by Sam Robinson
After much hard work and perseverance, Seattle band Citizens & Saints finally dropped their second album, Join the Triumph, earlier this week. You can catch up on our review here. We’ve been following the album through production, firstly when we spoke with lead singer Zach Bolen and producer Brian Eichelberger in the studio back in January; when single You Brought Me Back to Life was released in April; and when the album release was announced in August. As the album is now here, I caught up with Zach a few weeks ago for one final chat to break down some tracks on the album, discuss what the future holds for Citizens & Saints, and for some reason we also discussed sitting on VHS tapes.
SAM: Zach, the album is about to drop, and you’ve been playing a few shows around the place. How has it been adjusting from being a group that is primarily leading music at a church each Sunday to travelling to places as Citizens & Saints? Has it been a big transition?
ZACH: Yeah, it has. After I resigned [from Mars Hill], the big question was: can this even continue? Is it even worth continuing? So much of it was tied to being a band at the church together and serving fairly regularly. So it was getting to a point where we felt we had a clear vision – how do we move forward and still maintain the integrity of how this whole thing began; but look for ways to continue building on what God has already started? We looked at it more from a perspective that it is just going to be a weird season. We were all in a lot of transition and we needed to decide how we were going to move forward. We could have been like, ‘Let’s all find the same church to be a part of,’ but at the end of the day that wasn’t very practical. It’s been cool for us to be on our own, in new local churches serving and then we come together… Actually some of us are still trying to find churches that we can call home, which takes a while, and it should… But we all come together and play shows. It’s been really neat because we’re able to find new perspectives and new ideas and concepts. For instance, I’m going to a church now that is much more liturgical, versus what we were part of at Mars Hill. I imagine that over time that will slowly start influencing things in different ways. Getting to go out and play stuff has been a blast. Meeting with lots of different leaders and musicians. People that really like our music or have been impacted by it. That’s been encouraging. Because before you basically rely on Facebook messages or tweets or something. But meeting people is a little more personal. That’s something we appreciate a lot.
Join the Triumph has such a bright sound. The first track, The Strife is Over, is so electronic. Was it intentional to open the album with that big, electronic sound?
Yeah. As soon as we landed on that song about a month before we started tracking, I always knew I wanted that to be the first song. A lot of it came together as we were working on creating parts and writing different things. I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily… We didn’t sit down with the intention of making it electronic. You know what really it comes down to? When you start tracking you say, ‘Here’s a guitar part we want to do,’ and then you try it on synth, and it sounds a lot cooler. Or you do a bass riff on synth and you think, ‘Oh this would be cool!’ Then you hear the bass player play it and it sounds way cooler. Everybody is really humble in the band and I really appreciate that. No-one takes offence if they’re not going to be playing any guitar; or we’re going to do a more simplistic part or something. We’re all fishing and looking for the best thing and the best sound. So, The Strife is Over – that’s how that came about. What are the best things we can do to make this song feel like it’s got a lot of power and force? It just happened that the electronic thing was the way to go.
And then the way that the album moves into the very bouncy There is a Fountain… How did you pull that arrangement together for that hymn?
That one’s kinda funny because we did probably five different arrangements of that song over the past two years. We’ve been playing that one for a while! It started off really dark and… Maybe we just had so many happy songs that so we wanted one that was a little more dark! But it failed miserably. So five tries later we landed on the one that we have now. We’ve been playing that arrangement in that way for about a year now. Maybe more. We really, really love that arrangement. The reason we did it that way – I heard it growing up as a classic hymn – but there is a temptation to make that song a bit darker, especially on the second verse when it talks about us identifying with the thief on the cross. But when you take that and see it in its entire context you realise that this song is actually a celebration song. It’s really talking about the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. It even builds and intensifies. It ends with ‘redeeming love shall be my theme and will be ’til I die.’ When I heard that, I just thought that this is something the church is meant to proclaim and shout. We’re saying our hope is in Jesus, and while we might experience trials of various kinds here on earth, at the end of the day our hope is in Christ, and we look to him and we celebrate the fact that he’s given us a theme. He’s given us a theme as individuals but also the body, and that is that we belong to Jesus. That’s how that song came together and why we arranged it that way, and another reason too is that we wanted to make it… I don’t know if we ever thought we’d record it or not… but we wanted to make it simple so people could play it.
