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Wednesday, August 26,2009

Raising a Ruckus

Why an East Lansing indie-folk band could be mid-Michigan’s hottest new export

by Rich Tupica

It’s no secret that traditional folk music is in the autumn of its life as a popular form. Folk legend Pete Seeger is 90 years old, while Bob Dylan is approaching 70.


The roots of American music die a little more each day, as younger generations seem oblivious to the very existence of this form of music. Today’s run-of-the-mill rock bands and soulless R&B singers are churned out daily by record labels that follow sales trends over artistic passion. This practice has helped destroy the art of composing poetic, thoughtful songs.



But not all young folks shrug off the origins of American music. The members of Frontier Ruckus, a five-piece band that formed at Michigan State University in 2003, are helping to breathe life back into pre-Elvis music.

Through the use of an array of unorthodox instruments (like a singing-saw), along with some pedal steel, trumpet and har monica, the band found its niche, which makes for a dynamic, captivating live performance.

Since its debut release in 2006, “I am the Water You are Pumping,” the band has performed virtually non-stop. Recently, the group returned from its first European tour and signed to Ramseur Records, an emerging North Carolina indie label.

“We’re folk, we’re bluegrass, we’re country,” said David Winston Jones, banjo player for Frontier Ruckus, while sitting on a porch next to his longtime friend and band mate, songwriter Matthew Milia (guitar/ vocals), in downtown East Lansing.

The musicians talked with ease about music that predated their fathers and admitted to being out of touch with today’s iTunes bands. And that’s not hard to tell. Milia’s quivering, distinct voice harmonized with Anna Burch (vocals, bass), sounds ancient in a time of polished pop. There is a mellow, woodsy tinge to Milia’s songs, and his knack for wordplay paints a vivid picture of life in Michigan, more specifically the Detroit area, where he and Jones grew up.


“Many of my songs are about metro Detroit and how those neighborhoods just sprawl together,” Malia said. “I have memories just overflowing of every town in the metropolitan area. I see the connections as vaguely defined and beautiful and overflowing into each other.”

The band’s latest full length, “The Orion Songbook,” and a new EP titled, “Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer, Pt.1,” expands on the Detroit myths, with pieces of Milia’s life spliced into the record.

When asked to explain the “Orion Town myths,” a series of stories he created that inform some of the bands’ songs, Milia laughed nervously as he said, “It’s a long story.”

But when prodded, he offered a brief summary of the back-story that has given creation to a handful of his songs. “The etymology of ‘Orion’ is Lake Orion,” he said, “which is northern Detroit and what I consider to be the ending of the Detroit sprawl.”

Though not all of his words are fables, Malia also pastes together what seem to be vague memories of his life, steadily chronicling his past experiences.

“It’s all about memory,” Malia explained. “It’s a way for me to organize memory in a way that isn’t crippling. I have a horrible memory for specifics. The whole path, or totality of it, just lingers in me. I organize it in a systematic way, through a verse and chorus, it’s more comfortable that way to say, ‘Look at my life in a catalog of songs.’ I feel it’s cathartic.”

Jeremy Peters, who runs Quite Scientific Records with his brother, Justin, said the band’s many dimensions add to its mystique. The Ann Arbor-based label released the CD version of “The Orion Songbook.”


“I think it is a huge part of what drew us to them, and what draws fans to them as well,” Peters said. “There are so many layers within their songs. On the shell, they’re a singable, interesting alt-country and bluegrass hymns, but as you pay more attention to the layers of symbolism and metaphor, it pulls you in even deeper.”

Now that Frontier Ruckus has become, essentially, a full-time gig for the members — a three-month tour across the United States will kick off at Mac’s Bar in Lansing on Friday, Sept. 4 — the band seems to be taking on the Orion persona almost literally.


“I studied creative writing at MSU with Diane Wakowski, who is a great poet,” Malia said. “Her idea is that a poet or songwriter, or any sort of artist, creates a personal mythology that they live in. It’s a fun way to live. You still live in reality, but you are a manipulator of your reality. It’s not contrived, it’s just seeing the world in your own way.”


While Malia is solely responsible for the chords and lyrical vision, his comrade Jones has been involved since the band’s genesis, banjo in hand, with a mind full of classic influences. “I started listening to bluegrass when I was about 8 or 10 years old,” Jones recalled. “My dad is from Georgia, so he was continuously blasting bluegrass music, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash."


At first, Jones’ musical origins didn’t gain the Rochester, Mich., native any “cool points” with his classmates. “I was the seventh grader who liked Johnny Cash, and no one else knew why the fuck I liked it. At some point I expressed interest in playing the banjo, so my mom bought me a cheap one at a yard sale. I took lessons for years.”

Once high school came around, Jones and Malia crossed paths and began competing for girls. Malia said the two would drag their instruments to class “to impress the girls.”

“We went to an all-male Catholic high school,” Jones said. “We met our sophomore year in drama class, and we pretty much hated each other. The drama class was one of the few classes held at the allgirl school next door, which is one of the reasons we both fraternized over there.”

After high school, Jones attended the University of Michigan, where he studied bio-anthropology, and Malia studied English at MSU, where he met the rest of the band, which includes Zachary Nichols (singing saw, trumpet, melodica) and Ryan “Smalls” Etzcorn (drums, percussion).


John
Krohn, pictured with the band on the cover of this week’s issue, is a
key figure in the Lansing music scene and owner of the locally operated
Lower Peninsula Records, which recently released a double vinyl LP
version of “The Orion Songbook.” The record is tucked in an impressive,
full-color gatefold sleeve and also includes an additional six-song EP,
entitled “Way Upstate & the Crippled Summer, Pt.1.” However, Krohn
is more to the band than just a label head; he has also spent time
recording and touring with Frontier Ruckus, filling in on bass for
multiple tours, including the band’s recent jaunt to Europe.

“I
think John (Krohn) is the quintessential Lansing resident,” Jones said.
“His roots are in Lansing. Everything he does is in promotion of
Lansing and its music.”

The double album is available at all
Lansing vinyl record stores.


The band’s next release will likely be on
Ramseur Records, and according to Dolphus Ramseur, founder and owner of
the label, should be out in early 2010. He said the band’s oddness and talent attracted his attention.

“I
feel the band has very strong artistic direction,” Ramseur said.
“Matthew has a very special gift of song that he is taking advantage
of. Also, I find I’m always attracted to quirky things musically. Frontier
Ruckus are quirky in a great way. Trying to describe them, for example,
is very hard to do. Frontier Ruckus comes across a lot more handmade
than some cookie cutter band that is just copying the rest of the
pack.”


Check out the band online at www.myspace.com/frontierruckus.



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