By Ben Olson
One of the best parts about my job is when I get to interview people that have made an impact upon my life. One such musician is Matt Milia, co-founding member and driving force behind the Michigan-based folk rock band Frontier Ruckus that will be playing the Hive on Friday, July 1 with Blitzen Trapper.
If you’ve never heard their music, Frontier Ruckus is a hard band to explain (as are most innovative bands). At first glance you would pigeonhole them as string-based, with elements of alt-country and bluegrass. You would then realize you were wrong. The lyrical work by Milia is intricate, nostalgic, cryptic and accessible all at the same time. He weaves accurate portraits of suburban life, while unafraid to allow the pathos to ring through, even if jacketed with melodic changes and pop ballads. Milia and Banjo ripper and band co-founder Davey Jones have great musical chemistry as Jones brings catchy rolls and trills throughout the band’s four albums. Zach Nichols adds a dash of exotic flavor to each track, peppering in meaningful trumpet lines, musical saw tracks and lines on the melodica that stick with you. Finally, Anna Burch’s vocal harmonies are natural and warm, giving the band the final piece to conquering the world, one folk song at a time.
This term has been bandied about relentlessly, but in the case of Frontier Ruckus, they are indeed the best band you’ve never heard of. Period.
I gave Milia a call this week and talked about art, music, his Detroit roots and their surprise new album due to be released in October.
BO: So you’re playing with Blitzen Trapper at the Hive next week.
MM: It’s funny, we just got a brand new van for the tour and when we took it for the inaugural ride, Blitzen Trapper came on the radio. I thought it was a good sign.
A new van or just an upgrade?
Well, it’s the third van we’ve had and the first that was made in this millennium … we were going to go with a Sprinter, but I’ve heard they’re like twice as hard to get repaired … so ours is like an American Sprinter. We’re from Detroit, you know.
Speaking of Detroit, there’s a proud history of music that has stemmed from Michigan. Like the Motown traditions. But recently, artists like Sufjan Stevens and yourself have created this thoughtful folk rock. How did growing up in Michigan affect your songwriting choices?
We’re a very locationally based band. As a writer, I try to do a documentation of the very specific places that have any significance to who I am or what shaped me. A lot of that came from our very suburban background. Davey [Jones, co-founder and banjo player for Frontier Ruckus] and I met as high school kids in suburban Detroit. My albums have been very specific chronicles, topographical documents of the places we grew up.
When I’m writing so specifically about my own experience, I’m not a vague writer, I really reaffirms my belief that the purpose of my writing is that I feel like the universal stuff really resides within particulars. That’s why I write specifically. Everyone has this process of translation, even though I’m talking about very specific things in Michigan, the condition of life is the same anywhere.
You had a poetry background, right?
That’s what I studied in college. I turn to that whenever there is a lull in Frontier Ruckus activity. And I’ve also been doing visual works. It’s important for me to have separate outlets, they tease out different modes of expression for me, and help me arrive at different feelings.
When you get sick of one medium, you just hope onto another, like a fresh start?
Yeah, but at the same time they’re all related. Everything I do falls under this personal mythology umbrella. It’s all connected in some tenuous way.
Do you think of yourself as a documentarian?
Yeah, there’s a lot of that, but I really do believe it’s mythology. That’s what I think is the beauty of mythology; it’s very factual, autobiographical material but I inject so much creative license and exaggerate things for effects and for aesthetic. It’s a collision of imagination and factual raw real life content, which is kind of how we process life internally anyway. It’s never a perfect document of exactly what happens. I’m just trying to reflect this weird, warped-ness of reality.
When you look at the band arrangement you have, just by listening to you play, I can tell that you and Davey have been playing together for a long time. You just click.
Yeah, absolutely. Even the whole band, we formed in 2005, at Michigan State, Anna [Burch, vocal harmonies] and Zach [Nichols, trumpet, musical saw and melodica] who are still our bandmates. We’re all best friends. I can’t believe our fifth album is coming out this fall.
Wait, what? A new album?
Yeah, it’s coming out in October. It’s called “Enter the Kingdom.” I actually haven’t told anyone that, so I guess you’re getting the scoop. Ben in Sandpoint, Idaho is getting the album scoop before anyone else. We did the record in Nashville last summer, recorded with Ken Coomer, who is the original drummer for Wilco and he played drums on the whole record and produced it. I’m super excited about it. It’s a little more streamlined and shorter, a little less indulgent, I guess. … It’s a little more orchestral. We brought in a string section. I mean, Wilco’s drummer’s played on it, so it kinda has a “Summerteeth” era Wilco vibe—poppy and melodic and upbeat. The thing I’m trying to mix together is an upbeat, poppy, melodic catchy sound, but with really sad content. … You put a little sugar on the medicine. A lot of it is about very real domestic tales of time taking its toll on family life, the disintegration of our cohesive home, the places that our memories and home life were, the sacred falling by the wayside over time, which is a very recurring overarching theme in all of our stuff, but I really feel like it comes to a head on this record.
