“I can lift you up…” boasts the first line of one of the catchiest songs of the year, “Safe and Sound,” and Capital Cities does just that.
“I can lift you up…” boasts the first line of one of the catchiest songs of the year, “Safe and Sound,” and Capital Cities does just that. While Katy Perry acted like a tiger, Baauer shook in New York, and Miley Cyrus did “stuff,” Capital Cities took the musical world by storm with a song that portrays a blissful feeling that’s missing from today’s music. No clever word plays, no grand statements; just music to…well, “lift you up.”
The band’s debut album, In A Tidal Wave Of Mystery, continues that feeling while also exploring more diverse musical grounds than the other artists cracking the Top 40. This should really be no surprise coming from the duo of Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian who first got their start writing commercial music for companies in any style imaginable. These aren’t jingle writers though; they’re polished musicians with a deeper understanding of the production of music that really stands out in their work making their message and energy come across that much more.
The band will make their Richmond debut this Sunday at The National with Fitz & The Tantrums for a wild and crazy night of music. We got a chance to speak with Ryan Merchant on the band’s creation, rise, influences, and their Craigslist “connection.”
How’s the year been for you?
It’s been pretty crazy. I never had such a hectic travel schedule in my entire life. We were just back home in Los Angeles for two weeks which is the longest we were there in about a half year. We were rehearsing pretty much every day today for this tour.
What was the first thing you did when you got home?
I got back from Australia at like six in the morning and I just powered through the day trying to stay awake. First thing though, I went to the supermarket and bought a bunch of really healthy food because I feel like I’ve been eating out for most of the year. Your health tends to suffer when you do that so I went and bought fruits & vegetables to just cook a meal for myself. It was a really relaxing feeling to be able to do that not on any type of schedule too. Felt amazing.
Now, you’re on the road with Fitz & The Tantrums. What do you think about those guys?
I think they’re amazing. I love them, their music, and especially their live show. They’re just great people and we’ve gotten to hang out with them a number of times over the summer because we played a lot of overlapping festivals. I’m really enjoying this tour though. We’re having fun more than anything else. You know, visit all these cities, hang out with each other, and play some great music of course.
So with your new fame this year, what’s the craziest moment you’ve had?
We had kind of a surreal moment recently in Paris when we finished the European tour. We reached out a couple of months before to this guy named Rod Temperton. He’s this really famous songwriter that wrote a bunch of Michael Jackson hits like “Thriller, Rock With You,” and “Off The Wall.” He wrote George Benson’s “Give Me The Night.” He was in the band Heatwave and wrote all their songs like “Boogie Nights” and “Always And Forever.” Just tons of hits.
He’s someone we’ve been interested in working with so our manager reached out to him and asked if he would be down to meet up with us or come down to our show. He actually came over to Paris with his wife and we had dinner with him at this really awesome restaurant. We just talked about collaborating and then his experience with Michael Jackson and how he got involved with the making of “Thriller” & “Off The Wall.” Just a very enlighten experience and also very surreal.
Sounds like it.
Yeah, “Thriller,” the song plus the video, was my first introduction to music. I used to watch that video every day, practice the dance moves, and sing the song. This was back when I was five so imagine twenty-seven years or however many years later sitting at dinner with the guy who basically wrote the entire song. Like it was his vision. Then to be possibly working with him in the future, that’s just amazing.
When did you guys know that “Safe And Sound” was going to be this big hit?
We knew pretty early on that there was something special about it and that it had a lot of potential. We saw the reaction from friends and then on the internet. Then there were some interesting pockets of the world that embraced it strongly like Lima, Peru of all places. The song became a really big hit in Lima well before anywhere else in the world because there was a radio station there that just started playing it. It went to number one on the radio station and was one of the most played songs down there. That gave us some kind of confidence that if the song was given the proper chance, it would speak for itself and do its thing. In the States, it’s been such a gradual process, so much that I’m almost still not aware of how big the song has gotten. There have been a number of stepping stones like first we climbed the alternative charts, then it crossed over to the Top 40, and then it got to the top of that chart. I’m just not aware of how big this song has gotten. It’s taken on a life of its own.
Do you remember where you were the first time you heard it outside of the studio?
