Nick Hamm On Citizen, Toledo, and Bob Dylan

Interview by Danielle Chelosky
Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

Prior to my interview with the guitarist of Citizen, Nick Hamm, this piece would most likely commence with something about Citizen not fucking around. From drawing in a large audience by exuding catchy pop punk vibes on Young States and Youth to moving on by crafting a darker, more mature sound on Everybody Is Going To Heaven and As You Please, it seems as though Citizen has had it all planned out. However, when I set Hamm on a task to sum up As You Please in one sentence, the response was simple: “Citizen having fun.” So, I guess Citizen really does fuck around. And they do it well.

Citizen’s switch in sound is evident and almost consistent at this point. “I don’t ever want write something that people are expecting us to write,” Hamm explains as a goal for the band. Thus far, they’ve successfully achieved this unpredictability with all of their released material, refusing to be confined to one sound or be labelled as one thing. Looking back at their iconic debut album Youth, a collection of music that was popular for its relatable melancholy and irresistible nostalgia, it’s nearly impossible to catch any resemblance in the two records since then. “We were pretty young and we were just kind of insecure,” says Hamm about the making of the record. It was a fairly juvenile era; it pulled in the crowd needed for them to have a space on 2014 Warped Tour. The transition to the new sound on Everybody Is Going To Heaven came naturally—“we just kind of wanted to do something that was more gritting our teeth a little bit; a little more aggressive and not as—for lack of a better word—sad as the first record.” Plus, after attracting thousands of fans from Youth, the album that was easy to listen to and understand, a type of creative freedom was bestowed upon the band. “We just wanted to take advantage of that,” and, whether the same people liked it or not, Citizen was already big enough to continue thriving.

As for the change in sound, the development of Mat Kerekes’s unique style of songwriting cannot be neglected. “As times goes on, his lyricism gets more eloquent,” comments Hamm. “He opened up a lot more than the more abstract lyrics on Everybody Is Going To Heaven, but they’re not quite as on the nose as the lyrics on Youth.” Playing with motifs of family on songs like “Jet” and implications of apathy on “I Forgive No One,” Kerekes blends mundane subjects with flowery, complex language. Hamm calls it finding a good middle ground, and Kerekes has mastered the art. Since one of the most famous lines in modern emo, “I should’ve crashed the car / the night I drove alone” in “The Night I Drove Alone,” Citizen did not completely abandon this generally gloomy lyricism, only refined the style to be more ambiguous and morbid.

“I think it’s something that people can enjoy pretty immediately,” says Hamm about Citizen. In the scene, you won’t find a lot of people who don’t like Citizen—I mean, go to a local show and you’ll probably see a person or two wearing an Everybody Is Going To Heaven hoodie or a backpack with a Youth pin on it. “At the same time… I don’t think it’s punk enough for a lot of people and I think it’s too dirty for another set of people,” and while this unfortunate division could bum them out, they instead interpret it as a challenge to mess around with. “I think we’re just right in the middle of something,” and Citizen, the growing face of modern emo, is that band that everybody’s heard about and has an opinion on. Whether it’s appreciative or the opposite, the band still views it as an opportunity to do whatever they want.

Yet at shows, things appear to be absolutely cohesive and in line. It seems as though Citizen’s discography transforms into a different experience, for both the fans and the band. Hamm admits that typically he sees all of Citizen’s records as separate and disconnected from one another, but when the songs come together on setlists, it makes sense. “I view it way more as one unit, which is kind of interesting,” and the band always tries to include beloved hits from all of their records, even if it means clashing sounds from Youth and Everybody Is Going To Heaven together. They may contrast when played back to back on shuffle, but at a show, an unprecedented flow ensues.

Now, Citizen is back on the road and passing through venues with capacities half the size of the venues on their last tour. “Coming off the As You Please tour, we had production and lights and we were playing big rooms, like sometimes too big of a room, and this time we were like ‘let’s just go back to basics,’” and although the stage setup had been captivating and the crowds were loud and encompassing, smaller venues always possess a certain intimacy and liberation that exists nowhere else. “Let’s just do cool venues, cool cities that we don’t usually get to play,” and the night before this chat, the band had played in Bloomington, Illinois. “As a band that’s been around for almost ten years now, it’s exciting to be able to play somewhere for the first time.”

And when it comes to the godsent lineup with Basement, Hamm claims that in his head this tour has been planned for five years (and I think a lot of people can relate). In reality, it came together fast due to the mutual interest in visiting lowkey cities. “I can’t say enough good things and I hope it’s not the last time we’re touring with them,” and plenty of fans—including me—are hoping the same. However, tour, for Hamm, has impacted the way he attends shows. “I’m probably going to the least amount of shows now because I’m on tour,” and he hopes that once Citizen slows down, they can return to the Toledo scene to try to spice it up. He started going to shows in 2005—the larger scale shows that everyone starts off with, typically at an arena or stadium. Eventually, he ended up in local Toledo venues and nurtured an appreciation for that setting and those local bands.

It all started with Green Day, though. “There were songs where I thought, you know, I could totally learn this song,” says Hamm. “I wasn’t listening to anything like Zeppelin where I could be intimidated by the musicality, so that was what really got me into music and made me especially get into guitar.” Now, though, his music taste ranges immensely—from delving into hip hop roughly two years ago to exclusively listening to Bob Dylan at this current point in time. “It’s probably annoying to my band who has to listen to the same thing in the van for months on end,” he laughs.

When Citizen comes to a close, he has a few vague ideas of what the future might hold. “I don’t view Citizen as a band that’s gonna last twenty years,” he (unfortunately) confesses. “I don’t think anybody really wants that; we just wanna play as much as we can and just keep being as creative as possible.” Hamm will probably pursue a career in graphic design after the band, considering he has been using the band as a tool to play around with design by working on tour flyers and merch.

“I really don’t know if I’d be in a touring band again,” and he’s better off moving onto a new chapter, because he fears that continuing this hobby for too long may yield a resentment for it. Learning new things would be ideal for him, whether it be tailoring clothes or experimenting more with filmmaking. “I constantly want to be doing something new,” and he, much like his band, is going to do just that. | Listen Up