Interview: Zach from Citizens & Saints talks Join the Triumph, big changes

by Sam Robinson

Yesterday, Seattle band Citizens dropped more than a few pieces of big news. They have a new nameCitizens & Saints – and their long-time-coming second record, Join the Triumph, will be in our ears real soon. Reel Gospel has been reporting on the production of this album at every step: we spoke with lead singer Zach Bolen in studio during the album’s recording in January, and when single You Brought Me Back to Life was released in April.

Since then, there’s been some significant changes for the band, with Zach resigning from Mars Hill Church and Citizens consequently splitting from the Mars Hill Music label. Last week I spent some time talking to Zach about the changes that the last few months have brought, and discovered more about the forthcoming sophomore album.

SAM: Zach, you’ve left Mars Hill and are no longer worship pastor there. This has meant that Citizens has severed ties with Mars Hill as well. How have you seen God as a comfort during this transition?

ZACH: One of the biggest things my wife and I were struck with as we prayed through leaving Mars Hill was how fearful we were to surrender all our needs and provisions into the hands of God.  Sure, wisdom says you need a job to provide for your family, but more than that the Holy Spirit reminded us that we needed Jesus above anything else and it was Jesus alone who provided us with everything we needed.  Repenting of that idolatry came as a breath of fresh air. We’re in a place now where we have more peace about not knowing the future than being a part of Mars Hill and having all our provisions met through circumstances that I could control. If anything this has been, and I suspect it will continue to be, a great season of refinement and continual reminder of our daily need for Jesus.  I’m so thankful that I get to walk by faith hand in hand with my wife and kids through all this. 

The good news is that Citizens, now Citizens & Saints, will continue as a band independent of Mars Hill. Was there any question about whether to stop making music together?

Yes and no.  On one hand I knew that in resigning I needed to be able to provide for my family.  The idea of doing Citizens full time seemed so overwhelming.  But through the counsel of a bunch of really helpful people we were able to get to a place of trusting that if we went down the road of the band being full-time that it was possible to support my family.  Getting over that hurdle was huge because I can’t imagine if we had just so selfishly shut down the ministry God has been doing through the band.  Of course he is working through all his people, but there has been something about the fruit that God has brought through Citizens music that, in my opinion, begs a steady obedience until God closes the door.  I’m so encouraged to see how on board everyone in the band is with the vision.  We want to see Jesus’s church being built up through the singing of the gospel.  That’s what we have always been about and so I’m beyond pumped to see that continue.

Reel Gospel has tracked progress on new album Join the Triumph – we spoke to you in the studio in January and you gave us the scoop of the title back in May. Can you give us an update when we’re going to hear it?

The album has been done for a little while. We’ll be releasing it through BEC Recordings. There’s been a lot of details to work out so that’s why the release date has been up in the air, but we now know it’ll be out on October 28.

In past Citizens have been focussed on writing music for the local church, now that you’re not part of Mars Hill will the focus in your songwriting change? Does it mess with your mind a bit?

Yes it does. Our primary focus since the beginning has been the local church. And it still is. It’s just that right now we don’t have a local church and we’re looking for one. That’s the case for four of us in the band – none of us have a church yet that we’re calling home. We’ve all sat down and thought through a lot of stuff and we’re realising that we want to be men of our word. What we don’t want to do is say that we’re all about the local church and not have a local church and not be serving in a local church. We’re trying to do both of those things. It’s going to take a couple of months before we have it figured out, and I think a lot of people understand that. Our hope is that we each want to have a church that we’re serving in, that we’re actually doing what we encourage. That would be dishonest if we were saying we’re about something that we’re not participating in. It’s weird but also the providence of God that I don’t have to write an album right now while I’m not part of a local body. We can release this album knowing that it was written with the people that we were leading at the time, with them in mind. I think it’ll bless the church globally as well, and hopefully very soon we’ll have a church that me and my family can call home.

You mentioned the album is recorded, mixed, and ready for release in October. Are you positive about how it is, and sounds?

