It was the hottest ticket that weekend. The Citrus City Records two-year anniversary party, held at Gallery5 on a chilly Friday night this past January, brought together a large crowd made up of both veteran local music aficionados and hip young college kids. All had made their way to Gallery5 that night to hear the kind of sunny, energetic indie sounds that have become the Citrus City trademark over the past two years.
This article was featured in RVAMag #28: Spring 2017. You can read all of issue #28 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
At the back of the venue, Manny Lemus, the more extroverted half of the duo that makes up the Citrus City braintrust, hawked cassettes and did his best to catch the four bands on the bill — all favorites of his — between excited conversations with fans, well-wishers, and prospective collaborators. His partner, Rene Franco, was also in attendance, cutting a more low-key figure and focusing on the music. When I caught up with Lemus at a local coffee shop a couple of weeks later, Franco was at work, but Lemus was glad to fill in all the details and answer all of my questions. Specifically, how had a small local label releasing only cassettes built up this much local momentum in only two years?
The first surprising thing I learned was that the label hadn’t even begun in Richmond. At the time of their meeting a few years ago, Lemus and Franco were classmates at Northern Virginia Community College, in Woodbridge. From the beginning, their connection was music-based. “I noticed he was wearing a Wavves t-shirt,” Lemus says. “I said, ‘Cool shirt, I just saw them in DC.’ He was like, ‘I was at that show too!'” The two clicked instantly. Lemus attributed some of their connection to their shared Latin background. “At that point I didn’t really see any other Latinx kids that liked the music I was into,” he says.
Lemus was born in America, but lived in Guatemala for several years during his childhood. As a child, he was exposed to a wide variety of music by his mother, who loved R.E.M. and Depeche Mode but also took him to see Latin American performers like Marc Anthony and Daddy Yankee at the Patriot Center. However, going to DIY shows was a tougher sell. “My mom is old-school Latina,” he says. “She didn’t wanna let me go out. I didn’t really go to my first show until tenth grade.”
For Lemus, his first exposure to the modern underground music scene came through the internet. Discovering artists like Jay Reatard through online explorations, he became so enthusiastic about the scene he’d tapped into that, by the time he was finishing high school, he was starting to contribute to a Canadian music website called IndieCurrent. “I used to freelance for them, and they’d send me to cover shows,” he says. However, by the time he was finishing up at community college, he’d realized he didn’t want to go into journalism as a career. Instead, he decided to apply to VCU and study Public Relations. He finished up at NVCC, was accepted into VCU, and moved from his hometown of Stafford to Richmond in May of 2015.
By this time, Citrus City was already a growing concern. Lemus and Franco had joined forces to create the label at the start of 2015, with the idea to document the music their friends were making. Unlike a lot of DIY labels who come together with this same mission, though, Citrus City wasn’t originally oriented around a particular geographic scene. “We weren’t really in the scene yet — our scene was the internet,” Lemus explains. “We came up with the [slogan] ‘Made by friends, for friends,’ even though they weren’t necessarily people we’d met in person. We had Boy’s Age from Japan, and Lois from Madrid — it’s all people we became friends with online.”
The decision to call the label Citrus City Records wasn’t an easy one. “We had no idea what we were gonna call it,” Lemus admits. “We both really like citrus fruits and flowers, [so] we were [thinking] Citrus Records, but there’s already a Citrus Recordings.” A stroke of genius on Franco’s part solved the problem. “Rene was like “Let’s add ‘City’, it sounds nice off the tongue,” says Lemus.
For a name picked relatively at random, Citrus City has come to seem quite apropos for the label’s offerings over its first two years of existence. There’s been a beachy, almost surfy undercurrent that shows up on many of the label’s releases, which musically evokes the same sort of sunny warmth that the phrase “citrus city” calls to mind. Lemus agrees. “A lot of the music that we like or want to release is… not necessarily dreamy, but positive, or upbeat.”
But of course, the question must be asked: why an all-cassette label? It’s true that the cassette format has experienced a bit of a resurgence in recent years, but it lacks the prestige of vinyl. “It’s like the only thing we can really afford,” Lemus chuckles sheepishly. “If I had the flexibility and the resources, the first [release] would have been a 7 inch. But tapes are a nice physical format to have. I just like to have a tangible version [of each release].”
Citrus City’s debut release may not have been a 7 inch, but Citrus City Vol. 1 makes up for its less prestigious format by bringing the listener nearly an hour of music by 17 different bands. The bands on the compilation hail from all over the world — glittering Anglophile-popsters Jade TV are based in Michigan; shambling garage rockers The Lagoonas are from Memphis; bouncy indie-poppers Beach Youth are from Normandy, France. “I wrote for IndieCurrent for about two years,” Lemus explains. “All those people were bands and musicians that had sent me their music when I was a writer, and we had just forged a nice e-friendship. I still keep in contact with all those people.”
Since the release of their debut compilation, Citrus City has released around 30 other cassettes. This works out to about one every three weeks, which is an amazingly prolific release rate for a small label run on a shoestring budget. Lemus looks at it as something that’s possible due to careful planning and organization. “We’ve been trying to apply a schedule like an actual label, and each month get something out there,” he says.
They’ve also realized the importance of keeping things on a manageable scale. Small pressings of each release keep the label from having too much money tied up in back stock. “We usually do around 70 or 80, and we split it evenly with the band,” Lemus explains. This way, the cassettes don’t stick around long. “If anything the longest is three months,” he says. “And even then it’s like ‘Oh, we have five left!’ And people pick them up at shows.”
