Sitting down with Citizen: the Midwestern rockers talk aging, insecurity, and being a group of kids out on a headlining tour

Photo Courtesy of Chloe Muro/ Creative Commons
Photo Courtesy of Chloe Muro/ Creative Commons

BY MOLLY KIEFER & BEN WEINSTEIN

MICHIGAN/OHIO quintet Citizen have been on the road since early March in support of their latest LP, “Everybody Is Going to Heaven,” and guitarist Nick Hamm was kind enough to sit down with us before their headlining show at Portland’s Analog Cafe. Clad in a charmingly tattered Sonic Youth t-shirt, Hamm gave us some insight into not only the band’s writing and recording process, but also (among other things) what it’s like being an insecure kid on a headlining tour.

PIOLOG: Hey Nick, thanks for sitting down with us. How’s the tour going so far?

NICK HAMM: It’s been great … almost unexpectedly great. I mean we didn’t think it was going to just flop or anything, but it’s definitely gone way better than we’d even anticipated. We’re all super happy.

PL: I think a lot of people who aren’t in bands or aren’t on tour are interested in what the touring lifestyle is like. How have you as a band, and then also you personally, adjusted? Has it been difficult?

NH: I feel like the hardest part is being kind of trapped with seven different personalities, which a lot of the time is completely fine, but sometimes if you get mad you just can’t escape. You just have to chill. And I’ve got my brother in the band, so I can’t get away from this guy [motions to Eric]. There’s a specific member of the band — who will go unnamed — that touring is not easy for. But for me, I don’t know, by now we’re really familiar with a lot of the places we’re playing, so it’s cool being able to go back to each city and kind of know where we’re going. We have certain spots we’ll go back to, or whatever. But I can understand why touring would take a big toll on some people. It takes some getting used to for sure.

PL: I’m from the Midwest, and I know you guys are from the Midwest as well. Is there anything about the Midwest specifically that you guys find yourself missing when you’re out on longer legs of tours that are in other regions of the country or in other parts of the world entirely?

NH: I was thinking about this the other day, specifically that I miss the flatness of the Midwest because out here we’re be driving through all these mountains and I just feel like we’re gonna die. So there’s definitely points that I miss just driving on flat land. I also miss the heinous fast food of the Midwest. I just feel like there’s access everywhere to complete garbage food, which I love. I miss that for sure.

PL: We were reading an interview you did back in 2013 where you talked about the music that soundtracked your tour and the stuff you were listening to then, specifically the new Kanye and Wild Nothing records. And considering that right now there are also new Kanye and Wild Nothing albums, we were curious if you’re still listening to them, or if there are other artists that you’ve been specifically listening to on this tour?

NH: There’s this band from California called Teenage Wrist that not a lot of people know about, that Andy from the band Praise showed us, and I would say Ryland plays them, like, every single drive … still listening to a lot of Kanye … the album “Don’t You” by Wet is a newer album that we’ve also been playing a lot.

PL: Can you tell us about your writing process as a band? Has it changed a lot since you first got together?

NH: Surprisingly it’s stayed basically the same – really slow and lazy. It’ll kind of start with either me or Matt writing a song, and then sending it to the other guys, who will turn it into an entirely new animal. That’s how it happens about 90 percent of the time. There are a few cases where we’ve written stuff in the studio, one of which actually was a song off our last record called “Weave Me (Into Yr Sin).” We built that song from scratch in the studio. We’d be like, “go record this drum line,” and then do it, and then keep building on top of that, which was a really fun way to make music. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best way, but it’s a way, for sure.

PL: It seems like there’s a lot of labeling that goes on in the media surrounding the music industry, where people try to fit bands neatly into certain genres and box them into that in an un-nuanced way. Do you feel like your sound has been mislabeled?

NH: I kind of feel like a lot of bands in the Run For Cover world (which goes beyond just the bands specifically on the Run For Cover label, but includes other labels, like Topshelf and stuff like that) — I feel like a lot of the bands sort of get marginalized and put in certain categories that they don’t necessarily sonically exist within, but it’s easy to just categorize bands for their old sound rather than making a point to acknowledge that they’ve evolved over time. Which is weird because we started as quite a young band, and when you’re 15 versus when you’re 20, although there’s not a ton of years in between those two ages, you change a lot during that period. A lot of the bands on Run For Cover, and our friend labels, aren’t what they used to be, so it gets kind of hard to climb out of that hole. I feel like we’ve kind of been in a stressful position in that way, but I really just consider us a rock band. There’s a lot of different rock genres that fall under “rock” but I just want to keep it simple and accessible.

PL: Run For Cover seems to be an increasingly cool label, how did your relationship with them initially form?

NH: Well I was actually in high school when we signed, and I used to just, like, bother Jeff on Facebook. And we had some friends that were on the label and they kind of nudged him, like, “Hey check out this band,” so we knew each other and we would kind of talk from time to time and we just happened to need a label and Jeff was like, “Yeah, I’ll put this out” and then a couple more records. It’s been cool. We’ve kind of grown with them through several incarnations of the band, as well as the label. It’s been cool watching them grow as we’ve also been growing, especially in that they’ve been in the industry without being too “industry” if you know what I mean. They still keep it fairly punk, so that’s cool.

PL: You’ve said something similar in other interviews, about how much you’ve changed as a band in the past five years, and that you feel disconnected from that older material in a lot of ways. Does that affect your experience when you’re performing those older songs?

NH: It can be weird, but I think I kind of click into a certain mode when we’re playing live, for some reason. We do keep cutting more and more of the older stuff, which I like. But certain songs, maybe I’m not listening to them in the van, but they’re still fun to play because I kind of feed off of other people’s excitement. I think where we’re at now, we’re writing smarter material. But yeah, for some reason live it doesn’t bother me too much.

