Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frontier Ruckus - Interview - playing MITTENFEST III - 12 / 28 - elbow room

(full Mittenfest line up here)

What Homes Are For...: Frontier Ruckus
(words: Milo)
Matthew Milia both values and obsesses over memory. And though he admits it can sometimes be spotty, he assures 2008 to be the best year so far for his band, Frontier Ruckus. Starting back at Mittenfest II, at 2007’s conclusion, they signed to Ann Arbor-based Quite Scientific label and since then, spent 08 completing their grandly scoped, devastating opus, The Orion Songbook of Darkly Connecting.

The Lansing-based collective (including David Jones, Zach Nichols, Ryan “Smalls” Etzcorn Anna Burch, Ryan Hay) is distinguished by an ornate folk style with a tragic touch; songs throb and linger like the dagger-chill of winter, with a delicate but tremendous force (of nature), precious and peaceful on the surface but a relentless, often melancholic roil working beneath.

Starting as high school students Milia and Dave discovering the harmony of their respective guitar and banjo (through which time Milia was already honing his songwriting, while Dave attained mastery of the banjo), members were added as Creative Writing major Milia met more musicians while at Michigan State, keeping touch with U-M anthropology major Dave.

Through 08, they played their inaugural CMJ and SXSW festivals and busked in the open air in southern towns, while forging friendships out on the road. After 07’s I am the Water you are Pumping EP, they released their debut LP Orion Songbook (recorded by essential A2 boardman Jim Roll and mastered by Decemberists’-collaborator Roger Seibel).

Orion is ripe with labyrinthine poetry and reemphasized themes of backyards and smoke and freeways and county lines. Stark images “recur or connect in some sort of cooperation that eventually lead to reveal a greater emotion,” said Milia. The album surveys the mythology of “Orion Town,” a land of flexing border and temporal fluidity described as “a way I have come to organize spatially my confusion of experience and memory with Metro Detroit and its endless connections in a less crippling or overwhelming way.”

Orion comes on vinyl in February, with bonus EP Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer. They headline the 3rd day of Mittenfest in Ypsilanti 12-28, at the Elbow Room.
The Deep Cutz Interview: Frontier Ruckus

Deep Cutz/Milo: -how has your year been? what's stuck out for you...what's the memorable experience(s)?

Matthew Milia: Our year has been extremely fulfilling for us—was pretty busy and eventful. It's funny how strict of an annual cycle this stuff has been running on—it was exactly at Mittenfest last year, at the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti, that we signed with Quite Scientific. So in that year we spent a good amount of time making The Orion Songbook, of which we are very proud. We played things like SXSW and CMJ for the first time, where we were the giddy youths sneaking into backstages to meet awkwardly people like Lou Reed or Béla Fleck. We made lots of new friends on tour in a bunch of cities, did a lot of busking in really hot, summer southern towns.
Especially good times I can recall were in the Upper Peninsula when the leaves were like fire, picking with David on a hill in Tennessee at night, or spending all day in the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Zach. My memory is really spotty, which is unfortunate because it's what I obsess over and value the most, but on the whole I can say that this has definitely been the best year for Frontier Ruckus so far. We also kind of started to get our act together and really consider the pragmatic side of making music today which, in my opinion, can have as many negative ramifications on a band as it does positive.

DC/Milo: -can you regale a bit more of your own bios, starting around first meeting and the formation of the band...what did you study in college and when/how did the band really start rolling (with writing, recording and playing shows)
David Jones: The very first incarnation of Frontier Ruckus (and to me, there seems to have been many since then) began in high school with Matt and I. I think we met in drama class. We both played instruments at the time (guitar and banjo), but instead of immediately becoming friends, our relationship was mostly one of tense, puerile competitiveness. Think of one fourteen year-old exclaiming his musical prowess to the other and the ensuing argument. Sooner or later, though, we got over this and discovered, almost accidentally, how amazing the two instruments sounded together. Our earliest repertoire consisted mostly of bluegrass songs Matt or I had picked up.

Matt started writing his first songs right around then, and though they were quite a bit different from what they are now, they were brilliant for someone that age. He continued to develop that ability into and throughout college. Matt went to Michigan State University to study creative writing, and I went to the University of Michigan for anthropology. It was at MSU that Matt met everyone else in the band. Though we had been playing with Eli (our former bass player) for some time, he really only became an official member after our first few years of college. The next person we met was Zach Nichols, who played singing saw, melodica, and trumpet, three instruments Matt knew he wanted in Frontier Ruckus for quite some time. This might seem like a hilarious claim, but I think Zach is the best saw player in the state. He has such an ear for melodies (a fact which helps him arrange trumpet harmonies and write brilliant songs of his own), and just knows how to utilize the saw in a way which no one else I've heard can.

