| BEC Recordings artist Citizens & Saints is not the easiest band to define. They make worship music that doesn’t always sound like worship music, and they’ve been known to straddle a few different musical genres while maintaining their own identifiable sound. Continuing the momentum gained by their late 2014 release, Join the Triumph, the band has also maintained an identity that’s weathered some changes. Foremost is the name, from “Citizens” to “Citizens & Saints.” Front man Zach Bolen has also transitioned from a church staff position (as worship leader for the Mars Hill’s Seattle U-district campus) to full-time work with the band. Jesusfreakhideout.com’s Mark D. Geil caught up with Zach just before the holidays to find out more about these times of transition…
This interview took place on: 12/3/14.
- JFH (Mark D. Geil): Your name change might be new to some of our readers. I understand the story has something to do with a band in the UK called “Citizens!,” correct?
Zach Bolen: Yeah, they actually have really good music. They just put out a new single yesterday, I believe. One of the things that they were running into was that their label that they signed with said they wouldn’t let them release their album “until this new band changes their name.” We realized it wasn’t cool for them because they were getting held hostage. Also, the spirit of our band is not the name. The reason we do it is not to proclaim the name “Citizens;” it’s to proclaim the name of Jesus. So we realized this would be foolish for us to even try and pursue, trying to make it to where we keep the name, because it would definitely involve some sort of legal proceedings. Though our name change has affected us a little bit, fortunately we were able to change it to something fairly similar to the original, and it still kinda fits with the original meaning behind the name, which comes out of Ephesians 2. It’s definitely been a little bit of a challenge, but just for the sake of the Gospel, we’d rather make friends out of this than enemies. We felt like we have with those guys, and we want to support them and have felt like they have done a good job supporting us too.
- JFH (Mark): Tell me some of the practical issues with name change.
Zach: Most people that already follow us are already aware of it, but the biggest challenge is that you’re having to communicate nowadays primarily through social media, which you would think is helpful — helpful because it gets information out quickly and to a lot of people, but if for some reason they miss it in the newsfeed, or haven’t been on in a while, it just means we have to communicate it a lot. What’s helpful is actually doing a lot of these interviews because in almost every interview I’ve done it has come up. Also — I wasn’t aware of this until recently — but there’s a couple of bands with the name “citizen” in it, like Christian bands, actually. For instance, Relevant just released a Christmas compilation and they put one of our songs on there. I noticed there’s another band on there, I’m assuming a Christian band, that has the name in it as well, Citizen Shade. So that’s the other complication too, because there are other bands out there with a similar name, it just means we have to communicate it all the more. And honestly, we don’t mind explaining it. For a lot of people, it maintains the integrity of the genre as well. A lot of people might show up to a concert or something that we’re playing and they kind of feel as if it is more like entertainment, but explaining why we changed the name goes beyond that.
- JFH (Mark): You choose some of my absolute favorite hymns on your albums. Did you grow up with hymns, or encounter them some other way?
Zach: I did grow up around hymns, but I didn’t particularly appreciate their weightiness and their value to the church until I was much older. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and we’d sing hymns, but they were always kind of depressing for a young boy, and I just kind of remember sitting there thinking, “Oh, I hate this.” They just weren’t used for teaching or for leading — it was just, “Alright, stand up and turn the page to 263 and let’s sing ‘Nothing but the Blood of Jesus’.” There was never a call to worship, never an explanation of why we sing. It was just, from my perspective, like a bunch of nostalgia for old people who had experienced these great moments and things that God had done through these hymns, but I just wasn’t connecting with it as a young boy. But then as I grew older I started to study and read the Word more and I realized that there was a lot more to learn from those songs. And in fact, what has really helped me is my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago, but she was profoundly impacted by hymns. Now, as I remember, stories she would share and the way she would share with me about Jesus, there were a lot of lyrics from hymns that she would use to describe to me the love of God. I am really thankful for that, obviously the reason she was sharing that with me is that the hymns gave her a continual foundation, something that, I guess you could say, built her lexicon about how she would describe the love of God and how it has transformed her. I have felt like for whatever reason, culturally we ditched them for a while and so that’s why all these battles have come about. And I get now why the older people have fought against the contemporary stuff for so long because maybe it wasn’t articulated to them. But these hymns are full of such rich theology and they are transformative because they’re rooted in God’s word. It’s important for songwriters and worship leaders to maintain as we move forward if we want to bless our kids’ generation like my grandmother’s generation and mine in different ways.
