There’s not much I can say about Frontier Folk Nebraska that I haven’t already written of, many times over. Good folks, good music. Cincinnati is fortunate to have them in our midst.
Their once and future tourmate, William Matheny, is no stranger to the area, and with his own take on earnest and nostalgic Midwestern Rock, he travels a good amount of common ground with Frontier Folk Nebraska.
As they gear up for a short jaunt south and west that will lead them to the proverbial Rock ‘N Roll promised land - South By Southwest - I thought it might be interesting to get their perspective on each other, to ask questions that they, themselves, would want to know the answers to.
The first half are questions sent to Frontier Folk Nebraska by William Matheny. The second half, then, are questions sent from Frontier Folk Nebraska to William Matheny. What follows are some enlightening and entertaining questions and answers from two musical acts with a lot in common, and a lot of nice things to say about each other. Enjoy.
William Matheny to FFN: Pick a biggest influence for each decade of your life musically!
Matt McCormick, Bassist, Frontier Folk Nebraska
77-80 - Star Wars.
80-90 - whatever was on Headbangers Ball or whatever heavy music me and my friends could find.
90-2000 - Grateful Dead.
2000 - 2010 - Learning how to play music with other people.
2010 - 2018 - Trying to play and listen to jazz.
Michael Hensley, Vocals & Guitar, Frontier Folk Nebraska
0-10 Garth Brooks
21-30 Ryan Adams/The National
30+ whatever I skipped over the last 30 years. It’s review time. Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets has been the most powerful record thus far.
Travis Talbert, Guitar, Frontier Folk Nebraska
0-10 - has to be the Beatles. Though my parents played a variety of records frequently that deeply imprinted my brain including Neil Young and The Band, The Beatles were far and away the most profound influence in my home.
11-20 - a tie between Neil Young and Bob Dylan. My cousins were also big influences around this time as they were the closest people to me that were playing instruments and really showed me how to mine records for new songs and through following that rabbit hole I found my truest means of expression in music with a guitar.
21-30 - Tie between My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers. But almost certainly the closest influence has been Mike. From the moment I heard him sing I have been astounded by his earnest and fluid channel from feeling to expression. His abilities have inspired me to always strive for the simplest and most pure path through my melodies, and our history and time together has also allowed me to bask in much of his writing that due to our similar places of origin and current journeys feel just as much autobiographical to me as they are to him. He's my brother and I can't thank him enough for the canvas he's provided for me musically.
30s - only 3 and a half years in but it's shaping up to be all Grateful Dead. While I spent my entire life shrugging them off and even vocally detesting them at the most obnoxious points of my late teens and early 20s, last summer I heard Jack Straw from Europe '72 and realized that they were all many hands playing a huge piano, each one occupying their own section of the keyboard. Their unified tone was such a perfect embodiment of ensemble performance that it had shadowed my ability to appreciate anything about them because I was only searching for one thing at a time.
WM: Frontier Folk Nebraska was originally very different from the band that it is now. The Devil's Tree sounds completely different from Warpig but it does all sound like a logical progression. How much of this gradual change was premediated and how much of it was organic? Did you simply arrange the music according to how you felt in the practice room each day?
Matt: Having not been around during the earlier years I cannot speak to those times. But from the onset of playing with FFN, jamming and arranging has been natural. Michael typically has a pretty complete idea and the rest usually falls in place for me. We often rehearse the songs and record demos. Then I like to sit down on my own and come up with basslines and idea before we record the songs.
Michael: The only premeditated part about this band was switching to electric. Full band electric. It was supposed to be a full band when the band formed, but our drummer at the time dropped out before our first show at the Mad Frog 2006. The folk band part wasn’t my thing, but I’ve always appreciated the stories. Townes Van Zandt and Ryan Adams were big influences at the time. I loved the formation we settled on to make the band work, but I always wanted a full band feel. I wanted the thunder. It took several years and a few line-up changes to reach what I always wanted. Everything else seemed to be organic or substance abuse. Living life really. Always thinking about what’s next instead of what I should’ve done differently.
Also, we don’t practice as a band much unless it’s for cover shows. Somehow the songs figure themselves out.
Travis: That feeling of how we felt in the room is pretty astute. We operate on the assumption that if we don't like the song first that no one listening to it will feel more deeply about it than us. We're just trying to be as honest as we can with what we hear and try to convey through these songs. While we're able to see why people get hung up on labels and names, we honestly don't give a shit about any of that and wish more people didn't either. Enjoy what you enjoy. Champion that which you find meaningful to you. Don't worry if it's "your kind of thing." If it speaks to you that's what matters. Especially if it's something that hasn't spoken to you in the past. Finding that even though it's harder each day to have a new experience with something like music but you are still able to find a song that the day before was unknown to your brain and say, "YES! This one is for me," is just about the best thing we can find about being alive.
