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Capital Cities is an act that makes it happen. For themselves, and their fans. They aren't a group of passively assembled, paint-by-numbers members put together by a big label honcho trying to create the next big thing. They may be on a big label, but they prove that these days there is a lot more that a band can do for themselves than just sit around with fingers crossed hoping to get signed (like produce your own hit single and create huge buzz on the blogosphere).
Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian make up the frontmen of the group, but it has other live band components that bring it to life and give CC its very distinctive sound. Broadly defined as an alt-dance group, Ryan sits down with Campus Activities Magazine to talk about where the group has come from, who they are and where they are headed.
The first thing he tells us is about the unique outlook this act has on the world, opting to follow the positive energy and turn away from the angst, gloom and doom of much of the modern day musicscape. "I think that in general both Sebu and I tend to be optimistic and positive people. When I say that, I am referring to our optimism in many different facets of life, one of them being hopeful about our music and our careers. I think we have always believed things would turn out well as long as we continued to put out a good product and work hard."
Beyond perseverance and hard work though, a deeper sense of serenity emerges when one hears Ryan describe their view on the universe and all that's in it. "I think we both have an outlook on the world that things are getting better. The average person's life is better than it was 50, 100 or 200 years ago. The bombardment of various negative images we see when we focus on the media is misleading. Things just aren't so bad."
Ryan says this is not a view that either of the band's primary two members arrived at immediately. "Perhaps it is a byproduct of our age, as we are a little bit older than your typical band when they land a hit single and a major record deal. I am 32 and Sabu is 34, so I think our world views have perhaps solidified a little more than younger bands. Whether that is a good thing or a bad one, who knows," he laughs.
All of this isn't being brought up just because it sounds nice, it's something that you can listen to as well. "I think that general outlook comes out in our music. Both of us have been in previous bands before this and I think our music before Capital Cities tended to be a lot moodier and darker. I know I went through a particular phase where I was in a singer/songwriter period, writing lyrics that were very personal and introspective, and centered on the somewhat pessimistic things I would think about. With Capital Cities, we just approached things completely differently. We really wanted to create something that was fun; fun for us to perform, fun for the audience, and fun in the sense that is reflected our current state of mind."
Ages aside, perhaps that core sense of optimism is something that will translate extremely well into the college market, as students are hopefully looking forward to the future (and not yet jaded by crushing debt and a tough job market).
The pair met in 2008 and we won't go as far as to say it was the pick of destiny, but there is an interesting bit of happenstance surrounding the encounter. Ryan was looking for help in producing a couple of songs he was working on himself. "I was between bands at the time and in Los Angeles a common place to look for musicians to collaborate with is Craigslist. It just so happened that Sabu put up a listing the day I was on there. This was the one and only time he had put up a listing on Craigslist, and apparently I was the first and only person to respond. We got together and started working on a couple of my songs, but it was very clear from early on that the two of us together had great writing chemistry."
Ryan landed an opportunity to do some writing for TV commercials, and Sabu was his natural pick for a partner. "I asked Sabu if he would like to join me and we did that for a couple of years. While we were working on these TV commercials though, we were constantly working on new music. We were doing five or six ads a week and were just in a very positive and creative mode, writing quickly and efficiently. We were in a very prolific period of writing and eventually we had a body of work that we felt was really strong and needed to be expressed in a band and in front of people."
Capital Cities was born. "It was very grass roots from the start," Ryan says. "We put 'Safe & Sound' out on the Internet and things took off like a rocket from there." Taking off means the song not only charted on Billboard's U.S. Alternative Charts, it went to #1.
One of the first things you will notice when listening to Capital Cities is their nontraditional sound, meaning not the typical four piece rock band. This is a band that starts off with a unique electronic basis, but then builds upon it with the talent of live performers, with a dash of an instrument near and dear to the heart of the American music experience, but not often found in pop music these days. "When we first started, we actually were more of that traditional rock band, for about two shows," Ryan says laughing. "We had live drums, bass, two guitars, keys, the works. Soon after though, we decided we needed to rethink what Capital Cities is and would be and how we would execute it live. This is before we produced the version of 'Safe & Sound' that is currently out right now."
