Toledo, Ohio based band, Citizen, was playing at Trees with bands such as Sorority Noise and The Hotelier to make up for the Sound on Sound Fest cancellation. I was lucky enough to sit down with their guitarist, Nick Hamm, in their tour van after battling through traffic for an hour. We discussed different aspects of touring, collaborating with other bands, and what creates shifts in the groups sound from album to album.
I’m really excited to see you guys play tonight, I was actually supposed to see you at Sound on Sound Fest this weekend before it got cancelled
Yeah we were all super bummed about that, we were really looking forward to that. But we’re excited to play tonight with The Hotelier package.
That sort of brings me to my first question, do you like playing festivals or do you enjoy the small venues more?
I think that the smaller venues are more of our element for sure. That’s not to say I don’t like playing the festivals because there’s also something really cool about not having to worry about, there’s no stress on you to bring people necessarily, you’re just, your goal is to play as well as you can for the people that are like a built in audience, and that’s cool but I do think that playing clubs is more of our element, and we really know how to do that more so than how we know how to work a festival crowd
What makes you say that, is it just experience?
I suppose so. We’ve had some really, really cool festivals, and we’ve had some that are not really cool at all you know, it depends. When you’re playing something like riot fest for example, that’s already so much our kind of world anyway, like a lot of citizen fans just go to riot fest anyway, so we find that doing that is pretty simple and it’s business as usual. But then you have other festivals that are really a gamble if it’s going to be good specifically for us or not, and we run into that from time to time. I think just we’ve played hundreds and hundreds of club shows, so we just are so familiar with it that it feels like second nature at this point.
What about indoor vs outdoor?
I definitely like indoor, but outdoor at night is really cool. Outdoor during the day is a bit bizarre for us.
“It’s so raw, it’s like having no makeup on”
Something about just the vibe, I don’t know it’s a totally different thing, you don’t have lights. You really, daytime no visuals are like helping you at all, you better just sound fucking awesome. If not, there’s really no saving grace. It’s so raw, it’s like having no makeup on it’s just the visuals aren’t going to conceal anything from the fans perspective.
What’s your favorite and least favorite part about touring?
This keeps changing as time goes on, my least favorite now is the anxiety of having a bad show. Which, I feel like I never used to have. It was always whatever, this show will be good, or it won’t be, whatever. And lately I’m just paranoid I guess, I’m just like oh man I hope this is cool. And it always is, so I don’t even know why I have those feelings.
Do you think it might be because I’m guessing you’re attracting bigger audiences than when you guys first started?
I suppose so, maybe it does have something to do with that, there’s just more pressure because there’s more people. But yeah, that’s kind of a new thing that is probably the downside of touring aside from general missing home. But also, that’s just such a boring answer so I’m not going to do that.
What do you enjoy the most about it?
My favorite part is I guess just travel in general. I mean aside from just playing shows which I love to do, but, it’s always like really cool to hit these familiar things that I go to a few times a year and that’s really cool when you stop and think about it.
Today we were all excited to hit Bucky’s and it’s just something that could easily stop happening right now. We just don’t tour again and that’s it, and maybe I never go back to these places that are rather menial, just kind of mundane is more of the word. I like traveling and I like having these spots and every time we come back to a place, we have a new spot and it’s just, I don’t know kind of exploring these cities and them feeling like our own is really cool to me.
For sure, most of us live in Toledo, Ohio, so it’s not a music scene that is necessarily booming, but we have cool people putting on, and really grinding, putting on shows, our friend Joey does a lot of punk and hardcore shows in Toledo and that’s really cool, we try to hit all of them. There’s some really cool bands like Secret Space, and Mat’s brother’s in a band called The Flats, there’s a band called Good Personalities that I really like.
We try to hit as many as possible, otherwise we’re like really close to Detroit, and we kind of mingle with the Detroit scene quite a bit. Jake plays in a band from Detroit called Freedom, so we are pretty often going to shows in Detroit because most tours go there, and Detroit just has a lot of cool stuff going on so it’s easy to tune in.
Whenever you guys are on tour do you work on music at all?
We generally don’t, but I’m trying to. It’s kind of is a joke, but also I want to actually do it, is try to write a song with Cam from Sorority Noise. He was just like “alright let’s write a song this tour” and I was like “alright let’s do it.”
We have like two weeks left, so I’m gonna try to in that time do it because I think that’d be really cool. But otherwise, not really. There’s been a few cases that it’s happened, but generally it’s hard to focus on something like that when we’re gone.
You mentioned collaborating with Sorority Noise do those opportunities ever arise during tour? Do you get to collaborate with other bands or is it rare because you’re so busy?
It’s pretty rare and I honestly don’t know if it’s because of how busy bands are, or if it’s just people are kinda scared to bring up something like that, but I think it’s really cool. I would like to do a lot more collaboration going forward because it’s just not something we’ve done very much, and it’s always been like “let’s write music amongst us” and that’s it.
