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The Milk Carton Kids find freedom on the road

Joey Ryan on breathing new life into the group

For most folk musicians, writing a record on the road seems like standard procedure. But recording on the road — particularly the follow-up to Milk Carton Kids' well-received debut, The Ash and Clay — isn't quite as easy to imagine. Milk Carton Kids' Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, who met as solo artists performing in Los Angeles, opted to record their recent full-length Monterey all over the country, taking over venues for hours during the day to lay down the new tracks. "Most of the time that we've spent together has been in a van or in a music venue, so I think we've been shaped less by the place where we met than by the various places where we've done most of our work together," Ryan says.

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The decision to record in venues was, of course, a logistically sound move for the touring musicians, but method of recording offered a particular edge for Monterey that they hadn't been able to find in traditional recording environments. "It was a really liberating process," Ryan says. "We made this commitment not to listen back to the recordings as we were doing it. We would just play for four or five hours in the middle of the day, into the afternoon, and break down the recording set up and set up for the show and move on to the next day. It wasn't until a couple of months later that we went and listened back."

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That pact to distance themselves from the music they'd already recorded was crucial, allowing Pattengale and Ryan to focus on each performance in the moment rather than mentally correcting perceived flaws from previous sessions. Removing that self-conscious, self-reflective process of listening back and then reacting to their own impression of themselves comes across on the record as an unhinged, spontaneous performance.

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Milk Carton Kids' sound is distinctive in its soft vocal harmonies and delicate guitar picking, and while Monterey made use of the listening rooms and theaters Milk Carton Kids play now, they haven't always been so lucky in the venue department. The quiet Simon-and-Garfunkel-esque duo was playing dive bars and rock clubs almost exclusively for their first few years together — an unconventional environment for a group whose entire catalog sounds as though it is meant to be whispered.

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"The shows could be hit or miss," Ryan says. "We had to take a lot of steps to communicate with the audience that this was going to be a different kind of show from what they were used to seeing in that type of room. There was a place in Cleveland that we played a couple of times we actually loved playing because they were so good to us. They went as far as to turn off the beer fridge during our shows. The beer fridge in the bar was louder than the show."

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Fortunately, the difficulty finding a quiet space to play didn't deter Ryan and Pattengale from allowing their sound to develop as a duo. Ryan describes their relationship as musicians as some kind of combination between brothers, friends, and spouses — not to mention business partners. "We have to care enough about each other to be constantly pushing each other to improve, and that's a really hard thing to do because it's uncomfortable to be pushed," Ryan says. The most obvious example of this push-pull relationship may be songwriting, which the duo sometimes tackles together and sometimes approaches completely separately before reconvening and working out arrangements. "It's a very intense collaborative process," Ryan says.

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On Monterey, the duo's push to improve took on a new meaning outside of the writing process, seeping in the recording process and on the stage, too. For two musicians accustomed to cranking out a record in a matter of days, recording an album with no time crunch meant that the only pressure was in finding the right sound in the very moment they were recording.

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In that way, Monterey was a huge step forward for their live performances as much as their recorded catalog. With every show, the duo creates a listening environment that, while fleeting, makes an increasingly lasting impression on their audiences. It's as if they've answered the question posed by the title track: "Monterey, how can I say I'll always stay, then slip away?"