Yeah! I think it’s great. I think our kids like it. [Zach calls his daughter over] Penelope, do you like the new album? You do? Sam, she’s shaking her head. I don’t know if she’s sure or not.

She’s teasing us. She knows I haven’t heard it yet and she’s being ambiguous.

Yeah. I feel really positive about it for two reasons. One: I think every song on the album a church should play and could lead at their church, which I don’t think the last album had. Which isn’t bad but it was a value we really wanted to cling to on this album. Brian and I especially. I think that every church that wants to play the songs will find that there’s ten songs that they could play, it just depends on how they want to use them. The other part too is that I hope that they’re accessible enough to the point where people feel restrained about having to play them in a certain way. That they can change it if they feel it would be more helpful. I’m excited about that. But on the flip side too I think stylistically it’s a continuation of what we were doing on the last album. I feel like it’s probably a little bit more cohesive than the last one but some of the strength of the last album is that not every song had the same vibe to it. It’s all in the eye of the beholder because some people will listen to it and love it, some will be more critical of it, like any second release of any band. I feel really good about it, mostly because the songs are really focussed on being singable. I think there’s six or seven new songs on there. A couple of hymn rewrites. I think it’ll be cool. We did a new arrangement of Ghost Ship’s The Gospel; we did Oh! Great is our God! – and they sound totally different. The Gospel is pretty hilariously different.

Are you saying it’s better than the original, Zach?

I don’t know! I’ll call Cam [from Ghost Ship] over real quick and I’ll let you ask him.

Have a Gospel-off.

Yeah! A Gospel-off. So yeah. I even think lyrically it goes a little deeper than the last album. We have two songs on it that are a little bit more contemplative. One of them is based on combining Psalm 139 with Romans 2. If you read all the commentaries on Psalm 139 – at least those that I read – a lot will say that Psalm 139 is a really positive passage because it says: ‘You knew me when I was in my mother’s womb… You search my thoughts… You search my heart…’ It’s this beautiful poetic psalm about God knowing us before he created us. But to take that a step further, to tie that to Romans 2, God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance and so I think that there’s another step you could take it. Yes, God knows us intimately and that’s an amazing thing, but he also knew us as sinners before he created us too. He knew us as man and woman that would run from him, would rebel against him, and yet he still chose to create us. And even in spite of that rebellion he chose to send his Son to redeem us. I think that is a profound thought. That’s where those two thoughts collide. God knows us and I could literally run to the depths of the ocean or climb skies and I couldn’t escape your presence or your pursuing of me. That’s a pretty interesting thought. That’s more of a ballad that song.

We also wrote another one on the Lord’s prayer. The verses are the Lord’s prayer and the chorus is in response to that. It’s about asking God to provide us with the hope, the faith, and the joy that’s needed in order to trust him in providing for us in those ways. I hope churches find it really helpful. Even for me, that song has been helpful in this season, as we’re going through this process of not knowing the future. I’m reminded of God’s faithfulness even down to the smallest details. So there’s that and then there’s hymn rewrites. We’ve got a new arrangement of There is a Fountain that people have been excited about that we’ve been playing for two years now or something. So that will be cool to share with people.

And you did the Rapzilla Made Alive remix competition with the winner getting the remix on the new album’s digital release. What was the intention behind that?

Honestly that was Tyson at Tooth & Nail wanting to get a good buzz going. And it turned out crazy. The owner of Rapzilla said he thought it was the best remix contest that they’ve had yet which is neat. He tweeted that one day. We got a tonne of different remixes and it coincided with us giving the first album away for two weeks on Noisetrade.

Yeah – all my friends went crazy for that.

It was insane. In two weeks we gave away close to 10,000 albums which is wild. It was cool. Those two things together helped spread the word about Citizens & Saints. It’s thousands of people who haven’t heard us before. The remix we picked I really liked but there were some other good ones too which made it a tough decision.

Zach, it’s exciting to hear the news of the new album and that we will indeed hear it soon. We’ll speak when the album is out in October and talk more about the tracks.

Join the Triumph by Citizens & Saints will be released on October 28th. Connect with Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the album as they come to hand.

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