Once in a while I will hear a song for the first time that gives me a kind of déjà vu. It’s like, “Ok, I’m here, I know this, I want to keep going.” This is what I felt the first time I heard the song “Orion Town 2” by Frontier Ruckus. It was cathartic but not dramatic, just a girl in her room surrounded by her things and stuff, listening to music, and then putting on an album that a friend recommended. Frontier Ruckus gave me pleasure as much as it gave me a tool for self-discovery.
Frontier Ruckus’ music has a folk-heavy sound filled with urban and suburban themes. Songwriter and Detroit native Matthew Milia’s songs are about decaying metros, northbound highways, and revisiting memories once discarded. The banjo, harmonica, and singing saw bloom alongside the propelling lyrics. It is an unwound poetic experience that pulls the listener deep into each song. You do not need to digest hours of Frontier Ruckus’ music to know if you like it. They aren’t a “grower;” once you’ve heard it you realize you have loved it all along. You will be driven into a search to learn more about Frontier Ruckus and why you like Frontier Ruckus.
Frontier Ruckus released their first LP, The Orion Songbook, in 2008 and their second, Deadmalls and Nightfalls, in 2010. Their new EP, Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer, Pt. 2, will soon be available for pre-order. Head over to http://www.frontierruckus.com/.
I am really looking forward to seeing Frontier Ruckus at Wakarusa. They will be on stage Saturday, June 4th at 7:45 PM. After getting to chat with lead singer and songwriter Matthew Milia I realized we have a lot in common. We chatted about parents, collecting, filming, the new EP, and what the live Frontier Ruckus experience will bring to Northwest Arkansas:
The Ozark Echo: I’m a big Frontier Ruckus fan, I was completely swallowed up by The Orion Songbook album, the song “Orion Town 2” brought me to tears at first listen. I was 25 at the time, how old were you when you wrote it?
Matthew: Aw, thanks, I’m 25 now so I wrote that song in 2006 when I was in my early 20’s.
OE: My fascination with The Orion Songbook led the way to your YouTube channel which is one of my favorites, I think it’s great that you put all those videos out there and give listeners a chance connect on such an intimate level as though we are sitting in the grass with you guys. It all seems so casual, how do videos such as “Nerves of the Nightmind,” “Bethlehem,” “I Do Need Saving,” and so forth come about?
Matthew: Those videos are quite old by now, if someone’s looking us up the first time or are coming to see us and look us up on YouTube, it’s the first thing they see, which is us only four years ago which is just a little younger and playing those songs in that setting, so it’s cool. I like that we do that intimate setting at live shows too so it’s a nice reflection or expectation of what people can see at our shows. That’s my favorite way to play for people, just completely acoustic. I would do every show in a meadow if I possibly could. (Laughs) We try to put more videos out in the same kind of setting, just us in our natural habitat; it’s a nice environment for the songs.
OE: Earlier this month you posted the “Sylvan Manor Montage,” 15 minutes of new music and footage, at I’m guessing your home? Where you grew up?
Matthew: Yeah, that’s where I’m sitting currently, in the same room.
OE: You guys took a quick trip to the Salvation Army, it looks like you’re a bit of a collector. Do you like to collect things?
Matthew: Oh yeah, my room. As you can see in the video, but I’ve kind of cleaned it up. I’m kind of a hoarder. I am an extremely nostalgic person so I can’t really throw anything away. I still have three subject notebooks from fifth grade stuffed with B+ papers and projects. I’m looking around my room, I have a set of Crayola crayons and every harmonica I ever owned and vinyl records and books and calendars from 2003. Yeah, I have a ridiculous amount of souvenirs and they kinda just make me feel more comfortable.
It’s connected to the same reason why I write songs, to turn these abstract ephemeral memories into something physical that I can hold on to. If I can hold on to them or at least believe I’m holding onto them in a more objective, physical, material manner then it really kind of comforts me psychologically. If I were to see a psychologist I feel like the biggest fear or phobia we would eventually come to would be my fear of losing the past, everything that happens fading into this black wake of the past and just leaving my mind. It’s very psychological; I like to hold onto things. Maybe that’s not healthy, but to me it is.