That’s part of making it accessible for the church, isn’t it?
Yeah! And we got to test it out a lot. Some of these songs we haven’t even tested!
You know, you’re recording in the studio and all that stuff. I’m curious to see… It’s our belief that every song on the album has a corporate accessibility to it. But people might find that it doesn’t in some ways. I’m curious to see how that plays out.
Is it exciting when you get messages or emails or tweets from churches around the world that are using your songs, and you can say, ‘Wow! They’re playing that song in… Australia! The UK!’
Yes. Absolutely. It’s so cool. It’s kinda crazy because if it weren’t for the Internet, we’d be relying on people to mail us letters or something like that. Or polaroid pictures, or something like that.
Yeah, exactly. Check out this video! But by the time it arrives the tape has melted or something.
Or someone sat on it.
Yeah. That’s usually… We’ve discovered as we’ve travelled that if you write ‘FRAGILE’ on something, that just means that you’re putting a bullseye on it. It’s asking for it. But yeah, it’s really encouraging. Especially considering we don’t know those people and we’ve never been to those places, yet whenever I think of that I’m often drawn to think how big Jesus’ church is. How unifying music can be in that process too. You can go to different churches that have different theological beliefs, but if you align on Jesus then it’s pretty crazy that even though there’s different things you believe as churches doctrinally, that you’d be singing this song and it’s sort of this thing that brings us all together. All the fights, all the battles, yet ‘Oh yeah, we’re synced up on this’. I think that’s crazy when we think about that. It’s only music or some kind of creative art that does that well. Sermons don’t typically do that. They do sometimes. But music has a way of doing it because it you have a beautiful score or some music that people connect with you can say things you might not be able to say by just speaking them. I think that’s really amazing to think about that. It’s unifying and encouraging when we hear from other churches that are doing it. It’s an incredibly humbling opportunity that God’s given us. And perhaps the biggest encouragement, or the thing I find the most encouragement in, is when people are pointing to just how appreciative they are of the rich theology that is found in the songs. Musically, it’s cool for people to like it. But we labour the most on the theology. We hands-down spend way more hours trying to figure out how we’re going to say something versus how we’re going to work on a guitar part.
And that’s the most important thing, isn’t it!
Let’s talk about The Mighty Hand of God. We’ll talk about the words first, it seems to be about security in Christ?
Yeah, it started with 1 Peter 5: ‘Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.’ I was intrigued by that because I’d heard it said a lot, and that is more of a reference to the Holy Spirit trying to keep us from needing to be humiliated. Humble yourselves, acknowledge that you need God, he’s your Lord. Submit to whatever he calls you to versus not doing that. And the mighty hand of God corrects and rebukes. It got me thinking about this whole – I don’t know if I’d call it personification… Maybe, I don’t know – reality of God’s hand that has been at work from the beginning. Even before time. I just had never heard a lot of that in different songs. We talk about ‘God has got you,’ or, ‘You’re in his grip,’ but to speak specifically about the hand of God is a particularly interesting concept when you think about it. It even does that in the song, when it talks about the hands that made the earth – that same hand was also willingly nailed to the cross. And the same hand that holds us tightly and secures us is also the same hand that can correct us, rebuke us, discipline us, all for our good. The reality that God’s hand is… I want to be careful with the imagery too because I don’t want it sounding like that Foo Fighters video with the big hands… [Laughs] Or Inspector Gadget arms or something… But it’s not like a controlling thing, it’s actually a beautiful thing. We can’t run beyond his reach. That’s one of the lines we use in the bridge. It’s such a true statement because when we think of God holding us, I think of a normal sized hand that’s got us there. But then when you think about us not being able to run beyond his reach, I just imagine this giant shadow that’s cast over us in a really beautiful way. It reminds us that God is present and he’s there and there’s nothing we can do to overturn the promise he has given us, that we remain secure in him.
And I have to mention that there is a bit of slap bass on that song.
