During an interview a decade ago, Tom Smothers was asked to reflect on 50 years as half of the legendary comedy/music duo, The Smothers Brothers.
“We’re a dying breed,” he said. “There’s no one like (his brother) Dick and I. I don’t think you’ll see anything like us again.”
Smothers had no idea that the Milk Carton Kids were on the horizon. The amusing Americana duo, which formed in 2011, delivers a Smothers Brothers-esque type of banter when they hit the stage. Their dialogue is often quirky and unpredictable.
“It’s a natural thing for us,” vocalist/guitarist Joey Ryan said by phone from Los Angeles. “We were told about the Smothers Brothers after we would say things onstage and people would laugh even though we weren’t trying to be funny. I think a big reason what we say works so well is because (vocalist/guitarist) Kenneth (Pattengale) and I are so different.”
That’s a huge reason why the Smothers Brothers material went over. Tom and Dick Smothers were opposites. They had conflict, and that’s exactly what happens when the Milk Carton Kids speak with each other onstage.
However, all of that disappears when Ryan and Pattengale deliver their melancholy and earnest folk. Their pretty harmonies wash over intertwined guitar play.
“When it comes to music, Kenneth and I have this connection,” Ryan said. “We’ve been very productive together. We aren’t trying to do anything but challenge ourselves. We never want it to get boring. We like to make changes between each album.”
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The Milk Carton Kids, who will perform Monday (3/4) at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, followed up 2015’s minimalist “Monterey” with the most fleshed out album of their career, “All the Things that I Did and All the Things that I Didn’t Do.”
Not only did the duo decide to allow an outside producer into the studio fray, a number of musicians worked on “All the Things.” Wilco keyboardist Pat Sansone and bassist Dennis Crouch of the Time Jumpers were among the notable players who enhanced the album. Joe Henry (Billy Bragg, Joe Henry) called the shots from behind the board.
“We couldn’t have been happier with Joe as a producer,” Ryan said. “Joe worked with us very intimately. Joe helped us get the right musicians in the studio. But I think the most important thing he did was make the people in the studio feel good. I love his approach. If people are happy making music, they’ll be apt to make really good music.”
The result is some of the Milk Carton Kids’ most poignant and pretty songs. “You Broke My Heart” and “Mourning in America” are some of the most beautiful tracks crafted by the duo.
“With the way Joe operates, we had the opportunity to explore some uncharted territory,” Ryan said. “Kenneth had an opportunity to explore like he never had before. It proved that it’s good to take chances. We changed for the better because of the experience.”
The Milk Carton musicians are touring for the first time with a band.
“It’s made the live experience that much more enjoyable,” Ryan said. “It was fine going out as just the two of us for so many years, but playing with a band has been so healthy for us.”
The backing band enhances the concerts, but it often comes down to the tandem singing, playing guitar and joking around.
“We love connecting onstage and engaging the audience,” Ryan said. “That takes us back to the Smother Brothers. Before we started this group I didn’t know of the Smothers Brothers, but I’ve dug deep into Smothers Brothers history and I’m proud of any comparison with them. The Smothers Brothers stood for something. They were subversive and different. You don’t see acts like that very often. They were special.
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“We’re not trying to be the Smothers Brothers, but we like to have fun like they did.” GET OUT
WHAT: The Milk Carton Kids
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday (3/4)
TICKETS: $33.50 to $45, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/the-milk-carton-kids-2/
BAND’S WEBSITE: Themilkcartonkids.com