I don’t know the first time I heard it, but I do remember listening in my driveway when one of the alternative stations in LA was going to play it. They were going to play it at this specific time because they do this “New Music Discovery” thing. I remember just sitting in my car and listening to it, being super critical of it. At the same time, I was hoping that it sounded good on the radio. Sure enough, it sounded great on the radio so we knew that it could sonically compete with the other songs out there.
Are you guys worried at all about being able to duplicate its success?
Not really. I’m sure it will be hard to write another song or have another song on the album reach the same height. We’re pretty confident in our live show and that we have other great songs though. Even if they don’t do quite as well as “Safe And Sound,” we’re not going to be disappointed because that song is just a vehicle for getting all this other music heard and letting us play around the world. Eventually, it will allow us to make more music too.
All right, enough about “Safe And Sound.” Tell me about your new song, “Kangaroo Court.”
That song is quite different. It’s kind of a departure from “Safe And Sound,” but still has signature Capital Cities elements. Lots of trumpets and lots of synthesizers like our Juno-106 which is our trusted analog synth that we use on everything. It’s a fun song that’s kind of slower and funkier than “Safe And Sound.” It tells the story about this guy who is down on his luck and kind of depressed. He’s going off an adventure to sort of get in touch with the dark side of his personality and possibly find himself.
Who in the world came up with the music video?
That was a collaborative effort between Sebu, me, our manager, and this other guy named Cutter who’s a director. The four of us were brainstorming one day and fleshed out the idea. We had to put it on the backburner though because we didn’t have the budget at the time to make it because this was before we got signed. Then when it was time to release the second single, we wanted it to be “Kangaroo Court” and Capitol Records wanted us to do a video. We told them that we’ve got this great concept for a video that’s fleshed out and has a coherent story. We asked if we could do it as well as co-direct and they were very supportive. They hired this very talented director named Carlos Estrada and he basically came in worked with us creatively on the story. He tweaked some elements of it, pulled together the team, got a prosthetics person, and just helped us execute this idea that had been floating around for a year and a half.
Any other songs on the albums that are stand-outs to you?
I definitely love them all, but one song I kind of draw people’s attention to is “Farrah Fawcett Hair.” It’s the most quirky, experimental song on the album. We had a bunch of features on that song like Andre 3000, this amazing soul singer Shemika Secrest, and this guy named Frank Tavares who is the funding credits voice of National Public Radio. Many people would probably recognize his voice, but we actually hired him to do voiceover. Then we got fans to submit themselves saying little phrases and we put that into the song. It’s this crazy mash-up of a bunch of stuff yet it creates this fun, coherent song that’s about things in life that are undeniably good like Farrah Fawcett hair.
How did you guys get Andre 3000? Had you met him before?
We’d actually never met him in person, but we went to him specifically for this song. We knew we wanted to have a hip hop feature on this song and the person we immediately thought of was Andre 3000. Our manager is pretty well connected in the hip hop world so he knows the other managers out there and what-not. So he sent the song to Andre seeing if he’d be interested and Andre wrote back saying he’d love to do something for it. He recorded something in his studio in Atlanta and sent us what he’d worked on. We loved it so we did some back and forth to flesh it out and tweak it.
He was very cool in the sense that he’s this huge star, but it was very important for him that we were happy with what we got and that we were all feeling it. He was completely down for us to make little suggestions here and there. We just talked on the internet, spoke on the phone a few times, and next thing you know, we were done.
Is there a kind of unifying theme to your album, In A Tidal Wave Of Mystery?
I don’t know if we have a specific message or theme. All the songs are about different things. I think within our music, the sound and lyrics of it, there’s a joyful and celebratory tone that comes across. When you come see us live, it’s very much about having a good time and losing yourself, enjoying yourself. At the same time, we hope that our music has elements that are not just escapism and hearing some sugary thing that’s catchy. We try to incorporate things that are a little bit more thought provoking or musically sophisticated. Like things harmonically that are more interesting. I also think the album kind of reflects an optimism that both Sebu and I have in general about life, the world, the human race, and where we’re headed. I think that comes somewhat with age because we’re both in our 30s.
We’ve both been in very angsty, sort of depressing bands in the past where we wrote about darker, super personal issues. I think we’re in a period of our life now where we’ve come into our own so we’re celebrating that.
What were your influences for the record?
