The Milk Carton Kids Take Harmonies to the Highway with 'Monterey'

Indie folk duo's new album 'Monterey' was recorded during cross-country tour

The Milk Carton Kids, performing here in Washington, D.C., recorded 'Monterey' during tour stops in 2014. Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty

For years, the Milk Carton Kids would go into the recording studio with the same goal in mind: to recreate the feel (and fretwork) of their club shows in a place that looked, sounded and felt nothing like a club.

Then, during a cross-country tour last spring, the guys broke their own tradition. Why not ditch the studio and start recording in actual venues instead?

"We'd get to town, go into the venue around noon, stand on the stage in the same position as we would normally stand in a show — although there was no one there — and just run tape," remembers Joey Ryan, who formed the folk duo with Kenneth Pattengale in 2011. "We wanted to capture something about our live performances that we'd never been able to capture in the studio before."

The tour was long, giving the Milk Carton Kids plenty of time to whittle their new songs into shape. There was no timeline to follow. No budget to worry about. No deadline, even. Ryan and Pattengale were used to recording entire albums in four days, but this time, the pressure was off.

"Every single time we recorded a new song, there was no indication that any particular take was gonna be the one that made it onto the record," Ryan explains. "That was liberating. The playing and the singing is much more fearless, especially Kenneth's guitar playing. He plays the way he normally does during our shows."

Months later, the guys sifted through the songs they'd tracked on the road, cherry-picking five or six of the best performances. Those songs fill half of the band's self-produced new album, Monterey. The remaining half was recorded at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville (where Patty Griffin recorded the Grammy-winning Downtown Church in 2009), with the bandmates standing on the altar and playing to a room full of empty church pews.

"It was just the two of us," says Ryan. "The first night in the church, we set up the mics and got the computer running, then played the first song for half an hour. We felt like we got a couple of really good takes. Then, when we went back to listen to it, we realized that ProTools had crashed two minutes in. We didn't even have anybody manning the computer. So instead, we just turned the laptop around to face us, so we could look over and see it was still working between takes."

The church sessions took a week. When they were finished, the Milk Carton Kids set up four speakers and played back all the songs they'd tracked. It was the ultimate surround sound experience, with each speaker focusing on a single bandmate's voice or acoustic guitar. What was even better, though, was the way the music echoed throughout the Downtown Presbyterian Church, whose 167-year old sanctuary doubled as a natural reverb chamber.

"We used some room mics to capture the sound of the room as the album played," says Ryan. "There's no artificial reverb on the record, just the sound of the record playing inside the church. Beyond being the most beautiful reverb sound that we had available to us, it gives the entire record — which was recorded in five or six different places — a consistency of tone."

The result is an album that captures a band literally on the run, with songs written and recorded in theaters, churches, buses, rock clubs and listening rooms across the country. That sense of movement fills the title track, whose sighing harmonies and chromatic guitar runs take a page from Les Paul's catalog of duets with Mary Ford. "Monterey, how can I say I'll always stay, then slip away?" goes the refrain, conjuring up images of landscapes that loom on the horizon and eventually recede in the rearview mirror, replaced by a long, rolling scroll of blacktop. (Listen to the song's premiere below.)

"Kenneth wrote that song alone, back when we first met," Ryan recalls. "I remember hearing it back then. There were a couple of weeks where we'd go to each other's houses all the time, playing songs for each other, and that was one of the very first songs we tried to sing together. It was difficult for us, though, and we just couldn't perform it. We couldn't find the right ranges for our voices. So maybe we had to grow into the song, as a band, over the next four or five years."