There is! We went for it. That’s another one of those examples where we had another bass part we were going to do with synth and then Nathan came in and started playing those parts and we went with that. We really like it. I’m excited with the way it turned out. It’s helpful when you have a good bass player in your band.
Because they can get away with it, can’t they?
Well yeah, and you know there’s always those guys who say, ‘Oh yeah, I play the bass!’ and you hear them play and you’re like [stares blankly]. I’ve developed this strategy over the years that if someone says they’re a bass player I can figure out without even auditioning them whether they’re good or not by just hearing them talk about bass. Because no-one does that unless they’re a bass player. No-one gets super stoked out on bass pickups or a bass run, unless they’re a bass player.
I think the problem is that it’s sort-of an easy instrument to pick up.
It is. It’s an easy instrument to fake. But to actually be good at it, it’s pretty obvious. It’s a craft. Nathan, he definitely brought it home for us.
You’ve done a few covers on this album, and they sit next to each other. I must admit when I first heard this album a few weeks ago I was wondering how these would sound. I had no idea, and I was pleasantly surprised by both of them. The first one, Oh! Great is our God! has that great, is it a calypso vibe? How did you take a song and just work out a new arrangement?
This is an arrangement we’ve done for a while. Well, two things. First, that song is usually in a key that is a step above what it is on the album. So I’d always rag on Brian because it’s super high. It was hurting me! So we lowered the key. Then we just wanted to make it… I love the vibe of The Sing Team’s version, it’s so good… So we decided to do something completely different. As different as possible from the original. If we’re going to arrange it, we don’t need to do something like theirs, because it’s already good enough. So that’s what we went for. It’s a fun one to play. It’s a fun one to listen to, even on the album, because it has lots of different things going on. Trying to keep it simple. And actually, what’s interesting about that song in contrast to The Strife is Over, for instance, is it’s mostly guitar stuff which is different to the other songs on the album. You get that nice blend.
But then you go to The Gospel. Now when I spoke to you last time, you were telling me a few clues about the album and you said this version of The Gospel is “pretty hilariously different” [to the Ghost Ship original]. And, it is!
Well, I’ll tell you, even when Cam [from Ghost Ship] first heard it, he laughed. He was just, ‘Wow. That is different.’ [Laughs] You almost don’t even know it’s the same song, and I love that. I love that you can arrange music in a different way. When you arrange a song you either arrange it like the existing arrangement, or you do an arrangement that’s not as good as the original so it is always in the shadow. But then there’s something totally different when you can arrange it where it sounds nothing like the original song, and it takes on a life of its own. Almost like a new song. I think we were able to achieve that on The Gospel. It’s pretty fun.
I love the way you go from that grimy 80s bass into that rave cave chorus.
Yeah. We were going for it. We got the compression going. Time to party. That was another moment in the studio, in fact it gave us a lot of trouble. We tried so hard, eight different arrangements of that one and then finally in the end it came together.
Are you wary of how people will react to these versions because they are so different to originals that people might know and love?
Yeah. And I would just say, ‘Get over it.’ [Laughs] Nah, I don’t know. Everyone has their preference. I think something we could really grow in as Christians is when it comes to art, we need to be loving. Sometimes you hear something and you just don’t connect with it. But that’s not an insult – by saying to someone who is in Christ that you don’t like something that they created, that isn’t an insult on who they are in Jesus that has implications on your soul or something. I think that there’s the freedom to not like it. [Laughs] Some people will like it, some people may not. I’m cool with whatever people decide. Our hope was to provide two different arrangements that some people might hear and love and want to do it in that way. For instance, The Gospel – there’s only been the Ghost Ship version and now they’ve got two different versions to choose from and may work well. I think it particularly works well with those two songs, because stylistically all three bands could not be more different from one another. But I think if we were doing a cover of a band that had a similar sound, there would be more challenges there. And I think that’s what makes it so hilarious – it went from a folk song to a dance party rave, and you’re just like, ‘What just happened?’
Those two songs came from Mars Hill. You recorded this album at Mars Hill but have now left. Are you still pleased that these songs are on the album?
