[best]In the simplest terms, it was your basic night out when I first heard Frontier Ruckus perform. After leaving a lousy house party on Elizabeth Street, my friend and I spotted straw hats and overalls amidst a sea of banjos and singing saws. It was a hoedown and there was a live band, so I immediately knew we had accomplished our goal of finding a better party.[frontier1]
Frontier Ruckus’ folksy traditional bluegrass melodies can elevate a normally ho-hum party into a knee-slapping, swing-your-partners-round-and-round-style jamboree.
The foursome was set up in the corner of a living room, yet judging by their following and the talent they displayed, I felt like I was at a bluegrass festival. Bluegrass isn’t necessarily the most popular genre on campus, but the band and their fans are completely enthralled with it.
“I’ve always been drawn to bluegrass,” said Matt Milia, a member of Frontier Ruckus. “The beauty is the musical simplicities – the pure harmonies and melodies, the natural words.”
Milia and Dave Jones are at the heart of Frontier Ruckus as the founding members. Milia is the lead vocalist, guitar player and soul behind the lyrics. Jones is the genius on the banjo and is a part of the vocal melodies. The two have known each other since high school, where they started to play together as a sophomore and junior, respectively.
“We were in a play and neither of us had big parts, so we would just play together in the back wings and put on tiny shows for people,” said Milia. “I would kind of be playing chords and Dave would just rip up the banjo. He would go crazy.”[matt]
Milia and Jones soon met Eli Eisman at a battle of the bands concert and asked him to join as the bassist. The three played together for a few years, mostly at open mic nights in local cafés and contest-type venues.
The fourth member of Frontier Ruckus, Zach Nichols, joined only a few months ago. Milia yearned to have a singing saw in the band and set up an ad on Facebook. All you need for a singing saw is a bow and saw, the latter of which Nichols took from his dad’s carpenter bench. Combined with an increasing knowledge of music, Nichols was a good fit to make the trio into a quartet.
Nichols also plays the melodica, which he describes as an instrument that must be blown into while playing the keyboard. It is somewhat like an accordion, but with a different sound. As a jack-of-all-trades musician, he began playing with ease.
And so the Frontier Ruckus of today was complete. With a banjo and a saw, it is obvious this is not a typical college band. They bring about such a sense of musical compatibility it seems strange the four have been playing together only since the beginning of the semester.
The band has matured much beyond their first days of playing to a high school drama club. Milia grew as a writer, which has, in turn, allowed the band to give a “dual punch.” The music first draws you in and then you realize the band really has something to say.
[dave]Milia realized his old songs weren’t fulfilling him the way he had always wanted them to. He has since changed his approach to writing. He tries to incorporate more fiction, which is rooted in his own experiences and fantasies. “It’s more satisfying to sing poetry,” said Milia. A sense of yearning and restlessness is told in poetic verse in the song “Rosemont”:
But I\’m a burstin\’ piece, a questionin\’ priest, like a politician out east
I\’ve seen swimming pools full of darkness, on the brightest moonlit nights
And I\’ve seen fairgrounds, heard their sounds, in the ground lies just what I\’ve found
Basements are now all we got with decade shades and days that rot
Landbirds flew over my head, flag at half mast no one is dead
Oh I know that that\’s not true, but we\’re so desp\’rate, what else can we do?
The band can be deemed folk as easily as bluegrass, creating the very intentional harmony of genres Milia was hoping for. “Bob Dylan and Neil Young are two of my biggest inspirations,” said Millia. “I wanted Bob Dylanesque lyrics set to bluegrass.” Milia’s lyrics often center on Northern Michigan, upstate New York and Amish folk, but he says the songs are all rooted in one mythical town.
What makes their work nice for the listener is the fact it is so imagery based; you can take the song anywhere you want and it will still make sense. “I could write about a lake freezing for 20 minutes,” said Milia.
And the songs all have a deeper meaning, too – it just takes a closer listen to hear the hidden implications. Even the members of the band each form their own meaning and subject when playing a song. “I write a lot of songs about one girl,” said Milia. “When I write about Northern Michigan, I’m actually writing about her, and when Dave is singing the songs, he’s thinking about his own girl.”
Milia has been writing since he was five years old and Jones, Eisman and Nichols have been playing music for years. All of this experience brings their live show to a new level each time, with increasing experience building. But right now, the band’s friends make up their main fan base, and they are just starting to gain popularity. “I can’t walk down my hallway without hearing my voice coming out of people’s rooms,” said Milia. The band and their fans believe, as soon as people hear the music, they’ll call themselves Frontier Ruckus fans, too.
“I guess it’s a debate: do you need another person’s acceptance or attention to be fulfilled? I just want to put art out,” said Milia. “Putting art out” is their main aspiration – recording is at the forefront of their minds. Although they have recorded a small sampling of their earlier work, it no longer speaks to what the band has matured into. They are hopeful they will be back in a recording studio soon.
Although the members are all in school (Milia, Eisman and Nichols at MSU and Jones at the University of Michigan) studying to become doctors and novelists, they would love to seriously pursue music and plan on taking steps toward their goal this summer. “Summer is our free time to spread our wings,” said Milia. “We’re going to try to record by that time and then go anywhere our car takes us to play shows.”[oops]
Keep your eyes peeled for this folk-y, bluegrass foursome because their refreshingly intelligent music is bound to get further recognition. And if they do have a chance at making it, we can trust they would turn their lives upside-down in the name of Frontier Ruckus. As Milia said, “If anything happened, everyone would drop everything.”
Frontier Ruckus will be playing Dec. 1 at Magdalena’s Tea House, 2006 E. Michigan Ave., with a Wisconsin band, The Buffali. The show begins at 8 p.m. To contact the band by e-mail, send them a message at email@example.com or visit www.myspace.com/frontierruckus.