Twenty songs, packed in like clothes in a teenager's wardrobe. "Eternity Of Dimming" is one of the most moving records this year, because of how it has intepreted the passage to adult life, how it has maniacally reconstructed a small museum of sensations, smells, impulses, friendhsips. Matthew Milia does not skimp on words, neither in his songs nor in this interview: a real immersion in the world of Frontier Ruckus.
I was impressed by the length (and by the consistence) of “Eternity Of Dimming”. Did you have in mind from the beginning to write a double? Is there a concept behind the record?
The immensity of the project was sort of just a practical byproduct of being on the road for 2 straight years in 2010 and 2011—having all of these songs pent-up and coalescing with complementary thematics. It was the first time we'd ever toured that hard or had been away from home so constantly. I had always written about conflicting and complex notions of 'home' up to that point, but being away from home caused my intensity of memory and stylistic zoom for personal domestic portrayal to exaggerate almost exponentially. Being away, I was developing this wild obsession for crazy specificity of detail regarding my local world of memory which I was feeling uncomfortably estranged from for the first time. So I had a lot of time to write many songs that came out of the same condition, with no real outlet for about two years. When it came time to make our next record, there was nothing I could bear to cut. Each song leaned up against the other in my mind, as essential intertextual pieces of overlapping reference and narrative. Also, we felt no real pressure to assimilate to popular formats or easy digestion, so there wasn't really any internal resistance against making a long record. It actually felt more playful to counteract the trend of making media that is overly concise and facile. There are many technical advantages to making something that is more novelistic in its devices. The bigger a world you're creating, the more space you afford yourself to connect all the components in varying degrees of scope or interesting complications of conflict.
I might say the most overarching theme throughout the record is this mingling of idyllic childhood memory with abrupt punctuations of adult pathos, tragedy, or just disillusioned banal reality. Like this birthday party scene in "Black Holes" full of pizza and two-liters of soda, but it occurs on the same living room carpet where our dads fall down having seizures. A constant metaphor is this image of grainy magical youthful summer world disintegrating by degrees into an eternal wake of distance and diminishment.
Was there a particular achievement you had in mind for this record, musically? I think it is a perfect blend of your past and more recent references, from The Band and Neil Young to Neutral Milk Hotel and Okkervil River and, with that, a great display of musical mastermanship.
Thank you. We wanted the sonic aspects to remain organic to the lyrical narratives and also retain our standard palette of instruments that people associate us with, but used in innovative ways and with many additional new textures layered on top. The banjo, for example, is becoming so ubiquitous and homogenized as it has been appropriated by modern pop music. But then we have Davey who uses it so expressively, almost impressionistically, in the way he plays with and counters melody. He did a lot of banjo layering and used weird delays and stuff to take the instrument out of its pigeonhole further. And Zach had free license to get as weird as he wanted—so we brought in many organs and obsolete keyboards plugged in through rickety ancient amplifiers and stuff to just come up with really unusual combinations of noise production. A big motif on the record is obsolete technology from the 80s and 90s and how the clunkiness of outdated stuff acts like a paperweight on temporality and memory in our lives. We used the microphones on old camcorders and handheld tape recorders, etc. to echo this sentiment. We bought Smalls a timpani drum because we were all falling in love with stuff like Bobby Vinton or Roy Orbison and big orchestral pop arrangements from the 60s. Smalls really provides the pulse for the record that gyrates the listener through this gradient of rooms in a cluttered home where the pulse in the walls is heightening or smoldering by the changing intensity of what's happening in the songs. I played and layered way more electric guitars than ever before, going for a sort of shimmery melodic tone that not only pays pastiche to the 90s radio pop that truly informs a lot of my melodic sensibility and is referenced on the record, but also the early guitar pop of the 70s like Big Star or ELO which is really important to me as well.
Your mash-up of “Sylvan Manor – Dealer” draws an even epic picture. Can you tell us about this/these songs?
The version of "In Protection of Sylvan Manor" on the record is really just the demo I recorded in my bedroom, in my neighborhood where I grew up which is called Sylvan Manor. It was spurred by just taking walks around the block of modest one-story homes in spring when all of the mailbox ditches where full of trash and pizza store coupons and minnows, somehow, and feeling a certain proprietorship for my intimate environment which I knew so well, out of which my body had come to feel like it was a physical extension—that no outside force could ever extract me from or take away from me. I felt a need to protect the sanctity of my own personal dense experience—an internal catalog that ever single person houses inside the receptacle of their bodies where the specifics are so disparate but the condition and respective holiness is exactly similar. The interlopers in the song are old mean soccer coaches or critics or grade school bullies or any agent in life that attempts to reduce or harm what is properly and eternally yours.
You started looking for a melodica and saw player because of some hidden details in two of your favorite songs. What is your favorite detail in “Eternity Of Dimming”?