But I also think if we have friends who are really good at an instrument that none of us play, why not have them write with us or play on a song or whatever. I think that’s really cool, we’ve been talking for a while about Cam playing saxophone or clarinet over one of our songs “Yellow Love,” and so I think he’s practicing it, and try to get it down before the end of tour. Doing stuff like that is really fun to me, so I hope we can do more of that for sure.
I’m hoping once I get home I can find time to just start writing, even though an album just came out
So on this topic of recording, how does that process usually go. I’m guessing you wait until you’re back home and away from touring, so how does that kind of get started.
The process starts really far in advance for us, from when we actually record. Even when we get home, like I’m hoping once I get home I can find time to just start writing, even though an album just came out, but I just like to keep moving and so does Mat. He’s constantly writing, he’s got a studio at his disposal so it’s really easy for him to just write and demo and whatever, and just keep the creative juices flowing. But yeah generally the recording process is pretty far removed from any tours. Just because it’s so hard to get out of that headspace of being a performer.
When we write an album, that’s the last thing I want to feel that I am, a performer. Because I feel like people come to our shows for entertainment, and I don’t really want to write an album with that in mind, like equating an album to entertainment, because I just want it to be creatively the best that it could possibly be, and I’m not exactly sure that goes hand in hand with being entertaining. It’s always different I suppose, there’s been times that we’ve had to go right from recording, to a tour, or right from tour to recording. And that’s totally fine, but I think we make our best work when it’s pretty far removed, and we’re relaxed leading in to the process.
You mentioned that you don’t want to go into it with the mentality of being a performer. How do the fans and current trends affect what you record? Every album that you guys have released has been a slight shift in your sound, so I’m interested in what creates that shift. Is it “ok well the fans really like this, we should do something like that” or is it sort of one of you guys is feeling something and you go towards that.
If that does happen I think that it’s subconscious. We definitely never discussed “I think this would go over really well so let’s do this” it’s always just been sort of like “this is what I’m feeling writing,” or this is a natural response to whatever came before. Like, when we released our first album, the way we felt and the way that we were viewed were two very different things. I think we were like, largely viewed as a pop punk band, but to us we didn’t feel like that. We were like no we’re just a rock band, and we were doing a lot of tours with pop punk bands and things like that.
They showed a lot of love and that was cool, but we were just kind of like ok well, now I kind of just wanna write something that could not possibly be considered pop punk. So we wrote a pretty abrasive rock record. And it was like kind of our way of being like, make no mistake, this is Citizen, not what you think Citizen is. Then coming off of that, into this new album, it was kind of like ok well, we gave you this kind of album that was designed as a statement, and now we just wanna write fucking catchy, experimental, but still accessible songs, and just really flex our song writing, rather than flexing our style or aesthetic changes.
Was that a decision you made before recording, or was it while you were creating stuff it sort of seemed like you were going in that direction
I think everybody knew, even right when Everybody Is Going To Heaven came out, immediately after when we started writing music, it was way more upbeat, and fun, and I think that it was just, we had to get that out in order to do something like the new album. When we first started writing, the first song that Mat ever sent, was this song that just had a very dancey beat to it, and we were immediately all on board. “Oh yeah this is exactly what I would’ve written,” you know what I mean. “This is the direction that I was thinking anyway.”
So you all kind of just agreed on the same?
Yeah it just seems very natural, and it’s kinda funny because now I don’t know if I have, I’m not really —maybe the album’s just not been out long enough, but I don’t know what my feelings are, what I think the natural response to As You Please would be.
You don’t know what’s next?
Yeah, I think that’ll be clearer as time moves on, but it’s an interesting place to be in. Because last time around, it was so obvious. But we’ll see, I think that things are a lot different now than they were when we were first starting as a band, and we kind of have to maneuver these changes and whether that happens or not I don’t know, I guess that’s up to fans. But I think that we still will always be pushing for doing something that’s outside of our own box, maybe that’s outside the box for other people too, but our main concern is pushing ourselves to be a little weird, and a little experimental all the while it still being songs that just somebody could just listen to and know immediately, “I like this, I’m on board with this.” I think that’s the goal.
I honestly think rock music at large isn’t necessarily red hot anymore. It was for a while, everything was pop punk, and that was in like 2009 when I first started going to Fireworks shows and stuff like that in Detroit. That was the climate, and then Title Fight came along, and everything turned rock. Everybody wanted to be Title Fight, and then things start to change and then all of a sudden it’s Basement, and it’s Citizen, and it’s Turnover. Then its Modern Baseball, then it’s Pinegrove. That shift, before you even notice it, you just went from Title Fight to Pinegrove, which is, you know people like both those bands at the same time, I’m one of those people, but that’s also like what a sonic shift.
The climate is just constantly changing, and I feel lucky that Citizen has even maneuvered from 2013 to now, I mean we’ve been a band longer, but 2013 is when we first started really going hard and just being able to exist at that time, when the red hot bands in my opinion were Basement and Title Fight, and then to still exist now and be doing ok for ourselves and just existing, is not the easiest thing to do. Going forward it’s like the same thing, we know that we feel like savvy and smart enough to accomplish that, and to maneuver successfully but all the while not give in to what anybody wants us to do or whatever.