WM: Your music feels like it has a very strong sense of place but (to use your words) doesn't just achieve that via name-checking or nostalgia. It feels lived in and natural. How do Covington/Newport/Cincy figure into your identity as a band
Matt: Great question. Covington and Latonia in particular loom large for the band in my opinion. I have been in Covington for 10 years. These areas have a grit to them that comes out in the music.
Michael: We’re all from the tri state area. It’s home, it’s the foundation. As far as making it the identity of the band I haven’t felt it’s presence consistently over the years. For the longest time it was about escaping this place as much as possible. It felt restricted and our city didn’t feel like home. Those were more personal issues than reality. In the past few years, home started to feel distant and I wanted it back. It’s my roots, my home, my identity for the most part. Everything else is the adventure. I’m embracing the city and I’m starting to put it into the songs. I’m escaping my dark room and seeking the surrounding.
Travis: I just earlier told someone that Fill Up My Cup on our new EP could have had a subtitle of What it's like to drive at night. Mike has found a way to keep writing about all of us by just describing what we see around us, and that place has a wealth of soul to draw from. Greater Cincinnati is like and unlike a lot of places. It's a city, but it's also basically country on all it's borders, so a half hour drive in any direction and you feel as far from urban ways of life as you would if you were in most any part of the Midwest or the outskirts of Appalachia, which is because that's where you are. That makes for a mess of political views, as well as sometimes increasingly stubborn holds on cultural aspects that seem to defy the ever shrinking size of the world through each bit of informational exchange. And conflict is what you make art about, at least it's the kind of art I'm interested in. Let's put it this way. We were recently in Somerset, KY and I told the woman running the venue that whenever I'm home, even though I can see Cincinnati across the river from my home that I feel in my heart that I'm from Kentucky, but the further I drive into Kentucky, the more I feel like I'm from Cincinnati.
WM: What do you find the most rewarding and frustrating aspects of road dawging?
Matt: Playing places other than the "tri state area" is a ton of fun. Meeting people and musicians from other circles of life is rewarding. On a basic level we go on trips and play music. That is like living a dream. I get excited every time Travis and Michael finish loading the van.
Every once in a while, you drive 12 hours round trip to play a show at a brewery in a dry town where the opening solo act that lives "around the corner" takes his $100.00 cut of a $200.00 paying show they also brought no one out to... That can be a little frustrating.
Michael: The most rewarding part is playing our songs in front of people. Most frustrating part is playing our songs in front of no people.
Travis: Certainly the most rewarding part is when you meet new people and can share what you're doing with them. Even if only 2 people show up to a gig, if you can connect with just one of them it feels like a success most times enough to keep you driving to the next gig. I've met so many different people and feel that it has given me a welcome perspective on who people are and what we're all searching for; some kind of light in the void. Carve your own meaning.
The worst part is obviously the missing your family when you're gone, and the stress of being able to balance all aspects of your life since so few people can actually make this their sole source of livelihood. Everyone gets home and keeps hustling somewhere. But we're all in this together, so it ain't so bad, for now.
WM: I'm always interested in having this conversation with other musicians. Can you pinpoint the moment in your life where you began to listen to music differently than before? When you decided that it was possibly a thing you'd like to do yourself.
Matt: My dad bought me a Led Zeppelin box-set and a Kenwood sound system when I was about 12. He immediately played something really loud. I think it was Black Dog. That was it for me.
Michael: Once I figured out that I could create my own melodies it’s been game on ever since. The Beatles were the band that broke the mold for me, Nirvana was the band that opened up the door. Those two bands allowed me to hear between the lines of music. To hear the cracks, and air. Everything started to breathe. The first moment I realized I wanted to play music was around 14. I had my first electric guitar without an amplifier yet. I also had a Lynyrd Skynyrd greatest hits that had a live version of Free Bird. I also had a full-length mirror. Combine all three and I saw an everlasting image of being a musician. I had zero self-esteem, I was 14, barely could play three chords, but I had a vision as I pretended to play with Fucking Skynyrd!! The Sound of the crowd has had me chasing this profession ever since.
Travis: The first was watching Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band every night on Late Night with David Letterman even before I could really speak. No joke, I was 2 years old screaming, "Dave! Dave!" at the TV in the kitchen. I was obsessed with Will Lee, and later Sid McGinnis because he would wear bright colored Chuck Taylor's every night, a touch I added to my early playing days with bright pink and yellow Converse. The second event would be seeing my cousins on my dad's side of the family picking out tunes by ear on guitar and piano at family parties, and making tapes of the first Weezer record for me and my brother, and telling us about Sigur Ros, and numerous other bands. They were only a year or two older than me but it seemed like they had studied the entire history of music at the time to me and it gave me the fever to study too. I now play and teach guitar, work at a record store, and still spend most of my waking hours searching for new songs to swim through my brain and I watch my two young daughters do much the same. Suffice to say they ruined my life and I'm just passing the buck.
