When the line-up for the 2019 Unify Gathering was announced, one of the most exciting factors for me was the inclusion of Citizen. The Michigan/Ohio rock quintet pretty much dominated Depth Magazine in 2017 with a run of impressive singles as well as the release of their third album As You Please, which we not only gave perfect marks to, but awarded our Album Of The Year. I found the album to be beautifully vulnerable and poetic, as well as offering up ambiguity sufficient enough to relate to my own experiences as well as discover more with each listen.
To say I was excited about the opportunity to interview the band was an understatement. On a rainy morning in Melbourne, I was on the phone with Citizen’s guitarist and vocalist Nick Hamm, who was just leaving band practice. He commiserated on the weather, sharing “It’s nice and gloomy in Toledo, Ohio too.”
On the topic of rain, I wondered out loud if Citizen might cop the rain-soaked Unify Gathering experience that we enjoyed in January. It’ll be the first visit to Australia for the band since 2016, and Nick agreed that it’s “a long time coming” and that they are excited to be back. “It’s one of our favourite places to play. Obviously because it’s beautiful, but also we just happen to have really fun shows in Australia. And it’s kind of crazy that we have been over twice.”
Given that the band haven’t been here since the release of As You Please, tracks from the album will get a lot of love when they play Unify, as well as shows with Turnstile on their ‘Australia Tour 2019’. “It’s going to be our first time playing a lot of those songs in Australia. I’m ready! If it’s anything like the sets we’ve been playing, it’ll kind of be like spanning our whole.. I don’t like to say ‘career’, but it’ll be spanning the past few years of Citizen. Definitely hitting old favourites as well as newer tracks. We’ve got Turnstile to keep up with, so it’s definitely going to be a fun set.”
While I didn’t know in advance that I’d be speaking with Nick before the interview, I was glad that it was him so that I could ask about the album artwork that he had designed for As You Please. Fabric emblazoned with stars that are noticeably irregular/different from each other: Was it just a random or haphazard choice or something more?
“Well I kind of had this idea. I suppose every album cover we’ve had thus far has been pretty simplistic. But there was a few records that I kind of had in mind that I really liked the album artwork for. They were very geometric and simplistic. A Sly & The Family Stone record is the one that is kind of obvious. And then The People’s Key by Bright Eyes. Both of those record covers just fit the vibe of what we were doing. And so I wanted to do something in that vein. A lot of people have commented that the stars feel kind of like Matisse cut-outs so it was just kind of combining a few different things that I was inspired by and making a record cover that I felt fit the overall tone of the record. I knew that I wanted it to be more colourful than the last two. The first one was white, the second one was beige, and so I wanted to do red or blue. Something really bright and bold. Actually the first draft, it was blue. And then the band all voted for it to be made red. [laughs] So that was how it ended up being that.”
Kel: “Cool! I think it’s interesting how the stars are all different and all imperfect kind of thing.”
Nick: “Yeah! I definitely wanted each one to feel like their own character. It’s kind of funny, because I have my favourite of the stars. [laughs] I just like that.”
Kel: “Do you! [laughs] Which one?”
Nick: “There’s one in the bottom centre that’s extra wonky that kind of has seven different points or something. For some reason I’ve just chosen that one to be representative of all the stars. I wanted them to feel like they were dancing in a way. That one feels dancey to me.”
Definitely dancey, we agreed that the favourite star also has a Sonic The Hedgehog look to it.
Circling back to Nick’s mention of the ‘overall tone’ of As You Please, I asked if he could elaborate on this, having spent a lot of time wondering just what Citizen were saying in pretty much all of the songs, while also thoroughly enjoying it. Audibly squirming a little, Nick shared “It’s kind of a difficult thing. Because when we go into an album cycle, we’ve got managers and publicists saying ‘We need a meaning. What’s the story here?’ and we’ve just never really been that kind of band where there’s been that overall, thematic kind of thing. We’ve always just been friends that happen to be writing songs together. Any given song could be Mat exorcising words that sound good together. Others can be from a very personal place. There’s not really anything that I would say is like the overall theme or motif of the record – and we kind of like it that way. We kind of like that we’re not being held down to anything. We’re not doing any favours in quenching any press thirst. We just wrote a collection of songs that we like individually and otherwise just think that it plays out really well as an album. But we’ve never been concerned with spanning a whole album with a lesson of meaning. It’s just never been our vibe.”
Kel: “That’s fair enough. It sort of comes into the album artwork as well; You’ve got all of these individual pieces that have some kind of connection as well. That connection is you guys and the music, but they’re all very different and unique.”
