Frontier Ruckus is a Michigan based band busy making serious inroads on the national performing circuit. The group's catalog can be most consistently classified as folk rock with a strong verbal emphasis woven around a sound that is augured around the lyrically intensive songs of Matthew Milia, who formed the group along with banjo player David Winston Jones while growing up in Metro Detroit.
In 2008, the band released its debut full-length record, The Orion Songbook. Though formed in a folk tradition, Frontier Ruckus has shown an eclecticism across the broad spectrum of their catalog, incorporating aspects of Baroque and Jangle Pop, Alt-Country, Bluegrass, and Lo-Fi music.
Milia and Jones formed the band while both attending Brother Rice High School in Metro Detroit. They began by playing a mixture of Milia's early compositions and traditional bluegrass songs that Jones had collected. Around this time, they also recruited Eli Eisman as a bassist. While Milia attended Michigan State University—where he studied poetry under Diane Wakoski—and Jones attended the University of Michigan, Frontier Ruckus expanded into a six-piece. The new formation included Zachary Nichols playing trumpet, musical saw, and melodica; Ryan Etzcorn playing drums; and Anna Burch singing harmony vocals—all of whom Milia met while in East Lansing.
Ten years ago, Frontier Ruckus began to receive attention in Michigan, with Metro Times considering the band "already one of the very best sounds to come out of Michigan this entire decade," and Real Detroit Weekly, who named the band ‘Best Folk Group’ in Detroit stating: "This is the best band you haven't heard and Milia is the most impressive wordsmith I've listened to in a really long time. I'm not sure If I can recall a voice as untreated and honest as Milia's ... ever. His is a voice whose timbre carries as much meaning as the words that come through it."
In 2009, Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer, Part. 1, a six-song EP, was released as the fourth side of the double-vinyl edition of The Orion Songbook. Frontier Ruckus toured the entire US and Europe for the first time, playing the Slottsfjell Festival in Norway, among shows in the UK, Germany, and Holland. In 2010 the band toured extensively, including a month-long European tour and a performance at Bonnaroo Music Festival, for which Rolling Stone listed the band as one of their Essential Sets, calling the group "the perfect recipe for Gothic Americana.”
Their second release, Deadmalls and Nightfalls received positive critical reviews—given 9 out of 10 stars by PopMatters, who called the record "a musical map to the psyches of its performers" that "not only outdoes it predecessor, it reaches a level of top-notch songwriting most groups never attain on a greatest hits compilation.” This sophomore release served to broaden public appreciation for the group's song craft and instrumentation, as it also left an impression with songwriters of note. Upon hearing the album, musician Ryan Adams posted on his Twitter page: "Loving the new Frontier Ruckus! Great band ... this is what I want to get back to. Those tunes go forever.”
A third trek to Europe in 2011 expanded their reach to new countries such as Ireland, Sweden, and Italy. The band taped a performance for the NPR radio program Mountain Stage in August 2011 alongside John Oates of Hall and Oates, performing with him for the encore number.
In March 2012, the band streamed the recording of their third Daytrotter session live. A music film shot on Super 8 mm film for the song "Mona and Emmy" was premiered by Paste Magazine who also announced the first official details on the band's upcoming third full-length record Eternity of Dimming—slated to be a double album of 20 songs and 5,500 words.
Eternity of Dimming was released on January 29, 2013 to strong critical response. Jim Farber of the New York Daily News commended the double album's dense specificity and ability to "obsess on the most suburban images possible." 2013 also saw Frontier Ruckus perform at Lollapalooza and return to Europe twice, as "Eternity" was their first record to appear additionally on a European label, Loose Music.
On November 11, 2014, Frontier Ruckus released their fourth full-length album, Sitcom Afterlife. Prior to the complete album release, the tracks "Sad Modernity", "Bathroom Stall Hypnosis", and "Darling Anonymity" were released individually, highlighting the band's shift toward a greater focus on classic power pop arrangements, while still remaining densely lyrical.
On the release tour for Sitcom Afterlife, CMJ reviewed the band's Manhattan stop glowingly, writing: "For an hour, they treated the crowd to a sampling of songs taken from their three existing LPs as well as their upcoming fourth, and transported us from New York City to a larger, intangible, folktale version of suburban America."
In December 2016, Rolling Stone announced that Frontier Ruckus' 5th LP would be titled Enter the Kingdom and was to be released in February 2017. It was reported that the album was recorded in Nashville with founding Wilco member and final Uncle Tupelo drummer, Ken Coomer.
They also premiered a music video for the single "27 Dollars", featuring the band performing on the roof of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit.
Recently The Review caught up Matthew Milia to discuss the growth & evolution of the group; and what fans can expect at their upcoming Bay City appearance for PATCHWORK.
Review: With five original albums under your belt, a busy touring schedule, and considerable critical acclaim since the conception of 'Frontier Ruckus', what qualities do you feel the band possess that have contributed to this growing success and distinguish it from other groups working within the idiom of folk-rock & Americana?
Matthew: I think we've just always done things for natural reasons and people who get us appreciate that, I hope. I write songs because it's how I process my life—all the changes whether painful or wonderful. It's basically an involuntary form of self-therapy at this point. Then I find myself with a batch of songs and have the privilege of taking them to my best friends, my bandmates, and together turning it into something bigger, outside of myself. That's been the cycle of our process since the first album. We've had to exist within an "industry" and figure out how to make this thing sustain itself in a business sense, but those considerations have never interrupted the initial motive for why we make art. I've never tried to write a "hit" and am pretty sure I couldn't if I tried.
Review: How do you feel your sound and music has evolved since your inception of the group; and what creative goals are you setting for the band as you continue to cultivate the architecture of your sound?
Matthew: There was a sweet naivety in our sound when we started. It was very raw, very acoustic. We were just kids. The tempos on the first record are pretty much all over the place. We typically recorded everything together in one room with all the instruments bleeding into each other. And people tell me they love those records because of those things. It just sounded exactly what it was: Kids amazed at discovering this wonderful outlet to express their lives.
On recent albums I've explored more adult themes such as familial and economic hardship, the stuff that follows childhood's gradual disillusionment. But we've been experimenting with pairing such heavy subject matter with more of a deliberate, melodic, classic pop sonic landscape. We're big fans of the catchy classic power pop tradition that weaves from The Beatles and The Zombies to Big Star and ELO to Teenage Fanclub and R.E.M., so I guess we've veered a bit in that direction lately, but there are still strong folk undercurrents in everything we do.
Review: What do you feel is the most challenging component involved with advancing your musical career and vision for the band?
Matthew: There are just so many bands. Technology puts so much noise into the world. It's harder and harder to reach your audience. Even the folks who are voluntarily subscribed to your channels for updates. It's also near impossible to garner revenue from the actual product of music itself anymore. You basically have to tour forever to make a living. Other than that, it's a dream!
Review: Much of the PATCHWORK Festival is centered upon the notion of creative empowerment and how people can make music & art happen within their community simply through the power of individual initiative. When you look at the arc of your own career from your origins to the point of success you have achieved today, what do you feel are the three most important lessons you have learned, or philosophies you have adopted, that have contributed to fostering your success?
Matthew: Number one: Never screw anyone over for a quick buck—personal relationships are worth a lot more than cheap money. Number two: Trust your instincts as a way to work prolifically—don't sit on projects. Get addicted to the wonderfully feeling of finalizing something and moving on to the next thing. Number three: Make art about what you know, where you're from, what you truly care about.
Review: Any additional thoughts on any topic that I may not have touched upon?
Matthew: Really excited to play in Bay City for the first time with the full band!