Brandon Hailey of Cytrus, center, plays the saxophone during a headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Brandon Hailey of Cytrus, center, plays the saxophone during a headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Lynnwood-based funk octet Cytrus has the juice

Resilience and brotherhood take center stage with ‘friends-first’ band.

Fans descended into the warm red glow of Seattle’s Madame Lou’s on Dec. 29, 2023, to watch Cytrus, a Lynnwood-based octet, play their first show as a full band in 14 months.

“Tonight is going to be electric,” Andy Palmer, the band’s manager, said. Orange slice earrings and bright smiles speckled the crowd.

Cytrus explores a rich blend of psychedelic funk, disco, electronic, rock, soul and hip-hop influences. With kaleidoscopic transitions, the band weaves synthy and brass-infused grooves.

The band Cytrus performs during a headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The band Cytrus performs during a headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Brandon Hailey, the band’s saxophone player, likens their synergy to a “really good smoothie.” No single element overpowers the others; instead each flavor coexists and complements the ensemble. Hailey affectionately describes his longtime friends and bandmates as the “true epitome of a brotherhood.”

He said he thinks the love they share for one another is reflected in their sound.

Cytrus is the amalgamation of two former Everett bands, HopSol and Bunk Foss, with most of the members having met at Glacier Peak High School in the mid-2010s.

Guitarist and vocalist Jared Squires, drummer Trevor Church and saxophonist Hailey met as sophomores on a jazz band field trip to Spokane. Encouraged by their teacher, the three played in a group called Pacific Drive as teenagers. After a few years the ensemble disbanded, which paved the way for HopSol’s formation.

Stanwood High School alum and percussionist Connor Merritt met the band in 2018 at HopSol’s debut show and joined shortly after.

The other half of Cytrus — bassist Luke Nevills, keyboardist and guitarist Owen Mayo, emcee and organ player Sean Connelly and synth player Alex Dean — were a few years older and initially formed Bunk Foss.

The two groups saw each other in passing. Occasionally, Hailey collaborated on saxophone with Bunk Foss, while Nevills juggled bass and guitar duties for both bands.

This led them to share an old storage space in Everett for rehearsals, crossing paths when picking or dropping off equipment. However, in 2019, the fire marshal deemed the space not up to fire code and told them to leave.

Before breaking down their gear and finding a new space to practice, the two bands decided to have a send-off jam. They played for six uninterrupted hours. Squires said they had never experienced a sound that full before — their chemistry was undeniable.

As they shuffled outside the unit for a post-jam smoke break, no one spoke. But everyone was thinking the same thing.

“There was this thing in the air,” Squires said. “That was the moment we all internally knew, let’s merge.”

Jared Squires of Cytrus sings during a headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jared Squires of Cytrus sings during a headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

After fusing under the moniker HopSol, the band felt a new name would herald their fresh musical identity — and in 2018, Cytrus was born.

Over the years, they have played a handful of shows and festivals along the West Coast, including Summer Meltdown in Seattle, Joshua Tree Music Festival in California, Fisherman’s Village Music Festival in Everett and a sold-out show at Nectar Lounge in Seattle.

Cytrus released their debut album, “Concentrate,” on Oct. 21, 2022. Sonically, the record is led by rich guitar, synthy keys and swanky brass. While predominantly instrumental, snippets from movie and TV monologues add to the album’s narrative, enhancing its exploration of the quest for enlightenment.

The album’s release marked a sense of alignment in saxophonist Hailey’s creative, personal and professional life. In August 2022, he made it official with his “creative muse” and partner Laila McKinley. After years of drifting, he finally found footing professionally with assembly and machine work in the aerospace industry.

“I was really at, like, the pinnacle,” Hailey said. “But then there’s that saying: What goes up must come down.”

‘Nothing was the same after that’

On Nov. 17, 2022, Hailey arrived at his Mukilteo aerospace job with 10 fingers.

With 30 minutes remaining in his shift, he blinked — a blade severed the tip of his left index finger.

In the bathroom, Hailey used paper towels to soak up the blood.

“It’s not that bad. Maybe I can just finish my shift and go to the hospital after work,” he texted his partner and bandmates.

He didn’t yet notice the exposed bone. Hailey’s manager soon drove him to the hospital.

“Nothing was the same after that,” Hailey said.

Hailey sat in the hospital waiting room for over four hours before he was seen by a doctor, his partner McKinley said.

Hailey remembered the doctor saying, “I would give you stitches tonight, but there’s nothing there to stitch.” His finger wrapped in a splint and bandages, his doctor instructed him to return the following week and sent him home with a prescription for eight OxyContin.

When changing his bandages three days later, McKinley found the circulation was cut off from Hailey’s shriveled, raisin-like finger. She rushed him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for emergency surgery, where Hailey’s finger was amputated to the first knuckle. If he’d waited a day longer, the hospital staff said gangrene and infection could have spread, risking the loss of his entire left hand.

