Interview: The Milk Carton Kids

By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)

To start off the interview with Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids, I did something that’s probably considered a bit of a no-no on a more traditional media outlet. I told him a personal story and said, “thanks,” because the Milk Carton Kids latest album The Ash & Clay has literally made my life easier. I kid you not, anytime I play the album, my toddler son drops his head on my shoulder and falls asleep. It’s usually within one song, but at the most three or four. It’s a total daily ritual, and it almost never fails.

That’s the vibe of the album; it’s totally relaxing. But that’s not to say it is a sleepy record. On the contrary, it’s a captivating record. That’s why it’s so relaxing – with the dueling vocals and acoustic guitars playing off each other in harmony.

The list of great complete albums that can serve as wind-down music is very short, and it’s especially rare to find a wind-down album that might actually have your favorite song on it. Cat Stevens and Nick Drake could do it without really trying. Roger Waters has done it. Carl Broemel just did it. Billy Breathes? Maybe a couple of Dylan albums? I’m sure there are more, but The Ash & Clay is right up there with the greats in this category.

Talking on the phone from “The shadiest Tennessee gas station ever, where a guy is ashing his cigarette on the ‘No Smoking’ sign’”, Joey Ryan checked in to discuss the quiet nature of the album, where they fit in amongst the folk/bluegrass revival, and a truly touching story of the anonymous fan who gave him his Gibson J-45.

HT: So, the mellowness of it all, is that by design or was it just the result of how you guys play together?

JR: I think it’s something that we’re drawn to and it’s also a by-product of just the instrumentation that we’ve chosen. It’s hard to do anything else I guess with just two guitars and two voices. But you know, we’re both drawn to music that is beautiful in some ways. The way that it comes out of us is like you said, mellow, but it’s not really something we’re striving for.

HT: Another thing I wanted to ask about is your bluegrass influences. I know everybody tends to file you guys in the folk camp, but it seems like you take a lot from bluegrass as well. Do you have any major influences or favorites in that world?

JR: My exposure to that world is only recent in the past few years, but we have and we do take from it. There’s an aesthetic about it that we are enamored with, and we allow it to creep into our writing and playing. For me, the thing that resonates the most is the duo record that Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice made. That one to me stretches the limits of what you can do as a duo with two instruments and two voices. That’s actually a strong musical touchstone for me personally.

We didn’t come up in that traditional bluegrass scene though. There’s a respect and a tradition, and we don’t have that history of upbringing. We’re fascinated with it, but in a sense we’d feel like outsiders there.

HT: In terms of the speed of the band’s growth, does this feel like the right natural progress for you guys. Obviously it’s exciting, but is it getting intimidating or anything at this point?

JR: I think it’s just right. We’re also wary of growth that comes too quickly or growth from a single source like a song on the radio, a song on a television show, or in a film. We’ve got friends who’ve experienced that and can fill up much bigger rooms than we can, but many times half of those people are there waiting for the one song they know from the television show or commercial. We’ve not had that, so it’s all just right. Even as the crowds grow, it seems like the audience is all there for the right reasons, or at least the reasons we would want them to be there for, which feels good.

HT: Is there a certain demographic that you’re seeing or is it a pretty broad mix?

JR: It’s incredibly broad. I would even imagine it could be kind of weird for the audience members. There was a girl who wrote to us about our show in Nashville that said by the time it started, nobody else could get in. She wrote to us, “While I was waiting in line, it looked like a bunch of old people who had heard us on NPR were coming in with tickets that bought way in advance after Prairie Home Companion.”

I think it’s probably kind of weird to show up as an 18 year old and see a bunch of people who look like they would be friends with your parents. It is pretty neat to get such a broad mix of people at our shows though.

HT: I wanted to ask you a bit about your guitar. I read a story that mentioned that a fan gave you the guitar you always play, so I was wondering if you would mind telling the rest of that story.

JR: Yeah, that was actually a really fascinating act of altruism. A lot of fans – and we appreciate this too – want to be involved in some way and feel a part of things, which is just great, but the woman who bought me this guitar, she would come to my shows, but never say ‘hi’. She would buy the albums, but instead of buying them at the shows, she would always buy them on the internet. So, she always kept her distance.

Then, one day she wrote and asked me what would be my dream guitar. I actually just thought she wanted to start some sort of a conversation, but I told that my dream guitar was the Gibson J-45. So she wrote back a couple days later with a link to an eBay auction, and said “Like this one?”

It was a beautiful guitar, so I said, “Yeah, just like that one.” But then I looked at the auction and I saw that her name was already listed as the winner of the auction. So I said, “Wow, you bought this? Congratulations, what a beautiful guitar. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!”

Then she writes back, “You’re going to have to send me your address, because I didn’t buy it for me. I bought it to send to you.”

And that was it. I still don’t really know what to make of it. I hope that she’s still out there following along, but we’ve still never met. And it’s still my only guitar.

HT: How did the Gus Van Zandt connection occur with you guys being included on the soundtrack for Promised Land?

JR: He saw us play. Anything good that has ever happened to us has been because somebody saw a show. This one included. We were opening for KD Lang and the tour went through Portland. So, he was at the show, because he’s friends with KD and we talked to him after the show for like an hour, but we talked about everything besides our music and his movies. It was really nice. It was a wonderful conversation.

At the end of it, he said I’m working on a film that I think you’d be perfect for. Would you mind if I called you in a few months? So, we said “Yeah! No! We don’t mind!”

So, a few months went by after we had forgotten about it and we never really heard anything, but then one day he calls Kenneth’s cell phone. We don’t even know how he got it, but he got it. He said, “We’ve tried everything from your first two albums, but nothing seems to work. Have you got anything that is unreleased?”

So we said, “Why don’t we do you one better? We’ll come into the studio, and we’ll bring everything we’ve got, but we can also take a crack at writing something for you?”

We went for three or four hours to the studio with him watching parts of the film and figuring out what is was he was after. The beautiful part of it was that his instinct was that our collective voice, and the sound that was just coming out naturally, was really what would work best for his film.

The assignment was just “Write whatever you want, and send it in”. That’s how those three songs ended up in the film. The one song we wrote that actually makes mention of the film title, the song called Promised Land – which is on our record – was the one he didn’t want. He thought it sounded like it was written for the film.

So, people always say, “What’s it like to write songs for a film?” And I have to answer, “I still don’t know.”

HT: Finally, I wanted to talk a bit about the song Heaven, which is one of my favorites on the new album. I wondered how that one came about and where you got the idea and so on.

JR: What is your impression of it? I’m curious to know before I delve into it.

HT: Hmmm, I don’t know. I haven’t gotten a chance to see you guys live yet, but it strikes me as the “shitkicker”, get the crowd riled up live tune. It comes near the end of the record after being at this relaxed level for quite a while, and then it kind of  kicks up a bit.

JR: Well, it definitely fills that role, but the “shitkickerness” is completely ironic in my opinion. The song is actually a slight against “shitkicking” kick drum stomping folk music. I like to envision to the crowd actually talking the instruction to clap their hands and stomp their feet, only to realize a few lines later that we are making fun of people who make music for that purpose.

I don’t want to say too much, but our thing is so deliberately quiet and insular that it makes us feel like the perennial underdogs in a lot of ways due to the current aesthetic currently being called – mistakenly in my opinion – folk music. So, that one is a bit of a commentary about the groupings that we find ourselves being put into by people who listen to or especially write about our music.