The grunge metal of Citizen Zero
Some rock is on a mission. There’s plenty of loud guitar-based rock music that’s all about excess and the extremes of pleasure-seeking. But there’s a whole other strain that’s focused on assembling sturdy cathartic rock the way you might build a truck. Taking pride in the interlocking parts, the heft of the finished product. Making music that seeks to serve a purpose in the world. Citizen Zero are a grunge-metal-leaning band from Detroit. They have a workmanlike pride about what they do, which might have something to do with being from the Motor City. The band takes the business of entertaining and provoking their listeners seriously.
Citizen Zero just released its full-length debut, State of Mind, earlier this year. And Citizen Zero play the Cone Center in Greensboro on Dec. 10 with Pop Evil. I spoke with Josh LeMay, the band’s singer, by phone last week from the road as Citizen Zero made their way through Ohio on route to Indiana.
There was a time when playing rock and roll was an act of defiance. It was something you did to piss off your parents: making noise to express and heighten your alienation. But it’s been 60 years since Elvis Presley first performed on the Ed Sullivan show. Generations have grown pretty used to it. Rock and roll fueled the countercultural revolution of the ‘60s. It got co-opted as the sound of youth. Other styles nudged rock out of prominence. The members of Citizen Zero come from families where rock and popular music are part of life and part of making a living. So their career choice, LeMay points out, was about “being a musician,” not about trying to get famous.
“We were all kind of just lucky to have parents that were all musicians our entire lives,” says LeMay. “We all were sort of just born into it.”
For LeMay and his bandmates — guitarist Sammy Boller, drummer John Dudley, and bassist Sam Collins — you get the feeling that playing in a band is a practical and honorable pursuit, sort of like becoming a welder or joining the military. It’s not necessarily an act of rebellion.
Citizen Zero can bring to mind a lot of bands, everyone from Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains and Buckcherry to Aerosmith, the Who, Skid Row and Creed. It’s all strutting guitar music, with plenty of muscle and testosterone. If there’s a through line, it’s the presence of a singer who’s driving his voice to its limits, pushing toward big highs and maintaining a texture without wiping out or blowing his pipes apart. Classic rock, grunge and pop-leaning metal are all blended together.
If some rock bands view their role as entertainers with suspicion, Citizen Zero approach the challenge of satisfying a crowd with a classic showmanship.
“You gotta blow it out for every single show, no matter what,” says LeMay about the highwire-act requirements of both pushing and maintaining his voice over weeks and weeks of touring.
Citizen Zero takes its name from the idea of the lone individual who can change the world. A single person can transform history, for good or ill, through a political vision, an act of defiance, civil disobedience or tapping into a mass sentiment that hasn’t been articulated yet. That might be a grand mission for a rock band, but being from the Detroit area gives Citizen Zero a front-row look at all kinds of current-events drama, and a sense of how change can come swift and out of left field. (Note the pivotal role Michigan played in the 2016 presidential election.) Detroit was the national example of a failed city for years, but it’s slowly turning around, with young people transforming parts of the city, starting restaurants and bars and generally making it hum again.
“For some reason, Detroit’s on a comeback,” says LeMay. “It’s kind of cool to be from a place at a time where there’s this rock-and-roll redemption story.”
But like New Jersey, or Appalachia, or other places that people in the rest of the country make massive assumptions about, Detroit has a little bit of an attitude about how people have viewed it over the years.
“We’re coming back and we’re pissed off about what everybody thinks of us,” says LeMay of the Detroit attitude.
Detroit gives Citizen Zero a psychological-geographical connection to artists as diverse as Eminem, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, the White Stripes and the MC5. There might not be an overarching shared musical sensibility among those groups, but there is a kind of unifying Rust Belt contrarianism. With Citizen Zero the perspective plays out in a skepticism about received wisdom and mass media. One of the band’s songs, “Go (Let Me Save You),” was written as a type of response to, and critique of, the news media’s handling of the Newtown school tragedy in Connecticut. LeMay has spoken out about similar concerns regarding the coverage of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“It seems like the main goal for our media is to divide us, and it’s just dangerous. And not enough people are asking why,” says LeMay. “It’s really just like social control. My generation — it’s scary — I don’t think there are enough questions being asked. I don’t think there are enough free-thinking individuals.”
Whether rock music is a sturdy enough vehicle to address these concerns will remain a question, but in an era when many people opt for fake news or self-selected media bias, perhaps a song has as much chance of sparking change or provoking critical thought as anything else.
LeMay and his bandmates will go into the studio to begin work on their second record in January. Citizen Zero isn’t likely to get slack about rocking out. They’ve got a work ethic. LeMay still retains a sense of disbelief about getting to make music as a living, and it colors the way he approaches the work.
“I can’t believe I get to do this,” he says. “It was all I wanted ever since I was a kid. I was like a dog chasing a car. I’m still a dog chasing a car, I’m just getting really close to the car, and I’m starting to freak out.”
Wanna go? Citizen Zero play on a bill with Pop Evil at the Cone Denim Entertainment Center, 117 S. Elm, Greensboro, 336-378-9646, cdecgreensboro.com