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The Sound

Asking for your attention

10/29/2014

The Milk Carton Kids perform at Hoyt Sherman Place on Sunday, Nov. 2. Photo by Sara Jarosz

The Milk Carton Kids perform at Hoyt Sherman Place on Sunday, Nov. 2. Photo by Sara Jarosz

The Milk Carton Kids are gloomy. Or at least, that’s the look they’re going for, in spite of themselves.

“It turns out that the name doesn’t reflect the dark morbid ideas that it was supposed to,” said Joey Ryan during a phone interview from Boston. “That point was driven home one day when we were getting on a plane with our guitars and the flight attendant asked us what our band’s name was, then said, ‘The Milk Carton Kids? Oh, that’s cute.’ ”

Listen to their music for any length of time and it becomes apparent that they’re not singing the kind of songs that you play at birthday parties. But hear them live, and you’ll find all the doom and gloom of their music, punctuated by wry, laconic humor.

“It came about unconsciously,” Ryan said of the band’s on-stage banter. “I think it came about from the natural instinct to break up the darkness and melancholy of the songs, but also to break up any feelings of reverence or separation between audience and performer, which has always been this kind of absurd social contract. When we engage with the audience, we can all acknowledge how absurd this experience is, then we can get back into what is hopefully a pretty good musical performance.”

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Ryan and bandmate Kenneth Pattengale developed their interactive style early, thanks in large part to the band’s point of origin. Born out of the sprawling concrete wilds of Los Angeles, Ryan and Pattengale never felt like there was a dedicated folk community to draw support from. And so, as soon as they were able, The Milk Carton Kids took to the highways in search of like minds.

“We didn’t spend a lot of time incubating in L.A.,” Ryan admitted. “We immediately hit the road and were on the road 100 days a year. I think it led to us developing in a pretty insular environment.”

“We were driving around playing all these shows to basically nobody, and we developed a very personal interaction that people just happened to find entertaining,” he continued. “We wouldn’t have had that if we didn’t have just so many hours and weeks of nobody else around.”

Developing, with no real “home” fan base to call their own, Ryan and Pattengale got creative when it came to getting their name out. Namely, the duo released their first two albums completely for free on their website. It’s certainly not a new concept — Thom Yorke has been doing something similar for a few years now — but The Milk Carton Kids put their unique spin on it: absolutely no obligation, in exchange for a deeper sense of commitment.

“I think we really liked the message that it sent,” Ryan said of the band’s free album approach. “Not just giving it away for free, but the idea of doing it without even the option to pay or donate. And without the option for putting in an email address to be added to a mailing list, which everyone wanted us to do.”

“(But) you couldn’t pick and choose,” he continued. “You had to take the entire zip file from our website. We were asking for something more than money from people. We were asking for their time, their engagement, and a lot of space on their hard drive. In a lot of ways, the exchange that took place there was more profound than somebody spending $9.99.”

That more profound connection is what the Kids are all about. It’s what’s at the heart of all those introspective, beautifully harmonied songs. As Ryan put it: “It’s asking for your attention rather than your money.” CV

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