The Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan falls into a quirky pattern during taped interviews and between live songs. He becomes clueless, feigning ignorance about certain words and well-known musicians. He once claimed he’d never heard of Simon and Garfunkel.
It’s a funny act—like one of the characters from Spinal Tap come to life.
But it’s clear from the first beat of a recent conversation with Ryan he’s no dummy, especially when it comes to the tradition of folk music in this country. Speaking with C-VILLE before his April 12 show at the Jefferson Theater, he rejected the idea that he and fellow guitarist/vocalist Kenneth Pattengale constitute a traditional folk band, strictly speaking.
“I have trouble with this one because mainly the thing that’s traditional about the thing we do is the instrumentation,” he says. “From a songwriting standpoint, as far as we’re concerned, we’re not super traditionally minded.”
Ryan, it turns out, is so well-versed in the folk tradition and his own craft, it’s not easy to determine what he means exactly. He plainly says The Milk Carton Kids’ lyrics aren’t necessarily about traditional folk topics, but understanding his comments on structure would require a music degree.
To the less trained ear, it’s hard not to link the Kids sonically with Paul and Art, who, it turns out, Ryan is indeed familiar with. Like Simon and Garfunkel before them, The Milk Carton Kids rely heavily on two-part harmonies and healing, soft-spoken lyrical arrangements.
It’s a formula that’s made Ryan and Pattengale quite successful in Americana circles. They’ve received critical acclaim since their debut at the 2011 South by Southwest festival (the annual tastemaking phenomenon in Austin, Texas), scored a Grammy nomination for their second full-length, The Ash & Clay, won praise from Garrison Keillor and Sara Bareilles, toured with Old Crow Medicine Show and The Lumineers, and played Conan O’Brien’s late show.
But Ryan admits the duo lacks much in the way of crossover potential. They’re not a modern band with folk influences; they’re a folk band with modern influences.
Could there be something more for Ryan and Pattengale in the future? Sure, Ryan says. They’ve done some one-offs with a full band, and Ryan doesn’t rule out growing the Kids. But, for now, they enjoy exploring what they can do with just “four elements”: Ryan’s voice and guitar playing and Pattengale’s voice and playing.
“The Ash & Clay was an exercise in songwriting with a political or social consciousness and there was a real emphasis…on us playing together and disappearing into each other,” Ryan says. “On Monterey (released in 2015) each of the four elements steps forward. In Kenneth’s guitar playing, there are these adventurous, risky explorations. It feels more exhilarating. It feels more unhinged.”
Still, Ryan says he won’t fault anyone (including hapless music writers) for finding similarities between The Ash & Clay and Monterey, the album the band is still touring to support.
The Kids resumed touring on April 7 after a trip overseas and a several-month break. At the Jefferson, the audience will be treated to what Ryan says is the band’s wheelhouse, an intimate, seated show.
Ryan suggests it’ll be much like a standing show except your feet won’t be as tired at the end. And while he certainly condones having a few beverages and a good time, he admits chatting over your beer can “detract from the experience.”
“It’s become less of an issue,” he says. “We use to have to insist on a seated show…now we’ve started playing nicer rooms so it doesn’t matter as much. I would imagine the Charlottesville people will come and have a good time in a way that won’t detract from the show.”
Ryan will likely inflect his quirky sense of humor throughout what he calls an “intentional” set; Pattengale will probably slip into his role as straight man. Indeed, the act is in some ways pre-planned, according to Ryan.
“This gets to that sort of word that I feel uncomfortable about, which is authenticity,” he says. “I would never shy away from acknowledging that anything you do onstage is an act. But at the same time, it’s not fiction. The act is based in reality. You have to pick which parts of your personality you’re going to let shine through in a way that is going to be engaging and fulfilling.”
Ryan says paying attention to the act between songs can be a great benefit to their shows. He says the audience deserves to see a band that’s prepared. Plus, the comedy plays nicely against the band’s often melancholic tunes.
“One of the things that makes a sad song effective or any emotion powerful is the juxtaposition with its opposite,” he says. “It’s hard to make someone feel sad for an hour. That’s something we take to heart in the live show.”