Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian, the front men behind the breakout alt-dance group Capital Cities, are a success story spawned by the loyal fans that has continued to blossom. The Los Angeles-based act took both the blogosphere and the shores of California by storm with their self-titled debut EP, out now on Capitol Records/Lazy Hooks. Their electronic-infused pop rock represents all that is right in modern music making, and makes the perfect soundscape for a day at the beach, or a night in the dark part of town, as long as you’re ready to dance.
“Safe and Sound,” the first single, is uplifting, sincere, catchy, and, like all their songs, full of heart. The duo sings in unison: “You could be my luck… Even if the sky is falling down, I know that we’ll be safe and sound” — offering up an inviting message of hope.
“It seems like every generation feels like it’s living in the worst of times,” Merchant says. “And of course there are horrible things happening, but the average person is better off now than he or she was 50 years ago. In some ways ‘Safe and Sound’ is an antidote to the human tendency to think in apocalyptic terms and not really look at the logic of the world around us. Things are getting better and there’s a lot to be positive about.”
Good feelings are palpable between Merchant and Simonian, two singers, songwriters, and multi-instrumentalists who’ve both made music since they were kids. Simonian was born in Syria to Armenian parents, but raised in Lebanon until the age of six when his family moved to California to escape civil war. In Los Angeles, he studied piano and voice and sang in choirs throughout his schooling, and earned a bachelor’s degree in music. Influenced by a mixed bag of psychedelic rock and electronic music from every decade since the 60’s, Simonian started his first band at 15 and “I haven’t looked back since,” he says.
Merchant was born and raised in San Francisco, where he began playing piano at age 10, guitar at age 12, and drums in high school. Like pretty much every other kid in the ’80s, he was obsessed with Michael Jackson. “I would watch the ‘Thriller’ music video every day,” he says. He eventually grew to love Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and Jeff Buckley. Merchant moved to Los Angeles to study English literature at USC, where he also took classes in jazz piano and voice. He met Simonian in 2008 after responding to an ad that Simonian had placed on Craigslist offering his services to musicians looking for high-quality production.
“In the ad, there was a link to Sebu’s website, which had a video of him performing with his old band. His songwriting really drew me in,” says Merchant, who was interning at a jingle house at the time. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to work with this guy.’ I asked him if he wanted to collaborate with me on a commercial writing job.” Working as a team, the two began winning big ads, including one that required a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which was approved by Bowie himself.
Their chemistry naturally led to original material, and the two got to work honing the Capital Cities sound: carefully crafted melodies, lead vocals sung in unison, and clever production built partly on a vintage analog synth, the Roland Juno 106. Out came “Safe and Sound,” “Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast,” “I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo,” “Center Stage,” and “Love Away,” which Merchant and Simonian released collectively as an independent self-titled EP. The set attracted a groundswell of positive reviews from such influential blogs as Neon Gold, who called it “a sonic head rush” and “a beautiful slice of effervescent electro-pop that absolutely kills it,” and Clixie, who praised its “outside-of-the-box tendencies — jam-packed full of life, energy and unusual yet fantastic sounds.”
“Safe and Sound” climbed to top of blog charts, as did another track called “Kangaroo Court.” Their covers of Sinead O’Connor’s Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” which includes an uncannily fitting Tupac Shakur sample, both topped the Hype Machine chart. Encouraged, Simonian and Merchant self-financed a successful radio campaign and planned their own tours. They traveled to South America and Europe, visiting Peru, Chile, Argentina, Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, and finally Spain, where the band, which includes a guitarist, bassist, and trumpet player, performed for 8,000 fans at a festival in Madrid.
The attention led to new fans, while their ability to build a grassroots following led to major label interest. In December 2012, Capital Cities signed to Capitol Records, which licensed and re-released their EP and will release their debut full-length album this summer. “We’ve been DIY for such a long time that it’s exciting to have this team of people behind us,” says Merchant. Adds Simonian: “We are happy to be able to focus more now on getting creative, finishing the album, making videos, and rehearsing.” The band will hit the road and visit over 30 U.S. cities in their “Dancing with Strangers” Spring tour.