A place of worship doesn’t give its keys and the code to its security system to just anyone, but the Milk Carton Kids were on a mission (though not a “mission from God”). While touring behind 2013’s The Ash & Clay, the folk duo — Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan — made the most of their travels and spent every waking moment, both on- and offstage, on their music. Instead of metaphorically unplugging from the tunes they were playing before an audience across the country and the songs they were writing on the side on their days off, they opted to spend more time than required on the stages they crossed one state at a time. They recorded Monterey, their forthcoming album, out May 19 on Anti Records, in these venues in the hours before and after their performances on 55 of their national tour dates, and this approach, plus a week spent burning the midnight oil at Nashville’s Presbyterian Church, led to a not-quite-live and certainly atypical folk record.
“We hatched this crazy idea to bring a recording setup into all of the venues that we were playing in, and get there during the day at like noon or so, and record until soundcheck,” reflects Ryan. “Some days we wrote; some days we recorded; some days we wrote and recorded. The thing that every place had in common was that it was not a studio, but a theater or some sort of performance venue. We were just onstage as though we were playing a show. There was no audience, but we wanted to approximate as closely as possible the experience that we have when we’re onstage, and capture whatever that seems to do to our performances. It seems to engender a great deal of fearlessness and a lack of preciousness that’s easy to fall victim to when you’re in a high-pressure situation like the studio, to be deliberate and intentional and precious about everything.”
Monterey isn’t a departure or a surprise to Milk Carton Kids fans, as Pattengale and Ryan’s mutual dexterity with dynamics and seamless harmonies are just as present here as they were on The Ash & Clay, Prologue, and Retrospect before this. If anything, Monterey offers up Milk Carton Kids Concentrate, in that it’s the first record to distill their talents, truly, and capture them in their comfort zone.
“We’ve spent probably 400, 500 days in the last five years on stages, and we’ve literally spent eight days in the studio, so we’re much more comfortable on a stage than in a studio,” he continues. They feel the most at home, the most able, onstage; whether they’re competing against the deafening hum of a festival crowd or baiting a breathless theater with the softness of their song, Pattengale and Ryan are much more at ease when it’s just them and their guitars, standing before strangers, than they are in the sterile confines of a studio with headphones on, even if it means welcoming a ton of unpredictable headaches into the fray.
“Usually, you feel like the process of making the album is something that absorbs the focus very singularly and very wholly,” he says. “Some bands rent a cabin in the woods because they only want to be thinking about the album. There were distractions all around. We were going to a different city every day; the room was different every day; there could be something going on with the power in the room, or something going on with the noise outside. We were supposed to be on tour; we were not supposed to be making an album. Everything we were doing was going away from the preciousness of the recording process as we’d known it.”
The roving recording process presented plenty of challenges, but if anything, the additional hassle of laying down tracks on the road forced Pattengale and Ryan to turn a sharper focus on the lyrics unfolding over the course of their travels. For Ryan, this was the biggest challenge and greatest asset to come from their experience making Monterey.
“We’ve always found that there’s something lost in our performance when you’re treating it as though it’s more heightened or important than the one you give every night,” he says. “To just give the performances you give every night and find the best ones of those, that seems to be the way to capture the most inspired performances. When we kind of just do our thing for an hour and a half, and we’re interacting with the audience, and everything in the room isn’t super-controlled, we have to do our best to tap into inspiration. To remove all of those distractions and all of the context that yields our most inspired performances — it just didn’t seem to make sense. The distractions and context was very much the point of doing it this way.”
Now every trip and deserted venue — and off-hours church or concert hall, for that matter — provides a vault of untapped potential for the Milk Carton Kids. It may be a minute before they find themselves holding the keys to an empty venue in quite the same way again, but if inspiration hits them or they need to work out a tune, Monterey‘s proven that all they need are their guitars, their voices, and the echo they find in an empty room.
The Milk Carton Kids play City Winery April 10 and Electric Lady Studios April 11. Both shows are sold out. Monterey will see its release May 19 via Anti Records.
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