“We’re nicer to each other onstage than off,” says Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids’ famous squabbling. The Los Angeles folk duo, consisting of both Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, are known almost as much for their adversarial banter as their piercing harmonies. “I wish I could say that more of it is hammed up,” admits Joey, tabling the notion that their (apparently real) tension is actually what makes the music interesting.

Formed only three short years ago, the Milk Carton Kids’ intellectual rivalry and deadpan humour (it’s like a Wes Anderson movie between songs) has become part of their brand. Wearing suits that juxtapose their unkempt hair with awkwardly-worn adulthood, these “kids” tap squareness to its full effect. What speaks for itself between the comedy though, is the sheer authenticity and virtuosity of the music — which harkens the golden age of folk.

At ease in his Los Angeles home, Joey, politely argues against the idea that the Milk Carton Kids are old-timey. A surprising statement that evokes skepticism, but his demure persona helps to sell it: “I can understand why people think that, people hear two acoustic guitars and harmonies and that’s what they associate it with. But that tradition goes back 100 years and it’ll go forward 100 years. Neither of us looks at it as old-timey. The songwriting is quite contemporary; the melodies and progression, they’re decidedly not old-timey.”

Doubt lingers, and Joey is more intent on talking about other bands than his own at this point. He’s haunted by the melodies of a folk duo from Saskatchewan called Kacy and Clayton, it turns out. He uses them as an example of music that is “old-timey.” The digression passes, and his friendliness and charm instill an unspoken agreement to put aside references to the 1960s or Greenwich Village. We move on to his and Kenneth’s own shrouded musical pasts, instead.

“It’s embarrassing to come of age in the Internet age,” he says. “But the good thing is you can take most of that stuff down.” Joey and Kenneth each shelved largely unsuccessful solo careers when they met and began playing together in 2011. Since then, they’ve gone on to sell out several North American tours and their 2013 record, The Ash & Clay, was nominated for a Grammy for best folk album. As such, it’s easy to wonder where the hell they came from.

“Basically we weren’t finding musical fulfillment on our own,” explains Joey of why it didn’t work for either of them previously. A hard thing to believe given their obvious individual talents — not to mention Kenneth’s incredible prowess on lead. To which Joey replies that Kenneth claims he “never really played the guitar the way he does now until we got together.” Indeed, his playing is now strong enough that it reduces even the venerable Marcus Mumford to tears. Check out the Coen Brothers documentary Another Day, Another Time to which the frontman of the world’s biggest folk band weeps to the Milk Carton Kids.

Asked if there’s anywhere that these gut-wrenchingly potent melodies aren’t taking hold, Joey says that France is still a bit of a hard sell. He blames it on the language barrier; in all the other places they play, people speak English very well. That challenge doesn’t seem to bother him much though; the next place he’d really like to take swing at is Japan. In the meantime, he’ll have to settle for playing to sold-out performing arts centres and converted churches closer to home — not a bad position to be in.

The Milk Carton Kids play back-to-back shows at Saint James Hall on June 12th and 13th.

By Matt Coté
Photo: Couresy of The Milk Carton Kids

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