FFN to William Matheny: We really dig what you do, with a healthy list of superlatives in various respects to your craft. What aspect of your writing, performance, artistry, etc would you say you've made the largest gap jump in from the time you started to where you are now? What do you continue to hold as your horizon to chase?
Thanks so much guys. I really dig what you do with a healthy list of superlatives in return! I love this mutual admiration society we have.
I think my songwriting and singing are the two things that have changed the most since I started. I can probably attribute that to my time spent playing in Southeast Engine. Being in the same band with Adam Remnant made me think a lot deeper about the act of songwriting and I really dug into that as a result. The same goes for singing. Seeing the way that people would respond to Adam and Jesse's vocals made me want work harder in that department. Now, I'm only working with what I have and no one's going to confuse me for David Ruffin anytime soon, but I'm trying to play the hand I'm dealt as best I can. Weirdly enough, I think I've regressed as a guitar player over the years but when you play in a band with Bud Carroll, Adam L. Meisterhans, Tom Hnatow or Jeremy Batten, there isn't much of a question about who's gonna handle the lead guitar.
As far as a horizon that I'm chasing, I admire the careers of people like Richard Thompson, Cass McCombs or Jason Molina. I love a deep catalog and people that built their careers by remaining faithful to a particular muse and really working their own garden. They release or released music very consistently and what they do/did isn't beholden to current trends or anything like that. It's all substance with those people and no novelties or flash. I try to adopt a similar ethos. You can like what I'm doing now, you can get into it a few years from now or you can get into after I'm gone. No pressure. My work will be here whenever you'd like to check it out.
FFN: Pick a biggest influence for each decade of your life musically.
Oooh, this is fun.
0-10 - Probably my father. He played in a bluegrass band before I was born and he continued to play guitar and banjo around the house. He taught me how to play and my parents record collection was my main musical diet throughout my childhood.
11-20 - Brian Porterfield. I'm a pretty big believer that the people around you are bigger influences than your record collection or favorite artists. Brian had a band in Morgantown for a long time called Cheap Truckers' Speed. When I first heard his music, it was kind of a wake up call that I need to ditch the cover band that I was in and start doing something real. I wanted to play guitar in his band, but he needed a drummer and I was really keen to get in the band, so I did that for a long time. He's really one of the great unknown songwriters in America. He's really ripe for cult hero status.
21-30 - Southeast Engine took up most of my 20s, so I'd go with the aforementioned Adam Remnant. For all the reasons listed above.
30-33 - Maybe too early to say, but let's go with John R. Miller, Elizabeth Nelson or Tyler Childers.
FFN: Moon Over Kenova does something we love, it tells us where you're from in a way that speaks strongly to your identity without wallowing in nostalgia or hepcat kind of name checking. How does your hometown inform you as a musician that you see as distinct from artists you admire?
Well, I'm not saying you have to write what you know, but it sure doesn't hurt. I guess I just try to live by the old writing workshop 101 rule of "show, don't tell" and let the regional references appear naturally as opposed to trying to shoehorn them in to what I'm doing. There's another song on Moon Over Kenova called "I Wish I Was Back in West Virginia With The Sun Shining on My Face" and it's my entry into the catalog of West Virginia songs that I love like "West Virginia Waltz," "West Virginia, My Home" and "Green Rolling Hills." However, I used the word 'fireflies' instead of 'lightning bugs" in the third verse which is total bullshit. I've never said the word 'fireflies' in my life.
FFN: What do you find the most rewarding and frustrating aspects of road dawging?
The most rewarding would definitely be meeting new people and seeing more people when you return to a town. It's the best feeling in the world to keep plugging away and feeling like your hard work is paying off. The most frustrating would have to be the toll that it takes on your personal relationships if you aren't careful. Now, I'm not talking about partying or infidelity or the other stereotypical dumb Behind The Music stuff. I'm mostly talking about how it hurts to not be physically present for the people that you love back at home.
FFN: Favorite artists outside of musical realms you find yourself most often associated with?
Just off the top of my head. D'angelo, Prince, Laura Nyro, Pavement, Television, Chuck D, Mercury Rev. Shabazz Palaces. I don't know how outside any of those choices are, but they're all artists that I love dearly.
Thanks to William Matheny and Frontier Folk Nebraska for their willingness to try something a little different! Look for reviews of both William Matheny’s soon to be released EP, Moon Over Kenova, and Frontier Folk Nebraska’s Foolish Frank EP before their show together at the Southgate House Revival this Thursday, which kicks off their SXSW Tour.