When HeBrews in Leo first opened in 2008, it had more than selling coffee beverages in mind. Seeking to bring a Christian mission to its venue, Matt Hawkins began bringing in music for people to listen to while they enjoyed their espressos and cold brews.
While seeking bands with a Christian message, Hawkins also had one key requirement of the bands he brought to HeBrews.
“It was mostly stuff that I like and that I listen to,” he said. “I was looking for things in that realm and would ask them to stop out here.”
Asking bands — especially national acts — to make a stop in Leo, Indiana, sounds like a stretch. But Hawkins has spent a decade establishing rapport with the right people to get the job done.
“We have a pretty good network now and have built up a trust with promoters and booking agents,” Hawkins said. “They know what kind of place we have here, and in building up that trust, we also have musicians telling their other music friends about us. We’ve had a band come here from New Zealand. Of course they weren’t here just for us, but we have a good spot here between Chicago and the East Coast, and it’s handy for them to pop in. So we’re in a good spot.”
From Seattle with Loudness
The upcoming Citizens performance on Sept. 19 is a good example. Tickets for the opportunity to see the Seattle band are only $15 ($19 day of the show), but a $40 VIP ticket includes early access to the band, a Q&A, and an acoustic set in addition to the full band performance.
Bringing in a band like Citizens is a good example of the right timing and the kind of band Hawkins is happy to host.
“Their sound is different,” Hawkins said. “They have good songs, but the sound is just different. They have solid Christian songs, and there’s an honesty in their songwriting approach.”
That cohesiveness that Hawkins hears when he listens to Citizens has taken some time to cultivate since they first formed eight years ago. The truth is, they didn’t even know each other when they first formed the group in 2011.
“We all met as part of a unique community in Seattle,” said Zach Bolen, lead singer of Citizens. “We all belonged to the same church, and we wanted to start a band and play music.”
Given the fact that they were just meeting each other as they were first playing together, Bolen admitted that it took a bit of time for it all to come together.
“It took awhile, and it was a challenge,” Bolen said. “We were trying to converge all of these influences. Plus I’m a bit hard-headed, but they put up with me and love me. We have a respect for each other and have really come together. But it’s not like we were all friends and decided, ‘Hey, let’s start a band!’ We were getting to know each other at the same time we were making music together. We had no history with each other. It was a challenge but also a strength for us. We were honest, raw, full, and we believed in it. By our third record, we were really radical together, and our influences were more common. So despite the challenge and struggle, it’s been really rewarding.”
Like a shotgun wedding
Bolen also has an analogy for the birth of Citizens.
“It was like a shotgun wedding,” he said. “We met online, decided it was meant to be, and said we’d spend the rest of our lives together.”
The bringing together of those influences has been what makes Citizens so unique. Not surprisingly, Bolen finds inspiration from a significant time in Seattle’s musical history.
“We’ve always had a ’90s nostalgia and throwback kind of thing,” he said. “For awhile when we were first playing, not a lot of people were stepping into that. We’re influenced by all the eras that came before us, so the ’80s are sneaking in there, and the 2000s are coming back. But the ’90s are influencing a lot.”
Citing not only bands like Nirvana but also pop groups of the ’90s like Third Eye Blind, Bolen said that the one key element that has spoken to the members of Citizens is playing together as a group.
“There’s something really special about making music together,” he said. “It’s not just sitting on a laptop making beats, though that’s fun to do, too. But good or bad, it just feels better to play all together as a band.”
Recording what they can play
Having recently released their fourth album, Fear, Citizens approaches recording with an ear toward their performances.
“Our values were always to be able to play what we record,” Bolen said. “That’s a huge component of recording, and it’s been pretty true for us. There are a lot of cool things you can do in production, a lot of liberties you can take. But you want to be able to play those songs live. Of course sometimes the song will sound different because maybe we used an orchestra on a track so we have to do something different when we play it live. But it’s fun to mesh the two things together.”
Earlier this year, Citizens began touring in support of Fear as an opening act, playing primarily on the West Coast and in Texas. Now they’re focusing their energies as headliners in areas around the Midwest, East Coast, and Southeastern states. They even have dates planned internationally in 2020.
But through it all they remain solidly devoted to their Seattle roots and enjoy the place the arts community has in their hometown.
“There are a lot of companies coming in like Amazon and high-tech startups,” Bolen said. “But there are also a lot of artists, and just like in the ’90s a lot of musicians are deciding to do things their own way. There’s always going to be tech companies and capitalism, but art still has a place here, too.”
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