Do you think that’s why a lot of your fans identify with your lyrics a lot because there’s this suburban background that you’ve painted and they say, “it could’ve been my life?”
It’s such a common thread. I try not to pander to it or exploit that sentiment, but it just happens to be the sentiment and feeling that is consumed to me the most, the beauty and pristiness of our memories and the tendency to feel perfection in the past and how utterly it disintegrates as you pass into adulthood. “Enter the Kingdom” the title, references an attempt to reenter that place where things seemed more intact.
When someone that has never heard Frontier Ruckus asks to describe the sound, it’s always tough. But one of the common responses I give is that the songwriting and lyric choices are fantastic, but also the vocal harmonies. Did that come natural with Anna, or did you guys have to work at it?
Anna and I live together and we’re best friends. We’ve been best friends since we met in college. We did briefly have a different team of vocalists in this band for like two shows and Anna was heartbroken about that. … but Anna wanted to be in the band from the get go. We’ve always had this brother/sister antagonism which has strengthened our relationship the whole way through. I deprived her from being in the band at first because I was a jerk. Then I finally gave her a chance and walked across the quad and brought my precocious folder of the songs I had written that said “copyright Matthew Milia” on the cover, and she still chides me to this day that she thought it was hilarious that I had assumed she was going to steal my songs. From very early on, it was evident that she had the most natural ear for harmony. … I’ve never met anyone that can harmonize so effortlessly as she can.
I also love the musical saw and the melodica work.
Yeah, what Zach brings is such a robust world of texture. He did all the string arrangements on this record. It was the first time having violin on a record and not fiddle, if you know what I mean. He’s just a musical phenomenon. He has this great energy, he’s downright manic. Watching him trying to give direction to these very composed Nashville pros was a hilarious collision of worlds.
Davey, too, the banjo is an interesting thing. Davey and I started the band. He played banjo before Mumford & Sons, before it was a thing. He grew up playing the banjo. He played because his dad was from Georgia and he got made fun of in elementary school because he listened to bluegrass and played the banjo. When I met him in high school it just changed my world and totally informed my whole appreciation of music and what kind of songs I wanted to write. It’s been the biggest part of our DNA that made Frontier Ruckus what it was early on. It became a trend and a stigma and we’ve rolled through all of it, it’s something our various managers told us to be conscious of. They’d say it’s a good thing, a bad thing, to dial it back. But we never pay attention to that bullshit.
It’s funny, you’re from Detroit, but listening to your albums, I would make the assumption that this band was from a rural town. What gives?
Rolling Stone wrote about us and they said something like “If Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum had been raised in a log cabin” or something. I’m trying to take that as a compliment. That’s something that people have missed about us, because of the banjo and the harmony and old-timey sound. I think rebelling against that pigeonhole has been a major reason why I’ve written so much about suburban topics, that’s the real experiential stuff I’m trying to get at. Growing up in the middle class, still an adult with financial hardships, to depict the reality of suburban life, which is obviously not as perfect as people paint it as being.
Do you find yourself being pigeonholed more the more you get well known?
That happens to anyone who has been around long enough. But like I said, we’ve eluded mainstream success. Putting out four records so far, each record has its own disparate fan base. We’re the “Deadmalls and Nightfalls” Frontier Ruckus to a lot of people, we’re the “Eternity of Dimming” Frontier Ruckus to some of the people who had a lot of patience to sit through that whole record. … And, in addition to our shows, we’ve been playing these secret living room shows, which are much more intimate, and the requests we get these people want to hear songs from these old records, some of which I don’t even know how to play anymore.
OK, I have to admit, I often cover “Darkest Autumn Hour” in my band.
Oh, do you? I’ll never be able to forget that one. It’s weird that that’s our hit. It’s a sad, droning song where the chords never change, but that’s the song that has over 1 million plays on Spotify. Go figure.
It’s a great jam song, too because you just tell people, “Stick on these chords and you’ll be fine.”
That really means a lot to me, thank you so much.
Thanks for the time and talking with me. I look forward to seeing the show at the Hive.
Yeah, we’ll see you all in Sandpoint.
Frontier Ruckus will be playing with Blitzen Trapper at the Hive on Friday, July 1. www.LiveFromTheHive.com