Can two musicians who are the opposite of each other in every way form a musical duo without driving each other crazy?
Yes, judging by the success of the Milk Carton Kids, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, over the past three years.
The two tour constantly, have made three studio albums, and have gotten rave reviews from NPR, among others. They have also drawn comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers.
The Milk Carton Kids will bring their contemporary folk sound – as well as their harmonies and their vintage 1950s guitars – to the Empire on Thursday. The opening act is Mike + Ruthy.
To appreciate how different the two musicians are, start with their names. Joey is approachable, your buddy. Kenneth sounds like an art critic. Ryan lives in laid-back California, Pattengale lives in bustling New York City. Ryan is drawn much more to lyrics than melodies, while Pattengale mainly digs the music.
“Kenneth doesn’t know the words to even a lot of our songs,” said Ryan, 31. “I’m inclined to listen to Paul Simon or Neil Young, for the lyrics, and Kenneth will say Duke Ellington is his favorite songwriter, even though those are songs without lyrics.”
But the differences are what helps make their music complete, Ryan says. Early on in their musical partnership the two men realized how different they were and decided to embrace that, even if it meant yelling and fighting with each other over the music.
“Our differences are what we derive strength from as a duo, from this palpable tension between our styles and our personalities,” said Ryan. “One of the best things is how well we fight, we fight very productively. We’re always pushing each other.”
Ryan said his early musical tastes came from his parents, who in his words “started listening to music in 1963 and stopped when they had kids, around 1982.” So he listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The state of folk music right now confounds Ryan a little, since he believes that traditionally the best folk music has been “centered around the necessary quietness of the acoustic instruments and the thoughtfulness of the lyrics.”
But folk music has been so revived by groups like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, that crowds at those shows are now big and raucous.
So folk bands have to be louder, and for many of them, it’s impossible to put on a quiet show, Ryan said.
But Ryan said Milk Carton Kids don’t have to struggle with that too much, since on their own they play mostly clubs and small venues. Plus, they only have two musicians.
“We don’t plan to add a kick drum anytime soon,” said Ryan. “We plan to stay quiet as long as we can.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: [email protected]