So many bands. God, it’s all over the places. Air from France was a huge influence. Daft Punk. Sebu’s a big fan of Pink Floyd. Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees, lots of 70s disco, David Bowie, The Cure, Depeche Mode; it’s just all over the place. We’re just interested in timeless music and songs where people created a little world around it. Songs that just have a distinctive personality to them. That’s what we’re inspired by and what we try to achieve. Each song lyrically and musically pulling you into its own little atmosphere and hopefully conjuring up imagery and a story that feels unique to that song.
Any new bands that you’re getting into?
The last couple of days I’ve been listening to a band called Disclosure from the UK, this electronic duo.
Oh, I love their album Settle.
Yeah, they’re great. I haven’t heard all of it, but heard a good chunk of it on Pandora. It’s kind of like this resurgence of the early 90s dance scene, but done in a more sophisticated way if that makes sense. There’s a band from LA called Rhye and they have an album called Woman. It’s kind of a mix of down tempo electronic and orchestral, organic instrumentation. They’ll have live drums and a lot of strings, but then some really cool, very warm sounding synth parts. The singer is this Canadian guy who you’re not quite sure if it’s a man or woman singing because it’s very ambiguous, but it just sounds very cool. There’s another band from LA called Poolside that’s also really cool.
So I know you guys used to work on music for commercials before really delving into Capital Cities per-se. Do you have any favorite commercials or songs you’ve done from this period?
God, we worked on so many. We’ve done probably about 300.
Yeah, it’s funny. That world has a very fast turnaround so you’ll literally do one commercial a day. Times that by two years and you end up writing a lot of music. But we did a couple of jobs where we were asked to cover famous songs and those were always fun because we love doing covers. For a Canadian company, we had to do this cover of “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. That was one of my favorites because it was fun to produce that song and it ended up sounding really good. They ended up using it too for this cool little ad.
Do you guys still dabble in that world or get offers from companies?
We don’t really have time to do it so we’ve put that on the backburner, but we’re still in touch with all the companies that we used to work for. We still have a lot of tracks that we wrote that weren’t chosen that are just kind of sitting in all of these music libraries. Occasionally, we will license a song for something or someone will contact asking if they can submit it for an ad. We’re still in it, but not working on anything new.
So you mentioned how you love doing covers, what’s some of your favorites that you do?
I think the most interesting one that we’ve done…well, there are two. One is a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” We sort of took it and made it a lot more dancey, but it still retains some of the weight of the lyrics. We added this bouncy beat and trumpet of course. That one’s fun to perform and it sounds good recorded. We also did a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” from Dark Side Of The Moon and we actually added this 2Pac sample on the chorus (listen to that here). Those are two of our more interesting covers, but we play other ones like “Holiday” by Madonna and “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees.
Any songs out there you’re interested in trying to cover?
One song that we’ve been talking aout covering, do you remember a band called Porno For Pyros? They had that song “Pets” that was their most famous song. It’s one of those songs where a lot of people know it, but it wasn’t a big hit. It is in the consciousness of people who were musically aware during the early 90s so that’s one song that might be interesting.
Okay to wrap up, tell us your Craigslist success story on forming the band.
Well, I was looking for a music producer. I was a songwriter, had written a bunch of songs, and had played in a bunch of bands. At the time though, I wasn’t as experienced as a music producer so I just wanted someone to help me flesh out some songs and finish them up. Sebu had been working as a music producer for a while in addition to playing in multiple bands. He had a recording studio called Stereo Train where he recorded all kinds of stuff. One day, he happened to put up an ad “soliciting” some business on Craigslist and I found his ad, checked out his work, and really liked everything that I heard songwriting and production wise. So we got together and initially started working on some of my songs. Soon after, I found an opportunity to start writing for TV ads and asked Sebu if he wanted to collaborate with me and that’s how that began. We just started doing that non-stop for two years. That’s kind of where I learned how to produce music and became more of a producer myself through that process. Then we we just became Capital Cities. Not that crazy.
Well, it is when you take a step back and remember that this is Cragislist we’re talking about.
Yeah, I guess so.
Well, thanks for your time. Can’t wait to see you guys this Sunday!
Definitely. I think it will be the first time in the city for us so I’m looking forward to checking out the city and playing some great music.