Detroit musician and songwriter Matthew Milia broke out on the Michigan music scene in 2008 with indie-Americana ensemble Frontier Ruckus. Five albums and three EPs later, he’s ready to release his first solo album, Alone at St. Hugo (Sitcom Universe Records). Working on a Tascam 388 reel to reel tape machine with engineer and musician Ben Collins in Ypsilanti, he recorded a mix of indie-folk and power-pop songs threaded with his signature memoir-like lyrics. While some artists may indulge metaphoric abstractions or sing in generalizations about trivial heartache, Milia’s lyrics come from an immersive vantage and sea-like memory, an all at once haunting yet comforting nostalgia.
Milia stopped by the WDET studio to lay down a song from the album, “Attention Students”, on acoustic guitar. Listen using the audio player above.
WDET: What’s it like looking back on 10 years (of Frontier Ruckus) versus working solo?
Milia: The motivation for writing has remained exactly the same throughout my entire songwriting life—waking up and writing purely for myself as a means of self-therapy. The subject matter is still this ongoing attempt to portray the hidden vitality and range of emotion deep within midwestern domesticity. I suppose what’s changed has been embracing greater flexibility of tone and style. With each (Frontier Ruckus) album, I started to play with different modes of expression that hopefully reflected life’s complexity of moods a bit better: humor, pathos, regret, joy. Alone at St. Hugo, in that sense, is quite different from The Orion Songbook (2008).
Of all the albums I’ve made it definitely pays the most homage to the super melodic, power-poppy side of my musical interests—Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Lemonheads, etc. But still with very dense lyrics about the specificity of Michigan life, which I hope makes for an enjoyable combination. Catchy verbosity.
WDET: Has getting older affected your approach to songwriting?
Milia: The effect of age over the flux of one’s emotional being is an obvious concern of my writing, I hope. So much gets harder and untenable with age—family dynamics fray or dissolve, homes and other containers of personal safety are compromised or lost. I think the toughest thing is just to maintain any sort of consistent self-identity out of which to base your daily existence as time rearranges everything around you. But the fact that everyone faces the same sort of universal entropy is in a weird way comforting to me. You begin to stop taking every setback or hardship personally when you increase your empathy for others around you dealing with the same sort of existential barrages or often much worse. The things you should be grateful for start to come more sharply into focus. My most recent songs have a sort of sweet resignation to them; where I was once writing to the frenetic jolt of possibility, I’m now a bit mellowed by actual experience and the limitations of reality.
WDET: You described this album as leaning in to “power-pop.” Can you talk about the experience of capturing that on a recording?
Milia: I can’t say enough about how purely fun (it was). I couldn’t have made it without Ben Collins, of the great band Minihorse. Every single note on the album was played by myself and Ben, recorded to a Tascam 388 8-track reel-to-reel tape machine at his house in Ypsilanti. Each track began with me on guitar and Ben on drums, playing live together to a click track. Then we split up all of the overdubs—I think we both played bass on about half the songs respectively. I played pedal steel guitar. Ben played trumpet, cello, tambourine, shaker. We used a lot of mellotron and organ samples. The most enjoyable aspect was the vocal overdubs. Our motto was “double it”—meaning every vocal part we laid down we doubled to fill everything out and give it a classic sort of pop sound. We taped the “double” from a Double Stuff pack of Oreos to the door. Doing all of the harmonies was just a blast. We started the album in 2016 and took about 2 years here and there to finish it all. Having the luxury of all that time and Ben’s musical proficiency made for such a wonderful environment to arrange the songs and experiment.
The lead single from Alone at St. Hugo
WDET: Categorization of Frontier Ruckus’ five albums has shifted between folk, Americana, indie-rock, and baroque-pop… How do you regard the stylistic trajectory, or just the sound or vibe, that both your solo work, and Ruckus’ arc, have taken over the years?
Milia: We’re actually working on the sixth Frontier Ruckus album, and I’m glad to say it’s returning back to our starting point a bit—very acoustic and elemental, earnest and raw. I really want Frontier Ruckus to return full-circle to the purity of that idea, which a lot of people who like the band associate with. And then I get to keep writing solo material that can be whatever I need it to be in the moment to suit my personal tastes. I think that would be a really accommodating and manageable system for my output.
Milia’s album release party for Alone at St. Hugo will be on Friday, May 3, at the Loving Touch, featuring performances by Anna Burch and Career Club. Find more information here.