A Wakarusa Chat with Frontier Ruckus
For better or for worse, memories become a part of our fabric and consciousness. Smells, sounds, and voices can bring about feelings of joy and reverence just as easily as they can conjure up long suppressed terrors. A fleeting moment in the past can arise under the simplest of circumstances, causing wonder at the power of the mind and deep astonishment over the randomness of life. Artists have been using their respective memories for ages; constantly shaping a narrative or fashioning remembrances from snippets of the past that for one reason or another have lodged themselves into one’s inner psyche and refused to come out. Similarly, the best songwriters tap into these recollections and convey larger truths about life in a way that can be cathartic, not just for the author, but for those who take the time to invest in the subject matter. Matthew Milia, principal songwriter of the band Frontier Ruckus, is well acquainted with these sentiments and has consistently hit the mark over the course of the band’s extraordinary catalog. Juxtapositions constantly dot the world’s landscapes, simple twists of fate dictate futures, and haunting reminders of the past crop up in strange places throughout Milia’s lyrics. It is a view where the beauty of Christmas Eve is tainted by the bodies of deer on the roadside, where old sitcoms still blare from grandparents’ televisions, or where wide-eyed, romantic college students can still feel the warmth of the liquor bottle heating them up in an ice-cold stadium. These are songs that beg for an active ear and reward multiple listens and close examination. Fortunately, Frontier Ruckus can also rock, lending the songs and their live performances a punch and urgency that gives credence to the emotional weight of the subject matter. Milia, David Jones, Zach Nichols, Ryan Etzcorn, and Brian Barnes make a gorgeous cacophony of sound that tends to bring audiences off the back rows and out in droves to the front of the stage. Dobros, pedal steel, harmonica, and singing saw all make their way into the songs, keeping the musical presentation as fresh as the lyrics.
Constantly on the road, I caught up last week with the band prior to their set as they enjoyed dinner backstage at this year’s Wakarusa Festival. Just back from Europe, the guys continue to hustle their way through the Midwest and South on a tour that will keep them busy well into the fall. Below are highlights of my conversation with Matthew Milia.
You guys just returned from Europe and in looking at your website, I was able to browse lots of pictures from your adventures over there and it occurred to me that the site is almost like a diary or travelogue and serves a place where fans can go to not only find tour dates or purchase albums, but also establish a personal connection to you guys. Is that something you set out to do or has the site sort of evolved as you’ve gone along?
Yeah, the website has sort of become its own little artistic expression. I like that it’s very multi-media and I want it to be engaging and give the feel of being in the band as well. All that visual documentation, if anything is a way for us to remember places because it all just blurs together, especially in Europe where everything is just so vivid and new and it becomes hard to put a logical organization to it. And I like how (the site) is a nice balance of the logistical stuff and also an artistic expression of the music.
Do you or any of the band members have web experience in putting these kinds of projects together?
No. I have a good friend who has just been way too gracious in the work he donates to us. I send him ideas and he makes it happen, which is really nice.
I like on the website how you have a catalog of all your songs with the lyrics included, and in looking at the titles, they’ve always reminded me of short story titles or chapters in a larger novel. Also, the lyrics often read like a short narrative or story, and the listener/reader is confronted with a barrage of words. Has that always been your songwriting style or is that something that has evolved?
It’s something that I’ve always been drawn to and it has a very deliberate effect in songwriting that I like to utilize. They’re just extremely verbal songs and for me, the more words I can get in there, the more cathartic it is. There is a peril to being overly verbose but it doesn’t bother me. I love that dizzying barrage of words. Every word means a lot to me and the cumulative effect of all of them together creates this swirling reflection of the landscape they depict.
In your music, and particularly with the new album (Deadmalls and Nightfalls), it’s cool how you’ve chronicled the differences in place and feel of the locations in which you grew up compared to how they are now. That has gotten me to think about those same discrepancies in my own memory of things.
Well, the songs are a psychological way for me to organize these very personal things, but in addition there’s this very universal sort of luggage that is inside of them, so the more personal I write, I find the more people can relate to it. It’s a very interesting dynamic that I like a lot, so that’s what I tend to stick to and what I know how to do best.
Do you have a literary background?
I studied poetry which is my favorite mode of writing. There’s a fine line between the poetry I write and the songs I write, but they kind of mingle together and that’s very gratifying for me to write.
Your music falls under the tagline of what No Depression has championed for years now, so have any of those types of artists inspired you in terms of songwriting or performance style?
Ryan Adams for sure, and he’s actually been in touch with us. He’s been supporting our music and is a fan which is extremely inspiring because he’s such a great writer.
Did he just contact you guys out of the blue?
Yeah, he did. And he’s just a great supporter of music that he cares about and we’re lucky he heard us. Wilco and Uncle Tupelo and all the ‘90’s alt-country is very inspiring. I just love the ethos of it and it’s something you just try to keep going with now. It’s such sincere music.
Did you and all the guys have a history before the band or did you all come together with the music?
We all kind of met in college. Well, Dave (banjo player David Jones) and I were high school buddies. Him and I started playing when we were kids and then developed this kind of creation together and worked on the identity and then we met all these other guys in college and they all sort of fleshed it out and gave it a whole new life and energy.
Didn’t you guys go to Michigan State?
We all did except Dave, who went to the U of M (University of Michigan). He’s the odd man out.
And before you guys go and get ready to play tonight, what goals do you have for the rest of 2011 and moving forward into 2012?
Just trying to find something to do with this huge body of new songs we have. The bigger the pile gets the more daunting and overwhelming it starts to become. It’s hard to find time on the road to work them out and give them some sort of form, especially in a full band kind of setting, so we really need to take some time out to work on the record because there is so much material that we are dying to pin down. We’re also interested in maybe experimenting with a different location for recording this time and we definitely want to switch it up and try something different because the songs are a little different too. It’s going to be real interesting to see how it all works out.