Zach Bolen, lead singer of Citizens, opens up about signing with Humble Beast, worship, white privilege and the art of being present.
My 4-year-old son’s favorite song to sing at church is “Father You Are All We Need” by Citizens. I like to imagine that he’s connecting at a deep level with God as our Father, but, really, I think he just likes to yell the “Thank you” part of the chorus as loud as he can.
He’ll be able to shout his thank yous in unison with the Citizens band during their show at Summitview Wednesday, August 29.
Citizens, formerly Citizens & Saints (…formerly Citizens), has had a bit of a wild ride the last four years. The band was initially based out of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Zach Bolen, Citizens’ lead singer, resigned from Mars Hill as elder and worship leader in 2014, and the band has since released two albums. The most recent, 2016’s A Mirror Dimly, was a reflection of the struggles and changes the band experienced in the Mars Hill aftermath.
Then last September the band announced it had signed with Humble Beast, a hip-hop label and “family of creatives” who produce “Gospel-saturated content” in other mediums besides music. The signing was notable, as Citizens became the first “worship” and rock outfit to join Humble Beast’s lineup of mostly hip-hop musicians, including Propaganda, Beautiful Eulogy, Sho Baraka and Jackie Hill Perry.
I recently caught up with Bolen over email to discuss life at Humble Beast, what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be a “worship band,” the creative process and how reading inspires him. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s talk Humble Beast. How did all this come to be, and how’s it feel so far? Can we expect to hear some hip-hop elements in upcoming albums?
Last year Beautiful Eulogy and Citizens were playing at a festival in New Zealand, and Thomas Terry [founder of Humble Beast] and I got to talking about what the future might look like if we were to join Humble Beast. To be honest, I’d never even considered it given the fact that Humble Beast has historically been a hip-hop label. But after hearing more of how Thomas runs Humble Beast, it became clear that we had a lot in common and that pairing together would be an exciting thing for both sides. It’s funny that two Northwest groups had to travel across the world to have a conversation like that, but that’s how it went down.
As far as the hip-hop elements go, that will be more of a work in progress. We’ve all been influenced by hip-hop in different ways, but our band has traditionally been more in the rock vein. Expect to hear some new sounds from us and, hopefully, as time goes on, some collaborations.
Should we expect Beautiful Eulogy or Sho Baraka to start incorporating indie rock elements into their sound?
In some ways I think they both already have. One of things that has always drawn me to their music is the way they operate outside of the traditions of their genre. The live-instrument component in both those groups gives a certain humanness to the music that is uncommon in a lot of current hip-hop. Especially in a day and age when you can pretty much create whatever you want on a computer, I really value their commitment to not taking the easy way on producing.
For now, it will just be “Strength and Beauty.” There are a lot more songs in the works, but we’ve got a few more things to pull together before we play those live. We’re itching to, though!
Do you still consider Citizens a “worship band”?
I do not. And truth be told, that title has never really sat well with me. We’re still trying to figure out what to call ourselves. People are going to call us whatever they want based on their own experiences with our music, and that’s great. What we really see ourselves as is more of a life band—meaning, the focus of what we write about has less to do with trying to write for a particular group of people and more just staying true to telling our story, testifying to what God is doing in our lives.
The “worship” title has always rubbed me the wrong way in a large part because I think it’s a miseducation by the church to communicate music as worship. It’s a part of the practice. Worship is a vital part of who all are. We all worship, whether you believe in God or not. The beauty of holy worship is that it’s directed toward God and God alone for both our good and his glory. To love God is to worship God, something we all do pretty sloppily. By God’s grace, we grow a little more in our love for God each day by dying to what we want and seeing that what God wants for us is so much better. Worship is less of a segmented part of our lives, and in Christ it’s a part of all that we are as new creations.
At the same time, I see the beauty in the ways that God has led people in worship through the songs we’ve written. That gets us all excited. It’s more the titles—I’ll include Christian music, too—that create sub-genres and sub-cultures. That, to me, is not the best way forward for the church. The danger of sub-culture Christianity is that it inevitably produces a creativity feedback loop. If we don’t surround ourselves with opposing thought, we stop learning and growing.
What books are you reading these days, and how often do literature or non-fiction books inspire or shape Citizens’ music?