Yep. Two reasons. One, they’re great songs and they are full of so much truth and as I’ve listened to those songs and had a chance to lead them over the past few years, I’ve seen the impact they have on people, and the way the Holy Spirit has encouraged them or even heard the gospel for the first time through some of them. And so despite our no longer being a part of Mars Hill, it doesn’t negate the work that God did, and has done, and is continuing to do through the work started at Mars Hill. And then the second thing is that Cam and Brian [Eichelberger] are two of my best friends in the whole world, and to get an opportunity to record and re-arrange two of their songs is an honour. I don’t consider it to be problematic in any way because we love the songs, we love what they are about, and we love what the guys who wrote those songs are about. It was a really cool way to say that we’re going to do this thing together. Not an effort to show ‘hey, we’re unified,’ but we knew they were good songs and wanted to do them.
Now let’s talk about the album cover. Can you explain what’s in the neon circle. Is it a Bible? A lightning bolt?
You know, it’s actually a flag.
It doesn’t matter, it’s kind of a weird design. So we’ve got a neon flag. That’s a whole long story in itself. Originally we had an album cover that was going to be a flag with us running through a field.
Ankle-breaking, I remember you saying earlier this year.
Ankle-breaking… Yes. Potholes everywhere. Through an unfortunate chain of events, we were unable to use it. And then as we were looking at new album concepts and ideas, this flag drawing/design came together. That’s how that all came about. Originally the flag was meant to represent more of a banner – I don’t want to use war analogies because I think that they can be insensitive – but I do think when you see a flag… Here’s an example. At a Seahawks game, someone is holding a flag with the number 12 on it. Their eyes are drawn to it, and perhaps they are a fan. They’re going to start joining in with the chants and have fun with that. I think it’s the same with a banner that represents Jesus. We’re calling people to join us in the triumph that’s found in Christ. So that’s where it came in. I actually like art sometimes that isn’t super clear. I like the mystery behind it. I’m interested to see what others think it is. You thought it was a Bible with a lightning bolt. So maybe the next person will think it’s some sort of kite with a lightning bolt or something.
Yeah, I thought it was a Bible and the lightning bolt was some sort of representation of the Spirit.
Well, if we get flack for a flag with a lightning bolt, then we’ll switch to that one because it’s a pretty good explanation. [Laughs]
The track Greatly to be Praised seems to be a song that churches can really jump right into. How did that song come together?
That’s one I’d been working on for about a-year-and-a-half, sitting with the chorus for a while, really wanting to write a song about the transcendent nature of God. Just in our context, we have a lot of songs like All Creatures and Praise to the Lord and maybe even a song like How Great Thou Art. That’s an incredible song that talks about the transcendent nature of God but also his nearness. So we wanted to write a song that was just a good call to worship. Regardless of how you do it stylistically, let’s write a song that people could use at the start of their services as a great call to worship into participation and response. So that song has a very specific theme to it. We based it on a couple of passages, Psalm 96 and Psalm 145. The first part is, ‘Sing to the Lord,’ the second verse is, ‘Lift up your voice and thank him,’ so there’s a gratitude part, and why we thank him, and then the third verse is boasting in the resurrection of Christ, and shouting to the God of triumph. We’re going to immediately engage in exalting God as Lord. What we tried to do on the bridge was to show that the transcendence of God and also his imminence and his nearness. You have creation, ‘Our God is great, our God is great,’ the sinner finds salvation, ‘Our God is great, our God is great,’ His church proclaims it, ‘Our God is great, our God is great,’ His kingdom is singing it, ‘Our God is great, our God is great.’
