LISTEN TO "HUNTER," one of the skyscraping highlights off Citay's new album, Dream Get Together, and it's clear that its florid chordal ascension and stately pace are begging for a video lensed by mad-genius director Werner Herzog. San Francisco's Citay are one of the few contemporary acts that could prompt visions of the esteemed German filmmaker conceiving images to their creations. "Hunter" attains the same transcendent majesty that marked the best work of Popol Vuh, who scored several Herzog films. Question is, do Citay have the budget to hire Herzog?
"Depends on how much he asks for," laughs Citay leader Ezra Feinberg, giddy about the prospect. "I've been obsessed with Popol Vuh and Werner Herzog for a long time. [With "Hunter"], I wanted to see what would happen if we did a Popol Vuh-like basic track and then blew it up. What's beautiful about Popol Vuh is how minimal most of it is. I also wanted my friend Joel Robinow, who plays keyboards in Howlin Rain, to do a total Jan Hammer fusion solo. I hear us taking the minimal Popol Vuh pastoral drone and mixing it with a hyper-extended Mahavishnu Orchestra vibe; it has that mysticism, but also that, dare I say, virtuosic aspect. That seemed like a cool possibility."
A serious music geek, Feinberg is all about cool possibilities. Over three albums since 2006, Citay—basically Feinberg and a stalwart crew of Bay Area studio rats—have alchemized these influences into a stratospheric yet rustic amalgam of mostly instrumental, psychedelic rock with proggy undertones.
Many musicians strive to tap into the magical aura of vintage psych and prog from the Nixon years, but most end up sounding like dilettantes or slavish copyists. Citay have cracked a code that enables them to emulate some of the most sublime artists of that era and those styles (Bo Hansson, Queen, Danny Kirwan's songs for Fleetwood Mac), with a pronounced soulfulness and melodic grandeur.
"Starting maybe five or seven years ago, there was this integration of '60s psych and prog into indie rock," Feinberg says. "It wasn't the first time it's happened, but it felt like it had been awhile since there were elements of that music around, but it became cool to wear headbands and shawls. I think people come to Citay shows expecting to see a full-on band of hippies, and we're not. We're all music nerds. I can't say we're better than other bands doing similar stuff because of X, Y, and Z, but I can say that we're different from a lot of those bands, because we're all about music. [If] we've gotten anywhere, it's not on haircuts."
Instead, Citay have reached their modestly lofty position by conveying a kind of idyllic peace through music that is exceptionally rare in this century. It's escapist, to a degree; songs like the mercurial Pink Floyd homage "Careful with That Hat" and the loping, rococo folkadelia of "Secret Breakfast" launch you out of grim reality, but with subtlety.
"That's the idea," Feinberg says. "I've always wanted it to be beautiful and with a lot of grandeur, something that sweeps you off your feet. I hope our music is doing to other people what the music I love the most has done for me. Whether it's Robert Fripp/Brian Eno collaborations or the beautiful pop sadness of Big Star or the total grandeur and soaring insanity of the first Boston album. People always chuckle when I mention Boston, but that album is as essential as any to me. Or the mystique of Led Zeppelin or Heart or 1,000 lost psych bands from the late '60s and '70s."
While Feinberg is Citay's "friendly dictator," he has considerable help from phaser-pedal connoisseur Tim Green (the Fucking Champs and many other projects), who's produced all three Citay full-lengths (Citay, Little Kingdom, and Dream Get Together). "I think the most unusual thing is that Ezra comes in with a relatively bare-bones song, and by the time we're done with it there are 60-plus tracks going on," Green says. "Usually bands that come into the studio have their songs pretty much written, but with Citay, we're always adding parts here and there or rewriting parts until the song becomes the unwieldy beast that it's meant to be."
Feinberg's painstaking compositional method reflects his more-is-more ethos and desire to take you on a serpentine sonic journey. "I'm really interested in harmony and movement of a composition from beginning to end," he says. "I want to lift up the listener and take them somewhere that is different at the end than from the beginning. A song should exist in time. It should not only transport, which is kind of a cliché, but if it starts at point A, when you're done you should be at least at point H, if not Q, or even Z."