From Warped Tour to Bath Houses: Three Years With Citizen
Toledo, Ohio's Citizen are in one of the strangest positions imaginable: Warped Tour favorite and potential critical darling. Few bands are able to say they’ve toured with the likes of shoegaze wunderkinds Nothing and pop-punk laughingstock Man Overboard. Listening to the band in its current form, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that they once had a shady easycore past, and yet here they are. Their 2015 album, Everybody Is Going to Heaven, expanded their reach with a newly refined sound, catching the attention of some, the criticism of others. But divergent opinions notwithstanding, they’ve reached a level they’ve been climbing towards for the past several years.
I’ve been a believer for a minute. My first real introduction to Citizen was before all this music writing shit, in the summer of 2013, at the last Warped Tour I would attend. Their EP, Young States, and previously long-buried easycore demo sat in my hard drive for years, popping up on the usual long-ride listening circuit, or iTunes shuffle. In line at Mountain View’s Shoreline Auditorium, someone was walking past the long snake of people, selling the new record Youth, which had just come out. It was kind of a striking cover; considering that several unfrozen metalcore clones from 2007 had tried to push their extremely brutal art on everyone, seeing just the word "youth" spelled out in roses was kind of sweet.
It was a strange summer. I was two years into college and totally unsure of what the fuck I would do with a creative writing degree. My friend and I were among the older members of the crowd, excited to be out of school and dreading summer reading. Citizen’s set rolled out around 5PM, the sun dying down and kids crowding around the small stage. It was a good smattering of old and new, the poppy angst of Young States cuts like “Drown” and “I Still Shut My Eyes” having that perfect summery power-chord vibe. I was still a kid, obviously, at 20 years old, but it felt like I was miles apart from the crowd, young teenagers full of life and buoyancy, throwing their bodies on top of each other to crowd-surf. But our differences evaporated when Citizen launched into their final song, “The Summer.” Maybe it was the way everything felt around me, but for that first 15 seconds, it felt like I was witnessing something approaching genius — a feeling encapsulating every summer emotion. Pure, unadulterated Youth.
Two years later, I would meet the band in New York at Best Buy Theater during their October tour with Circa Survive. I had figured out what the fuck to do with a creative writing degree: writing about music. I wound up interviewing guitarist Nick Hamm over email about what would be their follow-up to Youth, the aforementioned Everybody Is Going to Heaven. Compared to Youth, this was jarring, a sonic change of season from late summer to mid-winter. It connected with me a lot more than I thought it would, and the email sort of illustrated why. Citizen, too, were growing out of the kinds of bands they worshipped when they were younger. My reaction also kind of surprised Hamm.
“These bands aren't going to write the same records at 23 that they did when they were 18,” he said. “They can't be expected to. I also think bands in this 'world' feel discredited. I think that keeps everyone on their toes ... always wanting to push the limits and go further than they did before. I think it's a really good thing. It's always strange to me when people complain about us or our peers changing. We should encourage bands to constantly want to push further and further ... keep banging on the door.”
Thanks mostly to the cult-like following any Anthony Green project earns, their reception at the Best Buy show was mild, but accepting, especially compared to the Warped Tour’s loud enthusiasm. Frontman Mat Kerekes’ pained yells over new tracks like their single “Silo” fell to mostly indifferent phone stares. After the performance, I went backstage to say hello. The five members, their manager and a couple others were all packed in the green room. It was the day the band was receiving their Taco Bell “Feed the Beat” reward: a drawer of gift cards for them to use on various locations on tour. We all greeted each other, made the usual kind of industry small talk — great show, how are you guys, etc.
