Lounging on a three-piece couch at his new Mission district flat, Ezra Feinberg appears more grad student than guitar hero when discussing his band's third full-length release, Dream Get Together. The songwriter at the helm of Citay has close-cut, mussed hair and a day's scruff, and wears an AstroTurf-green T-shirt with faded lettering identifying him as a Special Olympics volunteer. Feinberg, 33, speaks in an easy urban drawl that occasionally reaches a hoarse peak — in moments of self-reflection on the finer points of his band's sound, when he uses words like "catharsis" and "epic-ness," or when discussing the provenance of the name Citay.
"It's how the word 'city' is sung," Feinberg said. "I like the idea of taking a word the way it's sung in songs and taking it out of the song." Feinberg says the name doesn't refer to a particular artist or song, then rattles off a list of artists who have sung "citay" — including Stevie Wonder, Journey, Otis Redding, and Tom Petty. Nor does the name directly refer to the "citay" Feinberg has called home since moving from Brooklyn in 2004. "I had the name before I moved to San Francisco," he said.
Citay's lengthy pastoral soundscapes (some push eight minutes) layer harmonized electric leads atop tuneful percussion, plucked or ardently strummed strings, keys, and dreamy coed harmonies. Feinberg will often forsake traditional pop structures and choruses for lyric-less "oohs" and "ahs" while the momentum of many instruments and many players builds. Citay's carefully crafted, mellow intensity is far from some of the gods of classic rock name-checked in much of the band's press. Critics lean hard on the classic rock references — sometimes even concluding that the band is a tribute. "You'd be surprised about that," he said. "I get turned off by bands that I feel like are essentially tributes. I'm not going for power chords and fist-pumping. I'm going for something much more cathartic. I want it to be exciting and epic but I don't want it to be hypermasculine. I want it to be emotional."
Feinberg is discerning and discursive when it comes to the influences on Citay's sound. He's also acutely aware of how the band is perceived in the press, admitting that premonitions about snarky reviews on some taste-making web sites can affect his songwriting process. Citay's last record, Little Kingdom, was favorably reviewed on Pitchfork, but Feinberg thinks what he is doing is far from flavor-of-the-month indie rock. "I don't think that most music journalists like the first Boston record," he said.
In response to a request to look through the records in his living room, he demurs, noting that it wouldn't be representative of his tastes. "You'd be better off looking through my iPod," he said, citing a love of Popol Vuh and NEU! along with CSNY, Big Star, the Byrds, and Rufus Wainwright.
Feinberg describes Citay as "sort of this vast web of bands and musicians." There's not a single member left from the original live act, save Feinberg. Current and past contributors comprise a rotating set of players with many other notable projects on the go. The family tree stretches to local bands the Dry Spells, 3 Leafs, Tussle, Crime in Choir, and Vetiver. But Feinberg's most important musical-familial connection is Tim Green. Feinberg refers to Green, a sought-after producer and member of local math-rock outfit the Fucking Champs who has committed to tape the likes of the Melvins and Howlin Rain, with a fraternal regard.
Green had already worked with Feinberg on the East Coast recording Feast, a "short-lived, heavy, acid-rock crazy stoner band I had in Brooklyn in '02, '03, and '04." Feinberg remembers well the moment he knew he had met a musical like-mind, in a van on the way to the Martha's Vineyard studio where Feast was recording. "We were driving around in a van listening to the first Heart record," Feinberg said, "and all the sudden we both air-guitared at like the same moment. We've been brothers ever since."
After a few months of long-distance phone friendship, Feinberg decided to pick up and move West, knowing he would work on something new with Green. Before he got his own place in the city, Feinberg crashed on the couch at Green's studio. Soon after, Citay was founded as a studio project, with Green producing, Feinberg writing, and the two, plus Champs drummer Tim Soete, playing all the parts. Band members now number seven or so during live shows. Even more are listed as contributors to Dream Get Together.
Green admits that back in 2004, when the two started tracking what would become Citay's self-titled debut on Important Records, he had little idea Feinberg's bedroom project would grow to be the "juggernaut" it is today. "I never had plans to do a show live," Green says, "I don't know if [Feinberg] did either." But after several favorable reviews, Feinberg was contacted by the organizers of Arthur magazine's Arthurfest in Los Angeles. A hastily assembled live band included Green on guitar, a post he kept for six months before returning to his job as a producer and his role in the Champs. From those unlikely beginnings, Green has watched Citay evolve both as a studio band and a live band, with more and more contributions from the other band members in the studio with each album, and more cohesion on stage. "It's been exponentially ramping up in quality," Green said. "It feels much more like a band than a backing band playing with the dude who wrote the songs."
Green sees another, concomitant evolution in Feinberg's songwriting. Since Citay, Feinberg's process has been to make scratch recordings on GarageBand, experimenting with vocal lines and guitar textures. He then brings them to Green's studio, where arrangements and full structures coalesce. At first, the dearth of members meant all instruments were tracked separately. These processes often lead to a de-emphasis of strong lead vocal lines, and unconventional song structures that come with continual studio experimentation. Green first encouraged Feinberg to track parts with a drummer. "Once you make that decision it makes it much harder to go back and reorganize," Green said. "It's a bit like working without a net. Feinberg was hesitant to do it at first. I know it made the drummer a lot happier." Dream Get Together contains some very complete, verse-chorus-verse songs with clear vocals from Feinberg. "I've encouraged him to sing more," Green continued. "His songwriting has gotten better with each album."
Feinberg agrees that Dream Get Together shows this progression, with a few tracks that, in their length, clarity, and structure, complete his move toward pop sensibilities and away from the "bloated histrionics" of some of his classic rock forebears. It may sound conventional, but for Citay it's experimental.
"I'm into long-form composition," Feinberg said. "But it's not enough just to write a couple of good parts. It feels to me for Citay it's expansive to embrace the pop song."