It’s that progression and it’s cyclical too. Before the earth was created, his kingdom was shouting and singing: ‘Our God is great, our God is great!’ And so it’s really cool when you look at that progression: he creates us, there’s the fall, he redeems sinners, sinners are shouting ‘Our God is great’, and then it moves into now here is this body – the church – that has been formed and they are proclaiming this anthem, and it’s an anthem that carries on into eternity. So that’s really what that song is about. Let’s sing about the bigness and grandness of God, but let’s also talk about what he’s done in Jesus. That song is meant to be – it’s not explicit when it comes to the trinity – but it’s definitely got elements and pieces of it throughout. We wanted to show the completeness of who our God is – Father, Son and Spirit – and the Spirit is the one who is continually prompting us and guiding us and enlightening the eyes of our hearts to be fixed on Jesus. We are acknowledging that Jesus is the one who has brought about salvation, he is the risen King, and all the glory goes to our great God the Father. I imagine this very unified peace of the Holy Spirit transforming us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, but the greater image is his kingdom shouting: ‘Our God is great, our God is great,’ exalting God the Father. Obviously they are three in one, but I just think there’s a unique progression that happens in there.
And the last track I want to ask about is Father You Are All We Need. You’ve told me before that it is based on the Lord’s Prayer, and you got a bit stuck writing that track. What is it that pulled that song together in the end for you?
Honestly, the melody. That’s it. What happened with that one was that we were recording it and we got to the end of the day and just felt that the melody, the arrangement, everything about the song was bad. We just really didn’t feel strong about it. We just wanted to can it, not do it. But then we came back and started working on a couple of musical ideas and what’s funny is – and this is a classic case of just needing to trust your gut – the melody that everyone will hear it as is the original melody. And we changed it in the process to something different because we thought, ‘Oh, this will be better,’ and we tried recording it and it ended up being terrible. So we went back to the original melody and rearranged the entire song. And then the whole outro part – sort of the end of the Lord’s Prayer – that was meant to be another verse, and we ended up turning it into a bridge with just a slightly different melody. That’s how that song progressed. I really like the way it turned out. I feel like it’s a great congregational song. There’s so much intentionality in it. How often do we sing the Lord’s Prayer? Or aspects of it? We don’t a whole lot. And what I wanted to do was expound a little more on it. Not just, ‘Here’s the Lord’s Prayer,’ but what Jesus does is that he gives us the prayer which points back to the psalms which is the prayer book of the Bible. And then we have contained in this song is many psalms, if you will. It’s dealing with each section of the Lord’s Prayer – Our Father reigns, how great and mighty is your name, just trying to expound on that a bit more. When you think about it, there’s hundreds of verses in the psalms that are specifically focussed on adoration. We wanted to take those aspects and expound on them a little bit more. The chorus is asking God to give us faith and hope and help us to trust that all the things we are asking him to provide, he will. And he is faithful to do that.
So yeah, that song, once we got that melody it felt so right. It felt like singing from our hearts rather than solely singing truth. It feels like now it connects more emotionally. There is that idea that in the course of your life, you’re asking God to provide something – we don’t always have faith to trust that he will do that. And it’s not saying, ‘God give us faith because we need you to do what we’re asking you to do.’ It’s ‘Give us faith to believe that you have the power to do that, and also trust that whatever you do is what’s best for us.’ That’s really what that song is about. I feel like it’s great too because it sets up worship leaders in a way to be able to… I think for some people that grew up in more of a Catholic background there’s a resistance to some liturgy but there’s power in reading the word as it is too, and it sets worship leaders up to read the Lord’s Prayer and sing that song in response. It’s a song of thanksgiving and gratefulness for all that God’s done in response to that prayer.
Is there a big idea or key message to Join the Triumph as a whole?
Yes. I think Greatly to be Praised sums it up the best, and in what I was describing earlier. When you think about creation, everything being created, sinners being redeemed, the church of Christ being built, the kingdom of God expanding – when you think about all those things, God is responsible for every single one of those things. Not one of those things can you point to and say, ‘I did that,’ or ‘A man did that,’ it’s God who did those things. So really when God creates the earth and there’s no sin he creates it in a way where he calls Adam and Eve to worship him. ‘I am your God, I’ve given you everything you need, I’ve given you a command, and I’m calling you to multiply the earth, subdue it, work hard…’ And obviously there’s the fall and again God is inviting his people back to him, even before Jesus. There’s different sacrifices, and different ways to have communion with him. And through Jesus, he fulfils the law so we don’t have to do those things anymore, but he’s calling us to Christ to join in the triumph that is found in him and now in his church, together as one body. What is the mission of the church? We’re going to make disciples – that’s our charge that God has given us. And what is the Holy Spirit doing? He’s calling us to obey the words of Jesus at the Great Commission. What is the kingdom of God doing? Continually pouring forth praise.