Soon, I got to hang with the band again — this time not at a venue, but the Russian and Turkish baths in the East Village this past July, followed by a rendezvous at Brooklyn’s Market Hotel later that night. It was a surprising invitation. My previous experience with other dudes and saunas revolved around fraternity shit: a hyper-bro air that felt good after downing a load of Jameson with a bunch of other pledges. You could say Kerekes is built like a fucking tank, but like the other members, he was a quiet, polite dude. Apparently, the band was extremely excited to do this, having heard about it from Nothing’s Nicky Palmero. This is all to say that, when I met Citizen, they were huge sweeties, and going to a bath house with them was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
The day of our meeting, we met up at Tompkins Square Bagels in Alphabet City. Citizen were all crowded together, looking like a regular group of dudes hanging out. So regular, in fact, during Citizen’s two nights in the city, I passed them outside a venue, realizing a block later that I would interview that group of regular guys the next day. Outside the bagel shop, we exchanged hellos, and I mentioned my dumbassery from the day before, which cracked everyone up. Once the bagels were procured, we went to the actual Tompkins Square Park and chowed down.
Citizen's dynamic is funny. The photographer I brought along originally thought drummer Jake Duhaime was the leader of the group. He was stoked on life — in a few months, he was getting married, hence extremely into the forthcoming “spa day.” Guitarists Ryland Oehlers and Nick Hamm were quiet; the latter was set to do an interview about Walter Schreifels’ influence later in the day alongside Ned Russin from Title Fight. Kerekes was pissed off and surprised by the fish on the bagel he ordered, not knowing that lox meant salmon.
We arrived at the Turkish bath house. It was a large brick building — on the inside floor was a small dining area, a check-in desk and a straight-up deli. We checked in, went to the lockers, changed into shorts and went into the basement. The basement was a long hallway with different steam rooms on each side. We started with the basic steam room, and sat around for a while. The band was immediately into it. I couldn’t imagine how sick it would be to go to a steam room after a long tour to cleanse.
They wouldn’t let you roll down to the baths with your phone or electronics (for extremely obvious reasons), so any kind of dumb interview I could have come up with fell by the wayside. Instead, we wandered from room to room, the various intensities of heat sparking different reactions from the band members. I talked to their acting tour manager, Ben Russin, who drums in Title Fight, while in the ultra hot room. There was a well of ice water that you could pour over yourself during the intense heat, not to mention an ice bath that I jumped into, a total shock to the system. Oehlers and I talked about how rad the cryotherapy thing must be. Kerekes was a very popular guy, many old men staring in his chiseled direction, a couple of them starting conversations with him about his tattoos, even asking whether or not he was a fighter, to his discomfort.
Steam session over, we went upstairs to hang for a bit. Ben Russin came into the main waiting area, looking distressed. “Yeah ... I saw some guy get a handy in the aroma therapy room.” It made sense. The room seemed to only have one light bulb, leaving half of the space pretty much covered in darkness. “Extremely chill,” he concluded.
We settled up with the owners, who tried to hustle the band into buying a year pass. “It’ll end up being cheaper in the end,” one of the Russian men said. “No, really, we’re not even from here — we’re cool with paying” said Oehlers. The people behind the counter soon became confused, unable to handle dealing with a whopping eight people, but refusing to take responsibility for any confusion. “Hold on, idiot!” one of them said to Kerekes while they shuffled through receipts. He let out a sigh and waited.
After all the ruckus, we left and the band split up. Nick Hamm was off for his watch thing, while the rest of the band would Uber to their van and drive into Brooklyn for that night’s show. In the Uber, the band was laughing and reciting the lyrics to Buckcherry’s super hit “Crazy Bitch.” We passed by Webster Hall on the way uptown.
“Oh hey, it’s Webster Hall,” Kerekes said. He turned to me and poked my shoulder. “I built that.” I cracked up.
We continued uptown, the band still laughing about Buckcherry. “You’re not down with the Buck?” Kerekes asked.
“Nah, dog — I fuck with Saliva exclusively. ‘Click Click Boom,’ greatest of all time.”
Kerekes laughed. He was able to come up with the song’s lyrics off the top of his head. “Yeah, I wrote that song, too,” he quipped. “I love it.”
We got out of the Uber at the van, and piled in. It was pretty normal band dude shit: sleeping bags and MacBooks littered the rows of seats. I sat down, and saw a 10-pound bag of whey protein powder by my feet. It was half empty.
