WHEN thinking of America, images of New York, Disney World or Hollywood probably come to mind, and yet most of the reality lies somewhere in between. And it is this middle, suburban ground from which the music of Rhythm ‘n’ Roots act Frontier Ruckus is harvested.
Strip malls, Sears, Pontiac and “salad bar restaurants” are some of the images that pepper their songs, particularly on their latest album, 2010’s Deadmalls and Nightfalls.
The band’s front man, Detroit native Matthew Milia, says he has always felt “inextricably bound” to such pieces of American suburbia, “no matter how objectively ugly, inane, or commonplace they may appear to some. The strip-malls, car dealerships, fast-food drive-thrus and the like are to me so existentially important and irrepressible that I feel almost forced to embrace a sort of unique aesthetic beauty in it all.”
“In such a complex way,” he adds. “I am very proud and blessed to call it home.”
To an outsider, the Detroit area calls to mind the world of Eminem or the distressed US auto industry, but this isn’t the scenery of Frontier Ruckus.
“The thing about Detroit, whether this is unique to Detroit or not, is how seamlessly all of the components of its gigantic system intermingle and overlap. In any part of the Metropolitan area you will find areas of affluence bordering or dissolving into areas of varying degrees of poverty. It exists in complicated gradations of cultures and wealth,” Matthew reflects. “Memorising this crazy network was perhaps my greatest initial inspiration as a songwriter. And it is a dynamic beast in constant, unpredictable flux.”
Of his native city’s prospects, which is already involving significant rebuilding and restructuring, he says: “I am very hopeful for Detroit, and the energy of its people really seems to be surging. Innumerable projects are popping up that utilise this system of connection as a means for communal progress rather than letting all of the areas dwindle into isolated, detached decay.”
The band’s sound can certainly do its bit to inject some positive vibes into what might be tough times for people.
“I truly hope it does,” Matthew says. “Maybe not straightforward happiness in the sense that we’re playing super catchy pop songs in hopes to offer people an easy escape from the emotionally intense portions of internal life. Rather, we work to chronicle and emphasise that emotional intensity in every word we sing. We don’t want to manufacture or glorify pain or pathos or regret – we just try to acknowledge its existence within all that is beautiful, adding so much to that emotion’s intensity.”
Those with an interest in Kilkenny connections around the globe might like to know that Matthew and banjo player Dave Jones spent their formative years at their local Brother Rice High School. In fact, Matthew says: “Brother Rice is the reason Frontier Ruckus is a band today. Brother Rice, being an all-male Catholic high school, offered two co-ed courses – drama and German – at Marian, the all-female Catholic high school directly next door, across what they called ‘the moat’. Dave, of course, took both of these courses. I took drama after being somewhat laughably recruited from my starring role in an 8th-grade production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
(Evidence of their early endeavours can be seen on their website, www.frontierruckus.com, where a photo of the two friends dressed as Renaissance minstrels is bravely displayed under the heading ‘the version of Davey and Matt trapped within the year 2001’, from the opening night of a production of Kiss Me Kate.)
In their spare time between classes and rehearsals, they started working on music. “Dave was extremely unique in that he had been playing banjo since the age of 12 and was already quite good,” Matthew recalls. “Out of a zealous youthful rivalry spurred a very tight-knit musical partnership, and Dave became a crucial sounding board for the development of my songwriting through all of its stages. By the time we met the rest of the band in college, Dave and I had really formed a strong creative identity that was just waiting to be fleshed out.”
Another element of Dave’s “creativity” has intriguingly made its way to a food blog, ‘Eating the Beats’, which features the banjo player’s recipe for “Davey’s Biscuits and Gravy”. So are they really that amazing?
“They are quite good,” Matthew says. “He often makes them for our hosts on tour and we haven’t had any complaints yet. We were staying with some new friends in London and at the market Davey was hard-pressed to find anything resembling American biscuits, so he used croissants instead, to delicious results.”
Frontier Ruckus are playing three gigs at the Smithwick’s Rhythm ‘n’ Roots Festival: April 29 at 10.30pm in Cleere’s, April 30 at 9pm in Ryan’s and May 1 at 6pm in Ryan’s; tickets to each gig are e15 and can be booked on 056 7763669, firstname.lastname@example.org and Rollercoaster Music, Kieran Street.