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Cover Story

Kings of the wild frontier

Frontier Ruckus is literally the bash-and-clang sound of the suburbs

MT Photos: Doug Coombe
MT Photo: Pietro Truba
Oh, suburbia: Milia, Nichols and Jones (clockwise from top).
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Published 8/11/2010

As the sun sets over the Summit Place Mall, the noticeably tired Matthew Milia turns his car sharply, perking up as he drives toward the abandoned movie theater, the same one that graces the cover of Frontier Ruckus' latest album, Deadmalls & Nightfalls. If the fading Summit Place Mall would ever be beautiful, it would be at that precise moment — the sun gently setting on the eerie, abandoned space, a once-prosperous altar to capitalism. You can almost hear the ghosts and memories inside.

Milia, who fronts Frontier Ruckus, quickly stops the car — the only one in the entire mall lot — jumps from the driver's side and lifts his Epiphone acoustic guitar out of the trunk and straps it on. He begins to walk alone slowly, crossing the space in front of the dead theater, strumming Frontier Ruckus' "How Could I Abandon?" as if he's serenading the weeds growing up through cracks in the concrete lot. He takes a seat in front of the chipped, gray theater wall, which once glimmered with vibrant red lettering, and kicks off his sandals. Zach Nichols, who'd stepped from the car, pulls his trumpet out of its case and joins Milia for "The Upper Room." The sun finally hides behind the deserted cinema.

This faded Waterford Township mall and this suburban milieu say so much about this band — a band that finds beauty in the mundane and flat-out makes it sing.


Word on Frontier
Ruckus is traveling fast. Before this year's Bonnaroo Music Festival, Rolling Stone touted Ruckus' "Gothic Americana" as an "essential set" of the festival, and said Milia "conjures what might happen had Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum had been raised in a log cabin." PopMatters gave Frontier Ruckus' most recent effort nine stars. Paste listed them in the "Best of What's Next." Blurt appropriately described Milia as a star "in the making whose voice sounds like a forlorn fusion of Conor Oberst and ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson." The band's latest Blind Pig show saw a waiting line out the door. Their buzz keeps rising around the country, and the quintet recently returned from its second European jaunt.


Video by Tim Mulheron

For the band's third album, Deadmalls & Nightfalls, they again worked with engineer-producer Jim Roll in Ann Arbor. Milia continues with the imagery that peppered the band's earlier albums, but the overall attitude is calmer, more focused, but wields the same punch.

Milia is a lyrical graffiti artist who tags with precision various landmarks from his childhood in Michigan suburbia. His meticulous wordplay sidles beautifully up to David Jones' banjo lines, Zach Nichols' haunting singing saw, a one-man brass section and melodica.

In simplest terms, Frontier Ruckus is a literate folk-derived band, their mostly acoustic setup includes songwriter, singer and guitarist Milia, banjoist Jones, multi-instrumentalist Nichols, drummer Ryan "Smalls" Etzcorn and bassist Brian Barnes.

"It's not like there's raging guitar solos or pyrotechnics or anything. It's all very organic music," Milia explained one day while sitting at a friend's house in Hamburg, Germany. "That rawness is one of our strong suits. It's a very attractive quality for people that, if they are going to enjoy us, they're going to enjoy the rawness of it. It's all acoustic and barebones."

The group recently jumped from Michigan indie Quite Scientific Records to North Carolina's larger Ramsuer Records, where they're now labelmates with indie heartthrobs the Avett Brothers. With the switch came a new management team, better national distribution, a clean and polished album, and continued opportunities to win audiences while touring North America and Europe.

These guys will play anywhere too, not just on a stage, especially in Europe. Their countless YouTube videos show that it doesn't matter if it's in a 14th century cathedral in Amsterdam or on a pontoon boat somewhere in summertime. The boys mostly busk in Europe in whatever town they're in — or in-house at a magazine or radio station. It's a handy rehearsal that serves as a virtual ad for that night's show, and a live banjo and singing saw can't be denied.


