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. Fast forward to 2013, when the band released their debut album, ‘in A Tidal Wave of Mystery.’ The powerful and beautifully crafted album scored the band a multi-format hit with its first single, “Safe and Sound,” plus an MTV Video Music Award, a GRAMMY® nomination and two iHeartRadio Awards nominations. Their hard work dedication and mind-blowing live show didn’t go unnoticed; earning them spots on some of the nation’s biggest festival dates and a prestigious opening slot on the first leg of Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour in the states. The band’s recent success is just the tip of the iceberg as the duo continue to capturing the hearts and minds of legions of dedicated music fans around the globe! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Ryan Merchant to discuss his musical roots, the whirlwind of success they have experienced over the past year, the challenges they have encountered along the way and what they have in store for us in the months to come!
Anytime we have the opportunity to speak with a musician, we like to go back to their early years. What are some of your first musical memories?
The first thing I really remember musically happened when I was about four or five years old. It was around the time Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ came out. My parents got me the “Thriller” single and bought me the videocassette that had the music video and “The Making of Thriller” afterwards. At that time, I would watch it religiously every single day! I would practice my Michael Jackson moves and my parents even bought me a little red leather jacket. I even had a little glove that I would wear! I think that is my earliest memory of being aware if artists and being aware of the idea of writing and performing music.
That’s great! Who were some of the other early influences who had a big impact on you creatively?
Obviously, there was Michael Jackson. Madonna was another big one. As I got a little bit older, I became pretty obsessive about Jeff Buckley. Jamiroquai was a big influence and I was really into the funkiness of their sound. Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac also had a big impact on me.
What made you take the plunge and pursue a career in the music industry?
I started taking piano lessons when I was ten years old. For some reason, I had this natural inclination to want to write songs, even when I first started playing music. I was terrible with practicing and learning pieces, so I never became a very good technical player but I would always sit down to come up with chords, melodies and lyrics. From a very young age, it was this thing that felt very natural to me. I would just sit down and start messing around and end up writing stuff. I think it was my calling and it just took me a very long time to figure out how to turn it into a career. It took awhile to get very good at it and get to the point where I could be successful. It was something that hit me very early on because I always wanted to write songs, sing, perform and play different instruments. The process of composing music and coming up with interesting or innovative ideas is very exciting and fun to me.
Last time we caught up with Capital Cities, it was days before you revealed the album title. Looking back on the process of bringing your debut album to life, what stands out as some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Working on an album is a pretty arduous process. In our case, our first album took us three years to write because for a long time we were unsigned and trying to figure out how we were going to release our material. We were putting out a lot of singles, remixes and cover songs. We didn’t want to put out a full album until we had the proper backing behind it. One of the hardest parts was figuring out what the smartest way to release everything was. Before we got signed, we actually self-funded a radio campaign and the song started to take off at radio, which is when we got signed. That is the point where everything really began to gel and come together; we had a team behind us and a plan, so we were able to focus for a couple of months and finish off the album. Finding your unique sound and getting a song right is a challenge. Sometimes you know that a song has so much potential but you are also aware the way it is produced is not right and it is not going to do as well if you don’t get it right. “Safe and Sound” is an example of a song like that. We reworked it nine different times and just never felt 100% confident about it until we did the final version that went on to become a hit.
They say you take something away from every project. What did you learn about yourself personally from that intense process?
I have learned a lot in the past five years, which have been the most productive musical years of my life where I have actually worked professionally as a music creator; starting off doing TV commercials and working on this album. I think being creative and writing good material is something for which you have to have a natural gift. I think that definitely helps. The more time and focus you put into it by treating it like a job by putting in eight hours a day, sitting there thinking about it with that blank page; interesting things start to happen when you make creativity a daily habit. I think your creativity expands and becomes better and better. You learn to do more interesting things and get better at your craft. I really learned the importance of working hard at it and not settling for something your gut tells you is mediocre and really pushing it as far as you can.
The last year has been dedicated to promoting ‘In A Tidal Wave of Mystery’ and touring extensively. Where are you in regard to new material for Capital Cities and when might we expect a return to the studio?
I would say we would probably get into the studio early next year, maybe the first couple months of 2015. That is when we will start writing new material. Right now, we are about to go on tour with Katy Perry for a month and a half and then we have some time off but we have more shows coming up after that. We have a U.S. headlining tour in the Fall starting in September. I really feel like we aren’t seriously going to work on music until we have time to go into the studio and not be distracted by all the different shows, putting together different production for the show and music videos. I think it is really important to focus on one thing and not to spread thin when we are working on an album.
You mentioned hitting the road with Katy Perry. You have done a lot of touring but what does being on a tour of this caliber mean to you personally?
It is really cool to be at a point in our musical career where an artist of her magnitude, someone who is such a superstar throughout the entire world, basically hand selected us as one of her opening bands. It feels really good to have that vote of confidence that she would want to take us on the road, be the opener for her and introduce ourselves to her audience. That is a really big thing for us. It is also great that we are going to get to play for 15,000 people night after night for 26 shows! You can’t really get better exposure than that and our live show is one of the things we really excel at and put a lot of work into, so it is a huge opportunity for us to grow our fan base and continue that grassroots movement where we capture one fan at a time through a live performance. We think that is the most powerful way to make fans that are dedicated.
Capital Cities is known of putting on a great live show. How has your music evolved in the live setting and what are some of your favorite songs to perform live these days?
