The Frontier Ruckus co-founder sat down with writer Enrique Olmos to explore his passion for Detroit, and balancing music creation with a financially secure day job. He plays a Detroit festival on Sept. 10.
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The sun is shining through Matthew Milia’s Mexicantown apartment in Detroit. We’re about to head out for a walk when Milia asks if his dog, Woodward, can join us.
Somehow pets always find their way into interviews by way of curious charm.
I follow Milia to a dog park in Cass Corridor where there are a plethora of canine friends waiting with tails wagging. While Woodward (a.k.a Woody) runs trial sprints around the fenced-in Astroturf, Milia and I get to talking about Detroit.
“Detroit’s an immensely rich place, you know, in terms of culture. I’m obsessed. I’ve always been obsessed, since our first record, ‘The Oregon Songbook,’ which is the namesake of a suburb in northern Oakland County. I’ve always been obsessed with this entire metro Detroit region, and all the sectors and how they all mingled together. Historically, culturally, there’s so much going on, for better or for worse. So from a writerly aspect, there’s a lot of content out there,” Milia says.
“It’s weird, I’ve always had a tumultuous relationship with the suburbs. As a white male, I’m definitely privileged in every aspect of this endeavor. But I would definitely say that I represent the suburbs in my story, as opposed to my great grandfather, who would have represented Detroit proper. Most of my writing has to do with the suburban side of that equation.”
Milia, who fronts the band Frontier Ruckus (a folk-rock/Americana collective that rose quickly to indie-reverence between 2010-2013, playing major festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza), has also released three solo records that retain his geographically-inspired lyricism.
His solo records include “Even F—boys Get the Blues” (2015), “Alone at St. Hugo” (2019) and “Keego Harbor” (2021). Milia plays the Dally in the Alley festival in Detroit’s Cass Corridor on Sept. 10, performing on the Alley Stage at 4 p.m.
His most recent solo record, “Keego Harbor,” recounts both the emotional and geographical landmarks of his youth, and is named after the city Milia grew up in. Listen to the twangy title track here.
VIDEO: “Keego Harbor,” Matthew Milia
“I write a lot about growing up in this area, mining my own childhood traumas and assessing how traumatic they actually were in the scheme of things. Houses are domestic containers of all the glory and terror that every family experiences in varying degrees of exile. And you know, I write about houses in that regard.
“So that internal domesticity, that’s another situation where there’s the outer veneer and then the inner reality. So the relationship between those two things, it’s something I constantly investigate,” Milia says, as he watches Woody through nearly opaque sunglasses.
“Keego Harbor is surrounded by Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield, which are super affluent. One of the richest areas in the country. There’s old money, automotive money. But Keego Harbor itself is more like the salt of the earth. It’s blue-collar…some would call it white trash. That’s a really loaded word these days but when people heard that I grew up in Keego Harbor, I was called white trash.”
‘ACCIDENTALLY’ FALLING INTO MUSIC, MINING CREATIVITY IN A DAY JOB
Milia’s record, “Alone at St. Hugo,” was inspired by the Catholic school he attended, St. Hugo of the Hills School in Bloomfield Hills.
In his early albums, he wrote about the insecurities that came with comparing his upbringing to that of his peers. He’d be embarrassed to invite his friends over to his house, who were incredibly well off … like private jet well-off.
After the dog park, we walk the corridor and window shop outside a fellow Detroiter’s record shop: Jack White’s Third Man Records. We hop back in the car and Milia takes the long way home, gunning down a mile stretch of Woodward Avenue to take in the sights and sounds, the rhythm of the city.
We pass Detroit landmarks like the towering, shuttered and slightly ominous Michigan Central Train Station. We roll past Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and Assemble Sound.
Back at Milia’s apartment we crack open a couple of domestic beers and talk literature and writing. When he isn’t writing songs, Milia works as a senior copywriter at Leo Burnett Worldwide where he works exclusively on Cadillac.
“I would be completely f—ed without this job. I graduated from Michigan State University in 2008, right when Frontier Ruckus was kind of gaining popularity in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. We released our first record in 2008. We got a national press push and so I didn’t have a choice of really pursuing an honest career; it seemed like we accidentally fell into a music career,” he says.
“I don’t know. It sort of fell in our lap. So I did that for 10 years, just constantly traveling with my best friends and making five records and never thought twice about anything until I reached my early 30s.”
Milia “threw a dart at the corporate world” and landed a spot as a 34-year-old intern with the ad agency Doner Co. in 2019.
‘RUSHES’ OF SONGWRITING AT HOME
“I’m paid to come up with ideas and be creative. I spent 10 years developing and honing my own creative voice in a range of tones. And I’m very prolific, I can write fast and my music career really primed me for advertising, I think it’s because I spent 10 years intensively writing and creating my own world and now I help brands develop their own voices.”
Six months after he’d gotten into advertising, the pandemic hit.
“All my musician friends were totally f—ed. And I would have been, too, if I hadn’t fortuitously been like, ‘OK, it’s time to grow up.’ Things always kind of guided me. It’s weird. I’m lucky in that way,” he says.
Milia has been a senior copywriter for three years, while still making time to write and release records, noting that it’s “a wonderful balance.” It’s clear that words mean a lot to him. He has a vast vocabulary that he aptly strings into articulate monologues. Surely, writing taglines is a walk in the park.
Milia sits at a broad mahogany desk, flanked by a bookshelf with rows of novels and advertising handbooks. Some of his own poetry lies in a stack on the corner of the shelf. He’s also currently working on mixing the next Frontier Ruckus album, due out early 2023.
“I mean, I’m not sleeping on Motel 6 floors anymore. I could never write on the road. It’s very uncomfortable. I chronicle Metro Detroit in specificity. This is my realm of creativity. This is all I write about, this is all I care about,” Milia says.
“Sometimes the further away I got, the more it’s like James Joyce had to leave Dublin to write about it so poignantly. Sometimes that would happen. But my rushes of creativity really happened when I came home. And now I’m home all the time.”
VIDEO: “Me and My Sweetheart,” Matthew Milia (Live JK NK Studios)
PHOTO GALLERY: Matthew Milia
Photos by Loren Johnson