The Milk Carton Kids
Friday, Dec. 6, 8 p.m.
Outpost in the Burbs
First Congregational Church, 40 South Fullerton Ave.
By GWEN OREL
Don’t make important decisions 11 hours into a 12-hour drive, says Kenneth Pattengale.
He and bandmate Joey Ryan were on their way to Northern California to open a show for Sarah Bareilles (“Beautiful”) when they decided to call themselves The Milk Carton Kids.
“Ten years later, I’m not sure if it’s a good choice or not,” Pattengale said with a laugh. The duo plays Outpost in the Burbs on Friday, Dec. 6.
He and Ryan had already been playing together for a year without a name, a two-guitar, harmony-based band.
They were drawn to one another musically, and when they first sang together, it was like falling in love, Pattengale said.
“It’s similar to the way people tell stories about love at first sight, or something meant to be. This other sound came out that we’d never heard before. I thought, ‘Boy, we need to do more of this,’” he said.
They had both come up in the same singer-songwriter scene in Los Angeles. Both men were working on solo careers. Both had achieved some marginal success, but had not gone where they wanted to. They were even the same age: 27, born in 1982. They grew up watching the same TV shows, listening to the same music, Pattengale said.
Now both are 38; Ryan is married with kids, and Pattengale has a steady girlfriend.
Had they had other obligations in the past things might have been different, Pattengale said.
But one thing that drew them together was a shared aesthetic and influence: what is loosely called American folk music, Pattengale said.
And what does that mean? Admittedly, it could mean many things, he continued: Appalachian hill music, Simon and Garfunkel, the Everly brothers.
For The Milk Carton Kids, it boils down to songwriter-based performance: “sitting down with a guitar and an idea, and making an emotional connection with the audience. We’re trying to spill our hearts out.”
Their latest album, “The Only Ones,” came out in 2019, following “All the Things that I Did and All the Things that I Didn’t Do,” which added more instruments than they had previously worked with before.
“After four albums and about 900 concerts with just Joey and myself, with two guitars and two voices, we wanted to mix it up,” Pattengale said. “You meet a lot of people in the music business, with different types of music and playing. This was a way to acknowledge that diverse and interesting community.”
They took that band around the country to perform. It was a grand experiment, and change of pace.
But then, Pattengale said, it was “time to come back and do the thing we most good at.”
And having more people involved made recording and touring logistically difficult, too.
It was satisfying to return to just the two of them.
“We can lean more into our musical intuition,” Pattengale said.
That intuition is born of their shared musical leanings. Pattengale is a fan of big band jazz and classical music, as well as Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright.
Ryan, Pattengale said, grew up listening to his parents’ record collection, full of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Jackson Browne.
The songs could be written by either one of them: sometimes they write together, sometimes one of them will show up with a song fully composed.
“There has to be some mystery, that exists in the heart, that we’re trying to communicate,” Pattengale said. “We have to be compelled to say what we’re trying to say. Audiences are very smart. They will connect with things that come from a real place inside.”
What audiences can expect in terms of the show itself is like a blend of Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, and the Smothers Brothers, he added.
“We are the biggest fans of all three of those acts. For people who are not crazy music fans, people who don’t go to 30 concerts a year, but maybe three, the thing we most sound like and carry a torch for are those three acts,” Pattengale said.
“The Everly Brothers were pure magic. What they did, when you hear it on the radio, echoes through the halls of time. A generation later, Simon & Garfunkel took that aesthetic on. Joey and I like to think we’re lucky to be descendants in that tradition. Hopefully, we’re another generation down the road.”
The Smothers Brothers and their brand of comedy are another element of their show: the two men tease and correct one another onstage.
Tommy and Dick Smothers were American folk singers, with Tom on acoustic guitar, and Dick on string bass, who had a network variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, from 1967 to 1969. One of the recurring gags was Tommy’s line, “Mom always liked you best.”
“If you’re going to do a show that has 17 really sad songs, it always seems important to us to break that up,” Pattengale said. “Tommy and Dick [Smothers] never let one another get away with anything. That was their perennial gag. Audiences really love to watch people disagree in jest. It’s very relatable.”