Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian, the frontmen behind the breakout alt-dance group Capital Cities, are a success story spawned by the Internet that has continued to blossom. Ryan first met Sebu in 2008 after responding to an ad that Sebu had placed on Craigslist offering his music production services. Little did they know upon first meeting that their creative collaborations would lead them to the heights it has. The Los Angeles-based act took both the blogosphere and the shores of California by storm with their self-titled debut EP which featured the breakout hit “Safe and Sound.” The worldwide attention led to the band amassing a sea of dedicated fans and quickly led to major label interest. In December 2012, Capital Cities signed to Capitol Records.“Safe and Sound” became a A Top 10 Modern Rock radio hit and has already been heard in promotional campaigns for HBO, Smart Car, Microsoft and more than half a dozen other spots. RollingStone.com hailed “Safe and Sound” as “a song that merges high-energy dance beats with unbridled optimism and joy” while Neon Gold pronounced it a “sonic head rush…an easy, breezy, beautiful slice of effervescent-electro-pop that absolutely kills it.” The band’s recent success is just the tip of the iceberg as the duo as the Spring of 2013 finds them readying their debut album, ‘In A Tidal Wave Of Mystery,’ which drops on June 11th, as well as bringing their “Dancing With Strangers Tour” to music fans around the globe! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Sebu Simonian to discuss his musical roots, the formation of the band, the challenges they have encountered along the way and what they have in store for us all in 2013!
We love to get a little background on the artists we interview. Can you tell us about how music came into your life?
Yes! I have always been into music, as far back as I can remember. The first exposure I had to pop music was probably through Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” performance at Motown’s 25th Anniversary, that classic clip! Stevie Wonder and early Madonna were big influences as well. I have always sang. I sang in choirs as a child, took piano lessons and started cover bands as a teenager. I have always surrounded myself with music from the pop rock side, as well as classical training.
What was it about music that made you pursue it as a career?
I think the first time I would actually do the whole band thing was in my teenage years when bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the psychedelic side of the Beatles made me feel certain things and made me feel high on life. I just wanted to be able to recreate that since I felt like I had enough talent to recreate it on piano. I started covering all of these songs with friends and bands and realized it was so much fun to do. I decided to try and make a career out of it.
For people who may not know, how did Capital Cities form?
Ryan [Merchant] and I originally met through Craigslist. He was looking for a producer to help him with his solo project. I had put an ad on Craigslist saying that I was a producer available to work and he was the only one who responded to the ad! He came over and we hit it off really well. The chemistry was really good and we worked a little bit on his solo project. Then we fell into commercial composing and got some gigs to do some jingles. We worked in that capacity for a few years. The collaboration and the chemistry led to us writing more and more like a band. We decided to start the band in 2010 and called it Capital Cities. We put out our EP the following year.
How did you guys come up with the name for the band?
To be honest, it was a chat brainstorming session. We were throwing out random suggestions. I think Ryan threw out the suggestion of Capital of Maine. I said, “How about Capital Cities?” We both gravitated to that suggestion and felt it had this universal appeal, it looked good, it had a broad meaning so people could interpret it however they wanted and we stuck with it!
You mentioned you guys worked together for quite a few years before the start of Capital Cities. How has your relationship evolved creatively?
It has evolved quite well! Our chemistry was there right off the bat. Since then, we have been writing and producing in a very 50/50 kinda way where we would both do a lot of production, songwriting and lyric writing. We input on all different parts of the creative process.
I was curious about that aspect of your work. What is your typical songwriting process for Capital Cities?
It varies but usually it will start with one of us coming up with an interesting drum beat and chord pattern or an interesting sound. We try to experiment with the sound and come up with some cool stuff. We do use an old Juno 106 analog keyboard from the early ‘80s. A lot of our sound is inspired by that keyboard. After we have a cool bed of music, we would write melodies or riffs over it, whether they are vocal or instrumental. Then we would probably focus on the lyrics last but the order is always interchangeable. Sometimes, someone might come up with an interesting lyrical line and we could base an entire song around that.
Are you the kind of artist who is always thinking about and working toward new material or is there a set time where you sit down to bang it all out?
It is a mix. If we are super busy with a string of dates or shows, it is obviously more difficult to sit down in the studio and work on new material. To be honest, the last three to four months have been a whirlwind for us with a lot of shows and we worked on a music video. The video involved a lot of dancing, choreographed dancing where Ryan and I had to learn all of these new moves with a really cool choreographer. Her name is Mandy Moore, not the famous pop singer, but a famous choreographer who is all over TV. She is really cool. It was a challenging experience that took time away from creating in the studio but whenever we do have free time we do work on our music.
You mentioned releasing your self-titled EP, which generated a nice buzz for the band. How has your life changed since that release? Has it had much of an effect on you?
Yeah. It has been a gradual climb, so I wouldn’t say it has been an overnight change but definitely over time as the numbers rise and we see more people connecting with us globally, it is encouraging! It is thrilling and flattering. Obviously, things get a lot busier, hectic and there is a lot more traveling because we are playing a lot more shows than we ever did in the past, so there are a lot of lifestyle changes. So far, so good! Everything has been a positive experience. We are really looking forward to releasing the debut album, which is coming out in June. Some of those changes revolve around the pressure of having to wrap up the album but it has been a very positive experience.
Where are you in the process of putting your full length release, ‘In A Tidal Wave of Mystery,’ together and what is the biggest challenge you faced so far?
We are putting the final touches on the last song on the album. It is practically complete and we have 12 songs on there. The biggest challenge? I wouldn’t say there is one specific challenge. It is just one huge project. It is really a balance, ya know? Collaborating with various people outside of the band is challenging but only from a logistical standpoint. Everyone we have worked with has been amazing and we are excited to work with some really cool people for the album. Of course, putting together the artwork and making sure the final product is the right artistic representation of us is a challenge. I think we are going to be very proud of it when it comes out!
