It seems cliché to compare a couple of guys in a folk duo to Simon & Garfunkel, but for the pair that make up The Milk Carton Kids, there aren’t many other acts who come close to the harmonizing on display within their songs.
The pair, set to open for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Sept. 28 at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre, have become two of the artists synonymous with Americana in short order. The Kids, the Americana Music Association’s 2014 Duo/Group of the Year, recently hosted the 2018 ceremony, having taken over for longtime emcee — and North Carolina native — Jim Lauderdale.
It was an interesting move for those who are only familiar with the music of the folksters, which has historically been a bit downbeat, and not the irreverent humor seen at their concerts.
That contrast in styles can be found even at a surface level in their newest album, “All the Things I Did And All the Things I Didn’t Do.” While the new disc debuts the pair’s decision to expand their sound via the introduction of a full band, the title is enough to send someone into a hours-long existential spiral.
That disparity isn’t lost on Kenneth Pattengale, one half of the Kids. We spoke with the singer during a break between the duo’s short run of opening dates for Isbell and their headlining fall tour. Among the topics broached is the difference in personalities heard recorded and shown live, and if the Isbell dates are just a way to warm up the pipes before taking to the road full-time later this year.
Q: With your headlining tour starting up in mid-October, are the few shows you have opening for Isbell and the 400 Unit just a way for you guys to knock the rust off?
A: It’s more than that, as in this business — which more and more feels like the Wild West, just putting your music out there and trying to get people to listen to it that might otherwise not — the most important thing is community, and there’s a community that exists kinda behind the scenes between the artists who grow to know one another over the years they share performing. The main community that exists is the one between artists and the listeners, and a lot of that occurs online now because that is where folks do most of their listening these days, but the most potent connection remains between the artist and the live audience.
Those Isbell dates came because we’ve gotten to know Jason pretty well over the years while working on different projects together around Nashville and such. He’s a pretty big part of the Americana music community, and so are we, and we have very many friends in common. There are a lot of overlaps in our worlds, so we’ve become really fond of Jason. We had already booked our fall headlining tour when he called us up to open a few dates for him, and we felt that when an opportunity like that comes, if you can do it it’s sort of your duty to do it.
It gives us the chance to come back to North Carolina, where we’ve played a great deal over our careers, with a chance to play our music in front of an audience who may not know us but we know they like good music.
Q: Why did the Kids go from performing as a duo to now playing as a seven-piece band with the release of the new album and its upcoming tour?
A: We sort of reached a point where — not that we’d said all that we had to say — we’d been on tour for nearly two years straight before the release of the new album. And it wasn’t that we were uninspired, but every time we got onstage, it felt like we were treading the same ground. It wasn’t that we were bored onstage, but we were coming back around to places where maybe we were putting on the same show or playing the same set, and we didn’t want to do that to the people paying good money to see us.
We had reached a point where we felt like we weren’t being pushed to be different, so when it came time to talk about a new album, we said there wasn’t a better time to find out what would happen if we brought in a few more people to the studio and onstage. It seemed like a number of elements just lined up at the right time to suggest that we should give a full band a shot, so we jumped off the diving board to see what the deep end was like, and we’re extremely proud of how the album came out. We like to think that we’ve preserved the thing that drew our fans to us as a duo. This was just a good way for us to evolve naturally.
Q: There has always been a sense of melancholy in your songs, but irreverent humor onstage in performance. Is there just a different emotion running through you when alone in the recording studio as opposed to in front of a crowd of people?
A: I’ve never thought of it in that way, but emotionally when you are sitting there writing those songs, it’s completely different than when you are playing onstage in front of a bunch of people. I think it’s because the goals are very different. When you’re in the privacy of your own home trying to express yourself, you have to be both very protective and very vulnerable at the same time. When you’re onstage there’s a totally different paradigm in place, where you have all the material and everything is in place, and your job is to entertain and give the audience what they want.
It’s funny, because I’ve always gotten comments from people asking why I always write such sad songs, and I have always just written whatever songs I feel like I’m meant to write. We thought on this album, with a full band and a faster tempo on some of the songs, we were sure that we were going to shake this whole stigma of being a sad band. Still, every review I’ve read still comments on how sad the music is.
I think outside of whatever we intend, there may be some outside forces that skew how the listener hears our music, like the world itself makes our songs sadder to the listener. We’re not the Rolling Stones, but to me a lot of these songs sound like they’re almost R&B songs, but I understand the impression that some folks have of us. No matter what we’ve tried, we just can’t shake being called a sad band, and I don’t know that we’ll ever shake it at this point.
Who: Jason Isbell and The Milk Carton Kids
When: 8 p.m., Sept. 28
Where: Koka Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway, Cary 27518
Cost: $39.75, $60
Info: boothamphitheatre.com or 919-462-2052