“Oh, gee, I wonder who this belongs to,” I said. Kerekes got in the van and grinned.
“Yeah, that’s mine. Eight bucks a scoop if you want some.”
On the drive to Brooklyn, pretty much everyone got out their phone to keep playing Pokemon Go. Not surprisingly, it was harder to play while on the highway — the Pokemon move too fast and shit. Everyone was quiet, but relaxed, taking advantage of the nice break to throw Pokeballs out the window. The van rolled up to the Market Hotel in Bed-Stuy, and we all filed out. Across the street, a Popeyes had caught the eye of Eric Hamm. Oehlers was really excited about the prospect of getting a Coke, and Kerekes seemed to be asleep. The rest of us wandered over and ate. I asked about that sick Taco Bell sponsorship, and apparently they used up most of their cards by that point already. Taco Bell on a daily diet did, in fact, kind of suck, but free food was free food, they summarized. I figured it was a good time as any to let them go about their business, and I took the subway back to my place so they could soundcheck.
Later that night, the Market Hotel filled in. It was pretty clear that most of the crowd was there for Nothing, but if there was any air of pretension in the room, I couldn’t detect it. The aroma of weed wafted through the air. The venue was packed tight, a multitude of different folks all excited for the show. Culture Abuse were up first. The band seemed a natural fit to be playing with Nothing, singer David Kelling seemingly making up the performance as he went along. They played loud and fast, a goofball mix of good tunes from their latest, Peach. After their set, Citizen would take the stage, and the energy in the room would change up a bit. In Brooklyn Vegan’s review of the show, Citizen’s performance got about three sentences of coverage, with the rest split on the remainder of the bill. The room's energy did change, reflecting that attitude towards a group of put-together dudes sandwiched in between chaos. But Citizen came out ready to show everyone up.
The first thing I noticed when they started playing was that it seemed like they were way louder than before. On their records, the instruments are mixed cleanly and precisely, tones flowing from one track to the next. But perhaps as a way to prove they could roll with the indie darlings, everything was far chunkier. Everybody Is Going to Heaven cut “Cement” sounded absolutely sinister with the new mix. In particular, Eric Hamm’s bass tone brought to mind the grit of early Marilyn Manson, turning the song from cool album opener to essential live cut. The other EIGTH songs carried the same kind of textural weight, inhaling and exhaling both intensity and tenderness. After an instrument changeover, the band dived into songs off of Youth, with a pit almost immediately forming and kids appearing out of nowhere to charge the stage. The excitement brought a smile out in Kerekes, the rest of the band nodding to the rhythm of “Roam the Room.” Although it felt like Citizen’s fan contingent was smaller compared to Nothing’s, the voices singing along to “The Night I Drove Alone” seemed to push the decibel meter into the red. “The Summer” once again drew out those glimmers of brilliance, cast against the room’s wide window to the warm city night. It could’ve gone terribly, an ostensibly pop-punk band playing to a hip young Brooklyn crowd, but maybe the audience saw those glimmers of brilliance, too. After the show, I said goodbye to the band, thanking them for the day, and nearly shaking Eric Hamm in my excitement over that bass tone.
While I do enjoy being an adult fan of Citizen, there’s a part of me that's nostalgic for being a teenager. Whether at Warped Tour or a hip Brooklyn venue, I see a kind of energy in younger fans that's probably already dissipated from me. Aside from Citizen, I’ve sort of moved away from this genre, for the most part. I think back to that Warped Tour summer, realizing I was moving further away from being a teenager, and now I’m even further away from that. I can imagine having crushes in U.S. Government class and sending them burnt copies of Everybody Is Going to Heaven to impress them with how mature my tastes are. And maybe the band has grown out of that pure, youthful energy they once had, settling into the idea of being “artists.” But for now — and for however long they're together — they’re a band that can still easily impart that feeling into fans, regardless of age.
I didn’t ask Citizen what the new record will sound like. Of all the dumb sauna questions I could have fired off, that was my only regret. But something is telling me it'll bring that joy — the joy of nights alone listening to music and wondering what the next day will bring.
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