A shot down Telegraph with a hot laugh
"Silverfishes"

The day begins at noon, and Jones and Nichols are leaving Ann Arbor in the band's road-weary Ford Econoline van that they've christened "Dessie," which is short for "Desperauto." It's the morning after their Ann Arbor show at the Blind Pig, and tomorrow they're headed to Lawrence, Kan., but today we're driving straight into Frontier Ruckus songs.

Dessie's interior is surprisingly neat, aside from some toothpaste, sunglasses, strewn lighters, painted buttons, show fliers, melted cassettes (including Robbie Robertson), ashed cigarettes and boxes full of vinyl copies of the band's latest album. The band inherited Dessie from the now-defunct Ann Arbor band Canada — who, along with Chris Bathgate and others, helped Frontier Ruckus along in Ann Arbor's folk scene. In the last year or so, "Dessie" has seen more than 60,000 miles.

We roll along I-696, and Nichols, who's sitting quietly in the back seat, says, "There are certain roads that you feel comfortable with. For me it's I-96, that's my home highway, I just know everything up and down it."

"For Matt and I, it's I-75," Jones adds, from his perch behind the wheel. "Matt writes about 75. I drove it every day to get to school, and we cross it every once in a while when we're on the road, because it goes the entire length of the country. ... It's like we're just down the road from home."

Jones eases off the freeway onto Woodward Avenue. After a couple quick turns, we're moving past his well-kept childhood home in Pleasant Ridge, and the two talk of current music: Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, the Low Anthem (bands they really like) and Dr. Dog (a recent "band crush").

It wasn't that far off I-75 when this writer ran into Frontier Ruckus at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music Festival. In the midafternoon Southern heat, Ruckus drew a surprisingly big crowd at a small, Budweiser-sponsored tent, the kind of stage at fests that often see inattentive or small crowds. Roughly 200 people with festering Ruckus "band-crushes" got through the sweat-soaked set. And the next morning the band was still clocked in.

At the tiny press tent, Milia and Jones grinned hard as working-class psych rockers Dr. Dog did a stripped-down set. Then they switched from fans to band and did interviews with Paste, FuseTv, Pandora and Nashville Public Radio before their publicist whisked them away to busk in the Bonnaroo campgrounds. Then it was back inside Dessie, on the highway north to Columbus, Ohio.

We are soon weaving into some backcountry to Bloomfield Hills' Brother Rice Catholic High School. It's where Jones and Milia bonded over a love of teenage Catholic school girls.

"The moat is gone!" Jones shouts, comically. The moat — once the divider between the boys and girls' schools — is now a ditch. "There used to be a bridge there, it was so symbolic," Jones says smirking. "So many lustful hours spent there."

Milia and Jones became pals in drama, which was one of two classes actually held in the neighboring all-girl school. Soon they were best friends dating two best friends.

Milia, who'd already played guitar, began writing songs in study hall his sophomore year. Jones, who begun the banjo, shared Milia's musical loves and soon the two were playing together. Though Milia stumbled through a phase of third-wave punk — his first-ever performance was a sixth-grade talent show playing Reel Big Fish's "Sell Out" — he went from punk to hippie in high school, and, with Jones, briefly hit on the Grateful Dead and Phish before developing core influences of Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon and other '70s folk giants.

Working some bluegrass traditionals, and covers of Old & In the Way (Jerry Garcia's early bluegrass outfit with David Grisman), the pair played in front of Birmingham movie theaters, which led to Ferndale coffee houses. Since, Milia and Jones have been a clear-cut duo onstage and off. Even after moving away to "rivaling" colleges — Jones, an anthropology major (like his boyhood fave Indiana Jones) at the University of Michigan and Milia an English major at Michigan State University — the two always played together, and crashed each other's couches.

Jones jokes about Milia just showing up at his place. "He was like Kramer from Seinfeld. I'd come home from work and he'd be sitting on my computer writing songs."

While Jones was at U-M, laying groundwork for med school, Milia found the other band members at MSU, including multi-instrumentalist Zach Nichols.

"It was the beginning of our sophomore year, when Facebook first came to MSU," Nichols laughs from Dessie's backseat. "I was still understanding it, and I typed in the search 'singing saw and melodica' and only one person came up. It was Matt Milia. And he was 'looking for singing saw and/or melodica player.' So, lo and behold, one person came up and he lived in the dormitory next to mine [in the West Circle complex]. It was so weird. But I didn't know how to play either of those ...well. But I said I did."

