Charleston singer-songwriter Tim LeVan Miller comes out swinging on the opening title track of his new EP, Frontier Justice. Over a muscular, wide-screen rock backing that's heavy on blurry guitars and pounding piano, Miller sings about a battle in the Old West. "Here come wagons spitting fire," Miller sings. "They'll kill our families and rape our wives."
It's a gutsy way to open an album, and Miller says he took the inspiration from a true story. "I got the idea from a Fresh Air interview on NPR," he says. "They were talking about the Oglala incident" — a 1975 incident on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in which two FBI agents were killed — "and they mentioned justice on your own terms," he says. "And I thought that was such a perfect picture of frontier justice. So I used that as inspiration, the idea of people looking for justice in their own terms, and how that borders on right and wrong based on people's personal morals and interpretations of events."
Miller's lyrics are intentionally broad, with the intent being to let the listener interpret the song's story and perhaps its relation to today's society. "It's not a direct narrative of any kind," he says, "but it kind of moves forward and brings it to modern day social issues. It's a very broad picture that people can interpret in their own way, but I was trying to create a parallel between modern times and people taking things into their own hands and what I imagine occurred in the Old West, which was people doing things that were just in their own minds."
The EP then moves into a series of personal songs couched in mainstream rock and heavy, electric blues before returning to the past for the atmospheric closer, "Graze."
"Originally, the EP wasn't going to be sequenced with 'Frontier Justice' first," Miller says. "But I realized I wanted to hit something home right from the start. It starts off with a very broad picture, and then it kind of zeroes in on characters looking inward trying to find some sort of peace from their own issues and problems. And then it ends up with 'Graze' going back to that Western feel, which relates back to the title."
The songs all center around Miller's hushed voice and rhythm guitar, with additional layers added by lead guitarists Stewart John and Josh Hill and keyboardist Daniel Christian. "I wanted to play around with a lot of my blues and punk influences while trying to stay true to the idea of writing songs that could be interpreted with just my voice and an acoustic guitar," he says. "I wanted to write songs that you can do a full production on and play with a full band, or you can peel them back and there's still a melody and a story."
There isn't a lot of punk in the music on Frontier Justice, but Miller, who played guitar and bass on the album in addition to recording and mixing it himself, looked to that genre for some DIY inspiration. "The punk part goes back to me doing this myself and working with friends," he says.
Speaking of friends, Miller reached out to a group of them, along with his family, for feedback on the EP's songs. "From the beginning stages of when I thought the songs were finished, I started sending demos to the musicians that played on the tracks, my wife, my siblings, my family members, trying to see what kind of responses the songs evoked, positive or negative," he says. "I was trying to figure out where things were going. When you're the one writing and recording the songs, it's good to have some outside reflection and critiques from people to kind of open your eyes."