November 8th, 2007 | Interviews

shea m gauer

Citay is composer Ezra Feinberg and Tim Green of the Fucking Champs plus Jesse Reiner, Julie Napolin, April Hayley, Tahlia Harbour, Adria Otte, Diego Gonzalez and Warren Huegel. Their newest album Little Kingdom is one of the best of 2007. Alex Roman speaks to Ezra, who was perplexed that the band added 33 new friends that day on MySpace.

Everybody seems to love repeating the bands name right after me with the exaggerated ‘ayyyyyyyyyyy.’ So was it Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’ or Journey’s ‘Lights’ that influenced the name?
Well the Journey song, sure, but there’s many—that’s not the only ‘citay’ song. It’s pretty nerdy, but I made a mix a long time ago of songs that all have the word city as ‘citay.’ It included Journey, which is my least favorite one, to be honest. Stevie, Foghat, ZZ Top… There’s more—I mean, I can go on and on.
When people write about you, they always mention the ‘70s—why has that music held up so well over time?
I don’t know if it does. Some people really don’t like it.
But a lot of people are into it.
There’s no denying that it was a pretty amazing time in the world of pop music—not just pop music, but that was the time when rock ‘n’ roll really sort of exploded, so there was something for everybody. I feel influenced by music of all eras, though. It’s true that music from the ‘60s and ‘70s is a reference point for Citay, but there is all sorts of music that we’re actually influenced by. I don’t really think in terms of era, because each era in music is influenced by the era before it—the ‘70s by the ‘60s, the ‘60s by the ‘50s—so all music is to me is simply just an amalgam of what came before it.
You guys seem to like to blur the genre lines. Do you think that bands that try so hard to identify with something are damaging themselves?
I do! There are definitely bands that survive by just becoming part of a scene or a popular genre, which really helps them but is also very limiting. But that’s cool—I’m sure that I could find some of that music that I like. I don’t think that genre helps at all. The only thing that helps is playing and listening to tons of stuff all the time.
I read that you moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn because you were tired of asymmetrical haircuts and hipsters talking about Gang of Four. What was different when you got to San Francisco?
I didn’t say that. I like Gang of Four and I have nothing against any haircuts.
It’s a good statement; you should take ownership of it. So what was different when you got to San Francisco?
I hardly knew anybody when I got there and I met a lot of people through Tim Green and a few other folks. I liked that it was smaller than Brooklyn and New York, but it had just as wide a breadth of music and stuff happening, so there was something kind of ideal about it. You know, New York is a city like Los Angeles that has a major culture industry as a huge part of urban life there. San Francisco doesn’t have that—it’s a cultural city without a culture industry. That has its pluses and minuses, but it’s really conducive to making music, I think.
How did the music you make change?
It’s a departure, but I don’t think it’s as much of a departure as most people think it is. When I was in Brooklyn I was in different bands, but they were always loud, big and rockin’. Let me back up a second. I think that my experience in San Francisco is totally subjective, to be honest with you. I don’t know how much it has to do with the city or how much it has to do with me, but when I got here I stopped writing primarily using loud distorted electric guitar chords and started working on acoustic and electric guitar textures. So I kind of went from power chords to textures.
There are subtleties in both, but just the approach. The first thing I did when I was making music with bands in Brooklyn was that I would pick up my electric guitar and turn up the amp really loud. The first thing I did in San Francisco— sometimes it was electric and sometimes it was acoustic—was to layer tracks of guitar while recording. So I was working on the textures, feels and melodies of layered guitar tracks, rather than writing loud, bombastic riffs.
Since you left Brooklyn, what do you think of the attention it continues to get?
Is it still getting attention? I wasn’t aware! It was huge when I was there. When I was in Brooklyn the first couple of years, there was nothing happening and it was really dead. Then there was this explosion of punk bands—the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, Strokes, Radio 4, the Rapture—all these ‘80s punk bands, basically. I wasn’t playing anything like that. I was in these heavy stoner psych bands, or one at least, and we didn’t have many bands to play with and there wasn’t much of a scene for it. In the years since I left, the Brooklyn thing has seemed to sustain itself, but the excitement seems to have hit a plateau from my perspective. I thought what was happening was cool, but I didn’t feel all that inspired by the music. I think some of those bands are fucking awesome, but I didn’t feel an affinity. I shouldn’t say I wasn’t inspired, because I’m inspired by a lot of music—I just didn’t feel musical affinity with those bands and with that sound.
Do you write to-do lists when you wake up?
Maybe in my head on a good day.
How well does that work?
It depends on the day and how urgent the things you need to do are.
On one of the new tracks, you say that your ‘mind is a stranger with directions.’ How so?
I was thinking of this idea of asking a stranger on the street for directions. Somebody totally outside of yourself that’s directing you and telling you what to do and where to go and sometimes it feels like parts of our minds are strangers to ourselves.
How do you think you can get to know that stranger?
I think we get to know ourselves through a deep engagement in art and music.
What was your first deep engagement in art or music?
The earliest thing I got into was ‘Eye of the Tiger’ from the Rocky III soundtrack. That gave way to getting really into the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Nothing terribly interesting, but we’re talking about ten years old.
When did you get into classic rock?
It wasn’t long after. In high school I started following the threads that the classic rock stations were giving me. I got sick of most of those classic rock songs that they played pretty quickly, so I started exploring the deep cuts and the B-sides. Suddenly the world of records was opened up to me. I used to be like, ‘Man, those Santana songs on the radio are dumb and I don’t really like them.’ Then a friend of mine asked if I had heard Santana with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I didn’t know what that was. So we smoked a big joint and listened to their interpretation of A Love Supreme and it was fucking amazing! After that I sort of discovered the world of discovering music that wasn’t readily available.
How much do you think pot influenced your musical tastes—or musical tastes in general?
I don’t know—you’d have to ask other people. I’m not that into drugs myself. People often associate the music of Citay with…
Massive bong rips?
Yeah, exactly. And I understand what they’re saying and that’s fine—it’s cool and great. But I didn’t write any of it when I was high. I’m not really answering your question, but I’m not really comfortable talking about drugs for some reason.
To me some of the tracks on Little Kingdom kind of paint a picture in my mind when I listen to it—kind of pastoral, I guess. Is that something you try to accomplish when you write?
No, the visual elements come later. It’s not until I’m done that out pop ideas of what this music might look like. To me it’s about starting a song and finding a melody or a progression, or melody and harmony that go together well, then seeing where the song takes me in the process of composition. It’s a really long process.
Since you have such a wide knowledge of music, is there any musician that you wish you were? Or a song that you wish you had written?
Oh, man. Yeah, there’s two and they go in different directions. On one hand, I wish that I could write something as totally epic, monumental and beautiful as Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge—not Tubular Bells! Hergest Ridge, the second album. I love that album and it has a huge influence on Citay. On the other hand, I really love Chris Bell from Big Star. As much as I would love to make something as grand and epic as Mike Oldfield, I also want to make something as simple and beautiful as Chris Bell’s ‘Speed of Sound’ or ‘You And Your Sister.’
Have you seen Big Star?
I just saw them two weeks ago at the Fillmore—it was fucking awesome. Alex Chilton is pretty subdued, but hearing those songs live is so amazing.