It so happens that Nichols' father had a singing saw. "I borrowed my dad's saw and I sent Matt a message like 'what's goin' on with the Ruckus?'"

The tiny, ivy-laden buildings of MSU's West Circle are where Milia met bassist and harmony singer Anna Burch, drummer Ryan "Smalls" Etzcorn and current bassist Brian Barnes. Burch lent soft vocal fills that tamed Milia's bark. However, after the recording wrapped on Deadmalls in January this year, Burch quit the band, saying she could no longer tour. Longtime fan Brian Barnes stepped in on bass, and Burch's sweet harmonies are now mostly filled in by Jones and Nichols.

After a few turns, Jones steers the van onto St. Joseph Street in West Bloomfield, where an overgrown treeline funnels down to a large water tower.

"The water towers that are drunker than grandfathers," Jones says, half quoting a Milia lyric from one of his earliest songs, "Rosemont." This is the kind of band whose members can quote the songwriter's lyrics.

As the van slows, Jones continues, "If you look around here, you'll see every lyric. Matt's such an imagist, everything that he sees that's nostalgic or important to him ends up in a song."

We glide to a stop in front of Milia's parents' West Bloomfield house, where the singer is standing atop the roof wearing a maroon souvenir T-shirt from Costa Rica, featuring dolphins, with curvy, bright lettering. Jones looks up out of the van: "What the fuck is he ... I didn't even know you could get up on that roof, to be honest."

"You guys can come up if you want," Milia says, looking down.

Moments later the three are all standing on Milia's roof, instruments in hand, running through "One Story Carport Houses," from 2009's Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer, Pt. 1. Milia's country-ish howl echoes down the gridded rows of overflowing backyards and disappears into suburbia.


Video by Tim Mulheron


If I truly am a coward/ Memory-fueled and fear-powered/I'll be damned/ But if I were/
That gorgeous blur/ I'd be sure
—"Silverfishes"

Milia's 10-foot-square bedroom is a mess. Miscellaneous guitars and a keyboard occupy floor areas not occupied by clothes, tour posters or other Frontier Ruckus ephemera that has been collected in the last four years. His desk is covered with notebooks and manila folders, all filled with scrawled notes, old setlists and high school report cards. The walls are mostly barren, save for a large framed Bob Dylan poster hanging over one side of the bed and two smaller Dylans near a swiveling headlamp. A photo of an older, suited gent is taped by the light switch near the door.

"That's a brother [priest] at our high school who played the organ," Milia says, pointing to the photo. "He gave me my first vinyl record player. So my introduction to vinyl music was this old priest. After that I inherited all of my dad's vinyl, the entire Neil Young and Bob Dylan discographies."

Milia loves his Dylan. And there's some obvious Dylan and Neil Young in the Ruckus sound, but you could say that about any indie stomper with an acoustic guitar these days. In truth, the band draws as much from the Band or Dylan as they do Walt Whitman and Sherwood Anderson. They're fans of American lit, particularly that which is centered on localities, which is fairly obvious in Milia's melodic documentation of his Michigan life, Oakland County specifically.

When the bearded songwriter talks about his work, he's confident as hell; it's as if he knows he's good and everything he says has been practiced for the day he's the subject of a major story. In truth, his openness is inviting. He's as articulate as a professor, even if he only says what he wants to. He's also extremely sentimental, a collector of memories, and at times it's an obsessive part of his routine, which includes the songwriting. "For each album I write out all the lyrics like this really big," he says as he unravels a huge scroll of lyrics. "I keep all the physical copies of all the things we put up on the website. I don't know what I'm going to do with it all. One day, hopefully, I'll have a place of my own where I can organize this stuff like the Dewey Decimal System."

The band's website is halfway there, with every Milia lyric and demo, countless pieces of artwork, photos, videos and poems, all captured in time.

"I still have calendars from — here's 2003 — this was a great summer. I wrote down a little description of what we did every day," he says, reading off a few. "This is a vessel of just — years."

