In many ways, Santa Barbara has been front and center for the rise of The Milk Carton Kids. Since cutting their teeth (and recording their debut album) at Ventura’s now-defunct Zoey’s Café, the duo has frequented many S.B. stages, including the Lobero — twice. Next Thursday, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale will return to the historic theater as first-time headliners.
The show comes on the heels of a whirlwind year for the band. Early in 2013, the pair released The Ash & Clay on ANTI- records. The gentle but sprawling collection finds Ryan and Pattengale fine-tuning a sound that they’ve long championed — folk music that is thoroughly informed by those who came before, though not remotely throwback in nature. And not surprisingly, shortly after the album’s release, praise started rolling in. First came national tours and then festival dates and insider attention. Most recently, The Milk Cartons Kids found themselves sharing the stage with Joan Baez, Conor Oberst, and many others as part of Another Day, Another Time, a documentary about the music behind the Coen brothers’ big-screen ode to the ’60s folk movement, Inside Llewyn Davis. It seems the world at large is finally starting to see what many in S.B. have known all along — The Milk Carton Kids are the real deal. I caught up with Ryan to talk music, motivation, and movie-making.
What do you think originally drew you to songwriting? In the beginning, it was cathartic.
You make it sound as if that motivation has changed. Sometimes. It’s still very useful as catharsis, but that also requires some sort of misery, I think, and I don’t think all good songwriting requires misery. There’s plenty of other ways to approach writing a song. Now it can be anything, from working out a philosophy or viewpoint on a given topic to exploring some sort of uncertainty. Those are kind of heady things, as opposed to pure emotional things. But it can come down to trying to elicit the emotion in a listener that a particular image or story elicits in you. Those songs tend to come out a lot more impressionistic or expressionistic.
Do you feel like you write with an audience in mind, especially now that you’re playing shows every night? There’s a tendency to consider it more, but I think that’s disruptive and I try to immediately put it out of mind. But it is easier to not write for an audience when you don’t have one. [Laughs.] You have to remind yourself that you’re not writing for your audience when there is one.
How does working with Kenneth compare to operating in solo mode? And what do you think makes it work for the two of you? It’s better and harder. It’s the difference between being single and being married and trying to live a happy life, you know? It just requires totally different approaches, and there are extreme benefits and drawbacks to both sides — extremely deep, meaningful benefits, both artistically and personally. But it’s also really fucking hard sometimes, like a marriage.
I want to know a little bit about the Another Day, Another Time project. How did you guys get involved in that? I think we got involved because of our friendship and musical kinship with the band Punch Brothers. That, and T Bone Burnett saw us perform at an Americana Association music event. Between the two of them championing for us, I think that’s how the suggestion got made to the Coens.
How was the experience? It was a very complex thing. It was very surreal at some points, just standing in the room with some of these people. I was having a conversation about Ireland with Joan Baez — I don’t know how that became the topic of choice, but it was — and then I was walking up to John Goodman while he was rehearsing his lines as the emcee of the night. By the way, I think he was entirely cut out of the film. He introduced all the acts, but I don’t think they used it. But for a while, no one was talking to him, I think just because they were in awe of him, and I went up to him and talked to him while he was running his lines. I was probably just distracting and bothering him, but it seemed like he didn’t mind too much. Then, I mean, just standing in a room with the Coen brothers, who have been as big an influence on me as any musician — all of that stuff is surreal. But then you have to go to work and hold your own with all these people. It was an intense three days, and when we saw the finished result, we felt like someone had done us a very flattering job on the editing side.
Do you feel as if you guys made some new friends? Oscar Isaac I think is the one that we’ve really stayed in touch with the most. I feel like we have a champion in Marcus Mumford, although we never seem to be in the same city with him at the same time. We’ve exchanged some emails, but we’ve yet to cross paths with him again since then.
The Milk Carton Kids play the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Thursday, June 19, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.