Yeah! That was the melodica in a song by The Band. My favorite little sonic detail in Eternity. Hm. There are so many secret little nuances that we sprinkled in, if only for ourselves. In the part where I get close to "rapping" in "Open It Up" where I reference a discarded Nintendo-64 in a lost friend's divorcée-mom's apartment drawer and right at that point Zach plays a little keyboard motif from a certain video game that is like musical poetry playing off of that line. My favorite musical device that we employed is very subtly implanting references to songs within other songs, even songs on our previous record. It's an interesting way to make the total mythology interface and work together for me. I do it a lot lyrically in general, and the band was great about making musical call-backs.
Most of your songs have a strong narrative push, something which is quite rare, nowadays, even in the songwriting scene – quite weird, I guess. Do you write lyrics before the music?
I am always writing and collecting bits of language separately—interesting rhymes or images or sentiments that I want to get into a song, forming a sort of queue to find their way into something. A song like "Careening Catalog Immemorial" or "Springterror" results from having a surplus of graphic lines that I really love and can't fit anywhere, like little orphans. So those songs become these wacky tangential experiments, and I love them! I see my songs fitting into maybe 4 or 5 different categories of tunes I am able to write. I know starting out of this song is gonna be an "Adirondack Amish Holler/Pontiac the Nightbrink" song or a "The Tower/The Deep-Yard Dream" type song, etc. I've developed this little menu of what I'm capable of writing along the way. But also along the way it's really important to me to challenge myself by, say, writing a line that might make me feel unsettled or ask, "Is this pushing it a bit?" That usually means I'm cracking ground a little deeper, transgressing a bit, finding new "real" things to address.
What is the greatest story told in popular music history, in your opinion?
I still think "MacArthur Park" by Jimmy Webb and sung by Richard Harris, about the cake melting in the rain, most poignantly encapsulates love and loss and grief. I truly do.
One of the features of your songwriting, something I love about American literature in general, is the attention to and, maybe, the search for a popular mythology, a common history buried in specific, maybe still unknown places. The dead malls, the old stadiums, down to “parking lots and community colleges”… Do you think this pantheon is still something for you to discover? Do you look for “personal” mythological places or do you try also to refer to things and places which belong to the common culture?
Absolutely. The glory of a personal mythology is that it truly is an infinity of discovery. It is as diverse and unraveling as you want it to be. It can include the entire world or universe if you want it to, in a Whitmanesque kind of way. It can even contradict itself. Mine is all about specific locality though—attempting to wrangle all this unwieldy metaphysical stuff into some vaguely physical landscape or definition. That for me is mostly the huge expanse of Metro Detroit. If I just stay here my whole life, I'd never really exhaust everything there is to write about—every infinitesimal connection and component. That's maybe the hazard of fetishizing "detail" but it gratifies me. I think I might take a timeout from crazy specificity for a moment on the next record, though. My new challenge was to see if I could write general love songs with choruses. Like pulling teeth. But also playful and fun. It's always been—I'll write 30 verses before I write a chorus. I could never bear to repeat something when I could fit new language into that slot. But I suppose there is something to be said for repetition.
You are repeatedly cited, in webzines, as an anti-Mumford act. How do musicians feel about banjos becoming mainstream?
I've never listened to a "Mumford" song in its entirety so I'm really not qualified to comment on them specifically one way or the other. What I can say is that I do wish people would investigate the specific work at hand when they are speaking about us and not clumsily wade us through some embarrassingly shallow pool of reference. It's this ubiquitous journalistic infliction these days. Any idiosyncrasy or nuance is crassly brushed over by an immediate need to qualify things by inappropriately imposed comparisons of the day. Whether you like our record or not, I am confident that there is a small galaxy of detail available to comment upon by its own merit. I know because I placed each one deliberately. And interestingly, they don't have a remote connection to that band or this band on the radio that I've never heard. If we're talking being influenced by 90s radio, however, then definitely! It makes thorough and thoughtful questions like these a real pleasure.
I guess live shows are now the major source of income for bands, and you have played a lot of shows. Would you be confident enough to record a live album?
We've had fans request it. We haven't seriously considered it but I kind of like the idea in that it could get all of our songs from the different records to coincide in new configurations and relationships. We have a lot of songs at this point and it's always challenging to get them all consistently into the live set. I tried to chronicle our setlists from each night but it got way too frustrating. Many of the songs sound very different from the record to how we play them now live. It would be nice to document the experience of seeing us live other than in shaky YouTube clips. People say, "You're such a live band." Maybe we'll do a quintuple live set of us attempting to perform every song we've ever written. It would have its ups and downs. We of course encourage people to bootlegs sets and also to follow us around like the Grateful Dead.
I know you have already played in Italy, during the last tour. What memories do you have of that?
It was most of our first times in Italy. Just beautiful. Would love to see the different regions and how they all contrast, as we only saw the north. We went to Milan on a day off and just explored all day. I ate some fresh coconut from a stand where it was being splashed by water. Lots of attractive people in the hot sun.