The Citizens Band Makes Music Democratically


South By Southwest is filled with collaborative efforts. Free parties, signs encouraging passerby to “Keep Austin Weird,” older bands dropping in on younger counterparts. To a New Yorker, it’s almost too much: where’s the catch? Who are all these people? But even those most wary of words like “collective” or “communal” should be taken by the magic of The Citizens Band.

The troupe is famously headed—if that’s the correct term, as a rotating cast is part of its manifesto—by a group of individuals who keep their day jobs outside the band. (Of course, “day job” is relative, since the project was started by supermodel-singer Karen Elson, filmmaker-acrobat Sarah Sophie Flicker, Rain Phoenix, Mark McAdam, and a host of other recognizable names.) The members, which total nearly 20, take classic or early 20th-century songs and recontextualize them, usually surrounding a social theme (at SXSW, they were concerned with war). But not only is it a bunch of musicians, actors, models, and artists playing songs—they do so in cabaret-inspired garb, with fantastic makeup, porkpie hats, and garters galore.

At the Warby Parker Garden Party at SXSW, with the sun setting and hanging lights twinkling, the jamboree helmed by The Citizens was enrapturing, despite any droll misgivings one might have about giant communal projects. The performance felt like the last night of summer camp—breathless and exciting, and more intimate than their much-publicized performances at the old Deitch Projects. The group talked with Interview right after the last note ended. Of course, with nearly 20 people in the group, there were plenty of voices to chime in. It makes sense: it’s only fitting the collaboration goes all the way to the interview, too.

LEILA BRILLSON: Is it true that you play every five months?

MARK MCADAM: Well it’s not like we are on a schedule. But we tend to get together for very intense things. Because there are so many people in so many projects, we tend to get together and do a bunch shows, and then we won’t talk to each other at all for the next several months. [laughs]

BRILLSON: What are some of the things you all are working on?

MCADAM: Well, Rain has got an incredible project in LA called papercranes.

RAIN PHOENIX: I’m also in Gift Horse Project.

MCADAM: I’m a songwriter and a composer for film. Karen Elson is a supermodel. You might be familiar with her work.

PHOENIX: And she makes records, really beautiful ones…

MCADAM: Right, she’s a great singer in her own right. [Mr.] Blue is a DJ.

MR. BLUE: I’m not a supermodel. I’m also a writer… I write bad movies, and I’m a writer for ESPN. But mostly I wait around for the five months to pass between the next Citizens Band rotation.

MCADAM: [Jon] Natchez plays in that band Beirut, Sarah Sophie Flicker makes films and does all sorts of things…There are so many of us.

BLUE: Amy Miles is a recording artist who also has a new children’s show coming out on YouTube. It’s called “Meow Meow Music.”

MCADAM: Zoe Kravitz is a young heartthrob and actress. She’s around here somewhere. [Kravitz says hi in the background.] Nina Persson was in the band The Cardigans and now she is in another band called The Cake Sale.

BRILLSON: Whoa! That’s a lot to keep altogether! How do you find costumes for so many people?

MCADAM: Well, Sarah is a serious vintage comber. Chelsea [Bacon] makes some stuff.

RACHELLE GARNIEZ: Chelsea is a fantastic aerialist and also a milliner. Sometimes we put together costumes, but a lot of times we base it on Sarah’s vintage collection. But it’s always an aesthetic that reflects the 1890s, but zooming to the 1940s, then zooming into the future.

MCADAM: It’s really bizarre to us that we play all these songs from the ’20s and ’30s that are all vaguely political. But you could have written them today. They are just as relevant, weird, or infuriating as they were in 1925. ‘Cause we keep making the same damn mistakes.

BLUE: Mark and Rachelle write a lot of the songs, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference between a vintage classic or something they created a few days ago, because of how apt these topics still are.

PHOENIX: You guys just got really dark. Don’t forget, we are also about bringing the joy. We are bringing some entertainment and joy into otherwise drab topics, like politics, or things that people tend not to smile through.

MCADAM: Well, it also helps that there are beautiful women in their underwear. People generally listen better to half-naked gorgeous women.

GARNIEZ: We’ve done entire shows on the health care situation, immigration, war, the environment. We try to create different shows with themes.

MCADAM: But, in our underwear.

BRILLSON: With such an emphasis on the collective, who actually came up with the idea of The Citizens Band?

MCADAM: Well, this initially started as a much looser thing. One person would just get up and sing as they felt like it.

PHOENIX: In random warehouses. With fake blood.

MCADAM: Slowly it became the idea of The Citizens Band. But it came out of the idea of fun.

BRILLSON: Will there ever be a real album?  

GARNIEZ: It’s like you are psychic! We were just in the studio working on a bunch of tunes. Nathan Larson produced the record. It’s all of us.

PHOENIX: It was based somewhat on the idea of voter suppression. Why not make a record that inspires and brings hope to the citizens of the United States. We can get out and vote. It’s like, anti-apathy… and bringing the joy.

BRILLSON: I have to ask. You’ve got radically busy schedules. How do you organize meet-ups with 20 people? Is there a phone tree or a listserv?

ALL: Reply-all!

MCADAM: We need congressional action on the necessity of such a button. And I speak for all of us on that!