Youth Without Youth: A deeper look at Citizen’s new album

photo: Andy Swartz

A version of this story originally ran in Substream #46.

Citizen guitarist Nick Hamm has a vision for his band that extends far beyond the music itself. “Everyday I’ve been trying to come up with new creative ideas,” he says in conversation with Substream, who reaches him at home in Toledo, Ohio, in mid-April while the band are gearing up to announce their new record, Everybody Is Going To Heaven. He mentions the idea of a listening event with an art installation based on the record tied into it. “Do things that other people aren’t doing, or maybe weird to be doing as a band. We’ve been trying to implement these different forms of aesthetic and not just be focused on the standard album cycle.”

Naturally, Citizen’s music is hardly standard, too. One listen to Everybody Is Going To Heaven shows a band experimenting fearlessly with tension, dynamics and creepy effects-pedal noises, crafting a dark strain of alternative rock that pulls from the anxious clang of ’90s industrial and shadowy, introspective gloom of late-period Brand New. What’s wilder about it is how young the songwriting core of the band still are: Hamm and vocalist Mat Kerekes are both 21; drummer Jake Duhaime, guitarist Ryland Oehlers and bassist Eric Hamm (Nick’s brother) range from their early-to-mid-20s. “Mat and I are both young,” the younger Hamm notes, “so every record I think you’ll hear a substantial amount of growth, which is really cool.”

Such growth was already apparent on their first full-length, 2013’s aptly titled Youth, with carefully textured, hushed lows and anguished highs, but it wasn’t without its blatant influences. There’s a certain Kingston, Pennsylvania-rooted band that inspired a younger Citizen on earlier splits and EPs as both acts followed parallel paths, slowly morphing from high school emo/pop-punk wunderkinds to more tastefully emotive and experimental, alternative-leaning powerhouses, and that influence might have pervaded Youth some as well. “To put it straight,” Hamm says earnestly, “to me, Youth sounded like Brand New, and it sounded like Title Fight.” Granted, those weren’t the only bands Hamm listened to at the time, but he struggled to figure out how to express those other loves in his own songwriting. “I was turning 18,” he explains, “and I feel like at that point in anybody’s life, but especially in mine, I was discovering a lot of new music but not really knowing how to implement it sonically as an influence. When we were doing Youth it was like, ‘Let’s make a collection of songs.’ And that’s pretty much as far as it went. Looking back at Youth, I think that it’s a collection of pleasant songs, and that’s kinda as deep as it goes.”

Youth, though certainly a very good debut, also had external critical assessments that motivated progress. “The criticism of Youth was definitely felt,” Hamm admits. “I think that opened us to push ourselves creatively and do something that was a little more against the grain. This record, there are a lot more influences I think are really subtle in places. It wasn’t just us listening to two records and being teenagers that just follow suit. It might sound lame to say, but I almost feel like our biggest influence on this record was anything that we did in the past, in the sense that we wanted to do not that,” he says with a laugh.

Hamm especially notes the growth he watched Kerekes experience and the catharsis the frontman drew from for the thematic subjects on Everybody Is Going To Heaven. “I feel like Mat stepped his lyricism up an insane amount,” Hamm says, beaming about his bandmate. “This album is pretty much all about one experience in his life and one person in his life. He went through a lot since Youth came out, and it’s crazy how much he’s grown through that. He experienced the death of his best friend, and that was terrible. The first song he was really touching on that was [2014 single] ‘Silo.’ When we came into this record, not only is he talking about talking about death on some of the songs, but there’s a lot more self-criticism as opposed to criticizing someone else, which I think is probably the biggest sense of growth in his lyricism. He would bring these lyrics to us and surprise us all by how much more insight it seems like he’s gained.”

Kerekes exorcises these demons with an increased, sprawling range in his voice, whether he’s screaming with fierce exasperation on the Daisy-esque “Stain,” breathily muttering like he’s dementia-ridden on “Ten” or effortlessly cooing falsetto melodies on “Dive Into My Sun.” It leads Everybody Is Going To Heaven on an unpredictable path, with the band often turning into unknown corners and rarely going for the easy or expected climax, sometimes allowing songs like the gentle “Heaviside” to softly twinkle to its finish amid a light pain.

For the mish-mash scene of emo, alternative and punk Citizen retain pseudo-contemporaries in like Title Fight and Balance And Composure, where exactly does an arguably weird and dark album put them now? Even Hamm isn’t sure. “On one hand, [touring-wise] it opens it up to bands that never would have worked before,” he says. “But on the other, it’s like, does this really work with our peers? Or is there any specific band that works really well with this? Or complements this? And it’s hard to think of. Which is cool because on the last record, it was really obvious and easy to say, ‘Well, that works, and that works, and that works.'” Hamm is likely making nameless reference to past tourmates like You Blew It!, Hostage Calm and Polar Bear Club. “Because it just fit in with the context of this kind of realm of music. But now, I don’t really know. Who do we tour with?”

It’s such an intriguing query that as of the time of this interview, the band’s post-Warped Tour touring plans were still somewhat up in the air, though they’re scheming for some new international destinations. (The band has since announced plans to support Circa Survive and Rx Bandits this fall.) Still, having toured more than they ever had in support of Youth, Hamm says they’re likely to lessen the load coming up. “When the end of the Youth cycle came around, we realized we hadn’t headlined anything yet,” he explains, “and that was really important to us. [But] we had toured so much we didn’t know if anybody was gonna care. We did the Silo 7-inch, and that turned our expectations of the tour around. And the tour ended up being great and selling out all over the place. But this time we’re gonna go into every decision as a band with a little more care and strategy than last time.”

With no expectations, it makes a positive reception all the better, but Hamm is pragmatic far beyond his years would presume. “I think it’s a great record, and if anybody gave Youth a generous review, I would assume this would get a better one,” he says observingly. “But you never know. I don’t know about the fans. Maybe if you’re expecting the same record again, you might be disappointed. I hope reaction is cool. But I’m also gearing up for people to not be into it.”

A version of this story originally ran in Substream #46.