Ryan Merchant found Sebu Simonian in 2008, after a search for a collaborator on Craigslist. The pair formed a composing team, and began creating material for Capital Cities in 2010. The band’s self-titled debut EP was released in June 2011 on Lazy Hooks, led by the single “Safe and Sound”. They’ve further released two smaller EPs in 2012, Safe and Sound, and Kangaroo Court, the former featuring remixes of their hit song “Safe and Sound”. After playing sold-out shows in L.A. and San Francisco, the pair took off on a mini tour of the East Coast and Canada. The duo also performed in Lima, Peru after reaching #1 on a rock station, and most recently hit the stage at this year’s SXSW.
They've only been on the scene for a couple of years, but LA based electro-pop duo Capital Cities know a thing or two about production. Capital Cities masterminds Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian met through Craigslist to form Lazy Hooks, a music production and licensing company that has since soundtracked a wide variety of video productions, including some TV commercials that many of you have probably seen. Their personal pursuits in Capital Cities is understandably skillfully produced. They've got sleek electro-pop down, mixing neon, late night synths with classic house beats and the all important ear for spectacular vocal hooks. We had a wide ranging chat with the duo over the phone, covering topics including the differences between commercial gigs and Capital Cities, their unexpected popularity in Peru, and the best place to get down in LA.
Band of the Day: Question: You guys met each other through Craigslist, was that a rocky process or did it happen smoothly?
Sebu: It was kind of serendipitous actually, I'm a producer and I put out one Craigslist posting saying I'm a producer, and Ryan was looking for a producer to collaborate with and saw my posting. I think he was the only person that actually called me, and we started working on stuff together, and then obviously the relationship developed from there. There really weren't any other people that I met with through that posting. We've been lucky with Craigslist, we've found most of our collaborators through Craigslist. Our bass player for example was the first person to respond to our posting when we were looking for a bass player and he was perfect for us. We got lucky I guess.
Band of the Day: Your music has great grooves and it seems like that's a focus. What musician from any genre or time period have the best grooves that inspire you?
Ryan: The most obvious one would be Michael Jackson as far as his funkiness. That inspires a lot of the grooves you see in our music, the funkiness that comes through. Stevie Wonder has great grooves in his music if we're looking back to the 70s and 80s.
Sebu: A lot of the pop stuff from the 80s surprisingly have a lot of groove to them, even though you wouldn't normally associate that. Madonna, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Tears For Fears. All of these artists are primarily known for their songwriting, and the melodies, and how catchy the songs are, so we try to take both melody and groove and try to make them equally important in our productions. Trying to think of other groove oriented influences, we're definitely into the dance music scene that started in the 90s and goes up to today, Underworld, Röyksopp, and the indie pop oriented dance bands, MGMT, Cut Copy.
Band of the Day: Did you start out as DJs or have you been doing original productions your entire dance music careers?
Sebu: I came from more of a rock background, singer songwriter, less DJ. I've personally done some Djing but I've been in bands since I was a teenager in high school. The dance transformation is more recent for me.
Ryan: I personally have never really DJed before. One of my first I guess DJ sets was in the last couple months, I don't really know how to do the technical side of it, but I love curating sets of music and picking them out and piecing them together.
Band of the Day: I was just watching the video for Safe and Sound which is surreal and playful and a lot of fun, is that sense of fun and playfulness a major thing you're trying to communicate and get across?
Sebu: We try to get creative and experimental and artistic, but at the same time keep in mind that it's all about having a good time and being silly, self-deprecating. This video in particular was a twisted idea from a really cool director from Sweden named Jimmy Ahlander and we just went with it. It was such a cool thought to have Ryan get attacked by a dog. I really wanted to see that happen, so we made it happen.
Ryan: We take our music very seriously, but I don't think we take ourselves too seriously in a general sense. We try to convey a sense of fun, we're playing shows, we're not afraid to move around a lot on stage, dance and be a little silly sometimes. At the end of the day what we're doing is entertaining people. It's important to not take yourself too seriously. I see a lot of bands that are too cool for school and that can be boring to watch. Our music has a tongue in cheek aspect to it that comes across through the lyrics and production, but we still view it very seriously. It's a craft for us and we take songwriting very seriously. We take our lyrics very seriously, and spend a lot of time thinking about what we're trying to say and the particular words we're using.
Band of the Day: Who would you like to collaborate with whether they're currently working or not?
Sebu: There's a great singer out named LP. She's a great artist, I think she's LA based, we'd love to collaborate with her, and we may be working on a remix of one of her songs. She's definitely amazing.