Our live show is constantly evolving. The first time we ever performed I think it was Sebu [Simonian], me and a guitar player with a bunch of backing tracks; very much like an electronic duo. It was a function of the fact we were figuring out what the live show was going to become. Over the years, it has gotten bigger and bigger and a lot more live for lack of a better word. We have a lot of musicians with us. There are electronic elements playing through a laptop but we have a live drummer and I would say 99% of all the drum sounds are all acoustic drums. We have a bass player. I play guitar and Sebu plays keyboard. We have our trumpet player, Spencer, who is amazing! It has just gotten more and more live which has been a very fun process. For a while I was cool with having the beats come from a laptop and be electronic. I liked the fact it was easy to control the sound but now having played with a live drummer for the past five months has been terrific. We have had to do a few shows where we have gone back to the electronic setup and it just doesn’t feel right. Once you play with an amazing live drummer, it is the best feeling in the world! It just brings the songs to life in a very different way. As far as the songs I enjoy playing live, we have a song called “I Sold My Bed But Not My Stereo” that is on the album. It is such an impactful song live. I feel like it is a bigger hit than “Safe And Sound” in some ways because it has this really anthemic chorus and coming out of the big speakers it is so rich and has this fat, synth bass and the live drums and trumpet. That is one is really fun to play for me personally!
In addition to the live show, you guys have really made a name for yourself when it comes to music videos. What are the plans for video releases in support of the album?
It is funny you mention that because we just put out a music video yesterday on Vevo for our latest single, “One Minute More.” We re-released the album, a deluxe version, where we put this song on it, which we wrote awhile back. It didn’t make the album initially because the mix wasn’t right. We reworked it a little bit and it is starting to pick up on alternative radio and it is starting to go Top 40 now. The video is really interesting and juxtaposes this very sad woman who is basically going through the process of a divorce. That sadness is contrasted by this group of twenty-somethings having a party on a lake with a bunch of watercraft. It is kind of a typical Capital Cities video where we try to show the dichotomy of a human existence; the good, the bad and the contract f what defines the good and the bad.
You can definitely serve as an inspiration to young people who are looking to blaze their own trail in the music industry. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those who are looking to pursue a career in music in today’s climate?
I would say, first of all, when you are releasing my music for the first time, let’s say it is a new project, I would focus on only a couple songs. I would go with two or three songs for a first release. Don’t try to release an album because there is so much new music coming out that people don’t really have the attention span to dig into an album. Hit them with your best piece of music first; something that grabs people’s attention. That is what we did with “Safe And Sound.” It was the first song we had really produced in its entirety and was the sound we were finally came across that would be the sound of Capital Cities. That song along going on the internet did its thing and spread throughout the blogosphere and got us a lot of attention in the industry, as well as gigs. I think it is really important for the first release you put out to be so good. DO everything you can to make sure it is perfect. In our case, like I said, we reworked the song nine different times until there was something just undeniable about it. I think it is important to do things that are a little but unexpected. In our case, one thing that did that was using the trumpet to play the melodic instrumental line that comes in. That was something we experimented with. We brought in a trumpet player and it became a signature part of the sound. Then we met our trumpet player who plays with us live and now we have trumpet on just about every song. It has become such a dynamic part of our show. I am surprised more bands don’t try unexpected things like that, like bringing in traditional instruments like that and using them in a way you don’t normally see them being used in new music. That is one piece of advice.
Also, I think it is important that you don’t rely on other people to make your career happen. You have to push it as far as you can by yourself in every arena. You have to make sure you are staying on top of your social media by posting interesting stuff, finding out who is writing about you, sending emails thanking them and building up a database of different press people, all while making sure your live show is as good as it can be early on. You need to rehearse to ensure the live show is perfect and bring in the right musicians. You have to be creative when it comes to making your live show undeniably good because that is how you will get fans and it is also where you will make most of your money, if things go well. That is where we make the bulk of our money with Capital Cities. And then, when the time is right, your team will start to come together. You will form the right team and get signed when the time is right. Whatever you do, don’t rush into working with a major label. Make sure you have a lot going on by yourself so that you have as much leverage as possible and you have as much creative control as possible when going into any sort of deal. Get a good attorney too! [laughs]
I want to thank you for your time today, Ryan. It has been great catching up with you! We will continue to spread the word on Capital Cities. Keep the good stuff coming!
Thank you, Jason. I appreciate it! Great talking to you!
For all the latest news and tour dates, visit the official website of Capital Cities at www.capitalcitiesmusic.com. Connect with the band on social media at facebook.com/capitalcities
Catch Capital Cities live on Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour:
6/22 – Raleigh, NC – PNC Arena
6/24 – Washington, DC – Verizon Center
6/25 – Washington, DC – Verizon Center
6/27 – Nashville, TN – Bridgestone Arena
6/28 – Atlanta, GA – Philips Arena
6/30 – Tampa, FL – Tampa Bay Times Forum
7/2 – Sunrise, FL – BB&T Center
7/3 – Miami, FL – American Airlines Arena
7/7 – Uncasville, CT – Mohegan Sun Arena
7/9 – New York, NY – Madison Square Garden
7/11 – Newark, NJ – Prudential Center
7/12 – Newark, NJ – Prudential Center
7/15 – Montreal, QC – Bell Centre
7/16 – Ottawa, ON – Canadian Tire Centre
7/18 – Toronto, ON – Air Canada Centre
7/19 – Toronto, ON – Air Canada Centre
7/21 – Toronto, ON – Air Canada Centre
7/22 – Pittsburgh, PA – CONSOL Energy Center
7/24 – Brooklyn, NY – Barclays Center
7/25 – Brooklyn, NY – Barclays Center
8/1 – Boston, MA – TD Garden
8/2 – Boston, MA – TD Garden
8/4 – Philadelphia, PA – Wells Fargo Center
8/5 – Philadelphia, PA – Wells Fargo Center
8/7 – Chicago, IL – United Center
8/8 – Chicago, IL – United Center