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Interview: Citizen

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Citizen don’t like fitting in. Since the release of their first EP, Young States, in 2011, the band have been labelled as everything from straight up pop-punk, to hardcore, and even shoegaze.

The band’s breakthrough came in 2013, with their full-length debut Youth. The album received widespread critical acclaim, and instantly labeled the five-piece as ones to watch for the future.

But despite this success, when it came to making their second album, Citizen - whose line-up consists of vocalist Mat Kerekes, brothers Eric and Nick Hamm on bass and guitar respectively, drummer Jake Duhaime, and guitarist Ryland Oehlers - weren’t interested in simply making Youth part two.

Now that the band’s sophomore album, Everybody Is Going To Heaven, has been out for over six months, I sit down with guitarist Nick Hamm before their headline show at London’s Dome to reflect on the record’s reception, and how things have changed for Citizen.

Citizen

“We wanted to make a polarizing record, and I think we did,” says Hamm. “I think we’ve knocked down some of the doors we’ve been needing to.”

Everybody Is Going To Heaven is evidently bleaker and heavier than Youth. The band’s use of quietness and delicate melodies contrasts with visceral screams and moments of pummeling heaviness to create a bigger, darker sound.

But Citizen didn't set out with any particular style in mind for the album - although they knew they wanted to make a distinctly different record to Youth, they didn't know how it would be different.

“When we started off writing the record, we definitely didn’t intend for it to be what it ended up being.”

“It wasn’t just us in a lab, building something where we knew what the outcome was going to be. It’s just ended up it’s own animal.”

What inspired this experimentalism, explains Hamm, was the band’s constant desire to be inventive. Citizen were keen to tackle Everybody Is Going To Heaven in a new way, right from the beginning.

“This record was just us throwing out any rule books,” he says. “We wanted to be as creative as possible.”

Rather than coming armed with complete songs and dissecting them in the studio for tracking, Hamm tells me that the recording process involved more layering, and building on each different element of the music. Some songs were approached like hip-hop tracks or beats, and in an entirely different way to those on Youth.

“There’s a couple of songs that we would do drum by drum – each part by each part,” Hamm says. “And I thought that was a really cool thing for us to do.”

With Everybody Is Going To Heaven showcasing such a range of dynamics – from the soft, mellow vibes of songs like ‘Heaviside’ and ‘Yellow Love’, to the aggressive riffs and biting screams of ‘Stain’ and ‘My Favorite Color’ – Citizen have been able to “build a live set in a more interesting way,” says Hamm.

 And what is his personal favourite song to play live at the moment?

“It’s a tough question,” he pauses, ponders for a moment, before deciding on ‘Yellow Love’.  

“Even though it’s really calm, we’ve noticed as the shows go on, ‘Yellow Love’ gets a better and better reaction, and it’s always exciting when you put out new material and people respond to it like that.”

The influences that fed into Everybody Is Going To Heaven were varied. Hamm’s constant favourite artist is Kanye West, although while making the record, he was listening to “more punk and more noisy stuff,” while vocalist Mat Kerekes was into the more industrial side of things.

But these influences have changed even more since the album's release in June last year.

“Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Sky Ferreira and Iceage,” says Hamm, “so our tastes are pretty all over the place. I think if you asked each member you’d get five different answers, for sure.”

This diverse range of influences is likely one of the main reasons for Citizen’s ever evolving sound, which currently, is very far from that of their first EP Young States, written when the band were still teenagers. Now almost approaching seven years since their formation in 2009, do Citizen feel like they know their own sound better? Do they know where they’re going from here?

“We haven’t necessarily found our sound, because we’re not really looking to find our sound,” says Hamm.

“A lot of people consider [Everybody Is Going To Heaven] to be a departure [from Youth], but I don’t think we really had anything to depart from, because everything we’ve put out over the past four or five years has sounded different than what came before it, and I think that’ll just continue happening.

“Whatever we do next won’t sound anything like this current record. And I think that’s really cool. From an outside perspective – as a fan of Citizen – I’d be excited to know that we [Citizen] don’t plan on rehashing the past at any point.”

Being so sonically fluid and open to new ideas, Citizen have never sat comfortably in one particular scene or genre – in pop-punk they’re too heavy, and in hardcore they’re too mellow. But are the band content with their current position?

“I never want to be content,” Hamm smiles. “Sonically, we don’t really have a specific place. But at the same time, it’s cool, because we can do a tour with a band like Turnover who we sound nothing like, and it makes for a really cool progression of the show.

“I’m never content,” he says again. “But I’m definitely happy.”

It’s funny. ‘Happy’ isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when describing Citizen’s music, or their live performances.

Later tonight, I see the now easygoing and relaxed Hamm tearing up the stage with his intense, glittering guitar-work, absorbed in the band’s hard-hitting and relentless set – and he’s a world away from the guy who tells me that he misses his bed and his cat Daisy (who, he hastens to add, is not named after the Brand New record).

But Hamm is certainly a happy individual. His genuine excitement about being in this band and sharing his music with the world is palpable, particularly when he recounts his number one Citizen memory of touring Australia last year.

“I definitely never thought that I would ever go to Australia, let alone get paid to go to Australia. That was just crazy,” he says, animated.

“When we started the band, we had no intention of ever doing anything like that, or even coming to the UK or Europe. I just thought it would be a band that played shows on the weekends. When we were in Australia, that was when it really hit. I never even thought I’d be on a plane, let alone going to Australia to tour.”

But when Youth came out in 2013, Citizen went rapidly from playing small weekend shows and not being talked about at all, to being the band suddenly everyone was talking about – and people weren’t shy about speaking their minds, whether that was to love the band or hate them. Having formed the band while still in high school, this wasn’t easy for the young members to deal with.

“It forced me to grow up a little bit,” Hamm reflects.

“We got launched into this space where we were seeing a lot of opinions – positive or negative – and nobody in the band at that time, and still, even, is really good at ignoring negative things. Youth launched us into this place that we weren’t used to, which is also a reason that we wanted to make such a drastic change [on Everybody Is Going To Heaven],” he explains.

Despite the positive response to their full-length debut from both fans and critics, Hamm reveals that it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in the Citizen camp during the album’s cycle.

“Certain people, or certain bands, viewed Youth as a safe record.

“So, we were really set on not making a safe record again, and on doing what we wanted to do without concerning ourselves with popularity. And in doing that, it’s pretty much solved every problem that we were dealing with during the Youth cycle. I think we definitely shook off some naysayers, and that was just one of many things that we wanted to do with [Everybody Is Going To Heaven].”

With two impressive albums already under their belts, and evidently a desire to continue pushing musical boundaries, where do Citizen see themselves in the years to come?

“I’d like Citizen to have made a good legacy,” says Hamm.

“We’re not the type of band that wants to stick around for the next 10 years or anything like that, or be a nostalgia band playing 10 year reunion shows. When we feel like we’ve done all we can creatively, we’ll just put our energy elsewhere. I think most of the people in the band will never stop making music, so it’s just a matter of if it’s directed towards Citizen or somewhere else.

“But definitely within the next five or 10 years, I would hope that we’ve left behind an influential legacy, if nothing else.”

Citizen’s latest release, Everybody Is Going To Heaven, is out now on Run For Cover Records.

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