So the overall climate of the scene still affects your sound, but you don’t let it sort of take away from your creativity?
I think it adds to our creativity, but I don’t think it changes anything that we do. I think it does keep us on our toes because there’s bands out here that I think have really smart ideas and that makes me think “ok, that was a good idea, now we need to go hard.” We need to play leapfrog here. I think that’s important, and that’s a step forward for everybody. Every time that a band or one of our peers releases something impressive or that pushes boundaries a little bit, it’s like a step forward for everybody, and it makes everybody have to work a little harder and be a little more creative.
What are some recent albums that made you guys feel that way?
I think Pinegrove is just a really, really good example, because I think that they are creative, all the while having songs that feel classic, and that’s not the easiest thing to do. This meeting place of experimentation, and also really just to the core, good songwriting, isn’t always the easiest thing to do, and I think that they’ve made a bit of magic for themselves. That’s a band that I’m inspired by for sure. I think that The Hotelier is another good example, who we’re playing with tonight. I just I watch them live and I’m like, “wow, we need to step up our game,” and that’s good. I’m glad that there’s bands out there that are doing that for me.
Real musicians have infiltrated punk, which is crazy.
I actually saw Pinegrove here about a month or two ago, and I hadn’t heard about them until a few weeks before and I was very impressed with their stage performance
Oh cool, yeah, they’re just amazing musicians. Real musicians have infiltrated punk, which is crazy. I still feel like I’m just the kid who wanted to play music because I heard Dookie for the first time, and so I never cared about being a player. Now these bands out here are coming in like fucking, such good musicians, and I’m like, “wait a second, I thought we were on the same page, nobody was gonna be like, good at their instrument.” So that is another thing that makes me have to up my game, Sorority Noise for example, all excellent musicians, and I’ve never really considered myself to be one, but touring with them I’m like, I gotta learn some riffs here.
Since you’re touring with them right now, do you learn from them, ask them questions or is it sort of just being around them you learn.
Absolutely, both. None of us view ourselves as being a “headliner.” Where there’s like this weird hierarchy-like structure, we just have never felt like that. We have no problem being like “oh Sorority Noise, we have a question for you.” Like Mat has been talking to Adam from Sorority Noise quite a bit about singing in the healthiest way, and questions about playing piano and stuff like that. I’ll ask Cam to show me music, or I’ll show him music, or whatever, and that’s really cool because I think that there’s plenty of bands that are out here headlining tours who probably just look to be people giving out that kind of info, or influence and not really being concerned about taking any in. And we just wanna constantly be taking in new things, and new music, new info.
As for current bands, there’s a band called Royal Headache that I really love from Australia, that doesn’t really have a sonic influence on Citizen, but I just really like what they do. I really like Parquet Courts, which is a band that I really didn’t pay attention to until this past year, and I just was ‘like wait a second, this is influenced by all the bands I love, I have to get on board with this.” I also listen to a lot of The Band, and a lot of Beatles. That lately, listening to The Band and watching “The Last Waltz” has made me really concern myself with rock music and just being a better player, but also being a better songwriter. Listening to The Band also leads me into a big Bob Dylan kick, and that makes me fucking obsess over songwriting because they’re one of the best songwriters to ever live.
Those are bands that Citizen could not possibly sound like, but they influence things in one way or another, whether it’s an idea or just the idea of being better at what I do. Those are currently, probably my influences so to speak.
That brings me to my last question, what’s your favorite album to perform?
Definitely the new one, definitely As You Please. When we get to the As You Please songs in the set, I’m genuinely stoked. Right when we get to it, it just feels new, it feels fresh, it feels exciting, whereas the other songs I’ve been playing for so long that I’m just like, they’re about as good as they could be. When we get to the new songs, it just is such a rush. Whenever we’ve been changing the set around and playing different new songs, at different points in the tour, and it’s just like so exciting because there’s still so many songs from the album that we’ve never played live. I just look forward to even the next tours, when we can do a new one, or a couple new ones or whatever.
What would be a song that you’d really like to perform live?
I’d really like to perform “Discrete Routine.” That’s one that’s going to take some practice, it’s mostly piano so that’s on Mat, and he plays it totally fine, but there’s also like three part vocal harmonies throughout the entire song, and those are fickle. We gotta get those down, but once we do, we definitely want to play that song. We just added in “Ugly Luck” to our set, and I love playing that song live.
What would be your favorite song right now that you’re playing?
That was such a, I feel like such a different song from what is usually expected out of Citizen, so the first few times I heard it I was like whoa.
Right, yeah totally. Yeah, I mean a lot of people were like, they were taken by surprise by it.
It surprised me at first but now I love it, and the ending kept tripping me out. The first few times I was like ‘are my headphones ok?’
That’s sick. Unfortunately we can’t recreate the ending live, unless we have somebody unplugging the PA and plugging it back in, but thank you. I really love playing that song because, I mean we play it second, but when we get to it, it’s just such a shift in vibe. It’s just like going from “Jet,” which is upbeat and fiery, and then just dropping down to just this driving song, this very cool song and it’s just like, feels like a fucking breath of fresh air, so I really like playing that song too.