December 29, 2014
Detroit-based indie folk band Frontier Ruckus played in Charlotte on one of their last stops this year under the cozy, welcoming joists of the Double Door Inn. I was lucky enough to sit down with the charming four core members of the band including Matthew Milia (vocals, guitar), Dave Jones (banjo, resident hockey aficionado), Anna Burch (vocals, guitar) and Zach Nichols (multi-instrumentalist). We talked about everything from inspiration for their newest album Sitcom Afterlife to possible loopholes in achieving an English major, to David Lynch karaoke. Mostly, it was four talented, joking best friends chatting about tour life and the evolution of their sound.
CLTure: Sitcom Afterlife has quite a different sound than your previously released albums. How does the band as a whole stay so on track with the different direction?
Matt: The last album was an hour and a half long, so it was natural to do something to kind of foil that intensity. Make it a little more accessible and more of a little capsule that you can listen to just once and kind of get the gist of it. You’ll get a lot more layers with each listen, but there’s something there more immediately.
Dave: I think it was the result of more sonic experimentation. We were trying different sounds and liking them and seeing how it worked out. Like, I play this Telecaster banjo that’s basically a Telecaster body with Telecaster pick-ups but it has a banjo neck on it. It sounds like a twangy electric guitar but then I play it like a banjo. I thought it’d be cool to try that and I liked what it sounded like.
Zach: A lot of the changes in sound are just a demonstration of being a little more open to trying new things and just changing taste and I guess, personnel. Anna was able to record on the entire album and she hadn’t in the past. That’s an awesome and obvious change to the sound.
Matt: I was just getting into playing like really jangly, clean-sounding guitar; layering 12-string guitars and getting that jangly sound. I feel like there’s more than the songwriting, like the chord changes are more upbeat, I was writing more choruses. Because I was writing about a breakup and I was really bummed out for most of it. The lyrics are kind of plaintive and despondent but the music was an attempt at escapism. I’m going to write something upbeat here because that chord change makes me happy and I was looking for temporary relief. The music came out maybe a little more chipper than usual.
CLTure: You were writing about a breakup, but were you at the time listening to any bands or a musical muse to keep you in that frame of mind?
Matt: Yeah, it was Teenage Fanclub. Yeah, and Big Star. At first, I was just going to listen to Elliott Smith for months, but then I just discovered Teenage Fanclub and would go through the YouTube vortex and click one thing then the next; the songs were making me feel really good. They were obviously deriving from 60’s sunshine pop influence with really catchy choruses. Certain Teenage Fanclub songs sound like there are four different hooks. The verse could be a chorus, the bridge could be a chorus and the chorus is a super chorus. Every part of it is designed to be very contagious. So it made me feel good and it was a big influence at least chord-wise and melodically.
CLTure: Because you’re such a lengthy lyricist, was it difficult to abridge your lyrics and at any point did you worry you weren’t getting through what you were trying to say?
Matt: No. The first three records are way more nebulous, vague subjects of just life in general. Memory, childhood. Which I could write about forever and it is still such a vague thing. There are still so many angles left and that’s why a lot of those songs are so long. I was just searching for different ways to talk about feeling sad or feeling happy when I was younger and how that changes. It’s such a complex, multi-layered thing. However, writing about a break up, in nine songs I exhausted that pretty quickly. I said what I needed to say. It was mostly just a catharsis thing. Certain songs I feel more guilty, more angry… I pretty much worked it out in that album and exhausted that topic.
CLTure: Since touring for the album, have you noticed a difference in the crowd’s reception to the music because it is more easily accessible?
Zach: Well, when “Eternity of Dimming” was new, we’d play a song off that and it was clear that no one had heard it before. I feel like when we finish a brand new song now, the applause is very positive… we get some “Woos!” we get some clapping.
Anna: Maybe people may know the new songs, but also they are immediately catchier and upon hearing them for the first time, you can enjoy them regardless of having a relationship with them.
Matt: The other songs are way more engrained into a mythology. These songs are a little more universal. Just listen to the lyrics, I’m singing about a breakup some of it more cryptic, but in “Eternity of Dimming,” there are characters that thread through the narrative. It’s more of an esoteric work, at least narratively. These new songs work better as more one-off, standalone songs. I also think we’re just playing really fuckin’ well right now.