A week before Christmas, Hailey’s finger was amputated again, reduced to half its initial length at the next knuckle.

After the amputations, Hailey’s immediate thought was that he would never play again. One of his greatest passions, the instrument he first clicked with 15 years ago in music class at Little Cedars Elementary School, was taken away from him.

“It was pretty dark,” Hailey, Squires and McKinley each said in separate interviews.

‘Friends first’

On Dec. 10, 2022, between his first and second amputation, Hailey attended Cytrus’s first show since his injury — perhaps too soon.

“I felt like I was in prison. I was seeing everyone else do what they loved, and I enjoyed watching the guys, but it pained me to not be able to be a part of it as much as I wanted to,” Hailey said.

He stopped going to shows and rehearsals and withdrew from public life for two months. Hailey grieved and became reclusive as he accepted his new reality.

The band restructured some songs so they could perform without Hailey, but others suffered in his absence and had to be shelved. A Hailey-shaped hole was left in Cytrus’s sound.

But when he got hurt, the band’s initial concern was not about the music.

“No matter what, we all were friends first,” Squires said. “We were friends before we were musicians and before we were a band. That is really like the nucleus of what is important to us.”

Cytrus didn’t know how Hailey would play again, but two things were clear: One, no one was going to play saxophone in the band unless it was Hailey. And two, Hailey was going to express himself musically again.

“When the horn was taken away from me, I still had a desire to perform. It was a necessity, I had to get these emotions out in some way,” Hailey said.

With the support of his partner, bandmates and family, he was ready to attend rehearsals and explore solutions for playing again.

In a handful of performances, he joined Cytrus’s percussionist Merritt on stage. Whether it was rhythm sticks, shakers or tambourine, he found a musical outlet to express his pent-up emotions, even without the saxophone.

Cytrus band members Brandon Hailey, left and Connor Merritt play percussion at a Nectar Lounge show in Seattle. (Photo provided by Brandon Hailey)

Cytrus band members Brandon Hailey, left and Connor Merritt play percussion at a Nectar Lounge show in Seattle. (Photo provided by Brandon Hailey)

He made an appointment with a prosthetic clinic in March and felt the fire within him reignite.

After weeks of fittings and waiting for his finger to heal, Hailey’s prosthetic device arrived. He was confident he would be playing again by summertime.

When playing the saxophone, the left index finger is responsible for three keys, each varying in length and diameter. Touch sensation and finger length are crucial to identify and press down on the key being played.

With his new prosthetic device, Hailey could reach the keys, but he couldn’t feel them. All of his momentum, progress and hope vanished. He wanted to give up, but McKinley, Squires and his other bandmates continued to hold out hope.

“It felt like defeat, but we weren’t quite ready to say that,” Squires said.

Squires and the rest of the band did some digging and found Carlo Cennamo, a saxophone repair technician based in Seattle. The band fondly refers to Cennamo as a magician, and Hailey likens him to the “Tony Stark of saxophones.”

Hailey dropped his saxophone off with Cennamo at the end of April and apart from a few fittings, he wasn’t reunited with his horn until six months later.

“Truly humbled”

One year after Cytrus’s debut album and 11 months after his accident, Hailey could play again.

“To say that I picked up where I left off is an understatement. All of the emotions and hunger I had to play again built up in me like a volcano,” Hailey said. “And when I went back for that final meeting with him in October, it all just exploded.”

He was playing songs and scales. Hailey said he felt like Superman with his cape back on again.

“I come back to the saxophone truly humbled,” he said.

Cytrus’ three-hour show at Madame Lou’s opened with “Return of The Mack” by Mark Morrison. The members changed the chorus’s lyrics to “return of the sax, we’re glad to have you back” in honor of Hailey’s return.

After three songs, Hailey took the mic to reflect on his journey back to the saxophone.

Then he called McKinley to the stage.

“I had been wanting to propose to her for probably, I mean, I can be completely honest and say since the day I met her,” Hailey said in an interview after the show.

Hailey knelt down and asked McKinley to marry him. She said, “Of course.”

Brandon Hailey of Cytrus proposes to his girlfriend, Laila McKinley, during the bands headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Brandon Hailey of Cytrus proposes to his girlfriend, Laila McKinley, during the bands headlining show at Madame Lou’s on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

As the two embraced, the crowd erupted in cheers and the band members beamed, some wiping misty eyes.

Between live performances, Cytrus is crafting their sophomore album, which places a heavy emphasis on vocals and lyrics. The record builds upon the energy and passion established by “Concentrate,” incorporating elements from traditional funk and 70s-inspired psychedelic rock.

The band began recording after Hailey’s injury, with the unanimous decision that saxophone would only be included if he was the one playing it.

Hailey started composing horn arrangements, melodies and solo sections for the album this winter, with plans to record them this spring.

“Every note I play now means so much more,” he said. “I’ll never take it for granted again.”

Sound & Summit

This article is featured in the spring issue of Sound & Summit, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $4.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $18 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to for more information.

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