STORY WRITTEN BY GARY GRAFF
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Matthew Milia thinks it’s “a miracle” that his Detroit-based band, Frontier Ruckus, has been around for nearly 15 years and [just released] its fifth album.
“The music industry is not designed for sustainability anymore, so just being a band in general is a damn near impossible pursuit,” says Milia, 31, who resides in Detroit near the abandoned Michigan Central Station these days. “So just the fact we can still do it is super satisfying, even though we struggle day in and day out to find new ways to get people to still care.”
The rootsy quartet mostly just has to get people to hear its music — an ambitious and sophisticated Americana blend of folk, rock, pop, country and bluegrass, that much lusher and more intricate on the new “Enter The Kingdom” — to get them engaged.
Milia and fellow multi-instrumentalist David Jones met while attending Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township, Mich. Both were in the drama class — partly, Milia acknowledges, because “it was one of two co-ed classes that was offered” that they could attend with students from neighboring Marian High School.
They were culture oddballs, Milia recalls; He was getting into decidedly non-hip bluegrass courtesy of his father, while Jones was an accomplished banjo player well before the likes of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers bought the instrument into the pop mainstream.
The two forged a tight, if sometimes truculent, friendship and musical partnership.
“There’s a very loving, competitive nature in our relationship, still,” Milia acknowledges. “I guess that’s been an essential ingredient for propelling the bands.”
Frontier Ruckus filled out when the duo went to college — Jones to the University of Michigan and Milia to Michigan State, where he met harmony singer Anna Burch, multi-instrumentalist Zachary Nichols and original drummer Ryan Etzcorn, who’s no longer with the band. They gigged in Ann Arbor, East Lansing and points in between, releasing an EP, “I Am The Water You Are Pumping” in 2006 and signing a deal with Michigan’s Quite Scientific Records for the debut album, “The Orion Songbook.”
Two years later, Frontier Ruckus was included in Paste magazine’s Best of What’s Next issue, and for 2010’s “Dreadmalls and Nightfalls” album, Milia recalls “people had hopes for us being a commercial, mainstream quantity.”
That was a less pleasant prospect than it sounds, however.
“It didn’t feel right,” Milia explains. “We just didn’t want to go down that road. So that era ended on our own terms, and ever since, it seems like we do what we do with less concern or attention to what’s trending and all of that. So few people are making any substantial amount of money doing this anymore, we just do it for the art.”
That was the case for “Eternity Of Dimming,” a sweeping 20-track, two-disc set released in 2013, and the following year’s “Sitcom Afterlife.” “Enter The Kingdom,” which came out Friday, Feb. 17, takes another turn, meanwhile. It marks the first time Frontier Ruckus has recorded outside Michigan, setting up shop in Nashville two years ago for 10 days with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer producing. It streamlines the group’s sound, adding a rich, shimmering texture — not to mention a full complement of hooky choruses — to the group’s inherent melodicism,
“We somewhat challenged ourselves to do something different,” Milia says. “I do love pop songs. We’ve been creeping more towards a classic ‘60s or ‘70s power pop direction, getting into bands like Big Star and the Zombies, enjoying gratifying pop melodies and tricks in the studio. It was really fun and easy.”
Lyrically, meanwhile, Milia’s inspiration came from his father losing his job as a video contractor with West Bloomfield Township as well as dealing with a medical disability.
“It’s kind of about when life takes over and the uncertainty of adulthood,” Milia, who’s singing in a lighter and more winsome tone this time out than on previous albums. “Everybody goes through it. Your parents get older and you’re watching them go through that and some hard times and think about how to help your parents, and it’s like your whole world is doing a 180 from the natural order you grew up believing in. And the ‘Kingdom’ that’s referenced is my childhood home and the kingdom of memories that is a house kind of disintegrating over time.
“It’s hard to talk about, but that definitely had a huge emotional impact on the lyricism of the record.”
Early reviews for “Enter The Kingdom” have been encouraging, and Frontier Ruckus — whose members all maintain loose day jobs that are easy to abandon for weeks at a time — is anxious to see how its sonic shift plays with fans, which it will be doing over three months of spring touring. “I would always love a bigger audience,” Milia says. “But we’re very grateful for this devoted cult following we have.
“Y’know, the culture moves so quickly now. People want the new thing, but they only want it for a brief period of time and then move on. But that’s not what we do. We do something that’s very consistent. It builds upon itself. The records are self-referential and there are character and threads that run throughout whole catalog.
“So we’re just continuing to make the art, and we hope to get it to grow to more people. But we’re not making drastic changes to chase them, either.”