- JFH (Mark): That reminds me of a time when our middle daughter sang “How Great Thou Art” at a family reunion in a little country church. Hannah mainly knew the song because of a Carrie Underwood version. My wife’s grandmother was there – I think that was the last one she attended because she’s in her 90’s and has Alzheimer’s – and even though she can’t tell you what happened yesterday, she sang along with every word of that hymn. It’s like it’s imprinted on her soul.
Zach: I think it’s pretty remarkable. We even got into a conversation at one point, back when I was on staff at Mars Hill, a bunch of the worship leaders were saying that in some ways, if we’re being faithful to writing songs that are Gospel-centered and rich in the Word, that we should expect that these are songs that people will sing, maybe on their deathbeds.
- JFH (Mark): No pressure!
Zach: *laughing* Really! But the thing is, a song like “How Great Thou Art” just proclaims and boasts about what God has done. So it is written by people, but I’d like to say it is the voice of the Lord speaking through His people. Much like the Psalms are as prayers. It’s crazy to think about that hymn, I don’t know how old it is but I would venture to say it is at least 100 to 150 years old. That someone would be singing that when they’re going through a pretty profound transition in their life to where their mind is essentially deteriorating, it is remarkable that that song would bring comfort, maybe even in a subconscious way.
- JFH (Mark): So the new album represents a bit of a shift musically. There are synths and loops in just about every song. Was that intentional from the outset or did it just happen through the writing and recording process?
Zach: It definitely just happened. The best way to describe it is that I’m a very indecisive person, but also when it comes to musical stuff, I’m a perfectionist. I want to get things right, but I also like to go a lot on the feel when it comes to the musical arrangement, the composition. For this one, the sound kind of evolved. I think it had a lot to do with some of the bands we were listening to at the time, a lot of synth. We also didn’t have a ton of time to work on it, and so I think that’s why there’s more cohesion on this album. We’d be working on one song and jump right to the next. The style and the sounds were still there. I think in the end that’s why it sounds so much different than the last album, because we were sitting with a particular style in a very concentrated amount of time. Ultimately, we maintained a question: musically, does this support the lyrical content of the song in a way that enhances it and moves people through the journey of what it is communicating?
What we wound up doing, everything on the album, with the exception of some of the synth stuff, is all live tracked. Even the toms, the fills. That was something that we really wanted to do.
- JFH (Mark): What were some of that bands that have influenced your sound?
Zach: Well, a lot of times, I wouldn’t say the album is stylistically like a particular band that I love; it’s like a bunch of bands I love. That’s always been the interesting part. I grew up and loved Ryan Adams or the alt country thing. I’ve loved bands like Manchester Orchestra — the greatness of his voice and the guitars. The sound evolved out of all of that together. Also for us, too, being in a college-based church, I’m getting inundated with a ton of new bands. College students are always saying, “Check out this band,” “Check out this band.” So I think it influences me in a way I don’t even realize. Unconsciously, I’m retaining all these sounds and this vibe kind of came out in this album.
- JFH (Mark): I think there is a challenge that’s unique to worship music that comes from the desire for it to be used by the local church. There’s a tendency for bands or artists to simplify their songs or arrangements so a praise band can use them for corporate worship. Does that enter into your head when you’re writing songs?
Zach: I think that writing for the church is the hardest genre if we are to be faithful to it. Case in point: there are a lot of people who probably know a ton of Beatles songs. Those songs have stuck with people. But hands down, the songs that really stood the test of time, interestingly enough, have been the songs that were written either for the church, like hymns or commissioned by the church, like a lot of Beethoven pieces, for example. I think that for us, I want to write songs that obviously are musically and stylistically accessible. But even more than that, our hope is that people would look past that and ask, “How would this song bless our church?”, and then not feel like they necessarily have to play it exactly like the recording. I don’t know where that came from or when that started. For us, I think it is less about a musical style and more about trying to promote the content that exists in those songs because just like those hymns, we want to write stuff that is transformative. The only way we can do that is if we’re writing songs that are rooted in the Word of God, which is transformative.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with raising the bar musically in what we do. We could water things down, and I think that’s fine, but you can only water things down so much without it just sounding the same every time. I think it’s interesting: you listen to a piece of classical music performed by, say, just a string quartet or just a piano and they feel very different. But for some reason, when we hear a worship song and we think watering down, we think it usually just becomes acoustic guitar — like folk music. That’s kind of the thing right now. I think that’s going to change pretty quickly just because that’s kind of how we are as people — we get tired of genres and styles and we move on. So we want the accessibility in terms of: is the message clear? These are the big things that we’re filtering through as we write.
- JFH (Mark): I really love the album cover. Did you have involvement in that?
