April 12 2017 12:20 AM

Frontier Ruckus' Matt Milia talks songwriting, touring and nostalgia

Frontier Ruckus (left to right: Zachary Nichols, David Jones, Matthew Milia and Anna Burch) comes to Lansing Saturday for a show at the Robin Theatre. The band, now based in the Detroit area, formed in East Lansing in the early 2000s.
Photo by Noah Elliott Morrison

Frontier Ruckus cut its teeth in the Michigan music scene of the early 2000s, quickly earning a devoted fan base with its potent mix of melancholy nostalgia, quirky instrumentation and folk-inspired delivery.

The band, led by singer/songwriter Matthew Milia, formed at Michigan State University in 2003 when Milia and his high school classmate, banjoist David Jones, teamed up with singer Anna Burch and Zachary Nichols, whose arsenal of uncommon instruments includes euphonium, melodica and musical saw.

Five albums and dozens of national and international tours later, Frontier Ruckus returns to Lansing Saturday for a show at the Robin Theatre. City Pulse caught up with Milia, just back from a four-week European tour, to talk about the group’s latest album, its recent European tour and its upcoming projects.

Frontier Ruckus is based in the Detroit area now, but do Lansing gigs still feel like homecoming shows?

We haven’t been there in a while, so I’m very excited. I graduated from Michigan State in 2008. David went to U of M, but the rest of us went to Michigan State, so those two campuses are where we really learned how to play live and developed our first fan bases. We played Michigan State pretty consistently for a few years after graduating. We’d play the Loft, big awesome shows, but we haven’t been back in a while.

I love Lansing so much. Some of the best memories of my life were there, and some of my favorite Frontier Ruckus songs were written there and are very much about Lansing, thematically. But in college towns, the people turn over pretty quickly. I’m excited to play Robin Theatre, it’s more of an intimate venue. I want to have a nice, intimate show there.

Do you run into other MSU graduates when you’re out on tour?

A lot of our shows feel like Michigan expatriate reunions. Sometimes I want to ask the crowd, “How many people here went to Michigan State?” I like that being a major aspect of our fan base.

Anna left the band for a while, but now she’s back. What’s it like to have her back in the band?

She came back on “Sitcom Afterlife,” our fourth album. We just released “Enter the Kingdom,” our fifth album. But now she’s playing bass live and singing. Her playing bass allows us to be a five-piece live, instead of a six-piece. It’s a very tight-knit, close group. I’m very excited with where the band is right now, in terms of our live sound and our morale. It’s a small miracle to be able to continue to do this after five records and so many years. It’s a testament to how solid our friendships are. It’s what we love to do, so we keep doing it.

Tell me about “Enter the Kingdom.” How is this album different than your previous albums?

It’s the first album we recorded outside of Michigan. We did it in Nashville with Ken Coomer, the original drummer for Wilco and the drummer for Uncle Tupelo. It was our first record working with a producer, so it was outside of our comfort zone. We wanted to do that.

Recording in Nashville, we knew it would have a more polished sound. I’m in love with ‘90s power-pop college radio bands like Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, the Lemonheads, stuff like that, so I wanted to make a record like that. The songs are shorter, there’s more choruses, it’s a little more melodic — I deliberately wrote it to be a little more pop-centric.

We brought in a string section for the first time; Zach did all the string arrangements. It’s very much a studio album. I think for our next album we’ll probably go back to more of a DIY, mid- or lo-fi aesthetic. But for “Enter the Kingdom,” it was exciting to do more of a polished thing.

Nostalgia, especially for the ‘90s, is a big trend in pop culture right now. Does that help you connect with audiences?

It’s been trending for a while. The more precarious or tenuous the state of the world seems to be, the more we look back to what might seem like simpler times, times when the world made more sense. That’s what childhood represents for everyone.

That’s been the allure in my songwriting, looking back. On “Enter the Kingdom,” that technique is used to represent the present tense world of adulthood and abrupt responsibility and financial restraints — all the mini-traumas of our lives as adults — contrasted with the “kingdom” of childhood, which is what that means in the album title. Innocence versus the reality of responsibility.

You just got back from a European tour. Did people over there want to talk to you about American politics?

Of course. The weirder and more dysfunctional U.S. politics is, the more they want to talk about it. Anna and I studied abroad at Michigan State; we did a semester in Ireland during the Bush administration. And we thought that was bad … .

They don’t lump us in — people who know our music know where we’re coming from and know that we’re not on board with the Trump situation. We’re very much against it. So people give us the benefit of the doubt, but they definitely want to talk about it.

But I’d prefer to be an emissary for the progressive movement, which I think is very strong in America. It’s important for people to realize that it’s happening and getting stronger every day, and it’s not as hopeless as it might be portrayed on mainstream media. Just as there’s this wave of conservatism sweeping so many countries — including European countries — there’s very much a counter-movement that I think, with enough time, will ultimately win out.

What’s next for the band? Have you started thinking about the next album?

I’ve already written the sixth Frontier Ruckus record, pretty much. I have a lot of songs, and hopefully we’ll do some recording this summer. Like I said, we want to do something more DIY, so we might go to my cottage in upstate New York and at least start demoing an album, if not recording the actual thing. I can’t stop writing songs; it’s just how I process life. I have a whole new batch, and recording them is just as much fun, if not more fun, than playing live, for me at this point. I really love recording and arranging the songs with my friends and bandmates. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.

Frontier Ruckus 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 15 $15 Robin Theatre 1105 S. Washington Ave., Lansing (989) 878-1810, therobintheatre.com

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