Nick: “Yeah, totally. We try to make every song play a role; every song be a character all of its own. And I think that we did that on As You Please better than we’ve done it on any other release that we’ve done before. Even though we’ve always done that – where an album can start sounding one way and by end sounding a complete different way and have a completely different set of influences. But I think As You Please is where you hear it at its most cohesive. I think everything just fits a lot better.”
Fascinated by the ‘every song is a character’ idea, I asked Nick to elaborate on this and what role it might play in the creation of a song before it’s ready to come out into the world. “There are several songs that didn’t make the album. It’s kind of funny how two songs can be totally different but they just work really well next to each other. Or work really well contrasting each other. I thought that especially with “Jet” going into “In The Middle Of It All”. Two songs that absolutely don’t sound the same, but something about the kind of dancier riffs in “Jet” and then the glammy sample in “In The Middle Of It All”, it works together. So as we kept writing, it was kind of like ‘Oh this actually makes a lot of sense’. A song like “Discrete Routine” that’s mostly piano works against a song like “In The Middle Of It All”. So I feel like as we go, we’re just kind of inspired by what else you’ve opened yourself up to. For example when we wrote “I Forgive No One”, there was the vocal sample on the chorus of it. And then it was kind of like ‘Oh, so we can use samples!’. We’ve never really considered that before. And then you write a song like “In The Middle Of It All” which is obviously very heavy on samples. So we try to make each song open the door for another song. That’s what we’re always trying to do, pushing forward. Hopefully something will spark inspiration or an idea in something else.”
As a member of press/media in the music industry as well as a fan of the band, I asked Nick about the idea mentioned earlier in our conversation about not ‘quenching press thirst’. In both their music and in terms of sharing about their releases with media, it feels like they are content to have us ‘work hard for it’ versus having anything handed neatly in an easily-consumed, immediately-understood, and digestible package. Citizen are not a band that pushes to be liked or popular with what they’re doing.
“I think that we’ve kind of pushed back a bit against social media and press. I think we’ve always done things our way, mostly for ourselves, but also for the people that truly understand what we’re doing. We have plenty of fans that are kind of lukewarm or maybe they only like one of our records, and we would never really do anything to appease them. That’s kind of how I feel about media/social media/press. We’ve got certain fans that are paying attention every step of the way. They maybe got hooked by Youth but then they were still paying attention and interested in what we were doing on Everybody Is Going To Heaven, and now As You Please is like a totally different animal. So people really riding with us and appreciating the different things we’re doing. They don’t want us to write the same record twice. I feel like we’re more interested in having an ongoing conversation with them, rather than trying to appeal to the masses. Obviously we’ll take that if it comes our way. It’s gotta happen accidentally for us. I feel like that’s always been important to us.”
Considering the star artwork of the album cover and the uniqueness idea that Nick had mentioned, I wondered out loud about the title choice to be As You Please instead of perhaps “You Are A Star”, with the latter being a very obvious choice to match the artwork.
“Yeah well, that was an option too. Honestly this is not as good of a story as I wish I could give: The record was all finished. We had about one million album title ideas. Many of them had nothing to do with lyrics or a song title or anything. It was just things that we liked or maybe were inspired by something else. When it came down to it, we were just having this conversation and we couldn’t decide on an album title. We kind of settled on As You Please because it was the only thing that everybody liked. So unfortunately there’s not any great story but we just had the song “As You Please” and we kind of liked the idea of having a title track, and we thought “As You Please” was the best one.”
Emphatically with more volume to his voice, Nick adds that he was really pushing for “You Are A Star” to be the title, but that some band members thought it was ‘too hokey’. “That’s alright.. I ride with my team. But let it be known that I do think “You Are A Star” would be a very cool title.”
Considering Citizen’s penchant for ambiguity and extracting effort for understanding from listeners/fans, I took the perspective that maybe it would be a little ‘off-brand’ to have both the title of the album and the artwork matching each other – far too obvious! Bouncing off this, Nick shared that this was in fact was another reason why he had wanted to go for it.
“That’s actually what I really liked about it. It was strong and direct. It was a statement, like a finger pointing at you, like “YOU ARE A STAR”. We’ve never done that. We’ve never directed it right at people. There’s no mystery behind “You Are A Star”, you know. That’s kind of what I liked about it. For a second I suggested the title just “Please”. It reminded me of Help! by The Beatles. Kind of like that. For some reason just the word “Please” is a little more bizarre than the title “As You Please”.”
Kel: “Yeah, because it can be a request, but have more than one meaning.”
Nick: “It can be a request, a command. But we pulled that. We went with the more wordy version.”
Kel: “It worked. [laughs]”
Nick: “Yeah totally. I don’t regret anything.”
Out of time, I farewelled Nick. Very keen to see him and the whole of Citizen in action in just a few weeks!