interview: frontier ruckus

frontier ruckus @ local 506

Thanks to my inability to operate technology, y’all don’t get the best part of this interview from this past Saturday evening, which was Matt waxing rhapsodic about Twitter, his use of it, and how it plays into his writing process, and Davey making fun of him. But trust me, it was great, and the rest isn’t much of a slouch – behind the jump, 3/5ths of Frontier Ruckus talks songwriting, their third LP, Michigan music, their parents’ record collections, and the Tigers, among other banjo-restringing-soundtracked things. Click. You know you want to. (And you should follow them on Twitter, because theirs is my favorite musician Twitter out there.)

bnko: So …

Davey Jones: (restringing and tuning his banjo) It sounds like we’re starting off in Deliverance.

bnko: It does. I’m with Dave and Matt and John from Frontier Ruckus, and we are gonna talk about some stuff. Are you guys working on a new album?

Matthew Milia: Always.

bnko: I know you’re always writing, but are you always working on something that’s going to come out, in that form?

MM: Right now we’re towards the end of conceptualizing and the beginning of actualizing our third full-length record, which is an accumulation of songs that have been around from right around the time that [2010’s Deadmalls and Nightfalls] was being recorded and wrapped up, until today. There’s a wealth of material to pluck from and there’s so much pent up energy and inspiration that we’ve just been dying to have the time and space … this winter is when we’re really going to sit down …

DJ: To not be on tour.

MM: … to not be on tour, and to really just concentrate on … that’s what I was saying, this kind of frustration that I have with a lot of thoughts and scenes and images that I want to write about, and make sure that they get into songs. This perpetual feeling that things are slipping away from me in my imagination, even though they’re all documented and written down somewhere — I just have so much backlog now of writing that it’s a frustrating kind of nagging in the back of my mind that I’m losing some stuff, but if anything, I’m very confident that this next album is going to be very dense. In a good way.

bnko: In a good way?

MM: Even more dense than Deadmalls. I hope that our records get continually more dense, but more accessible in other ways.

bnko: Well, Deadmalls is really dense. There’s a lot in it that I didn’t notice until I started reading some more press about it.

DJ: Musically, or … ?

bnko: Musically and lyrically.

MM: Some very long songs.

bnko: Musically I always find your stuff very dense, in a good way.

DJ: Thanks!

bnko: There’s always a lot going on, musically, but lyrically, it took me a very long time to figure out the relation of that album to place. It’s a very specific album, but it feels kind of universal at this point as well.

MM: That’s the important part for me. If other people … the reason I write, what spurs me to write are very particular specific places and things, and everyone’s life is extremely precise to the exact experience that person has had. So I write from a very particular place in very confident belief that the universal resides in those particulars. And I’ve had people close to me, close to my vest, people working for us, that are very supportive and interested in, invested in us, that have been like, you should broaden, you should write some love songs, something with a broader brush.

DJ: Say “baby” in a song.

MM: And I was like, “Should I do that?” And I look at Deadmalls and every song on that album is a love song, in one way or another. For the most part.

DJ: Absolutely.

bnko: A love song to where you’re from.

MM: Yeah.

DJ: Or a love song about a girl!

MM: There’s amorous love intertwined in all of it. So that’s just the way I write, and nothing’s going to change that, and I’m proud of it. If anything, I’m just going to develop it in a more intense way in the future.

bnko: I really like it about your writing. I have a very fierce sense of place myself. I chose Chapel Hill, I chose to live here, when I was an adult. But ironically it seems like a lot of the music that I have loved most last year and this year is coming out of Michigan.

DJ: Like who?

bnko: Besides you guys, a band called the Stationary Travelers.

DJ: I don’t know them.

bnko: They put out a great EP this year. And Chris Bathgate.

DJ: Did you know he’s playing in town tonight?

bnko: I know, he’s at the Nightlight, and I’m hoping he’s going to go on late enough that I can …

DJ: No, he’s going on early, but then he’s going to come over to our show.

bnko: You’ll have to introduce me, Salt Year is one of my favorite albums of the year.

DJ: It is a great, great record.

bnko: But I wanted to ask you guys if there was anybody else who was working up there who you were really excited about.

