The Milk Carton Kids talk Calgary, music history and the meaning of ‘folk music’

Monday 05th, October 2015 / 16:26
By Kraig Brachman
Comedy folk duo The Milk Carton Kids return to Calgary this October.

Comedy folk duo The Milk Carton Kids return to Calgary this month.

CALGARY — With their impeccable harmonies, improvisational and virtuosic acoustic meanderings, and rich humour, the Los Angeles-based Milk Carton Kids are a folky roots duo that has captured Calgary’s heart. Guitarists and singers Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are returning to the heart of the city for a show following their fantastic Folk Festival appearance. To learn more, we rang up Ryan.

BeatRoute: You guys were just here at the Calgary Folk Festival. What were your impressions of the festival? What made it special?

Joey Ryan: The festival was a really, really special experience for us; that was probably our best festival experience that we’ve had… The thing that was uncommon in our experience was the audience and their willingness, if not desire, to hear a minimalist folk show; ten thousand strong standing outside in the sun… It was huge in Calgary, better than it’s ever been received before.

BR: Your act reminds me of the Smothers Brothers with their stripped down acoustic guitar, back and forth banter. Comedy is a central focus for the duo.

JR: We get that a lot and we we’re very flattered by it. They were geniuses. It’s funny because until very recently we hadn’t listened to them, we didn’t watch their show, but I think ever since we exposed ourselves they’ve become pretty important to us. The whole time we were getting these comparisons we kept saying, “Man, I’ve never actually watched the show before,” and it’s just a big, weird, coincidence that the dynamic between us was so similar.

BR: So, what did you look at as inspiration and say this is what we want to do?

JR: To be honest, that was never part of our process. The way it happened was just Kenneth said one day, “Hey, you gotta come over and her me play guitar on your song,” and so I went over there and we went back and forth for about 20 songs in a row. I would play one of mine, he would play one of his and we would write harmony parts to each other’s songs and arrange the guitars and it was this spontaneous, really joyful, gestation period of a few weeks where we learned how to play together.

BR: What made you decide to bring the comedy routine into your show?

JR: At first it started to happen naturally. In the great folk tradition you gotta tell stories between your songs, but we gave ourselves the mandate of never saying the name of the song and never saying what the song is about. When you take those things off the table you start talking about a whole bunch of things that are only tangentially related to the song. For me, I really enjoyed the improvisational exercise in the beginning of being up in front of the audience and trying to figure out what to say to entertain them between songs because you gotta keep the show going.

BR: Why do you play folk music? Do you play folk music? It’s part of a new tradition that is, as of yet, ill defined.

JR: I guess it’s easier to answer the question if it’s asked as, ‘Why do we play with our particular instrumentation, why is it just the two of us with our two guitars;’ is that the question? Otherwise, I might take issue with the premise that we actually play folk music. I’m uncomfortable with the question, “Why do we play folk music?” because it implies our intention is to play folk music when really what happened was we got together at a time when we didn’t know it, but what we needed was just to strip away everything. We need to strip away all the other instruments, all the other people, all the other distractions and just play our guitars and sing harmonies.

The Milk Carton Kids play the Central United Church in Calgary on October 10th.

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