The first Citrus City release that featured a band Lemus and Franco knew in real life was their seventh overall, the Nothing Buttrock EP, by Collin Thibodeauxx. Originally named after the group’s frontman and chief songwriter, the trio is now known as Lance Bangs. Lemus actually has quite a bit of history with them. “They were all high school friends. We all ran track together,” he explains, then elaborates on the connections between Lance Bangs, Citrus City Records, and high school sports. “I quit sophomore year — I was like ‘This is dumb.’ So did the bassist, Joel. But Collin and Drew kept at it. Collin is very into fishing. He has a bass tattoo on the back of his leg.”
This knowledge may tempt some to write Thibodeau (who actually has no X’s in his name) and the rest of Lance Bangs off as typical jocks, but listening to any of their three Citrus City releases will disabuse you of that notion in a hurry. Their lo-fi slacker alt-rock is reminiscent of Pavement and Parquet Courts, and sounds way more like what a few stoners would come up with between bong hits on a couch than anything at home in a locker room. Of course, the fact that the Lance Mountain EP features back to back songs entitled “#1 Single released on 4/20” and “Football” shows that the tension between jock and slacker remains alive within the band — which is part of what makes their music such an entertaining listen.
Soon after releasing the first Collin Thibodeauxx EP, Citrus City joined forces with fellow local cassette labels Crystal Pistol and Bad Grrrl to release Camp Howard’s self-titled debut album. “Camp Howard were the first new friends we made when we moved into town,” Lemus says. Camp Howard’s sound is cleaner and brighter than that of Lance Bangs, and mixes flavors from Built To Spill and The Chameleons into a fundamentally American pop approach full of guitar sunshine. Their self-titled debut is a solid release that made a good impression on the local scene, and beyond.
Camp Howard singer/guitarist Nic Perea speaks highly of their experience with Citrus City. “Working with Citrus City has been fun; we’ve had a lot of good times and played a bunch of fun shows,” he says. The band was particularly happy with the way Citrus City’s far-reaching online connections got them press in some unexpected places. “We had some write-up’s in the UK and stuff, which is sweet,” Perea says.
For his part, Lemus enjoys working with fellow RVA tape labels like Crystal Pistol and Bad Grrrl. “I get along with those people,” he says. “We’re just all running around doing the same thing.” Lemus regards Citrus City as existing on a different level than higher-profile Richmond labels like Egghunt and Spacebomb, though. “I’ve interacted with the Egghunt people, but they want to be more of a label label, if that makes sense,” he says. “I respect what they do. They want to put things on a national level, and with the Lucy Dacus thing they really did that. It gives me hope that that could happen to me one day. I would be so fucking glad if I could help a band on our label.”
At this point, though, part of being able to help has been recognizing the label’s limits. “We’re trying to keep it consistent,” Lemus says. “After a while, pulling money out of nowhere each month… it’s kinda hurting us right now.” To that end, Lemus and Franco have made the decision to ease up with the prolific release schedule. “We only are doing five releases this calendar year,” Lemus says. “I really want to finish school. Citrus City’s been putting it off a bit, so I really just want to get school out of the way.”
One of the upcoming releases on the docket for this year is the latest album from Fat Spirit, a band new to working with Citrus City after releasing their previous work through Bad Grrrl Records. “Manny approached me about putting out Fat Spirit’s next release,” singer/guitarist John Graham says. “I didn’t know him at the time, so I asked around about how it was to work with him and heard only good things.” Graham was impressed with Lemus’s work ethic and drive to promote his releases. “It seemed like he was someone who actually puts in work for the bands he puts tapes out for instead of just releasing it and doing the occasional post,” Graham explains. The latest Fat Spirit album, Nihilist Blues, will be coming out on Citrus City in April, with a record release show at Gallery5 planned for May 5.
Fat Spirit is just the latest Richmond band to join the ranks of Citrus City. Over the course of its existence, the label has become a more integral part of the Richmond scene. “I’m definitely seeing that people in town are more interested, and becoming more receptive,” Lemus says. In turn, Citrus City is paying more attention to the music being made in Richmond and reinforcing their roster with local groups like Young Scum and Antiphons. “We’re more rooted into Richmond now; I’ve been meeting a lot more people and taking on more Richmond releases,” says Lemus.
Right now, the label’s mission continues to be to release music by their friends. “It’s just people we know, that we really want to help,” Lemus says. “That stuff goes a long way, especially with the musicians we’re working with. Music’s a side thing — a lot of them have two jobs.” The positive response the label received from their anniversary show at Gallery5 is not lost on Lemus. “A lot of friends we’ve made in the Charlottesville, Blacksburg, Harrisonburg, and Norfolk DIY communities came to the Gallery 5 show. I was taken aback.”
Seeing such a positive response to the work he and Franco have put in over the past two years only makes him more excited for the future. However, he recognizes that the label needs to stay humble and keep working in order to achieve their full potential. “There are other labels out there who’re doing the same thing I’m doing, some for longer, some doing better than I do. But we’ve managed to reach out to a lot of people with the little we had — just through tapes, and getting people to check out new bands.” For the two young men who run Citrus City Records, that’s enough to make it all worthwhile.
Words by Drew Necci