OE: I’m the same way and my parents were like that growing up and everything I own, it has a story and a history and it just makes it really hard to get rid of. I completely get that. I think maybe I will get over it when I have a new family and create new memories, maybe there will be some sort of purging going on.
Matthew: It’s funny, my parents just left like ten minutes ago to go to Sears to buy a new dryer machine for clothes so they’re replacing the one we have had for thirty years and they were like “Do you want to come buy a new dryer with us?” And I was like, “I have to do this phone interview” but in actuality I think it would just really bum me out to buy a new dryer.
OE: I spotted a big stack of records in your room, who did you listen to growing up?
Matthew: I went through obviously different phases. One of the best things about growing up is you’ll just listen to anything simultaneously, you don’t have distinct phases you’re just taking in different music wherever you can get it. In interviews when I’m trying to sound as proud as possible or if I’m not feeling like divulging any guilty pleasures I’ll say things that my dad raised me on, which is like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and the folkier stuff, because that really is the stuff that stuck with me the most in terms of influencing my songwriting. Most directly the very lyrical songwriters Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel. There’s also every soccer carpool, I was listening to as much 90s alternative rock as possible that was playing in the mini-van: Oasis, Gin Blossoms, stuff like that. So you can’t deny that stuff because you were listening to that stuff and loving it when you were a kid as well. I’m just looking at towers of CD’s from all the shamelessness of childhood, that’s one of the most beautiful things about childhood, there’s no real coolness to be considered or anything to be shameful of, your just figuring everything out in this very vague way.
OE: Do you have any other ideas for films? Do you like making movies?
Matthew: Yeah I really like shooting films. My friend Rick and I shoot on 16mm film and Super 8. It usually ends up being him taping me walking around and it turns into this very kind of vain looking project. But it’s just because I have this compulsion to be like a tour guide, and I just like cataloging my locality and my hometown or the complex network of towns that is metro Detroit. It’s not that I like seeing my face on camera, I just like directing where the shots going I just like pointing, “look over there I have a memory over there, look over there it’s a different memory over there.” Those visuals compliment the music. That’s exactly why I write songs as well to catalog these places so they don’t slip away. As we were saying, I would like to do some more narrative stuff. I really like shooting videos for the songs, but in the future I want to do more characters, get other band members, or not even people in the band, just people around the town.
OE: HearNebraska.org has a video up from early April where you preformed the song “Mona and Emmy.” Can you tell me about that odd looking instrument I noticed, it looked like a drum with strings?
Matthew: It is a drum, it’s just a snare drum turned upside-down, the strings are the snares. Smalls [Ryan Etzcorn] our drummer, at the end of each show, we like to come off stage and play acoustically and Smalls developed that sound by just playing the snare drum upside-down and he scrapes the snares, (the strings) against the drum and it’s a really responsive and textured way to play so he can do these really cool rhythms by just scraping those strings. Stuff like that, coming up with new ideas to play as intimately in as much of a raw fashion as possible it’s what we love to do, it’s really cool. I like that video a lot. We shot that on the tour, we just got back yesterday, in Omaha, Nebraska. And “Mona and Emmy” is a live favorite and a song we have never released, but we have been playing a for long time, but we’re about to finally release it on an EP that’s coming out digitally, but also it’ll be on the Deadmalls & Nightfalls vinyl, so we’re just super excited. I just played the EP for my parents for the first time and they really loved it. It’s kind of a little pop, little catchier and has a country tinge but I’m really excited for the songs to finally come out. They’re even older than The Orion Songbook songs so it’s just really cathartic to get them out.
OE: I was going to try to gear the interview toward the future, but even going toward the future we’re going back even further before the Orion Songbook.
Matthew: Yeah, I have a whole album of new songs written that the band is currently like living in and working out. We’re really thinking about the future but we have this set of songs that have never come out and if they never came out I would always feel incomplete about the period. So it was just really necessary to get them out. Right before you called I was listening to the first demo recording of “Mona and Emmy” that I ever played and it was totally different and slow but it’s come a long way and I’m really excited for it to come out. Sometimes it’s necessary for closure of the past to really move on to something totally new.
OE: Do you have a name for the EP and how many songs are on it?