Zach: We did. It sort of began originally as a flag concept–this banner that God’s people would be carrying. Here we are, we’re inviting people to join the triumph and we just thought, “What would that look like from an image standpoint?” Originally, we had an idea of people running through a field or city or whatever carrying this banner. But essentially, it’s calling attention to two things. One: a giant group of people, what are they doing? Why are they celebrating? Oh, they’re celebrating because Jesus has saved them. But it’s also an invitation for others to join, people who don’t know Jesus. That’s how it began and then it became a little bit more subtle through the neon. We wanted to create some more intrigue and mystery, with something darker, and then the back of the album being something with a huge group of people, this body of people that have been joined together by Jesus, one that will continue to grow and prevail in God’s Kingdom. We wanted it to be something that can proclaim both triumph and celebration for God’s people, but also the truth and that people who don’t know Jesus can see that there is triumph here.
- JFH (Mark): A potentially loaded wrap-up question for you: You guys are a unique voice in worship music, which is a really good thing. How would you describe the state of worship music today, given that it’s been a bit of a critical flashpoint?
Zach: I can only speak to what I’ve experienced. On one hand, what we’ve experienced is that music is a really powerful means for communicating something that is much more powerful than the music itself. I’ve always said that it’s the music that submits to the Word. The Word is unchanging, yet it’s timely, which is — not ironic — just a mystery. That’s why it’s something so foundational. How can this rock that has been the same from the beginning — “The word was with God, the Word was God” — how is it that this Word, that’s been spoken from the beginning, can still have this effect on us thousands and thousands of years later within a culture that is completely different? I think it is the Holy Spirit that’s living and active through this Word. I believe there’s probably a lot of great worship songs out there that the churches are singing that many of us will never hear. For whatever reason, they’ll just never be recorded or picked up by a label and distributed in a way for lots of people to hear them. But I do know that for the bands that are out there and doing it, I think we have a huge responsibility to be really faithful to God’s Word and to not manipulate people through emotional statements that focus more on what we do instead of the work of Jesus that has already been done. And the work that we do, any work that we do after we’ve been saved, is a result of God. He prepared us to walk in that before we were even created. I think that that’s such a crazy concept when you think about that. He knew that we’ll be redeemed through Jesus and He will give us a mission and the abilities and tools through His Word and through our mouths and actions to be able to proclaim the Gospel to a world that is in such desperate need of it. I think that’s really incredible. The work that we boast in is not our own, it’s the work of God. So as for the student of worship music, we’re going to have to focus more on that, more on the work Jesus has done and less on what we’re going to strive to do.
What happens sometimes in the songs that we write, and I’ve been guilty of this too, is that we proclaim a statement or lyric like “I’m going to worship you all my days.” And while that is a really great intention, it’s impossible apart from the Holy Spirt to actually stay rooted and continually worship God. We know that through passages like Romans 1 that tell us that they exchange the glory of God for a lie. We’re constantly worshiping either God or something else. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in and crushes those idols and helps us turn to worship God. I think that’s an incredible gift that we’ve been given through the Holy Spirt, but at the same time, I think it’s one we forget a lot of the times. Instead of writing songs that are really clearly rooted in a passage or a truth, we tend to just write songs that are a little more emotional than they are transformative. It’s the Word that redeems our emotions, which is such a cool thing when you think about it. It’s not saying emotion is bad, it is a wonderful gift God has given us. I’m so thankful for it. When we’re writing based on how the Word is transforming us, and the experience and emotions that come from that, I believe it’s way more impactful than to just write something to get people to scream or shout — just emotion. If people are honest with themselves, I do think there are a good bit of people who are writing with that in mind, and that’s a really dangerous road to go down.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in church, and the pastor was preaching on the word “hesed” and talking about God’s one-way covenantial love. I realized as I was sitting in this sermon that I have written songs about exactly this, but I don’t know that I’ve been completely believing it. That’s such a testimony to God’s Word. It’s not a band that’s writing those songs for the church, it’s the Holy Spirit. He allowed me to be a part of this journey and participate in this process. God’s eyes remain fixed on me even though my eyes don’t always remain fixed on Him. His love is not in need of reciprocation, it’s just Him loving us because He wants to. That’s a message that is really important for us to get out right now. That’s the beauty of songs – sometimes we have to sing them over and over before when can get to a place where our hearts fully believe in them.
- JFH (Mark): I guess the most important question is, how is Nate’s mustache?
Zach: Nate’s mustache is doing just fine! We were just in a van for a week, and we’d joke that every time he’d wake up from lying down in the back seat, his hair and his mustache were completely unmoved. Incredible!
Citizens & Saints’s latest album, Join the Triumph is available now wherever music is sold!