end of this year (or early next year, or both), one of the suited singers, Kenneth Pattengale, explains why a messy night in 2015 changed everything.
WE WILL GET to a “disgusting trail of saliva” in a minute, but for now it’s worth noting that kindness matters to Kenneth Pattengale. It may indeed be the core of his attitude to life now, and the unspoken message of the new album from his band, The Milk Carton Kids. As corny as it sounds, they’re saying be better to ourselves and, by extension, to each other.
Pattengale is the less comically freewheeling half of the folk/Americana Milk Carton Kids, usually playing the straight man to co-lead singer/co-harmonist Joey Ryan. He is also the brilliant guitarist of the pair and the greater contributor to the lyrics on this album, All The Things That I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, he is a man who respects respect in all its forms, such as getting his name right: he is Kenneth, not Ken and most certainly not Kenny.
“There are very few truths in my life, one of them is that whatever the hell a person wants to be called, that’s what they should be called,” Pattengale says. “If everybody followed that rule the world would be a kinder place, something we’ve always been in desperate need of. And the same holds true for the way that we treat ourselves.
”If we gave ourselves a little more of a break, if we empathised a little more with ourselves and worked more compassionately, that would engender our compassion to others.”
For Pattengale, this album “looks outwards” even as it turns on inner upheaval (a relationship breakup and recovering from cancer for him; a growing family for Ryan; their separation in Nashville and Los Angeles, respectively), with its eyes turned to a country embroiled in a collapsing presidency and a world going to hell in a coal-fired handbasket.
“It comes from the chaos individually,” he says. “But boy we could all use a reminder to be kinder to ourselves – it’s the wild west out here. It’s the wild west everywhere.”
What’s that got to do with the album which sees the close harmony, acoustic guitar duo expanding into a full band sound? Being kind to yourself starts from being honest about and to yourself, and taking stock of their lives among some personal chaos, and then of what they needed to do to make this duo - formed from two solo careers eight years ago – fresh and sustainable, was the spark.
Actually, strictly speaking, falling asleep was the spark.
Photograph by Joshua Black Wilkins
“Both Joey and I reached the point where we realised we had no option,” says Pattengale. “The genesis of this album came at the end of a period of stagnation that spanned two years. At the end of the tour in 2015, having done the same set for 18 months, there was a show where I fell asleep during one of my own guitar solos. This is not a lie. I woke to the sound of me slurping a disgusting trail of saliva off the top of my guitar and Joey looking at me in horror, thinking ‘my God what has happened to the man?’.”
The audience may not have noticed (no one sought a refund that night), but for The Milk Carton Kids it was, he admits, “pure chaos” and something of a big, flashing neon metaphor-made-flesh for a pair whose musical relationship began one night as “one of the closest things I’ve ever experienced to love at first sight” but had reached a crucial point.
“There were many other factors that go into that story, I think, but I fell asleep during one of my guitar solos and if that isn’t a sign that we needed to evolve, I don’t know what the hell is.”
The solution was “to take more water in the boat”, bringing in up to nine people at a time into the studio which once housed two, and old mucker Joe Henry who had been a supporter from the start and now was producing them.
Not that the bigger sound is anyway half as neon-flashing as the Great Saliva Moment of 2015. By design, their voices and acoustics remain the centrepiece, the softly-softly playing musicians (featuring members of Wilco, Crooked Still and Punch Brothers) augmenting and enhancing rather than creating a “band” sound, sometimes been given free rein to improvise and follow unexpected paths as in the almost modal jazz expanse of the album’s 10-minute centrepiece, One More For The Road.
“I tell you what, part of what you hear [in One More For The Road] is fear,” says Pattengale of a song which goes back almost a decade to their very earliest writing sessions together in LA and which was recorded with almost guidance for the musicians. “That is as living and as breathing a song as can exist in a recorded medium, though of course you can’t do that with people you don’t admire or trust or respect.”
Which is where this conversation began Kenneth: trust, respect … being kind.
“It’s the only way anything works,” says Pattengale. “It’s all about kindness and love.”