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Monday, March 18,2013

Sonic boom on the frontier

Frontier Ruckus talks new record, new label, new sound

by Rich Tupica

Tuesday, May 1 — When the eccentrically swaggering alt-country star Ryan Adams first spun the “Deadmalls and Nightfalls” LP, Frontier Ruckus’ long and wistful second album, the acclaimed songwriter professed his admiration for the band via Twitter.

“Loving the new Frontier Ruckus! Great band … Frontier Ruckus ‘Deadmalls and Nightfalls’ — this is what I want to get back to. Those tunes go forever,” Adams tweeted to his mass of devoted fans.

“Deadmalls,” the band’s first national release, also earned applause from the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone, which specifically commended the “delicate, finger-picked banjos, aching, oaky violin and the haunting voice of frontman Matthew Milia.”

But that was back in the summer of 2010. Now Milia (vocals, guitar, harmonica, pedal steel) is facing another pivotal moment for his band, one many songwriters dread: the task of following-up a praised album with new material. High expectations aside, Milia seems confident with his fresh batch of poetically vivid and poignant songs about growing up during the ‘90s in the suburbs of Detroit.

“There are 20 songs, and it’s about an hour and a half long. It’s going to be the highly-stigmatized double-record,” Milia said of “The Eternity of Dimming,” the band’s massive upcoming record. The band is hoping for a fall release, but is not sure when “Eternity” will hit stores.

Frontier Ruckus, which also includes David W. Jones (banjo, vocals, dobro), Zachary Nichols (horns, singing-saw, melodica, keys) and Ryan Etzcorn (drums, percussion), camped out in Ann Arbor for months recording the new disc at Backseat Productions, the band’s go-to studio. It’s where they’ve  recorded all the full-lengths, all of which are lyrically centered on Milia’s “Orion Town myths.”

“We saw this new record as the finalization and the culmination of the trip — kind of like a trilogy of mythology that our first two full-lengths started,” Milia said. “We wanted to keep it all cohesive and finish it off where it all started, which was at Backseat Productions. I don’t know where we’re going to record next, but it’s important for us to have it all come out of the same place.”

Right now, there are other uncertainties surrounding the band, which seems to be in an exciting transitional period. For instance, which label will be releasing “The Eternity of Dimming”? Milia hinted at some big changes. The band already gained national attention two years ago when Ramseur Records, a national label known for signing the Avett Brothers, penned a deal with Frontier Ruckus and released “Deadmalls” across the country.

“This is the first time I’ve even stated this publicly, but we dropped Ramseur,” Milia said. “This album is everything to the max. It’s really immediately, accessibly pleasant and beautiful. Ramseur didn’t really get it, so we’re talking to a bunch of people who do at the moment. We don’t know exactly who’s going to put it out, but it’s going to be a step forward, I can say that much.”

So what was it that the label heads at Ramseur, a roots/folk record company, didn’t get about “The Eternity of Dimming”? Milia said this new album pushes far beyond the limits of Americana.

“Sonically and musically it’s interesting. I think that’s where it kind of differs and it’s fresh,” Milia explained. “The vibe actually has a lot of shimmery, bright sounds. There’s a lot more electric guitar, Wurlitzer, and Hammond organs – kind of pulsating, ‘80s Casio keyboards. There’s just a lot of trebly, shimmery sounds and guitars on this record, almost like Big Star or The Byrds.

“It’s a big piece of work. It’s really huge. It’s just kind of our style. It’s all about over-abundance of memory and over-stimulation.”

Jones, who’s been playing music with Milia for 10 years now, said the new album is lyrically on par with what their fans expect.

“I hope fans will latch on to it,” Jones said. “There are a lot of new aspects to the record, but when it comes down to it, it’s still Frontier Ruckus, and it’s still Matt’s songs — with the incredibly personal and detailed lyrics. But Zachary, specifically, took things to a new level by layering his sonic landscape, making it so much richer; he added a lot of interesting sounds to this record.”

The band, which spent much of its formative years on the campus of Michigan State University, has been a fixture in the indie-folk scene since its debut EP, “I Am The Water You Are Pumping,” in 2006.

“It’s strange to feel old in that scene,” Jones said. “When Matt and I started playing music together, we were the young kids in the scene, compared to guys like Chris Bathgate and Matt Jones. Then we graduated college and started touring … Then, a couple years go by.”

So what could be next for Frontier Ruckus? Milia said they may diverge into pop after the band is done with the upcoming record — but he’s not certain just yet. 

“I would love to go in a fun, new kind of direction,” Milia said. “All these three albums have some really long songs; they’re all pretty long albums. They are like an exaggeration of everything, everything to the max. On the next album I would love to make a pop record, or a record of 10 songs with two-minute-long songs. It would be fun to make a really accessible, digestible record.”

Frontier Ruckus
w/ Gifts or Creatures, Gun Lake
8 p.m. Friday, May 4
The Loft, 414 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
$10 advance, $12 at the door
All ages

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