Milia's true vessels for his years are his albums; 2008's The Orion Songbook focused on detailing the confused innocence of first loves, and at breakneck speed, centered on half-fictional places. He moved away on 2009's Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer, pt. 1, where home's but an earshot away. On Deadmalls, the content is still homey, but the focus of the relationships has grown much more intricate.

"The songs are more personal in a way," Milia says about the new album. "They're not so much about romanticized places. The first album was just about young love and first love, which is so glossed-over, you're not really into the messy specifics of intimacy that a more adult couple has when they're living together and actually in real life together. There's a new depth to the realm of experience. More domestic I guess, breaking more into the hidden corners of a home or a relationship that The Orion Songbook didn't touch."


Oh, now, Rochester, you son of a bitch"Orion Town 2"

We leave hulking Dessie behind and, like some adolescents' joyride, Milia, Jones and Nichols pile, instruments and all, into Milia's Ford Escape and begin the tour around suburban Oakland County towns.

Milia, who now wears a hot pink Gatorade painter hat, likes to call these "the touching towns" or intermingling disparate roads, and looking down on a map, the area is like the view the audience saw on Nick Arcade when "Mikey" moved across the board. Hidden gems are revealed as you move from quadrant to quadrant of the checkerboard map. These are the freeways that connected Milia and Jones, and their sprawling suburban relationships, to the songs.

"That's one of the biggest topics of Frontier Ruckus is how these disparate locations of metro Detroit kind of mingle and intersperse with each other. In such complicated connections," Milia says, crossing over I-75. "The burden of it all is it's such a vast memorization. Such a huge area to memorize, but you just do it instinctually throughout a lifetime."

"I know plenty of people in Rochester that don't know a fucking thing outside the Rochester area," Jones adds, playing a kind of devil's advocate.

Milia points out landmarks found in the vivid tropes of his songwriting, we stop for a few impromptu busking sessions. Both he and Jones talk of how little repeated things in suburbia become sacred: While there may be thousands of CVS convenience stores around the country, there's only one at the end of your block, and that's your capsule of time.

We are soon stopped, gazing at the Pontiac Silverdome, and Pine Knob peeks out in the distance — both two of many major landmarks that find significance in the band's work, building the foundation of their debut album. The boys climb out and perform a short (and windy) section of the lengthy tune "Pontiac the Nightbrink."

Back in the car we head toward Rochester to drop Jones at his parents' place.

"We're entering high Orion Town," Milia says.

Jones responds with a rib: "What are you? Fucking Tolkien?"

Milia ignores him. Instead, he says, "Alright this is Rochester. ..."

"This is the north shire!" Jones interrupts again still laughing.

"[Orion Town] is based off of Orion Township," Milia says. "It's basically just a mythology wrapped around my first young love. ... Even after adulthood came, and it inevitably ran its course, it's the young love regret that follows — the feeling like you've desecrated something young and innocent. It's based on a girl who in reality lived around here."

Milia turns the wheel and ribs back at Jones. "Hey, Dave do you have tickets?" he says pointing at a marquee for frat-boy rock band OAR.

"Ohhh, Bro-A-R ... you guys wanna go to a Bro-A-R show?" Jones laughs again.


All the vegetation in the settled world is stirring/ I'm blurring into sun-burnt and heartbroken worrying/ about how the day took such a long time to die/ when it was reeking of women I once had on my side
—"Nerves of the Nevermind"

Milia drops Jones at his parents' winding and lush subdivision home in Grosse Pines, and continues the tour northward, talking about the constantly expanding parameters of comfort that come with youth. He grins when talking about his entire mythology that's wrapped around his first young love and interwoven into the neighboring suburban towns in The Orion Songbook. He juxtaposes her upper-class life against the neighboring middle class, where Milia seems to see himself, a cause of many of his self-proclaimed early insecurities.

"So the further north we go, the more into Orion Town we're going," Mila says of his semi-fictional place. "In the imagination of what I created, it's a very wealthy and a very Christian kingdom. It's all about conflictions, and big contradictions like humility and Christianity; extreme affluence and virtues in poverty and charity, lust and chastity. It's all these things that are colliding in this youthful kind of confusion. This isn't really the modern state of Frontier Ruckus; we're two albums past that now. But it's such a foundational philosophy, or struggle, kind of a central tension that really spurred the more complex songs that I started writing."