The victory chant and celebration is continuing, and more and more souls are joining in the triumph that is found in Jesus. One person told me that one thing that really hit them about this album is that it had a very eschatological vibe to it in that it focusses a lot on the hope that is found in Jesus. Not so much, ‘I hope this will happen,’ or ‘I hope I’ll get that raise at work,’ but an actual hope that God has given us and one that we rejoice in. We hit a little bit on that on the last album, and I think we’re picking up on that a bit more here. We want to drag home: let’s stop focussing on ourselves and instead worship the one true God. That’s what Join the Triumph is. It’s for people who have been saved by God, but also for those who haven’t been. My hope is that people will hear the gospel through it, and they will be saved and transformed through it, because the gospel is transformative. Music, not so much.
That’s a great prayer and hope for the album. Now the album is about to drop. Have you got anything excited for launch night?
Yeah! We’re going to do a release show at a University here in town. We’re really excited to do that. We’ve got a couple of shows we’ll be doing. Kings Kaleidoscope when they release their album, we’ll do a show with them to support them. Their album sounds great. And we’ve got a few shows soon. We’re touring for a few days with The Digital Age. We’re excited to be able to share that, to play with another great band. My hope is that people will continue to be encouraged by it all.
Speaking of Kings Kaleidoscope’s release, it’s amazing that you are releasing albums so very close together. And both very solid records. Is it nice to support each other in that way?
Absolutely. Honestly, what’s interesting is that Chad and I – we’re the only two guys to have ever been paid worship directors at the U-District church. He did a lot of work there and then I came and continued carrying the torch. So we’ve always had a certain connectedness. It’s always encouraging to do this together. In fact, there was even talk at one point of releasing on the same day! [Laughs] But I think it’s better to not do that for a number of reasons. It’s really exciting. Chad and the band have such a great vision and incredible music and I feel like it’s amazing to listen to that album. It makes me want to freak out.
It’s a pretty special album.
Very special. I’m excited about it.
Lots has happened for you this year. A lot of change. What does 2015 look like for you?
Yeah, the focus is continuing to invest full-time in what God is doing through the band. It’s an interesting position to be in. I went from my pay cheque being from the church to no longer having a pay cheque from the church. A real refining process, and it’s helped instil in us some really clear convictions that we have. And our hope is that God would open up a lot of doors to be able to do this ministry with the band so we can serve the church in as great a capacity as we can. Not just an every-other-weekend player, but somebody that’s on a weekly basis invested into the church. That’s our hope. Looking ahead at 2015, we’d love to be able to continue proclaiming and sharing the gospel with as many people as we can, encouraging churches, and being actively a part of our local church too as a family. Those are the two big things we’re focussed on for next year.
And if you release more albums in the future, how do you think you’d approach them? Would you crowd fund?
I don’t think so. Part of my conviction is that we would continue with a label. BEC Recordings are wonderful, they’ve been incredible supporters of us and one thing that’s been really encouraging is that they’ve never pressured us to write songs for radio. They just take what we’ve written and they do their best to see if it’s the best fit for radio and so far they’ve done that in a wonderful way. Our hope is to stay with them and we have no intention of doing crowd-funding or anything like that. We’d just love to have an old-fashioned relationship between a band and a label. I think it’s important. For the hope of music as we know it. If as musicians we’re not careful, the very thing that we love and hate will be responsible for tearing it down too and belittling it down to something that music is not. Music is an art that takes a lot of time and effort, and you don’t get to make paintings like Picasso. You either spend lots of time really thinking through how you’re going to do that, and it’s an honest expression of how you’re feeling or how you want to express this scene that you’re seeing. It’s the same with music. There’s an honesty and authenticity that’s needed and not everyone needs a microphone. One day, there will be a time when we don’t need a microphone anymore and it’ll be time to let other bands continue what God started through us.
Zach, once again it’s been a delight. Thanks so much for the chat!
Thank you man.