Kenneth Pattengale, left, and Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids. (Anti- )
Despite possessing a rather unassuming sound -- one built on gentle acoustic strumming and comforting harmonies -- local act the Milk Carton Kids have had a rather booming year and a half. Two self-released albums published straight-to-the-Web are said to have racked-up more than 130,000 downloads, and artists such as acoustic stars the Old Crow Medicine Show and the Punch Brothers have taken the Hotel Cafe regulars on tour.
In late 2012 it was revealed that the Milk Carton Kids had signed to local indie Anti-, the Silver Lake-based label home to the likes of Tom Waits, Neko Case and more. A proper, more traditionally released album is due in early 2013, but the duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan aren't letting the early success go to their heads.
"We expect it will go over as well as a minimalistic folk duo record can go over," Ryan jokes of the upcoming album. "To be honest, it's a little awkward to be congratulated for signing a deal. It's the beginning of something. It's less the achievement of a goal."
Starting Friday, the Milk Carton Kids will find its music placed in front of an unsuspecting new audience. Gus Van Sant's Matt Damon drama "Promised Land" features a tune written specifically for the film by the duo. The song, "Snake Eyes," scores a mid-film montage and it turned out to be a rather daunting assignment for the pair.
"When I went in to meet with Gus, the songs they were looking at were from bands far more established than we are, like Bruce Springsteen and Mumford & Sons and Wilco," Ryan says. "It was intimidating and a little surreal."
Yet Van Sant was a fan, having caught the band when the Milk Carton Kids played a show in his home city of Portland, Ore. He approached Ryan and Pattengale after the show and said then he intended to use the duo's music in an upcoming movie. After more than six months passed without a phone call, Ryan and Pattengale thought it was an opportunity lost. Yet Van Sant eventually rang and revealed that he had been trying to work an existing Milk Carton Kids song into "Promised Land."
"The initial conversation was him calling and saying, 'I've tried every song from your guys' previous albums and nothing is working. How about you come in and write something?' When Gus says that, you say yes," Ryan says.
"Snake Eyes," like much of the work of the Milk Carton Kids, feels so delicate it can evaporate. The voices of Ryan and Pattengale are intertwined to the point where separation would be impossible. They're harmonies at their most intimate, and strings are carefully struck one at a time, allowing the reverberation to linger before another note is struck.
It took the Milk Carton Kids a few takes to find the right mood. The film looks at the day-to-day struggles of those on the lower rungs of the debate surrounding the drilling practices of big oil, with Damon representing a salesman for a natural gas company. "Snake Eyes" plays as Damon secures another deal, and becomes more closely entwined with the community.
One take written by the Milk Carton Kids was actually dubbed "Promised Land." "He didn't want something to narrate," Ryan said of the song that was ultimately rejected by Van Sant. "He wanted a lot of the themes that we naturally explore -- nostalgia, self-reflection, some sense of redemption."
The Milk Carton Kids are now a full-time proposition for Ryan and Pattengale. Ryan in the past did part-time secretarial work for his father's psychology offices, and both have written songs for the odd commercial or independent film. It was when Ryan heard Pattengale's solo track "Memoirs of an Owned Dog" that what would ultimately become the Milk Carton Kids began to take shape.
"It was written from the perspective of a dog who had just died from being hit by a truck," Ryan says. "It doesn't sound like it, but it's actually a sweet and insightful song. I was really taken with it and introduced myself to him after the show."
The two soon began playing together, singing harmonies over each other's solo works. Though Ryan says their solo efforts were each "unsuccessful," it took about a year to wind them down. The Milk Carton Kids became an official duo with a name in March of 2011.
"We started out putting our albums thinking we would do our own little tour, trying not to play to empty rooms," Ryan says. "That was a little over a year ago. Looking back, to recount the year we have, it seems like more than we ever thought it would amount to at the beginning of it."
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