MM: You should listen to Breathe Owl Breathe, The Soil and the Sun. Strawberry Heritage, which is John’s band. John’s also in a great Michigan-originating band called the Photographers … no, just Photographers.

bnko: I like that.

MM: They’re wonderful, him and another photographer, Marin. Who else?

John Hanson: Gram Parsons and the Go-Round.

MM: This is the guy to ask, because he’s just all in it. He’s living in Grand Rapids at the moment and is all about promoting Michigan in any way possible.

DJ: A lot of the local Michigan people … Chris Bathgate is a huge one, of course, for us because we kind of, in some ways, grew up with Chris Bathgate. Not from childhood, but when we started playing music, when we started becoming entrenched in the Michigan music scene, Chris Bathgate was a huge fixture. And he was a mentor to us in a lot of ways. [Chris] is a really, really good friend of ours, and we really look up to him, and we love his music so much. And lot of the other people who were in that scene are not playing music anymore. So there’s a younger generation starting to come about now. We know them, and we talk to them, and we like their music, but we’re not as … we don’t know as much about them, because since they’ve started coming around, we’ve been on the road for two years. Since we’ve started going on the road, it’s sad to say, but in a way we’ve lost touch with what’s going on in Michigan. Because we’ve been eight months out of the year on the road. But it’s part of …and I mean, it’s tough but we love playing shows, but we wish we could be home more.

bnko: I have a lot of friends who feel the same way, here. They’re gone eight months of the year, but they really miss it when they’re gone.

DJ: Being home?

bnko: Being home, knowing their audience, all of that.

DJ: And then if you’re home for a long time, you can’t wait to get back out again.

bnko: Is it different … do you guys play a lot up there? Do you go through on your tours?

DJ: We start and end tours in Michigan. We rarely just go through Michigan.

MM: It’s great to keep it special up there.

bnko: And is it? When you go home and play for a hometown crowd?

MM: That’s the biggest thing I look forward to. It’s a luxury that I’m grateful for. To go home and have that assurance of people who have been with you since the start, who really understand the ins and outs and the origins of the thing.

DJ: Everyone will sing along to the lyrics. They’re some of our biggest shows.

MM: A different level of understanding, due to the place. Like we were saying, the place is particular as this universal thing. People elsewhere tap into that universal thing, but they have the double intensity, because they have the actual place itself, which is cool.

bnko: Is most of Deadmalls about … [John is] in Grand Rapids now, the rest of y’all aren’t based in Detroit, are you?

MM: Well, at the moment, Dave and I are in the suburbs of Detroit, and so is Zach, our trumpet and saw player. He’s kind of in the very outskirts of Detroit, and Ryan and John are in West Michigan. But Detroit is just the origin of Frontier Ruckus. It’s really the nexus of the mythology, especially the last two albums.

DJ: Metro Detroit.

MM: Metro Detroit. Not just Detroit that’s …

DJ: Suburban Detroit.

MM: Not just the fetishized dilapidation of inner Detroit, but the whole network of sprawl, that’s a connected system. That magnitude of that system is something that I’ll endlessly be fascinated by, and everything I’ve ever written is inspired by that insane complexity that’s riddled my brain.

bnko: I have to ask, how does a band with a banjo player and a saw player come out of a city with this huge soul tradition? Your sound is …

MM: By this point, the banjo has pretty much made it everywhere. These aren’t regional instruments or tools anymore. These instruments have been on records that our parents have been playing for us since we were born. So they’re not recent imports. Every kid everywhere, in the developed world at least, or in America, has access to their parents’ record collection, they have access to music shops with banjos and hardware stores with saws, so kids have access to these tools. When they get their hands on them, these things become regionalized. So a kid learning to play the banjo in the Northwest is going to play it differently than a kid in Michigan. It’s not just a Southern thing anymore, it’s a Northwest thing, or a Michigan thing. And Dave has been playing since he was a kid, so he’s a rare breed because he’s been classically trained, basically, in many different styles since he was 12.

DJ: I took lessons starting when I was 14.

bnko: Those parents’ record collections. Was there a lot of music, the traditional bluegrass and country, in your parents’ collections? What made you want to pick up the banjo?

