It’s no wonder the Milk Carton Kids are thrilled to play the Berklee Performance Center for the first time in nearly four years—and their first time ever as a headliner—on Sept. 8. The acoustic duo always seemed better suited to theaters than a club environment.
“We’re going to hand out flyers when people walk in, telling them they have to hold extremely still, even in their seats,” deadpans Joey Ryan, adding that when he and Kenneth Pattengale played in clubs, “It became a common refrain of ours to admonish the crowd not to order any blended drinks during quiet songs.”
The punchline, of course, is that the Milk Carton Kids only play quiet songs. The pair’s hushed, delicately interwoven vocals and guitars cast a mesmerizing spell for fans who can absorb subtleties without distraction. And performances ring more clearly since the duo switched to using a single microphone, Ryan says.
So when the Milk Carton Kids graduated to theaters on their last tour, they decided to take advantage of those acoustically resonant halls to record the group’s third album, Monterey, released in May. “It was Kenneth’s idea—I think he was just hoodwinking me into taking a bus on tour,” Ryan says from their LA hometown. “You drive through the night and show up in the morning, and then you have all day to record in the venue. I’m a little suspicious that was actually the impetus behind the plan.”
Luckily, those spaces yielded haunting results on record, from the brittle picking of “Asheville Skies” to the breezy arc of “High Hopes” to the traditional folk flavor of “The City of Our Lady,” where they sing, “Everywhere we go, we are the child of where we came.” They recorded half of Monterey—the follow-up to the duo’s Grammy-nominated The Ash & Clay—during 55 tour dates, before finishing with three additional days spent at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church.
“There was never any pressure,” Ryan says. “We didn’t listen to our recordings from the entire tour until months later. The lack of self-examination in the midst of the process was incredibly liberating, especially to Kenneth as a guitar player. You can hear it very distinctly on this album, how freely he plays.”
Before they forged a partnership, Ryan and Pattengale spent a decade leading separate bands through the LA club circuit. “I would describe them as flailing, unsuccessful, unsatisfying and without audience,” Ryan says of those years. “The Milk Carton Kids ended up somewhere halfway between what we were each doing. I’ve been influenced a lot more by a pretty structured rock or folk songwriting format, and Kenneth has traditionally rebelled against any sort of structure, often at the cost of having any sort of appeal. So we balance each other out.”
Their sparse contrast served as a blueprint, evoking harmony duos such as Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
“From the first day, it just sounded complete,” says Ryan, who tunes his guitar to a lower register, while Pattengale plays lead with a handkerchief tied atop his neck to keep strings from buzzing. “The way we sang together was so gratifying, just to ourselves before anyone else ever heard it. It felt like a complete sonic palette, and we like the idea of committing to it and diving deeper into that particular framework rather than always scraping the surface of more instrumentation.”
It’s a setup that’s not likely to change any time soon, although Ryan suggests “poll numbers are split 50-50” between people who wish to hear them with a band and those who want to keep the duo pure. Ryan says he likes how it gives Pattengale room to improvise on guitar. “I’d hate to think what would happen if there wasn’t that space, and I love the way that our voices are exposed, because I think it makes us focus in on singing in a way that’s incredibly intimate.”
Ryan equates the process to walking a tightrope onstage. “Most people find our music soothing,” he says. “I find it terrifying to perform, and exhilarating.”