PL: How was the transition from being a high schooler in a local band to getting signed and going on tour and being a band that headlines tours and gets interviewed? I think especially for creative people, having someone do PR for you … is that weird? Do you like talking to interviewers? (It’s OK if you don’t!)

NH: It definitely is weird. We were actually talking about this earlier on the tour; that when we started we definitely didn’t set out for it to be, like, a big band or a touring band… or have people working for us! It’s definitely weird stopping and thinking about it, but it’s been so spread out over years that those things just kinda feel normal at this point. There was definitely a time when we were used to doing things for ourselves, so when you have these people who work for you — I mean, they have our best interests in mind, but there are times where it’s just like, “I don’t want management involved right now” or “We just wanna do this, and do it our way.” There’s a lot more compromise when you get involved with a label or managers or an agent. The PR is cool, even though it’s stressful sometimes because you want certain press and they’re like “Fuck no, you’re high.” So obviously we can’t do anything we want, but for the most part everybody that we work knows how we are and they take it easy on us. So it’s not too bad.

PL: What is your guys’ relationship to reading reviews, like album reviews, or if you’re getting criticism on the internet … does it hurt? Do you not read it? How do you deal with that?

NH: We read it too much [laughs]. More than anyone else in the band I feel like I’m pretty in tune with certain reviewers and things like that, so if I see somebody’s gonna review our record or a show or whatever I’m kinda like, “Oh boy, here we go.” But in the end, that shit doesn’t matter. It takes some reminding sometimes, because you read a review and you’re like, “Oh man, that sucks,” but then it’s like … who is that person? You know what I mean? We’re young and we’re insecure for sure, and we’re petty, so we’ll hold a grudge against a reviewer. But that’s all right.

Eric Hamm: We’ve got all of our social media, too, so we’ll see everything that people tweet at us, and Instagram pictures and stuff like that. So it puts a little weight on us when we see something bad, but for every one bad thing there are five — or more — good, so…

NH: Ten good!

EH: A million good!

NH: We can’t have 20 percent bad, that’s 20 percent [laughs].

EH: We try to not overthink things because we see so much more good than bad, so you gotta try to not let it affect you. But we do pay attention.

PL: It’s really hard, I think, for anyone our age to deal with. Like any sort of social media presence. And then being an entity that is a band that on some ways subsists on good reviews. But also has fans, obviously, before that.

NH: Yeah, and I think, too, in a scene that’s for young people and by young people, those kids are insecure, too. So they see a certain reviewer say something they’re like, “Oh, yeah, right, I agree with this guy” because you don’t wanna be the one person going against anything. But we happen to be a band that kinda likes to go against things, so it’s kind of a weird position because you wanna be like, “Listen, don’t listen to these people,” because I feel like reviewers especially can be distractions from what’s really going on. Or [the reviewers] speak louder than people let the artists speak…I could go on for hours about that. I just feel like sometimes the voice is taken away from the band or the artist and it’s put into the hands of a reviewer — or maybe not even a reviewer,  maybe just a person in another popular band. It’s a weird position to be in because we’re not super heavy in social media, so it’s not like us to be outspoken or respond to anything. It’s just like, you let it happen and hope that people don’t actually really care. Hope that they just listen to the music, and that’s it.

PL: Do you feel like spending time with the fans or doing meet-and-greet type things after shows? Is that something that’s empowering for you, or is it draining to be around people that you don’t necessarily know, who potentially want something from you?

NH: It’s weird because a lot of times I’m younger than the people that I’m meeting, or the same age as the people I’m meeting. I don’t feel like I’m on a higher place than any of them, so it feels weird when I talk to people and they want a signature or something and I’m like, I’m just the same person as you. It can be draining in that sense, but I also think a lot of bands put value to their presence, and I think that’s really lame because we just try to stay accessible. I try not to hide away — I don’t sit in the van all night or anything like that — because that’s not a fun way to tour. So I meet a ton of people every night and I feel like it’s really cool because a lot of them are pretty like-minded. I try to be social, but I’m also awkward, so at times it’s kinda hard [laughs].

PL: Thanks for sharing that. Do you have any advice for young bands getting off the ground, since that’s a transition that most people do not succeed at, which you guys have managed to make?

NH: I feel like all I can say is just do what you want to do and be yourself, that’s like obviously very typical advice, but when I see newer bands coming up and getting popular – what people call “getting hype” – it’s generally not from a band that’s mimicking another band or whatever, and if I had any regrets in Citizen it would be that when we came up it was definitely the very young person thing to want to be your favorite band, and we definitely fell into that trap, and a lot of bands do, but really the most reward and payoff comes from doing what you want to do and being yourself and not really worrying all that. Like I said earlier, we didn’t really set out to be a big band, and I think a lot of times when people set out thinking “oh we want to be this big touring band, you know, make money” it just doesn’t happen. I think it’s better to let it grow organically, just do whatever you want to do.

PL: That’s good advice, pretty wholesome. So — last question — what do you see in the future of Citizen in terms of sound, touring, or anything else?

NH: Ever since the first record — and even more since the second — we’ve been moving to a place of being more concerned with creativity than anything. As we write more or make new records, they’re probably gonna be pretty different from what came out last and they’re probably gonna be what we perceive to be as smarter records or more creative records or more fun records. And I’m not too concerned with losing some fans if we have to, because we don’t really want to be the biggest band in the world. So we’ll see, I don’t know for sure. We have a few new songs in the kitchen, but generally I would say people can expect it to be pretty different from anything else we’ve done. We don’t wanna rehash anything.

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