(Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan)
IT’S THE APPOINTED HOUR but The Milk Carton Kids are not quite in attendance. One, Kenneth Pattengale is here, relaxed and you suspect quietly happy to be able to mock his absent partner of 12 years, Joey Ryan.
“Joey doesn’t know how to click buttons that are sent to him,” he drawls.
Hey, it’s more chances to get in the blows early, to dish the dirt.
“Ooh. Yeah,” his eyes light up, briefly. “But there’s no more dish to dirt, or dirt to dish rather. Hmm, it sounds like I’m the one at 8am in the work day.”
Ryan joins us at this opportune moment, looking unperturbed, snacking on chips and guacamole. As you do.
One of the three of us in this conversation is experiencing his second dose of Covid, but everyone’s familiar.
“We both got it,” says Ryan, which seems to surprise Pattengale.” You got Covid? You didn’t get it,” he says, before allowing “but that’s all that happened.”
“I got Covid, I got sick, and then I lost my sense of smell for three months,” objects Ryan.
“But you got barely sick,” Pattengale says. “You didn’t isolate from your family, you kept doing things; you weren’t down and out for a month the way I was. Most things in Joey’s life are sort of mild. He kind of has a mild case of everything.”
Not even mildly offended, Ryan asks us both “can I tell you something about losing your sense of smell? It’s wonderful! I would be in places that I knew smell horrible, and it was totally fine. Like in a public restroom in a park and I’d be, I’ve been in here before and it smells terrible, why don’t I mind? Then you realise it’s because you’ve got the covi.”
A chuckling Pattengale nods, “you can definitely put that in the newspaper: Joey got Covid and then hung out at public parks just to sniff the bathrooms.”
With my work done for me, it seems churlish to ask for more, but there is something else on the agenda today. As well as a tour of Australia mid-year, there is a new Milk Carton Kids album, their seventh, but first in four years. Four years during which Pattengale married and returned to Los Angeles, where Ryan and his family still lived, and the famously publicly (amusingly) fractious pair rediscovered a love for what they did for a day job.
Called I Only See The Moon, it is the most avowedly folk record in a while, after the attractive foray of 2018’s All The Things That I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do, where they bulked up their sound and their numbers, and 2019’s gentle, short and drifting The Only Ones. It’s a record, produced by Pattengale, where they stake out their territory again as a sonically and structurally austere, vocally entwined, world of two men and two guitars.
Well, except for the title track. That’s something else. I would swear I Only See the Moon appeared in a romantically wistful French film around 1964, possibly sung by a young Claudine Longet and a string ensemble, and I only need to know which one of them translated the lyrics.
“Oh no, did I plagiarise? Did I copy that?” Pattengale says. “That’s my magnum opus!”
No, not at all. There is no suggestion of plagiarising; this clearly is a cover of a lost chanson.
“I think you should use this as a big compliment,” says Ryan to his partner. “He’s not saying you ripped something off, he’s saying it’s wonderful.”
A now laughing Pattengale responds “Joey looks like he’s observing a ballgame: eating chips and guacamole and explaining to the participants what’s being said.”
Ryan, affecting the look of the slightly hurt, mutters “usually people don’t understand what I say, so I figure nobody else understands what anybody else says either. But I guess you guys are having a nice conversation without me.”
Which may be a bit of a pattern. It turns out Ryan wasn’t even in the room when that song was being recorded, playing no direct part in this lovely, subtle but potent arrangement of orchestra and voice.
“No, that was my genius,” says Ryan. “It’s like Miles Davis says, it’s not the notes you play … It’s not the sessions you’re in, it’s the sessions you’re not in.”
Imagine a coming box set, The Sessions Joey Ryan Didn’t Play On. One for all Milk Carton Kids collectors.
“Some of the greatest music of all time would be in there,” says Pattengale. “But listen, technically, Joey was invited to that session, though I do regret inviting him now.”
I Only See the Moon is a song with some history, written almost 10 years ago, initially with a different set of lyrics, and attempted at various times during sessions for each album. It never made it because for Pattengale it never reflected what he heard in his mind.
“I always had this hunch that I wanted it to be all strings and to sound the way that it sounds and to evoke the thing that it evokes, but there was never the time or the money or the context within which to do that under our name. I like to think, not in an arrogant way, I was right all along,” he says now.
“But that’s kind of the funny thing. I wrote it in a hotel room when we were playing Wintergrass [Festival], outside of Seattle, Washington, in February 2014. I wrote it one morning and kind of could see the whole picture of it all in about half an hour, 45 minutes sitting. It just took a while for the rest of the world to let everything else fall into place. I think it’s pretty cool. I think Joey likes it too, even though he wasn’t around. He let us name the damn album after it.”
The contrast is quite striking on the album given the starkness of the material around it, a spare, clean sound that was their intention going in.
“As Kenneth has put it before, it was getting back to the original thing that animated our duo in the first place, 10 or 11 years ago,” says Ryan. “The thing that I’m most pleased with with regard to I Only See The Moon as a centrepiece is that I do think the way that it is sequenced it makes sense: the record comes into it and comes out of it in a nice way. It feels like there is a beginning, middle, and end to the record. It’s hard for us to even aspire to something like that because we have such limited tools, a self-imposed limited palette, so I’m really pleased that something is different as I Only See The Moon can make sense, be contextualised, and contextualise the rest of the record. That was kind of thrilling to me.”
It's difference is part of its appeal on the album.
“The whole thing to me was that it’s minimalist without imposing such a strict rule as we are only going to use our two guitars and two voices,” says Ryan. “Everything is still minimal and every piece and every track is very intentional and even though that’s a lush sound, and there are a lot of strings playing, it’s mostly strings and voice and guitar so there’s not that much going on.”
One of things that’s interesting about the choices made, beginning with working together again, is that they have both said that for a while they lost a sense of why they were doing what they do, or what it was that had excited them in the beginning. That may shock some people, but what should be more surprising is that more artists don’t say this.
Regular folk reach a point of saturation or enervation with what we do every day, yet we look at artists and think how can you get bored with singing and performing everyday, like it’s some magic pudding of life affirmation.
"Ooh yeah,” says Pattengale, while his other half adds: “And your reasons for doing it can change over time.”
“Your animating factors change and then whatever was pure and energising about it in the beginning, just like in any career like you say, you can lose sight of,” continues Ryan. “You change as a person and our relationship changed, so what’s most surprising to me is that we found it again. Anybody when they get started on anything has a reason for doing it and then almost everybody is going to hit a point where they lose the spark, and not everybody gets it back again.”
Pattengale drawls. “It’s like the old saying goes, there’s only so many cups of guacamole you can share with a fella.”
“Yeah, Miles Davis said that,” confirms Ryan.
Pattengale nods approvingly. “He knew his dips, if nothing else.”
I Only See the Moon is out today through Thirty Tigers.
The Milk Carton Kids will play:
Queenscliff Town Hall, June 30
Meeniyan Town Hall, July 1
Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, July 2
The Eltham Hotel, July 5– Eltham
Old Museum, Brisbane, July 6
City Recital Hall, Sydney, July 8
Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, July 9
Memo Music Hall, Melbourne, July 11
Adelaide Guitar Festival, July 13