Artist: Frontier Ruckus
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Latest Album: On the Northline (out February 16)
(Editor’s Note: All answers provided by Matthew Milia.)
If you had to write a mission statement for your career, what would it be?
“Celebrate the minutiae.” It’s no secret that that’s what my lyrics are all about. Specificity, specificity, specificity. I truly believe that the universal resides in the particular. And, that by singing about things in extreme detail, enormous truths are unlocked. Hence my apparent mission to name every landmark of my local universe/my personal mythology: The mall where my mom worked when I was a kid, my Catholic grade school, the soccer field where I first experienced the holy human emotion of humiliation.
On the Northline is a continuation of that ongoing catalog of catharsis. Me constantly digging deeper in the junk drawer of memory. You’d think that approach would be an almost unlistenably niche experience for the audience – but I’ve found it to be the opposite. I was so stunned the first time we played in London and kids in the front row were singing lyrics back to me about obscure Michigan towns and situations. They told me after the show that I might as well have been singing about their own towns, that the truths were universal. That was one of the best feelings ever.
What has been the best advice you’ve received in your career so far?
We once opened for blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite in Houston and his parting words for us were: “Remember, the only chords you need are I, IV, and V.” Anyone who’s listened to Frontier Ruckus knows I definitely did not heed that advice, as I’m constantly trying to insert labyrinthine chord progressions and every melodic trick I’ve absorbed from 38 years of listening to pop radio.
Advice that we’ve found more apt came from our first manager, Dolphus Ramseur – an old-school North Carolinian known for discovering the Avett Brothers. He would always say, “Matthew, a career’s not a rocket ship, it’s a balloon ride.” And though we’d often laugh at the down-home, fortune cookie flavor of that mantra, it proved truthful time and again. The little career peaks came and went – playing Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, whatever. But the thing that really allowed us to build anything of lasting value was the very gradual “one fan at a time” approach. Back-alley performances of the song someone wanted to hear, who drove from another state, sending out lyrics that someone wants tattooed in your handwriting, favoring intimate living room shows over bar gigs. I’m sure my bandmates Davey and Zach would agree, those are the things that have made Frontier Ruckus a glorious balloon ride.
How often do you hide behind a character in a song or use “you” when it’s actually “me?”
Constantly. People think the majority of my songs addressed to a “you” are to a love interest or even an enemy, depending on the song. It’s almost always me speaking to me. Sometimes encouraging myself; sometimes beating myself up. Internal monologues, at least mine, are mercurial and neurotic. Putting them into song really helps me work through some stuff, psychologically. That bit of distance allows me healthy perspective. A chance to pep myself up to fight another day. To quote myself singing to myself: “If only you knew what you are.”
Which artist has influenced you the most – and how?
It’s no doubt cliched, but it has to be Dylan. My dad raised me on him and it’s what activated my love for language. The potential playfulness of words. Their athleticism and malleability. The infinitude of connotation. The element of surprise packed into unexpected metaphor. How a line can be drop-dead-serious and winking at the same time. I also think Dylan is an underrated melodist and chordal architect. Look at all the non-12-bar-blues songs on Blonde on Blonde. The energy is propellent, continually cascading in an amphetamine avalanche. And it’s not just the words, it’s the chords providing the lyrics a perfect vehicle to ride in. The erosion of really intentional chord progressions in modern music is something that worries me quite a bit.
What other art forms – literature, film, dance, painting, etc. – inform your music?
I studied poetry in college under an incredible poet named Diane Wakoski who came out of the New York beat scene. She really informed my fondness for striking images, unexpected metaphor, and surprise revelations. Other than my bandmate David Jones, she was one of the earliest champions of my writing who helped me hone my voice and style.
Sometimes I wanna write songs that feel like a David Lynch film: A shiny Americana veneer on the surface, a severed ear of fractured emotion buried in the grass. I love quaint things with a shady underbelly. I’m obsessed with ’90s sitcoms set in New York, but with obvious LA studio back-lot sunlight. Any art form where sharply antithetical images are juxtaposed in magnetic conflict inspires me. On the Northline hopefully portrays a similar landscape: An insular world where the darkness and light necessitate one another.
Photo Credit: John Mark Hanson