DJ: In my dad’s, that’s what got me into banjo. A lot of old country, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and stuff like that, and then bluegrass, too. I think I just for some reason picked banjo out of everything that I heard in bluegrass and old country, I picked banjo as the instrument that I’d wanted to play. I actually played drums before I played banjo, maybe a year or something, but I kind of forgot about drums once I started playing banjo, because I was more enamored with it.

MM: You’re still playing a drum, it just has strings on it.

DJ: Exactly.

bnko: What about you, Matt, what from your parents’ record collection?

MM: Dave really brought that whole bluegrass element to the band. I was getting into it in high school, because of – Dave and I met at this pretty affluent … an all male prep Catholic school where a lot of affluent kids went. I wasn’t one of them –

DJ: Nor was I.

MM: Nor was Dave, really. There were all these kids listening, prep school hippies, kids listening to their bourgeois parents’ Grateful Dead records and stuff like that. My Dad raised me on Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen. Joni Mitchell. So that was where I got my songwriting fetish and very intense love for words and stories and narrative and interesting metaphor. That was my introduction to poetry, was actually through music like that. Because there is a literary, a really intense literary element, in those ‘60s songwriters. That’s where I developed my love for it.

bnko: What about you? Anything from your parents’ collection real formative?

JH: You know, Tom Petty, pretty much.

bnko: Nothing wrong with that.

MM: That’s where you got your pop sensibilities!

JH: That was my dad’s jam. My mom was jamming on, like, Kenny G and Amy Grant. I just didn’t really gravitate too much towards that.

MM: Some of that shines through – the vibraphone.

JH: I guess that’s true.

bnko: I’m going to wrap this up with you guys and let you get back to your pre-show stuff.

MM: This is it!

bnko: I wanted to – I said to a friend today, I’m interviewing a band from Michigan today, Michigan/Michigan State game is on. She said, you gotta ask it. There’s five of you, and four of you went to Michigan State and Dave went to Michigan?

MM: Now three of us went to Michigan State. John went to neither. Dave went to Michigan.

bnko: You give him a hard time?

MM: No! We’re not very zealous. We’re not very …

JH: Was Dave still rooting for State today?

MM: No, no, UM.

JH: Oh, really?

MM: We love Ann Arbor … both East Lansing and Ann Arbor are huge bases for us, we love both towns equally. We’re not gung-ho about athletics. Organized sports.

bnko: Organized sports? So not the Tigers or the Lions?

MM: Oh, we like the Tigers a lot!

bnko: Baseball fans!

MM: Just not the college level.

bnko: How has the Tigers’ success this year … has it been good for Detroit? I mean, good for Detroit, not that I can … you can’t convey the air quotes, but?

MM: I hate saying that Detroit needs some special medicine or love and some sympathy, but I’m sure it’s good for any town to have this morale to pull behind. And maybe Detroit does need it a little more than others.

DJ: String clippers anywhere?

MM: Yeah, downstairs in my case.

DJ: Damn. Sorry to be in and out.

bnko: I was just telling these guys we were going to wrap it up. I was asking about the Tigers.

MM: It’s great to root for something.

DJ: Oh, yeah, we’re pretty excited about the possibility. Is that game tonight?

BNKO: Yeah, that game is on tonight, and I think the cable is still out downstairs.

DJ: Darn. Well, we’re full on bandwagon fans.

MM: Oh, yeah, totally, we’re not like die-hard Tigers fans, but if they’re in the playoffs right now, we want them to …

DJ: Camraderie is priceless.

bnko: And like you said, they’ve been in Detroit a long time. They’re as integral to that place as the auto industry or anything else.

DJ: The Red Wings are an original team, too. One of the Original Six. If anything I’m a big hockey fan. I have been more in the past, but if I have to watch a sport, because I’m not a huge sports guy, none of us are, if I have to watch a sport that’s not hockey it’s going to be baseball. I can get excited about the Tigers.

bnko: Thanks for giving me the time, y’all. I’m really looking forward to the set.

DJ: Thank you!

[Ed. note: originally taped 10/15/2011. The Tigers were sadly eliminated from the playoffs later that evening.]

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