Ryan: I'd love to write with this guy named Rod Temperton. No one knows his name but he's written some of the biggest hits ever. He wrote “Thriller,” “Rock With You,” “PYT,” I believe. Some of Michael Jackson's biggest hits, and he's this random British guy. He was in this funk band back in the 70s, I forget their name [Heatwave -ed]. But he's such an amazing songwriter and I'm so in love with the songs he's written, I think it would be really interesting to get into a room with him and see what his process is.
Band of the Day: I recently read a fascinating article about how Top 40 hits are made, how these people block out a week and write a hit song. It's more like a job than what you think of as art. Doing work for commercial productions, as well as Capital Cities, how do you navigate that line between waiting for inspiration and blocking out time to knock out stuff?
Sebu: It's a blurry line because with commercial gigs there are some jobs that are very formulaic and mundane, but a lot of them are interesting and creative and they're looking for interesting artistic pieces of music. A lot of the work that we might do for commercials can be fulfilling and artistic. Inspiration can strike anywhere, even in the middle of a commercial gig. It is a blurry line and you just do your best and try to have as much fun as you can in the process whether you're doing it for yourself or not.
Band of the Day: Do you ever find that having to work within constraints for other people's projects helps you with your Capital Cities material?
Ryan: It definitely helps sometimes. Going back to the whole commercial thing, a lot of times when you're working on commercials you're given a lot of constraints, and it's good for getting you out of your comfort zone and trying something new. Sometimes when you have every choice in the world it's hard to make a decision, hard to know where to start. But if you have a guideline it at least gets the creative process going. Somehow that's the hardest part, starting to write something.
Sebu: I thought about what you said about a lot of top 40 songs being written very quickly, that's how these people work, they get together and try to bang out a song in two days and often these songs are the ones that end up being the most successful money making songs in the world, which is strange as they took the least amount of effort in some ways. But sometimes you don't really need to agonize over something to be really good. A lot of the stuff we've worked on has come together really quickly. The core idea has come together over a couple of hours, it's really the process of taking that one little idea and fleshing it out into something complete that's the hardest part.
Band of the Day: Do you guys disagree with each other a lot?
Sebu: We'll disagree sometimes, but most of the time we have similar ideas and tastes. We collaborate on pretty much everything and we're always throwing ideas back and forth, and if an idea gets knocked down or thrown away or adjusted...it's been pretty smooth sailing most of the time.
Band of the Day: You mentioned you're heading to South America soon, and I've read you have quite a following in Peru, how did that come about?
Sebu: Last year we noticed that we were starting to get a lot of fans from Lima and we did some research and found that their main alternative radio station was playing our music a lot. Safe and Sound ending up going to the number one position there for two weeks. So we started to put out some feelers to our fan base through Facebook, getting a sense of how big of a show, how many fans would come out to see us. This one fan wrote back to us saying he'd like to help us organize something, and ending up starting a full on concert production company around brining us to Lima. We ended up Skyping with him and taking a leap of faith, hoping it would work. Next thing you know we were going down there playing for 700 people, bigger than the shows we play here for the most part. And then our music has spread to other areas of South America, it's now being played in Argentina and Chile, so this time around we knew we wanted to go back to Peru and tested the waters in Argentina and Chile and saw there was a pretty serious demand down there, and got in touch with promoters. So now we're opening for Chromeo in Santiago and doing this really cool dance indie night in Buenos Aires, and doing our big show in Lima. We're actually making enough from the tour to take the entire band down there and get to go on this sweet nine day vacation.
The underlying story is the power of radio and the power of social networking. You're so connected with your audience through Facebook and Twitter that you can find out how much demand there is in a specific area.
Band of the Day: Did you spend much time trying to connect with and engage with audience on Facebook before flying down there?
Sebu: Yeah we promoted the shit out of it on Facebook. But our Lima fans are super engaged on our Facebook page, if we put anything up in regards to Lima they're commenting and sharing, we've gotten a lot of support.
Band of the Day: In Kangaroo Court you sing “There's a dark part of town where the girls get down/and I cannot wait for a chance to go.” So where is the dark part of L.A. where the girls get down?
Ryan: I've been asking that question for years and no one gives me a straight answer!
Band of the Day: Is it Venice or maybe Hollywood?
Ryan: I think for me it's Venice, that's my good luck charm. I don't know, I think it could be a dark part of town in any town really.
Sebu: It's the dark corners of my mind.