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Suburban Legends 

Frontier Ruckus make a record about malls and other cultural epicenters

Led by singer-guitarist Matthew Milia, folk-rockers Frontier Ruckus hail from the sprawling, diverse landscape of metro Detroit. Beginning with their 2008 debut, The Orion Songbook, Milia and his cohorts have explored their hometown in an engaging and almost mythological fashion. This exploration is all over the new Deadmalls and Nightfalls, which comes out next month.

"It's my environment, it's where I've lived my entire life, and it's all I really know," says Milia. "I've lived in the same house my entire life, so that stasis has created this overwhelming obsession, this obsessive memorization with my locality. Writing about what I know very specifically has helped take some of the burden of all that memory off my shoulders. Writing songs about very specific things pertaining to that locality really comforts me."

Indeed, Deadmalls and Nightfalls presents a distinct perspective on things. There's no political stance in songs like "The Upper Room" or "Silverfishes." And there's no history-lesson diatribe to "Pontiac, the Nightbrink." Instead, Milia's songs inhabit a seemingly inhospitable clime between truth and fiction, splitting the difference between reality and mythology with a poet's attention to detail, befitting his creative-writing training at Michigan State.

Milia views this as a useful songwriting tool and a psychological one. "Mythologizing things is empowering — to be able to imaginatively see things in a different way," he says. "The bare truths of the condition can be painful — the disintegration of memory and the way things actually are in reality is probably more painful than creatively or imaginatively handling things. If you're looking at things in a slightly fictional or imaginative sense, you can use that pain to elicit comfort or more positive things out of it."

The band's new album got part of its title and inspiration from the website, a clearinghouse for memories of malls gone by. These are the sorts of ghosts that inhabit Frontier Ruckus' songs on Deadmalls: the sped-up nostalgia that only the failing economies of the once-great Midwest could imagine. This nostalgia gives way to some very personal feelings for Milia.

"Being a child of the '90s, malls were sort of the epicenter of culture," he says. "My mother worked at Summit Place Mall, right on the border of Pontiac and Waterford, Michigan, and it was a thriving place. My grandparents would take me there every day to visit my mom, and we'd eat in the food court and throw pennies in the fountain. Now, it's just this vacuous tomb of memory. There's nothing there. There are these physical landmarks — that are seemingly permanent on our landscape — that now serve as huge containers of memory."

The band is on solid musical ground throughout Deadmalls and Nightfalls, repeating the indie-rock/alt-country vibe of its debut, but with a few rocking moments — "Does Me In" and "Ringbearer," most notably — thrown in. "Our sound came together so organically to the point of it being an accident," says Milia. "I was raised on the music of my father — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell — and Dave [Jones] had been playing the banjo since he was about ten years old. That synthesis was embedded into the genesis of the band. Everyone that joined added a new, strange component to the concoction."

Still, what matters most to Milia are the various perceptions about his band. Yes, they're from metro Detroit, but they're not a political group that sings about the city's hardships. And yes, they play country-influenced music, but they're not rural poseurs. Frontier Ruckus are from and of the suburbs.

"I'm trying to emphasize that this is a suburban record and we're a suburban band," says Milia. "Suburban Detroit is so expansive, and it's an inextricable part of downtown Detroit. We don't live in downtown Detroit, and we don't try to sing about the current dilapidation in the sense of being at the heart of it. We do sing about Detroit, but through a suburban lens."

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