As the car weaves in and out of subdivision roads, full of new and monstrous houses, Milia gets lost in memories. "I remember driving down that hill for the first time," he says, pointing ahead, "with full butterflies and noticing that even the strip malls look nicer out here. It all comes back to strip malls."

From the back seat, Nichols breaks up the moment and says, "The other day we were doing a radio thing and the host asked Matt, 'What's your fascination with strip malls?'"

Oblivious, Milia continues: "Another CVS! I'm serious. I wrote a poem about that
CVS. ..."

"So what did you end up telling the host?" I ask.

"Everything I've been reiterating to you," Milia answers. "Without putting a value on it for better or worse, it's the physical world that we know, that we're from, so it's beautiful."

After a drive through millionaire golf houses of the backcountry entrance to Pine Knob, Milia pulls over and kills the motor. He and Nichols climb to the top of Pine Knob to play the band's song "Orion Town 2."


Video by Tim Mulheron


I-75 is the swallower of Christmas
—"Orion Town 2"

Like a magnet, we're at the dead Summit Place Mall, and Milia looks satisfied, having finished a day spent literally immersed in his own songs and living joyously inside his life's time capsules. For him, that's never a bad place to be.

It's a short drive back to Milia's from the mall. We're sitting on a bench nursing the day's only beer in front of his parents' single story "carport house." Milia says he's the only child, son of a video production house owner dad and a TV reporter mom. He's thumbing through recent newspaper clippings of the band — a practice that he's slowly investing less time in — as the summer cicadas buzz away the suburban silence.

The songwriter's eyes close sometimes in conversation, as he does onstage. He can lose himself in nostalgia, one of a childhood and pubescence spent attempting to define, and then remember, the world around him. Milia won't hide behind irony in his songs, this is his personal shit.

And so far it's working in the band's favor. For good reason: Milia's a truly gifted lyricist.

He even found himself crying while writing "The Upper Room" on the new album.

"I'm taking turns between wiping my eyes and writing down a line," Milia says. "It sounds kind of sissy I guess, but I think it made for a good song, because I was just completely in that vulnerable moment. I was right in the heart of it. I was trapped inside of what was so beautiful about it and how horrifying the thought of losing it was. Every line I was writing was true, so there was no need to convince myself of anything. It was just exactly right. And that's not the case for every song."

Milia channels love and loss, sure, but there's real sadness in his lyrics, a melancholy, where everything is resigned to memory. But it's not always a healthy place to visit for long periods of time — it's the kind of stuff that turns the best into alcoholics and drug addicts. But Milia's memories are tinged with a bit of joy, and maybe that's the payoff, maybe that's what will save him in the end.

"The present moment to me is often very depressing, or boring," he says. "Even tomorrow, I'll look back fondly on the stuff we did at the mall, even though that was a wonderful moment, when I see those pictures I'll say 'That was beautiful day.' But that's the built-in mystery of life — why are things so much more precious once they've happened? Because you forget all the nasty little things that were a part of it while it was happening. It's the way every relationship goes."

Looking up at the treelines, Milia thinks of the show Frontier Ruckus did the night before in Ann Arbor:

"I'm nervous ... not so much nervous ... just a bit anxious," he said, kicking his feet on the floor, watching opening band Theodore. Soon the lights go pitch black, and with the trumpeting introduction of "Silverfishes," Milia stood on a chair, guitar strapped on. It's the same chair his doctor had told him earlier that he needed to be seated in for the whole show because of a hernia. Milia jumped down to the microphone, and with a thump, he grinned. Hernia or no, he looked about as animated a performer as he always is. He stepped up to the mic, and addressed the packed house. He said, "It's great to be home."

5 albums essential to the development of Frontier Ruckus

Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan
Harvest, Neil Young
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel
The Band, The Band
The Lioness, Songs Ohia

Matthew Milia's essential authors:

Walt Whitman
Diane Wakowski
Sherwood Anderson
William Carlos Williams
F. Scott Fitzgerald

See Frontier Ruckus with the Ragbirds Friday, Aug. 13, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.


Video by Tim Mulheron

Pietro Truba is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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