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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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In Music

Sebu Simonian (right) and Ryan Merchant are Capital Cities, who are coming to the Rave Saturday night. (PHOTO: Eliot Lee Hazel)

An interview with Capital Cities' Sebu Simonian


A year ago, if somebody asked you what you knew about Capital Cities, you'd probably get responses like Boston, Lansing or Montpelier (if they were really showing off). Now, almost everyone knows who Capital Cities is thanks to the break-out success of their catchy summer smash "Safe and Sound."

The L.A.-based duo of former ad jingle writers Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant previously performed at Summerfest this past year, and now they're coming back to Milwaukee to perform with Fitz and the Tantrums Saturday night at the Rave. We caught up with Simonian to talk about the birth of the band and what it's like to officially have a hit under their belts.

OnMilwaukee.com: How does it feel to be breaking out like this right now?

Sebu Simonian: It feels great!

OMC: Now you guys found each other on Craigslist. How exactly did that go down?

SS: I put an ad out, offering my services as a producer. Ryan was looking for a producer to help him with his solo project. He was actually the only person to respond to the ad. He came over to the studio, and we realized that we had really good writing chemistry, so we started working together. In fact, we started a music commercial company. We did that for about two or three years, and then we started the band.

OMC: Is there any influence from your commercial jingle writing into the music you're making now as Capital Cities?

SS: I think there's overlap. They're both creative outlets, and at the end of the day just music. With commercial work, we gained a lot of experience as producers because we had to write in a wide variety of genres with fast turn-around times. A lot of the ideas that were born during that process filtered into our original work for Capital Cities.

OMC: Now when did you guys decide to expand the band, and bring in trumpets and other musical parts?

SS: Throughout the development of the band, we started putting a wide variety of elements to it. It was a gradual process. It wasn't, like, one day we woke up and decided to make the band exactly as it is today. It was over the course of three years, we wrote and produced and gradually added ideas and signatures to the mix.

OMC: What is the biggest influence or inspiration for Capital Cities and your sound?

SS: Music itself. I'm a huge fan of music, and we love all kinds of music from every decade really. I think our main interest is good songwriting with good melodies and interesting lyrics. Some of our favorite acts, from the Beatles to the Bee Gees to modern electronica, if you follow the common thread, you will hear timeless songwriting.

OMC: Where did the name Capital Cities come from?

SS: That was just a random brainstorming session between myself and Ryan. We were chatting online trying to come up with a band name. Ryan suggested Capital of Maine. I thought it was silly, but then it prompted me to suggest, "How about simply Capital Cities?" And it stuck.

OMC: You guys have been touring a lot and obviously getting bigger and bigger. What's been your favorite show so far?

SS: I really can't pick one. We've had too many really good shows in which we were received with open arms, cheering mouths and attentive ears. Florida has been a great state recently. We had a bunch of shows there. Ohio has been a great state. We've played some great festivals in the country and out of the country. It's really hard to pinpoint one show.

OMC: How's it been traveling and touring all of this time?

SS: It's been good. We've been really busy. We play pretty much everyday, nonstop. We're on a bus at the moment, but sometimes we'll have to get on a plane and do a random show in a different part of the country. The traveling and logistical part of it is definitely grinding, but when you end up on a stage in front of fun-loving, loyal music fans, it's totally worth it and very rewarding.

OMC: It took a while for your hit, "Safe and Sound," to really get traction. Obviously now it's really blowing up after a steady increase in popularity over time. Why do you think that was, especially now in this more instant-hit music culture?

SS: I don't know. We did everything DIY for the first two years, and we released "Safe and Sound" pretty early on in the Capital Cities career. We just watched it do its thing and saw promise and momentum, so we just kept promoting it and developing the rest of our sound and playing shows. We basically independently released it and promoted it on our own, made our own DIY music video. So it was a very gradual climb, like you said. Then the more recent success came after we signed with Capitol Records, which has been about a year now.

OMC: One of the big things that probably helped "Safe and Sound" take off was likely the music video. Did you guys come up with the concept for the video yourselves, or was that something somebody pitched to you?

SS: Ryan and I did a music video before the current video that is out. It was based on the idea of juxtaposing footage that we collected from YouTube of war and dance over the course of the last 100 years and chronologically editing it throughout the video. The new music video was based on that, but omitted all of the war scenes and focused on a dance battle between different dancing styles from different eras and cultures.

OMC: Did you get to learn a lot of those dances that get highlighted in the video?

SS: We took some dance lessons or some choreography sessions with a choreographer named Mandy Moore ("So You Think You Can Dance"). That was a lot of fun.

OMC: Was there a really hard dance to learn for that, or was it all second nature in a way?

SS: There was some interesting Gene Kelly-era dancing that involved a lot of choreography and style. So that wasn't easy, but I think we did okay.

Capital Cities performs with Fitz and the Tantrums on Saturday, Nov. 23 at the Rave. The show is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.


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