- Photo: Doug Coombe
- Smiles, everyone, smiles!
This band's name is Citizen Smile, the kind that'll find some people grinning like a chimp on a birthday card and see others upchuck guts. See, these guys are disproving the idea that a band can't be outwardly happy in Detroit.
That's right, just because Iggy perfected the mutant Elvis scowl, it doesn't mean everyone around here has to do it. According to Citizen Smile, happiness in the form of bouncy pop-rock ditties is in. Just look at them. They're holding cupcakes.
Citizen Smile — vocalist James Brown (yes, that's his birth name), guitarist Kory Kopchick, Daniel Dazuchowski on drums and bassist Ricky Ruggero — formed in 2005 through a mutual love of the Who, Wilco and Nada Surf, though Brown and Kopchick had been playing together for some time before that, the affable guitarist tells us.
"James Brown and myself have been playing together since around 2000 actually," Kopchick says. "We naturally evolved into Citizen Smile." The band spent five years of existence growing up as men and musicians (aging in range from 21 to 23), so the pop isn't kid stuff.
Both Kopchick and Brown call it "indie pop rock" to describe the sound, and they agree it's time people quit viewing "pop" as a dirty word.
"I remember a point in my life where, if something was described as pop, I was definitely turned off," Brown says. "Now though, even in the Detroit scene, we have bands like Lightning Love and even Fawn that have their roots in pop music. I think a lot of bands in Detroit are trying to reclaim the term 'pop music' and make it something that you don't need to fear."
"Pop doesn't have to be bad," Kopchick agrees. "A lot of times, pop music is watered down. But also, a pop song, when done well, draws people in."
That's a fair point. People love a good hook, as long as they don't feel like they're being misled; there's the Beatles' Revolver and then there's Lady Gaga. �
Citizen Smile are closer to the former, and their subject matter covers real issues (girls, work, life, etc.) with a wink and a grin.
With the Singles having relocated to Los Angeles, Kopchick's fairly happy to be Detroit's in-house band of youthful joy sticks, if only to help keep spirits high. Though the guitarist points out differences between the bands:
"The indie part is more prominent with us than it is with the Singles. Their songs are maybe formulaic, kind of like the [early] Beatles. Two and a half minutes, and as the name suggests, every song could be a single. For us, we have a lot of songs with more variety. Some are one minute, others are six minutes; the average length is three and a half to four minutes. So we're not as poppy as the Singles. In terms of stepping into their shoes, I think we do a little bit but we have so many kinds of songs that we can't exactly say that."
Any man stepping onto a stage wielding James Brown's name has an impossibly high bar set, but ... the Citizen Smile front man does little to disgrace his funky namesake. Still, the anglo Brown sees himself more as an artist than an entertainer.
"It's kind of weird, because there was a time in my life and also the band's life, where we really were focused on trying to make stuff that other people would like, and trying to perform in a way that the crowd would like," the singer says. "We've gotten to a point where we grew up a lot, the sound matured and it's really more about 'do we like this?' We've cut a lot of the songs that people used to like, just because we didn't like them. We got over just trying to do what other people wanted to hear and started doing what we wanted to do."
Ah, now they're sounding like a Detroit band — that "I'll do whatever I want" 'tude, that drive toward song and identity freedom. That's pure D right there.
Brown agrees: "There are so many genres in Detroit, but we all fall under this Detroit sound. I think that the bands here have this beaten down, gritty attitude. We're giving ourselves completely to music. I definitely think that we do. We're happy, but at the same time we're focused on raw energy. Especially when we play live. It's this loud, intense thing for us and I hope the crowd too."
Kopchick thinks Citizen Smile couldn't have been born of any other city. "We're not so much the Detroit rock 'n' roll that you generally hear, like the Displays or the Hentchmen or something," Kopchick says. "But I think you can tell we're from Detroit because if we go to Chicago or somewhere else, I feel like we've got a little bit of that rawness. We're a little more beaten down than these other bands, just because we're from Detroit and it's so hard. I think that just comes through. Any band from Detroit has that going for them, and I think that's a good thing. The sound of being beaten down."
On Saturday, the boys celebrate their latest self-released CD EP (Keepsakes). It's their third EP and fourth release, including their full-length self-titled album.
Kopchick says the band's sound has changed considerably since their teen beginnings. "James's lyrics have gotten way better. He used to write a lot about girls, which most bands do, but recently he's written new songs about the music scene in Detroit. They're angstier now, and more real. Not as manufactured. My guitar parts have gotten way better. ... I've found my distinct sound. Musicianship-wise, we've gotten way better."
It's true, Citizen Smile aren't the smirking goons implied in their name and some earlier songs might suggest. Their songs have retained a kind of joyous swagger and swing, but genuine emotion and some life experience has been added.
It's an edge from a dose of reality, which gives away the fact this band's from these parts. And James Brown is happy where he is. "Since I've been in the music scene — which is seven or eight years — this is the best time that I've experienced in the Detroit music scene," the singer says. "Any time that I want to, I can go to a great show, any night of the week. It wouldn't be difficult to find something that I want to hear. That's the greatest thing."
Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Pike Room, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248- 858-9333, with the Handgrenades, Patrick Davy & the Ghosts and the Ashleys.