For fans who heard the EP and for those who haven’t, how does the album compare or contrast sonically? What can we expect?
The EP is going to be up-streamed to the album, so you will hear all the songs from the EP on the album, plus an additional seven songs. It is an extension of the EP. The newer songs, some of them are going to be quite similar to the songs from the EP and some of them are going to be experimental tangents. We are hoping the album as a whole will feel like a musical journey with a lot of ups and downs along the way.
I know you are lining up a lot of tour dates for spring and summer. For those who haven’t been able to catch you live, what can you tell us about your live performance?
The live performance is high energy and fun. First and foremost, we are all about the songs and the songwriting, so we try to deliver the songs in their original form and make sure our vocals are well heard. We do a lot of dual, unison singing. It is kinda like we are dual frontmen. We both try to energize the crowd. It’s a dance party!
One cool thing you guys do is a bunch of really fun cover songs. What elements make a good cover song for Capital Cities?
For me, a cover song needs to be a classic that everybody knows but might be kind of under the radar in current times because the original production might not be as modern as it could be and nobody has been able to do a proper cover at this point. We try to find obscure tracks that are still quite familiar. The artist also has to be someone we truly respect and deserves that homage. We also like to pick songs that are going to be challenging in that we want to change it and present it in a new light, instead of just redoing it the same way.
How are you preparing yourself for life on the road?
Well, this is going to be our first official bus tour! We have done a lot of touring but up until now it has been short runs. We have gone to the East Coast a couple of times, Europe once and South America twice. For this one, it is a headlining tour and we are going to be on a bus. It is a bigger production and we are taking a crew with us. We have a little prop that we will be setting up behind us onstage, a pair of giant sunglasses that light up! So we have production preparation and we have been rehearsing new songs and new covers. That is about it, aside from thinking about wardrobe! [laughs]
Looking at your career so far, both the pop music side and the commercial side, how do you feel you evolved as an artist?
Personally, I would say my sound has changed alot over the years. I think that is natural because an artist grows and changes over time but also he or she collaborates with different sets of people over time. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of different people and as that happens, the style and the music changes. Hopefully for the better!
What else do you have in store for us in 2013?
The focus is on the album release and touring. Hopefully, we will be playing a lot of the festivals this summer and many are already being planned. We are super thrilled that we are going to be going to Asia and Japan at the end of the summer. Hopefully, that will lead to more opportunities out there. We will also be doing more music videos. The current one we are working on is for “Safe and Sound.” Then when that is done, we will hopefully work on a few more over the course of the year.
You seem like a great person to ask this question. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to someone looking to make music their career?
Two things — write really good songs and work your butt off! You really have to work your butt off to promote it. Make sure first and foremost you have something nice to present. Scrutinize it. Don’t just release something when you think it is done. Get people’s opinions and get people involved. Then promote it as much as you can, all day, every day. If you do both of those things, you are destined to succeed.
Where is the best place for people to learn more about the band and what you guys have going on?
If you go to our website, www.capitalcitiesmusic.com, there are tour dates, links to videos and more. We like to have fun and connect with our fans. We try to interact with them as well with our creative process. If you connect with us online, there are a lot of opportunities to have fun with what we do. I have this idea that our next video might involve some fan participation. We like that! Our fans are actually going to appear on the album on one song which I recorded some voice messages from our fans and we are going to put them on there.
Very cool! I want to thank you so much for your time today, Sebu. We look forward to seeing you on the road soon and catching up with you again!
Thank you so much, Jason!
Capital Cities – Upcoming Tour Dates
4/23 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
4/24 – Tucson, AZ – Solar Culture
4/26 – Austin, TX – Stubb’s Bar-B-Q
4/27 – Frisco, TX – FC Dallas Stadium/Edgefest
4/28 – Houston, TX – House of Blues – Bronze Peacock
4/30 – New Orleans, LA – House of Blues Parish
5/2 – Columbia, SC – New Brookland Tavern
5/3 – Charlotte, NC – The Fillmore
5/4 – Washington, DC – RFK Stadium-Lot 9/ DC 101 Chili Cook Off
5/5 – Virginia Beach, VA – The Jewish Mother
5/8 – Boston, MA – Paradise Rock Club
5/9 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza
5/10 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of the Living Arts
5/11 – Albany, NY – The Bayou
5/13 – Toronto, ON – Virgin Mobile Mod Club
5/14 – Cleveland, OH – Cambridge Room @ House of Blues
5/15 – Detroit, MI – The Shelter
5/21 – Colorado Springs, CO – The Black Sheep
5/22 – Aspen, CO – Belly Up
5/23 – Fort Collins, CO Aggie Theatre
5/24 – Englewood, CO – Gothic Theatre
5/26 – Quincy, WA – The Gorge Amphitheatre/Sasquatch! Music Festival
5/28 – Vancouver BC – Venue Live
5/29 – Portland, OR – Hawthorne Theatre
5/31 – Sacramento, CA – Ace of Spades
6/1 – Santa Barbara, CA – Soho Restaurant & Music Club
6/5 – Anaheim, CA – House of Blues
6/6 – Los Angeles, CA – El Rey Theatre
6/18 – St. Petersburg, FL – The State Theatre
6/19 – Jacksonville, FL – Jack Rabbits
6/21 – Atlantic City, NJ – The Social @ Revel Resort & Casino
6/23 – Dover, DE – Dover International Speedway/Firefly Music Festival
6/25 – Columbus, OH – The Basement
6/28 – Kansas City, KS – Kanocksas Fest
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.