Matthew: There’s five songs, for The Orion Songbook vinyl there is the EP included Way Up State & the Cripled Summer, Pt. 1 so this is going to be Way Up State & the Crippled Summer, Pt. 2. That series will be finished and complete and I’ll be able to not think about it for a decade.
OE: I’m real excited to see Frontier Ruckus at Wakarusa, are there any shows that you’re going to try to catch?
Matthew: Yeah, first of all we’re so excited; it’s probably the highlight of this coming season that we’re looking forward to the most. Langhorne Slim, we have the same manager now, he’s a really, really nice guy and we’ve played a show with him recently, it will be cool to see him. I like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings a lot, she’s so cool. Split Lip Rayfield, we’re supposed to do some shows with them this past season but it feel through. Hoots and Hellmouth are really nice guys. These United States, a lot of these bands we’re friends with so it will be good to hang out with these people.
OE: You have a tight touring schedule, in a week you will be in Ireland and and touring Europe, does being out of the country inspire you to write? Do you write while on the road?
Matthew: Just the nature of my songs and the nature of what I write about, being home is always the most inspirational place to be, I’ll come home from tour and just write five songs in a day. But I think a lot of what I write about drives from experiences from the road, it’s just being at home, it’s my very safe place, a historic location where I can write. Being on the road makes me, it kind of wells up inside of me, this desire to write so by the time I get home I want to do nothing else but wake up in the morning, make a pot of coffee and sit down and write songs. It’s a nice balance. And then I’m home too long, it wells up to go out there on the road and play music for people. It’s a really nice kind of system of one thing increasing the desire for another. It’s a nice cycle.
OE: I also noticed a type-writer in the video, do you usually sit at a type-writer to write, what’s your process?
Matthew: I like the mechanical nature of a type-writer, it has a nice rhythm to it, it’s like a machine, kind of springy. I don’t know how that influences the thoughts that are coming out on the page, but I do often like to write on the type-writer, but it’s not as practical on the road. When I home I like to quite often.
OE: How do you arrange the songs after you have written them?
Matthew: Typically I’ll finish a song and make a really rough demo of it, like the one of “Mona and Emmy” I just was done listening to, from like 2005, so I’ll make the demo and send it to the band. They’ll listen to it individually and start coming up with their own ideas, then we get together and it really takes on a new and dynamic life once the whole band starts playing it together and that’s what I love about it. It’s often very surprising and defies our expectation when the band starts contributing and it takes into a new direction, it’s a really exciting part of it as well. I write the complete songs and lyrics and music and they breathe a new life into it.
OE: Most of my favorite musicians that are currently making music come out of Michigan like Breathe Owl Breathe and Chris Bathgate. You have toured with Chris Bathgate, any chance of brining some of this Michigan talent through Fayetteville, Arkansas?
Matthew: I hope so, Chris Bathgate is a really good friend of ours and just last night we went to see his album release, for his new album Salt Year, which I play a little bit on, it’s just a phenomenal album. Seeing him last night was great. He played with Samantha Crain and Hezekiah Jones.
OE: I love both of them, the new Hezekiah Jones album is really good too.
Matthew: Yeah, that was an incredible bill to say the least. Breathe Owl Breathe is amazing as well, they’re really good friends of ours. There’s great music coming from Michigan, I’d really love to tour more with Breathe Owl Breathe and hopefully it will come through Fayetteville.
OE: It definitely feels like a lot of the Michigan musicians love playing there so I’m always reading about the announcements for new shows and looking up the tour schedule.
Matthew: How did you find out about the whole thing going on in Michigan?
OE: I had a friend in Canada turning me on to a lot of music that was coming out of there.
Matthew: Is that Slowcoustic?
OE: Oh, I also read Slowcoustic a lot, but a friend of the guy who does Slowcoustic actually sent me some Hezekiah Jones and Chris Bathgate and told me to check out Frontier Ruckus.
You should get in touch with us if you ever want to come play in Arkansas.
Matthew: The band has never played in Arkansas, so we’re excited for Wakarusa. I played in Fayetteville once, I was solo going down to SXSW with our friend Southeast Engine. And [in 2009] we played at a place called Cheers (laughs) so it was a really weird show. But I can say I played in Fayetteville.