They decided first of all to take a different tack with percussion, which would have the unforeseen beneficial side effect of making their show much easier to travel, set up and break down. "First, we were still discovering our sound; eventually we started programming the songs using electronic beats and that brought a cleanliness and tightness to the sound that we didn't see working with live drums. It was pretty basic at first, just the beats and Sabu and I singing, with Nick our current guitar player as well. Over time we kept tinkering, deciding to add increasingly more live elements. Next came a bass player, then another guitar. That's when we met Spencer Ludwig."
Here we have that special spice that, apart from their unique vocals, let's you know you're hearing Capital Cities as soon as you hear them. "Spencer is an incredible trumpet player and we incorporated him initially because we had trumpet on 'Safe & Sound.' All of a sudden though, this instrument we don't hear anymore outside of marching bands or inside of jazz clubs was shaping the sound of much of our music. It became the centerpiece for our live show and now pretty much every song of ours features a prominent trumpet part in it. It has become a signature piece for Capital Cities at our live performances. Spencer is a very dynamic performer and it gives us a unique presence, audibly and visually."
Now that the band has found a groove its comfortable in, they have even considered adding live percussion back in. "We are contemplating it, but right now this combination is really working well. It is very easy to control the sound, its easy to rehearse it and it is a lot more practical in many ways than having a more complex set up." When we talk about this non traditional setup, we are talking about the ultimate bridge between the old (trumpet, jazz) and the new (beats, electronica), so the next obvious question is, what sort of demographics does this band see? With a mainstream appeal (avoiding the word "wholesome") while still having a hip edge, Capital Cities can draw crowds of all ages. "We just played a show in Columbus, Ohio and it was a very interesting demographic. It was all ages, so there was everyone from groups of 7th grade girls to a dude who was there for his 50th birthday...and everything in between from mid 30's down through early 20's. It is a wide demo that enjoys our music and I think it is because it is accessible. There are a lot of lyrical and melodic hooks that people can grab on to, but we also try really hard to make sure that it is not just about writing easy hooks. We want things to be familiar, yet interesting and that could be in the form of choosing certain bass notes or jazzier sounding harmonizations for a chord, Or having trumpet all over everything. We want it to be familiar but unique."
One aspect of this band's live show that the college market will really enjoy is their love for playing cover songs. Now, this is not going to be your typical "Free Bird" "Take It Easy" "Enter Current Hit Pop Song Here" covers. These guys, just like with their sound, take an entirely unique approach to the cover songs they choose. "We started just because we thought it would be fun to cover some of our favorite songs, and partly to keep the promotion of the band going and generating buzz online. But more than that, it is a really fun challenge to take a song that people are familiar with and then truly make it something new and different and our own. We first try to choose songs that many people will sort of know and recognize, but we try to stay away from the hits a lot of other bands cover. There is not an existing quintessential cover of any of the songs we do."
Some of those choices include Sinead O'- Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" (written by Prince) or Pink Floyd's "Breathe." One of the most interesting takes a MEGA hit from the disco era and turns it on its head. "We try to stay off the beaten path," Ryan explains. "But we want to stay familiar. We dig into them from there and start to really mess with the chord progressions behind the melodies, because the songs in their original state have a set emotional impact, based on the way they were written and performed at the time. What we are able to do is create this new context, so even though it's the same song, people might look at it in a completely different way than the original. One example of that is our recent cover of the BeeGee's 'Stayin Alive' which is this upbeat, kind of silly and frivolous sounding song in it's original format, but actually has some pretty heavy content when you get into the lyrics. So, we slowed it down and gave it more weight and in our live show it has been received very well. We incorporate all of our covers in our live show, not only because it's fun to play them, but also because it really does help get the crowd wound up. It's something familiar to them and a very effective tool for engaging audiences."
Capital Cities can come in and engage your audience as well, whether its a show just for your students or a major concert you open up to an all ages community. Having just finished a 35 city U.S. tour, they are taking limited dates in the fall and are working on building spring dates as well. For more info, contact Adam Brill at APA at (310) 888-4260 or abrill@apaagency. com