I’m constantly finding inspiration in what I read. Probably the most influential books for me over the past year have been The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist. The Road spoke to me a lot in regards to hope. You have this post-apocalyptic world, and the two main characters are fighting their way through it as some of the last few humans on earth, we assume, and maintain this belief that they must carry the fire. I found it deeply moving, and it has had a profound effect on the songs coming for our next record.
With The Half Has Never Been Told, I realized that as a kid, the education system failed me when it came to teaching me about slavery. I wanted to understand more of how white privilege came to be. Reading this book has opened my eyes to things I never even considered. I see now that as a nation we like to paint this picture of freedom and heroics in our past, but what is mostly there is dignity and humanity stripped from an entire culture. People ripped away from their own land—horrifically abused and oppressed—for the vain pursuit of capitalism, better known as the American Dream. While some of that happened hundreds of years ago, the effects of those crimes are present today. While I’ll never be able to understand what it’s like to be black, Asian, Hispanic or even a woman, I do have a responsibility to acknowledge the ways I’ve participated in oppressive systems of hate and, by God’s grace, with humility, be a part of making peace and seeking justice. We’re thinking about a lot of this as we write our next record.
Cormac McCarthy and the evils of capitalism—sounds like an uplifting album! Do you see the capitalistic system and the “American Dream” as completely invalidated by our country’s past, or is the more pressing need about being honest with truths that make us uncomfortable? In your view, what are some first steps white Christians in America can take to make peace and seek justice?
At this point I think the American Dream is confusing at best. The more we are educated on our history from unbiased perspectives, the better off all of us will be. That’s what I think white Americans need to do first—really learn about how this country came to be. The past is not all bad, but if the majority of what we know is based on half-truths, then as our parents told us as kids, that’s still a lie. Entitlement at its core is selfishness, and it’s difficult for me to see a whole lot of opportunity for inclusion with that kind of mindset. One of the ways that I have personally been trying to deconstruct my own tendencies toward privileged thinking is to ask questions of my friends and even other people whose life experiences have been quite different from mine. When we listen, we learn, and from that we understand how to love.
Before moving on, what’s your favorite McCarthy novel? And, speaking of carrying the fire, how often do you watch the final scene in No Country for Old Men?
Love this. So, I’m still a newbie when it comes to McCarthy. The Road is my first endeavor, but I’m excited to explore more. I’ve actually only seen No Country for Old Men once, and the end left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Time for another viewing to see if that has changed!
I’m fascinated by the creative processes of artists. What does a “typical” song-writing process look like for you? For Citizens?
I really try to make the process be the same for anything I’m working on, whether that’s Citizens’ music, solo music or even someone else’s record. The biggest thing I want to do is write the best songs I can. I tend to find that the best songs are the ones that really say something. Great music is a perk in the process, but if the songwriting is so-so then maybe you’ll be able to pull together a cool-sounding pop song.
I’m always looking for something more. I’m finding myself more and more influenced by conversations I have with people. There’s inspiration and even revelation that come from the conversations we have with other people. So if I keep thinking about something from a conversation, it’s likely that it will wind up being inspiration for a future song.
I try to stay in a steady state of songwriting, as in, I don’t really have structured time for writing. I wish I did, but that’s not always an easy thing to come by. So I do my best to document every idea I have. Many of them are bad, but I know that with a couple bad ideas there’s bound to be a good one that will come along sooner or later.
What kind of imprint has fatherhood left on your creative habits and output?
The art of being present. And that’s really in everything. If I make a practice of being present with God, then I subsequently am more present with my wife, my kids, my friends, my work. It’s hard, though. Especially when I spend a lot of my days creating, it’s not always easy for me to turn off and focus on whatever is next. So I have to really be aware of my own tendencies to drift into some other zone and just let that creative stuff pass so that I don’t miss out on special time with my family.
That’s really wise, and can probably be applied to most other professions. Is it harder not being a full-time band? How do you find balance and peace in all these areas of responsibility—family, work, music?
We have the best families in the world. They support us relentlessly. I think it’s because of that support that we don’t do things like a typical touring band. If there is a way for us to do this for a long time and our families get stronger in the process, then that’s what we want to do. So far traveling in smaller chunks has helped make that a reality. Finding balance is hard. It seems that the most peace comes when my wife and I are seeking God together and trusting God to be our guide.