We came to know Ryan "Smalls" Etzcorn, our historian-drum-beater, through a couple mutual friends (Anna, perhaps?). We immediately knew he fit because of his sarcastic, impression-ridden sense of humor and his neverending ability to drum more creatively than most. He can be intensely technical about drumming at times, but he always FEELS what he is doing. Anna Burch was the final addition to Frontier Ruckus- she added that slightly country sounding harmony Matt and I adored in Neil Young records. After hearing her and Matt's vocals isolated once during a mixing session, I remember thinking how much precision, and best of all, attitude she puts into her hamonies. It really is indispensable. DC/Milo: -can you talk about the experience of making Orion Songbook....which is a grand, ramble-inspiring question that would cover, song formation, recording together, how that all flowed....plus, working with Jim Roll...and then working with Roger Seibel...

Milia: Most of the songs on the record have been around for quite a long time, some from even back when it was just David and I. So basically the songs were quite due for recording and catharsis. They were formed and waiting, growing heavier by the day. We became such good friends with Jim right off the bat. He is the perfect neutralizer to have in a studio and was very supportive of the methods we wanted to employ, some of which are kind of unorthodox nowadays. We recorded everything almost totally live in the same room at the same time—drums, piano, guitar, banjo, vocals, and bass with the amp in another room. The drums and baby grand piano were right next to each other and bleeding into each other like crazy, but we liked it. I can't remember overdubbing a vocal on the entire album—though Zach did have a lot of fun layering and dubbing in tons of brass and saw, which was kind of necessary since he was the only brass or saw player on the album. There were a few moments of tension throughout the experience, of course, and my neuroses certainly were in high gear for the entire time. But it was some of the most fun and unifying time we've ever spent together as a band.

We had pretty much no interface with Roger Seibel. We just sent him the album, paid him a significant sum of money and released what he sent back. I don't know very much about mastering but I feel as though he polished it up well, considering the kind of raw and naturally expressive performances we recorded. That's all we really know how to do is play together and expressively while looking at each other as it happens. We can't record a song track by track for the life of us.

DC/Milo: -not really a question, just a statement of curiosity...can you tell me about the Songbook Scroll on the web site..., is that how the lyrics were originally charted out?

Milia: (Laugh). No the songs weren't written out in one long streaming scroll like On the Road was, reportedly. But it is important to me to make the lyrics very available to people as a supplement to the recording. I liked the look and idea of just writing all the words out in this long form of language and verticality. It figuratively extends the idea that the images of the songs and the places they're about just blend and blur together without punctuation or mediation. It is all just contiguous language and image and place connecting and spilling outward.

DC/Milo: -writes ups often comment on the poetry of the lyrics shining through, ...are there influences you can name, not as a musician, but strictly as a writer? what developed first, writing or music...and how did both come about?

Milia: Well, academically, I graduated last year from the Creative Writing department at MSU and completed a thesis in poetry under Diane Wakoski as my mentor. She's a pretty famous poet with connections to the old Greenwich Village beat scene. But she is also famously adamant about her requirement for two things in successful poetry—trope and revelation. So her influence on me, I suppose, has created this habituation where all of my images should recur or connect in some sort of cooperation that eventually lead to reveal a greater emotion. Literarily I was really impacted by the fleshy, bodily focus of Whitman, and my emphasis and obsession with locality has really been influenced by Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, and Huckleberry Finn—where locality shifts in this gradual southward linearity but still connects and retains all those places left behind into one greater locale of memories, actions, and consequences. The same thing exists in Orion Town, but the sacred direction is north.

Your other question—as much as many poets try to segregate true free verse poetry from lyricism, I still maintain that it was the addition of music that brought out whatever imaginative writer there is inside of me.

DC/Milo: …and Dave, what got you into music, and how'd you come to the banjo?

Jones: I actually started out as a percussionist in middle school band. Though I liked it, any passion I felt for percussion was very quickly replaced the first time I heard a banjo. My father is from Georgia, so I was always exposed to bluegrass, appalachian folk, and country music through him. I remember listening to a bluegrass album with him at some point, and it might have been during a Flatt and Scruggs or J.D. Crowe song that I realized how incredible a banjo sounded. I'm sure I expressed that thought to my parents in not-so-subtle hints over the following months, and before I knew it, I had a banjo. I was twelve at the time. I took lessons from a local banjo master named Vince Sadovsky for some years. It was from him that I truly learned to appreciate the instrument for what it really is: surprisingly versatile. Everyone has heard Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Cripple Creek on a banjo, but not many realize how beautifully one can play Bach or Scott Joplin.

After Vince, Bela Fleck has really changed the way I look at the instrument, along with dozens of others I won't dare to bore you by listing.

DC/Milo: -so, was I Am the Water…EP sort of a preface to this, as Songbook has some songs from the EP...

