Days Gone By

Folk rockers Frontier Ruckus dig into the past for seeds for the future

Frontier Ruckus (Photo: Sean Cook)
Frontier Ruckus (Photo: Sean Cook)

Before Matthew Milia and David Jones shared a rehearsal for the very first time, Milia had to complete a challenge — find Jones’ house. 

Jones lived on a street called Grosse Pines. Instead of simply handing Milia clear directions to his residence, he gave Milia a map with pine trees drawn on it and expected him to solve the puzzle. 

The small anecdote illustrates just how long the pair’s rivalry and friendship have co-existed. 

“At first, we were the only musicians that knew each other, especially in this kind of folksy (scene) at our school. When we started playing together, it was like ‘Who can play the song faster?’ or ‘Who knows more songs?’ ” Milia says. “But that boyhood rivalry is what bore Frontier Ruckus, in a way, because we motivated each other with a certain immature motive.”

Meeting as teenagers in the Detroit area circa 2000 through their all-male Catholic high school, Milia and Jones are still working together in Frontier Ruckus, their first and only serious band, as guitarist/vocalist and banjoist/vocalist. 

At the outset, the two consistently attempted to one-up each another through boasts. 

“Dave had a lot to brag about because he was the only banjo player at that age in the area, I’m sure, and he was already very good at it because he had been taking lessons for several years. He was the rarity. I was instantly attracted to that, so I probably didn’t admit it to him at the time, but it blew me away,” Milia says. “Dave just elevated … the musicality in my life (of) what I saw as possible at that age in the different types of music you could play. That opened so many doors for me as a writer: what kind of songs I could write and what I could write for us to play together.”

The Bluegrass/Americana/Folk Rock outfit launched in 2006 while Milia was attending Michigan State University. There he met all the group’s players (save Jones, of course). The first year or two of Frontier Ruckus consisted of open mic performances and the band working up the nerve to play in front of strangers. Milia remembers experiencing their first real positive response at the now-defunct Trixie’s Café & Coffee in Roseville, Mich. In one of the group’s earliest shows, they won a Battle of the Bands at Michigan State — a thrill Milia likens to “winning the Super Bowl.” In 2008, they released The Orion Songbook. After hearing lots of critical praise for their debut record and enjoying his time in the group, Milia found the idea of keeping Frontier Ruckus steady after graduation a prospect too tantalizing to not pursue. Deadmalls & Nightfalls, their second LP, followed in 2010.

Milia regards the southeast Michigan-based Ruckus — whose current four-piece lineup also includes multi-instrumentalist Zachary Nichols and drummer Ryan Etzcorn — as a “psychological device” for his writer side, with the music serving to complement and intensify the words. Frontier Ruckus’ freshly released third record — the hour-and-a-half-long double album Eternity of Dimming — has a title Milia is happy to describe in depth. 

“It’s really the image of just summer dusk (with) the daylight disintegrating, which is just an overarching metaphor for the disintegration of memory and its endless, perpetual, grainy disintegration. (The record is) an intense document of my own personal memory,” he says. “There’s a lot of that idyllic, beautiful childhood imagery of the way you perceive childhood as a pure, sunny vision, but all that’s mingling with this underlying tragedy throughout the record. It’s a sort of adult, menacing mindset that’s creeping in on the purity of childhood.” 

In interviews, Milia often discusses the importance of poetry on his lyrical style. It’s easy to read the influence. He writes ornate passages hinged on pointed details (Eternity references JCPenney, Starter jackets, communion cake and People magazine), explorations of big themes like loneliness and love and shifting rhyme schemes. Milia and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn could easily share a five-hour-long conversation about character sketching and scene-setting without coming to many disagreements.

Milia’s father raised him on Neil Young and Bob Dylan and his creative relationship with Jones is rooted in music far more rural than Rock. But Milia says he also loves his 1990s radio AltRock — Goo Goo Dolls and Gin Blossoms come up in this conversation — and he wanted that style to play a more pronounced role on Eternity. 

“At the beginning, (the band was) searching for an identity and were very determined for that to be a Folk identity because that’s what we saw ourselves as and enjoyed at the time — just a purely acoustic, organic-based band,” Milia says. “But when I became more honest with myself about the internal cosmos of influences, which were all the songs I heard on the radio growing up and in carpools on the way to soccer practice every single day, it was a much more popular music base. I couldn’t deny it to myself.” 

For him, this translates to “more jangly guitars, Hammond organs, Wurlitzer and Lowrey organs” and new effects on melodic structures. While Eternity is still so inextricably linked to Bluegrass and Folk cues that you won’t be compelled to sneak Frontier Ruckus onto a playlist between Third Eye Blind and The Verve, there are different brands of snap and speed to their latest material.

Years after starting the band, the rivalry between Milia and Jones still exists, but the frontman is sure to stress that it’s “very benevolent.” 

“There’s irritations and sometimes abrasive qualities to it, but it’s based purely on love and brotherhood and undying need for the other,” Milia, now 27, says. “You know Grumpy Old Men with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon? Kind of that dynamic, but a little more subdued. I’m totally Jack Lemmon and Dave’s totally Walter Matthau.”

FRONTIER RUCKUS plays the Southgate House Revival on Wednesday with Pomegranates.

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