CLTure: How is the recent line-up working out with your new drummer and bassist?
Matt: Alex McQuiston and Connor Dodson, they lock in with each other and that’s really important. The drums and bass are really on the same wavelength.
Dave: We feed off their energy, just looking back there at them. If you watch me during the show, maybe I do it too much because I have so much fun, but I’ll be watching and playing with Alex and Connor just watching them having fun. We’re all smiling at each other.
Matt: Anna’s playing guitar and we’re all dancing a little more. There’s a new dynamic that’s really strong right now. With 6 people on the road, it’s sometimes a trial to get everyone from A to B. We’re all best friends and get along great, it’s just very exhausting. So, when we’re on stage for an hour, we’re just really soaking in that payoff. This is why we’re out here and we’re having a good time. I think the performance is better than ever. That said, I hope we don’t bomb tonight. [The band members all knock on wood]
Zach: We’re sorry to see Smalls [previous drummer, Ryan Etzcorn] go, but he’s in grad school right now. He’s going for Chinese Studies and he’s fluent in Mandarin; we’re all really proud of him.
CLTure: Why does Sitcom Afterlife include an instrumental song?
Matt: Zach wrote a sick song and we put it on the album.
CLTure: Do any of you guys have other creative outlets or is it just music?
Matt: I’m into artwork and do poetry and draw. I like to do visuals; I’m getting more and more into visual art. Dave teaches banjo lessons, which is an art form in itself. Anna’s writing a whole hash of her own songs that are really great.
CLTure: When will that be out?
Anna: I don’t know, I’m recording with a friend in Chicago and he’s doing it for free and it sounds really cool, I’m happy with it. I’ll probably put it out on SoundCloud or something in the spring.
CLTure: Is it under your name, Anna Burch, or something different?
Anna: I haven’t decided yet, we’ve been joking around about monikers, we’ll see.
CLTure: Are there any outright literary influences in your writing style?
Matt: I can’t read, so.
Anna: We have a joke about Matt not reading anything because he did really, really well in school. He was an English major as the three of us were [motions to herself, Zach and Matt], but Matt would procrastinate and not read an entire novel, ever. He says he was busy writing songs and he’d have a paper assignment. He would do a close reading, maybe get the plot summary and then find a single paragraph or page and just do his whole paper really digging into that particular paragraph.
Matt: I got a 4.0.
CLTure: You’ve toured through Charlotte before; do you have any endearing memories of the Queen City?
Matt: The Kosters.
Dave: Yeah, our good friends Don & Laurie Koster. We met them at the Evening Muse. It was one of our really early tours and we didn’t have any fans in town so we decided to do the Muse’s Open Mic Night before the show to play a couple songs. Don just happened to be there working the door. He heard us play and invited us to stay at his house, so we’ve always stayed with them whenever we’re in town. They’re just amazing. They’re the nicest people. They make us so comfortable, and it’s not an easy feat to make people who’ve been on the road for 2 months comfortable and feel at home. They do that effortlessly. A lot of our good memories have a lot to do with knowing that we’ve got that home base.
Matt: My uncle lives in town and one time we went to his country club and I won a belly-flop contest. I won a really nice tennis racket but I maintain that I hurt myself permanently because I really went for it.
Zach: Ironically, you could no longer play tennis after that incident.
CLTure: Charlotte has a really close-knit supportive music scene. Do you see that elsewhere?
Dave: There used to be a really big folk scene in Ann Arbor, around that area. Michigan in general has always had a good folk scene. When we were in college it was really big and very robust and felt very active. It’s a little different now but there’s always that ebb and flow.
CLTure: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?
Matt: Sleep. I’m going to get in my bed and watch Netflix for 20 hours.
Anna: We’re going to do David Lynch karaoke at a bar in Detroit. It’s songs from David Lynch movies that you can karaoke to.
Matt: “She wore blueeeeee velvet…”
Listen to Sitcom Afterlife by Frontier Ruckus.