Jones: Well, from what I remember, the EP was originally planned as a full length. We recorded it in an amazing old building on the banks of I-75, The Russel Industrial Center. You know those old factory buildings in Detroit with busted windows and crumbling bricks? That is basically where we recorded the EP. The EP was a preface to The Orion Songbook in that it was our first real experience recording as a band and trying to put something relatively "organized" together.
For the most part, we recorded everything track by track, and found it incredibly time consuming and laborious. Although we had initially planned to record 10 songs or so, we only finished six.

Matt had the idea, at first, of writing out lyrics to each song and including an illustration in some type of huge poster. We quickly realized there was no realistic way to do this with the resources we had (two days before our "EP release show"), and instead we decided to make the 8x11 booklets bound with twine to package the CD with. That actual idea came from Chris Bathgate, the night of our CD release show in Ann Arbor. He saved our ass.

When it came time to record the full length, we decided that the versions of those particular songs from the EP weren't everything that they could have been. They lacked the organic energy we knew we could achieve by recording mostly live. As they are some of our favorite songs, we wanted to do them justice, so we re-recorded them.

DC/Milo: -the reach of the album's themes and the dense lyrics encapsulates, what you'd said, Matt, in another interview as, your ‘entire life up until now’ (and are those pictures on the web site from old family photos?)---what was it like for you to spill all this out onto pages, and now to be able to hold it in front of you.…..can you qualify the poetic reverie of the Songbook: is it a longing for something lost (be it physical loss or just something lost in the pages of memory)...or is it a search for something ideal, a place, a way of life?
(this is all just an over-dressed question of, 'what is Orion in your mind'?)

Milia: Ok. So what is "Orion Town?" Orion Town is a coping device. Orion Town is a way I have come to organize spatially my confusion of experience and memory with Metro Detroit and its endless connections in a less crippling or overwhelming way. Orion Town is a big container in which to throw all of it and say, "Oh, I understand this, this is not so large and uncomfortably stretching and unusable—my body can contain this." I do worry sometimes, though, that the construct of Orion Town is not a large enough container for what it has ended up having to retain. Psychologically I had begun the practice of resting the entirety of my experience, the weight of my entire memory, on the crutch of this mythology—seeing everything I have ever known connected to it somehow, indiscriminately. And I don't know if this impossible system of connections—between the geography of towns, between those people you referred to in the photographs, between love and grief, between any given fixtures of memory—is something I simply fabricated or if it is something that is just achingly becoming more revealed and absorbent to me every day. Either way I'm trying to handle it healthily and not get forever lost in the Detroit-Ferndale-Royal Oak-Birmingham-Troy-Bloomfield Hills-West Bloomfield-Keego Harbor-Sylvan Lake-Pontiac-Rochester-Orion Town-northern-directional-endless-nighttime-connection of my memory. I still don't know if Orion Town will ever allow itself to abandon me or be abandoned.

DC/Milo: Finally, -what are you looking forward to, be in this month or in 2009?

Milia: We're really looking forward to going over to Europe this summer. We're starting the tour in Norway in July for the Slottsfjell festival. Hopefully we'll do another festival or two in that area then work our way down to Germany, the UK, France, and Italy.
We're releasing The Orion Songbook on vinyl in February as a double-record with a bonus EP called Way Upstate and the Crippled Summer.
Also looking forward to touring westward in the spring—I've never even been to California and I really want to see the Pacific Northwest, particularly the town of Twin Peaks.
Mittenfest III

Friday, December 26, 2008
Doors 5 p.m. $5. 18+
6:00-6:30 This is Deer Country
6:50-7:20 Patrick Elkins
7:40-8:10 Fields of Industry
8:30-9:00 Lightning Love
9:20-9:50 Creaky Boards
10:10-10:40 Deastro
11:00-11:30 Fred Thomas
11:50-12:20 The Pop Project
12:40-1:10 Canada
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Doors 5 p.m. $5. 18+
6:00-6:30 Interrupted Lovers
6:50-7:20 That’s Him! That’s the Guy!
7:40-8:10 Dabenport
8:30-9:00 Prussia
9:20-9:50 Carjack
10:10-10:40 Champions of Breakfast
11:00-11:30 Matt Jones & The Reconstruction
11:50-12:20 The Mighty Narwhale
12:40-1:10 Great Lakes Myth Society
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Doors 5 p.m. $5. 18+
6:00-6:30 Emily Bate
6:50-7:20 Timothy Monger
7:40-8:10 Joseph Patrick Scott

9:20-9:50 Drunken Barn Dance
10:10-10:40 Black Jake & The Carnies
11:00-11:30 Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful
11:50-12:20 Chris Bathgate
12:40-1:10 Frontier Ruckus
A benefit for 826michigan!
Discount 3-day wristbands available for $12 at Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, 115 East Liberty Street, Ann Arbor.

1 comment:

The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre said...

Merry Xmas from the JCM: