Hotly touted as a ‘name’ for 2012 at the end of last year, London’s most exciting new indie disco-styled pop band Citizens! are indeed justified in applying the exclamation mark to their name – and not just to differentiate them from the band without an ‘!’ With a fresh and vibrant approach and immensely danceable songs, it’s not surprising that they have been steadily garnering a growing fanbase across the UK and Europe. Following their second single release ‘Reptile’ in March, and in advance of their debut album (produced by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos) and European and UK tour (starting May 12 in Amsterdam through to June 18 at Sheffield SOYO), we spoke to the band’s engaging frontman Tom Burke about Citizens!, socks and…sex appeal:
I first came across you at the start of this year, back in January at Hoxton, but it wasn’t until a couple of gigs later that something starting ringing bells and felt ‘familiar’ in some way. Then I got it: Official Secrets Act. But I’ve not come across any mention of your former incarnation anywhere. Is this something you have chosen to distance yourselves from?
[Official Secrets Act were a quirky indie pop outfit, 2006-9, who received a fair amount of critical praise, formed of Tom Burke, vocals; Lawrence Diamond, bass, vocals; Michael Evans, guitars, keyboards and Alex Mackenzie, drums. Their debut album ‘Understanding Electricity’ was released in March 2009 on the One Little Indian label. Burke, Diamond and Evans now make up three-fifths of Citizens! – with Martyn Richmond, bass, and Thom Rhoades on guitar. For their present roles, Diamond has changed to playing synths and Evans has moved to drums.]
TB: No, not at all. To be honest, no one has asked us about it!
Your vocals are very distinctive though, if one has heard both bands, so I’m surprised few have picked up on the connection.
TB: Most people either have short memories, or didn’t know about OSA in the first place.
What was behind the break-up?
TB: We loved being in that band and we learnt a lot from it. The reason why we broke it up in the end was because we realised it wasn’t the band we wanted to be in long-term. So while we’re proud of it, we are way more proud of this new thing we have created. But OSA is not like a secret we’re keeping, just that it hasn’t occurred to most people. After being in that band, which I think had a lot of ideas, but not much discipline, and then hearing something like The xx record – which to me was so kind of disciplined, tasteful and mature – well, it totally changed my way of thinking about what being in a band really is. And meeting Alex Kapranos had a similar effect because he had a real art school mentality in terms of questioning everything he did and refining everything. So the challenge in starting this band was to focus in on just one or two particular things and do them really well, rather than trying to do pretty much everything. We released the album, then about two weeks later, the drummer – who was one of the main songwriters – had a cycling accident and he was off the road. We toured…and then we decided we just weren’t excited by it anymore.
Both Mike and Lawrence have changed their instruments in the new band, was there a reason?
TB: Both of those guys are quite comfortable playing different instruments, but also if you take someone out of their comfort zone a bit and put them in a new position, it will hopefully be more creative.
Are they comfortable now in their new positions?
TB: Er, yes – well I hope so!
So when did you actually start to shape Citizens!?
TB: After OSA broke up it was then about two years – we still knew each other and were still writing, but we had pretty much gone our own separate ways. Those were the kind of ‘dark times’; holding down jobs, soul-searching, figuring out what we wanted to do. Then three of us, along with two new personalities who brought a completely new energy to it, came along and we started this new band. I don’t at all think of it as a reincarnation of the same band though. The point of us starting this band, Citizens!, was that we thought there always needs to be bands that make amazing, imaginative pop music. There’s Lady Gaga and Rihanna – who are amazing pop stars – but the bands who are making pop music are pretty fickle. We wanted to be the band that made pop music credible and exciting again.
Do you think you are doing that?
TB: (Laughs) Yeah. We’re very proud of our album. It takes a lot of discipline to do that, so every decision we’ve made has been informed by that kind of mission statement. So choosing the producer, choosing which label we were going with, how we were going to tour, how we are going to play live – you may have noticed that we use a lot less backing tracks than other bands – all these things is to do with trying to be, like, honest, in a way; not trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and not let ourselves be manufactured in purely commercial terms.
How did Alex come to hear of you, was it via OSA, who had been compared to Franz Ferdinand?
TB: No, the first contact we had with Alex was when we were already talking to labels and looking around for a producer for the demos we’d made. We sat down and wrote, I think, close to a hundred songs; just in a room on a laptop because we had no money, and played them to friends first of all. From there people started to get them, then next we had someone wanting to manage is, and then labels started talking.
Was there a specific reason behind the name ‘Citizens!’, particularly given the other band with the same name?
TB: We didn’t know anything about them at the start; we were just looking for a name that was a powerful word. Nothing long or complicated, just one word that was relevant. And thinking about what that word would be, especially at the end of last summer with the riots and the on-going Arab Spring, suddenly it seemed like one thing everyone in the world was thinking about was how to be individual, how individuals relate to the State, how they relate to each other – and ‘citizens’ leapt out and just seemed perfect. That was why we put the exclamation mark on it, because it’s a bit of a call to arms as well, this kind of new pop movement that we’re embarking on. So, that was where the name came from.
When did you actually start doing live shows – can you remember your first?
TB: Erm…(pauses) trying to remember…we played a gig down at the Windmill (London) around August last year. I think that was the first.
Was that before you started on the album?
TB: No. We recorded most of that before we’d even played a gig. We didn’t want to be the band that were writing and developing and figuring out who we were, in front of an audience. We wanted to pretty much have that down before we went public.
How did Kitsuné pick up on you?
TB: We actually talked to a lot of people, but they were the first to really…well, they heard a demo that I’d made and said they wanted to put it out on one of their compilations. That was quite a while ago, but it went out without a name. I don’t know if you get the Kitsuné compilations, but you’ll find there’s a really early version of ‘Let’s go All The Way’ there.
[To be found on Kitsuné Maison 11,and which can be heard here]
I was going to come on to that – yes, I have heard it. It does sound quite different there to how it does now, which is much fuller.
TB: Yeah, exactly. I’m glad you said that. I think that is what most of the album production is about: taking these songs that literally were just sounds, and turning them into real band productions. So getting back to Kitsuné, we spoke to lost of people and we have different offers, but they were the ones who wanted to support exactly what we wanted to do and who believed in what we wanted to do. Others were more interested in this kind of manufactured process that I was talking about, and that was not the way we wanted to go.
Let’s talk a little about the forthcoming album. Eleven tracks, and I believe at least nine of which you include in the live set?
TB: We’ve still never played ‘I Wouldn’t Want To’ live, but only because we’ve never had room for a piano on stage yet, but that will happen.
[Drummer Mike informs me a few weeks after this interview that this song has subsequently been introduced. Having heard the album version, I can only say it may well surprise, and please, many fans.]
What’s the story behind ‘Reptile’, your second single release? It’s nothing to do with David Icke’s reptilian hypothesis is it!
TB: No! We wanted to write a song about…okay, no…I was sitting at home and found myself writing a song about moral decline, the feeling of self-loathing from living in a city, and from just…well, you just feel implicated in all kinds of things. So I wanted to write about that, and I guess you have the choice whether you write some kind of durgy thing, or if you want to challenge yourself to find a fresh way of talking about it. A pop song is such a kind of simple format that you have to be very careful about what you put in it. You have to approach it with a sense of humour as well; you can’t take yourself too seriously. So we said, alright, let’s write this simple song about turning into a lizard, and let’s just fill it with as many pop hooks as possible – and if anyone want to read any more into it, they can.
How do you actually set about writing, do you write on acoustic guitar?
TB: Usually on a keyboard so you can see how each note of the melody relates to the notes of the chords or the bass notes that you’re playing.
Do you do both lyrics and music, or is it a joint enterprise?
TB: Yeah, it’s a joint thing – and it’s different for every song. Some are entirely written by one person, and some have input from three or four of us. But we really just look for hooks and try to get as many in as possible, because that’s what makes a pop song addictive and makes you want to return to it.
That’s certainly the case with ‘Reptile’! Both the singles, ‘Reptile’ and ‘True Romance’ have received appositive response. You must feel pleased about that – and a good sign for the reaction to the album.
TB: Fingers crossed!
‘Caroline’ and ‘Girlfriend’; were these written about specific people?
TB: Umm…er…(long pause), yes, I believe ‘Caroline’ was, although that wasn’t one of mine. We liked the idea of repeating the name of a person enough in a song so that in a way that person can take on some mythical status. ‘Girlfriend’ is, erm, kind of us at out most tongue-in-cheek and having fun. I think when we were writing that we had at the back of out mind how much fun it was going to be to play live.
With the album out next month and then tours across Europe and the UK, it’s a busy time ahead. Is this the first time for Citizens! in Europe?
TB: Well, I guess touring it is, yeah, but we’ve been hopping over there quite regularly – little gigs in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and a few other places, so we have kind of been making introductory appearances, and now we are going to go back and do some proper touring.
I would imagine that is how a lot of fans from outside the UK seem to have picked up on you?
TB: It may be partly Kitsuné, who’ve got their tentacles spread wide over there, but I think also it’s because a lot of British bands are quite inward looking and making music kind of…kind of for English audiences. We don’t see ourselves like that, so maybe people can sense that as well. Maybe we translate better abroad than some other bands do.
You have played a number of shows now, in London especially – along with the three-night residency – I suppose the next thing is the US. Have you given any thought yet to going over there?
TB: Yeah, of course, I don’t quite know as yet, I think later this year is the plan.
It’s a big market to crack.
TB: Of course, yes. From what I hear it’s a lot of hard work, but that’s all right with us.
I remember reading somewhere that one of your tour prerequisites was to have decent socks.
TB: Yeah. (Laughs)
I’m expecting that you’re going to be inundated with Marks & Spencer three-packs from fans after saying that!
TB: I hope so!
Is how you look something that’s a big thing for the band?
TB: I think style is important. Hopefully it’s the sort of thing that should come naturally to a band, unless you’re being really theatrical and doing costume stuff. It’s important that the band [Citizens!] have a sense of elegance and can be seen as a ‘gang’, rather than five guys who aren’t connected to each other. I think it’s a real weakness for a band if the kind of thing you wear doesn’t look like it connects to your music and you are all wearing different stuff. Fortunately, it’s not something we’ve had to stress out about too much.
Who is the most style conscious amongst you?
TB: The most style conscious? Er…who would I say…? Probably our manager.
It’s hard to get away from Citizens! being frequently described in articles in such terms as a ‘handsome’ and ‘good-looking’ bunch. Do you see yourselves as such?
TB: Not really…
A lot of your female fans seem to think you are!
Come on, you must be aware of it yourselves?
TB: (Pauses)…We don’t think of ourselves like that! (Laughs) It’s not really what we’re here for. We’re here to have a party and entertain people, and it doesn’t really mater what you look like to do that.
It may help – to the ladies at least.
TB: (Laughs) I don’t know.
So, finally, sum up each of Citizens! individually in a few words.
TB: Okay, I’ll try. Well, there’s Mike – he is the electro Errol Flynn. Thom, who spells his name with an ‘h’, because he’s highbrow! (Laughs)Martyn is…he’s the thinking man’s Dion Dublin. Lawrence, er…what’s Lawrence? He’s the disco Leo Sayer. And then there’s me. I dunno what I am – you can make that one up!
[Tom: the pop girl’s sex symbol.]
Citizens! play the last night of their three-date residency at Ridley Road Market Bar, Dalston, London, on 18th April. The show – which is free – will also include Man Without Country, and DJ sets from Ed Macfarlane (Friendly Fires) and Trailer Trash Tracys.
‘Here We Are’ is released on 28th May on Maison Kitsuné label.