Interview: Capital Cities

Written by Al Mannarino

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Unless you haven’t turned on the radio this year, there is a good chance you have heard of Capital Cities. Their chart topping single “Safe and Sound” has been dominating the radio with its mix of electronic dance music highlighted by a dominating trumpet hook, and smooth, catchy lyrics. On a personal level, their debut album A Tidal Wave of Mystery is one of my favorite releases of the year.

Capital Cities are also incredible live — they don’t just perform the songs on stage, the audiences experiences them. This live experience is heightened by the synchronized dance numbers lead singers/songwriters Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian created for each song.

As unique as their live experience is, their origin story is just as fantastical. The duo actually met through Craigslist in 2008, and after spending their initial partnership as jingle writers, they formed Capital Cities. Like most electronic acts, the group started out as a duo, but once they started touring, they added a backing band which includes bassist Manny Quintero, trumpeter Spencer Ludwig, guitarist Nick Merwin, and drummer Channing Holmes.

Taking time off between working out their new live set and preparing for their upcoming Bright Futures Tour (with Fitz & The Tantrums), I spoke with lead singer Ryan Merchant about developing the bands sound, working with Outkast’s André 3000, and other “good shit.”

Photo Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel
Photo Credit: Eliot Lee Hazel

Pop-Break: How did your band develop its sound?

Ryan Merchant: It was through a lot of experimentation. It took us a while to figure out what kind of band we wanted to be. Our first two shows we were a rock band: we had live drums, we had a guitar, and almost no electronic elements. After doing those two shows, we went back and revisited the songs. Asking ourselves if this is the right way to do this, we might do something different. That’s when we produced “Safe and Sound,” which is the first song we worked on. We produced it a numerous times, starting with using an analog synthesizer. Then we decided to put trumpet in it. It sounded really good and performed it live. It was really fun to do the dance beat thing, sing over it, and have live instruments. We decided this was going to be our sound. These elements, the big electronic beats mixed with an analog synthesizer, trumpet, live bass, became our sound on our entire record.

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PB: You and Sebu met on Craigslist, what was it like meeting in person for the first time?

RM: I don’t remember exactly what it was like meeting in person, but we quickly discovered we had musical chemistry. We initially worked on one of my songs and it was very easy to communicate it in overlaps. It was very evident that we could work together well. Then it just developed from there.

PB: You both started as jingle writers, what made you decide to form a band instead?

RM: We had always wanted to be in a band. That has been our goal since we were kids. We felt the jingle writing was a business; a way for us to make money for a while. But then we had these songs lying around and we were like “we need to start doing something with this.” So we said why don’t we create a band where both of us could sing (because we are both lead singers) and it will sound cool. So it just kind of happened.

PB: Capital Cities is one of many bands to come out of the L.A. scene; what is it about the area the produces such great talent?

RM: I think it is the center of the music business, so a lot of creative people move to Los Angeles with high hopes of doing something in the entertainment business. When I first moved out to LA when I was in college, I was involved with music, but I didn’t really see myself having a serious career. I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think there is a culture in Los Angeles that pushes people; people are hungrier here and are doing a lot of interesting things. So I think that breeds creative bands.

PB: Who came up with all the “good shit” featured in the song “Farrah Fawcett Hair?”

RM: That was both of us! We went back and forth and made a list of as many things as possible that we both agreed were good shit. We picked a voiceover [narrator which turned out to be Frank Tavares of NPR] to say them all and then decided on the best ones.

PB: How was it working with Andre 3000 on your debut album?

RM: It was cool, but we never got to meet him. We worked over the Internet and over the phone. But it was a pleasure working with him because despite the fact he is a pretty big star, he is very humble and he’s very much interested in collaborating and making sure that we were happy with how the song turned out. The way he phrased it was “I’m honored that you guys would think of me and would want to put me on this, I want to make sure you guys liked what I’ve done.” And we did like it! It was a very easy process. He understood what the song was about, the stuff that he put into it was very heartfelt and spot on with his observations on what good shit means.

PB: Who came up with the idea of doing a cover of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees? When I saw it live I was really shocked because I grew up with that kind of music. It got me really excited to see your version of such a famous song.

Photo Credit: Jake Hagopian
Photo Credit: Jake Hagopian

RM: I think Sebu suggested that we do it and at first I was a little bit hesitant about it. I felt that it was a little bit too mainstream and that we try to do a little more that is off the beaten path. But then I sat down one day and started programming the song. Imessed around with it and the Sebu came in and said, “Oh cool,” so we just went from there. After I sat down and started learning the song, and began wrapping my head around how we can kind of take it to a more electro/emotionally serious place, I was like “okay I get it, this is going to be cool, and we could do this.”

PB: How has Capital Cities been preparing for “The Bright Future Tour?”

RM: We are preparing to add a live drummer to our set. We are actually deep in rehearsals right now trying to figure out how to play the songs in this new way. So, we are doing that and working on an interesting lighting design. We are also trying to stay healthy and trying to exercise to get ready to perform six nights in row sometimes.

Capital Cities are currently on tour with Fitz and the Tantrums and will be headlining The Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Wednesday October 23rd. Click here for tickets.

Al Mannarino is the associate editor and photographer for Pop Break. He is also host of the News Over Brews Podcast, Loot Care Unboxed, Backstage Break, and the producer of Behind the Brews. He graduated Rowan University with a degree in Radio/TV/Film & History. When he isn’t writing he is either trying to build his own TARDIS or taking a nap. Follow him on Twitter: @almannarino. His photo website is: http://alfredmannarino.com

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