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Capital Cities Talk Cover Bands, Music Snobs, U2 + More
By Dave Kim September 25, 2014 1:22 PM


Unless you’ve been living in a black void where music doesn’t exist — which means you wouldn’t be reading this site to begin with — it would be hard not to hear Capital Cities’ smash single ‘Safe and Sound.’ From the airwaves to YouTube, to even inside a Kohl’s store, ‘Safe and Sound’ has become a bonafide pop hit.

Capital Cities, comprised of Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian, released their full-length debut, ‘In a Tidal Wave of Mystery,’ in June of 2013. The former commercial jingle writers sat down with us to discuss their recent success, finding U2 on their iPhones and more before their show at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center.

Since we’re in Vegas, there are tons of cover and tribute bands making a living in the area. You two were in cover bands of your own before Capital Cities. Was that something

you enjoyed while trying to jump start your own careers?


Merchant: I played in an ’80s cover band for like three years. I had a really good time and most of the people at the shows just enjoyed it. Personally I always wanted to create my own music and be successful in that regard so I’m glad Capital Cities did well. But I think cover bands are awesome because they teach you about songwriting and about performing. It’s a good experience to play in a cover band.


Simonian: I played in a classic rock cover band when I first started and we played pretty much the entire Pink Floyd, Beatles and Led Zeppelin repertoires. The Beatles, when they first started out, played nothing but covers. I think it’s really fun to play covers.


As you two have stated in the past, you used to write commercial jingles for companies to pay the bills. Is it harder than most people would imagine it be?


Simonian: I do consider it a craft, so experience and practice does help. It helped us come up with interesting melodies.


Is it hard to create a melody for a company that sounds contemporary but at the same time not ripping anyone off? The Black Keys suing Pizza Hut and Home Depot in 2012 comes to mind.


Merchant: To be honest, in that world right there, a lot of times they ask the composers to create songs that are kind of inspired by very popular songs because they can’t afford to license those songs. It happens all the time but there are rules to what makes something a complete rip that you can sue people over. And I’m sure right now there are commercial jingle houses that are using ‘Safe and Sound’ as an inspiration for songs for commercials. It happens all the time but it’s not that big of a deal at the end of the day.


The real ‘Safe and Sound’ is actually used in commercials, most recently in the Mazda3 TV ad. Since you come from that world, are you more willing to license your music for companies to use?


Simonian: Yeah, it’s part of the business. You try to be selective and only help promote products that at least you’re not opposed to. [Laughs]


Merchant: We have some things we probably would not license to. We also consider the artistry of the commercial. Is it a cool use of the music? But in general we come from a jingle writing background. It’d be a little hypocritical of us to be like, “No, we’re not licensing our stuff.”


You guys seem to be a tech savvy group. What do you think of U2's new album ending up on millions of people’s iTunes account without their permission?


Simonian: I think it was a marketing stunt because they claimed this was the largest distribution of an album in history at one time. Even though it was given away for free, it was actually received by users who didn’t necessarily request it. I saw it in my library but I haven’t had a chance to listen to the album.


Despite the backlash, iTunes sales of U2's older songs have increased since the release of their new album. Do you see this business model becoming widely adapted in the future by artists?


Simonian: It depends on how the audience that is actually receiving the music responds. Like you said, there was a backlash and some people were upset that they were kind of force-fed some music. In general I’m all for spreading music, for free especially. So if they can fine-tune the method then I’m all for it.


You’re a relatively new group so you missed the heyday of the traditional music industry system decades ago. Are you satisfied with how music is delivered, especially with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora?


Merchant: As a user I love it. I use Spotify all the time and it’s amazing to have everything I could possibly want at my fingertips at anytime. So, I think it is the way forward as far as how music is disseminated and how people consume music. I just think the model hasn’t figured out how to compensate musicians fairly for that yet. But at the same time, to be honest, most bands make most their money from live shows. So really, it’s just about getting your music into as many ears as possible through any means possible. And that’s what then allows you to make an income playing shows. Spreading music far and wide whether it’s free or not I think is a good thing for bands.


Obviously the pop and alternative scenes are in a dance-inspired phase at the moment, with EDM receiving more mainstream exposure than it ever has before. Some artists aren’t too thrilled about the movement, including Arcade Fire’s Win Butler taking a shot at electronic artists at Coachella this year. Do you think the “snobs,” so to speak, will be more accepting as time goes on?


Merchant: I think it’s unfair to just take a jab at electronic musicians, and specifically DJs. Honestly, there are a lot of DJ producers that are probably amazing musicians. Someone like Zedd for instance, whether you like his music or not, I know for a fact that he’s a very talented musician and I’ve seen him play piano. He knows how to play instruments. He just chooses to create music in a certain style, in a certain genre. But if he wanted to, he could probably start a band like Arcade Fire and write those kinds of parts and bring together the right musicians. It’s just a matter of how you want to present your music.

Our music is like a hybrid of very electronic backing tracks elements. They give it this color and this spice. The guys that we play with in our band are incredible musicians that could play any style they wanted to. They happen to be playing to a click with backing tracks because it enhances the experience for the crowd. I just think it’s a little annoying when people take jabs at certain styles of music. I think it’s okay to jab certain things that aren’t creative, you know what I mean? But if the music is creative, then who cares?


Simonian: Oh, going back to U2. [Laughs] The backlash did cause some Internet humor and I discovered a site called WhoIsU2.com. You should check it out. It’s really funny. There’s a young generation who actually hasn’t even heard of U2. It’s strange and makes me feel very old to look at this website.


Merchant: Here we are talking about U2 and they’re a band that’s been around forever. They are becoming relevant again so they’re doing something right and they’re playing the biggest shows you could possibly play. I don’t think there’s another band on Earth that could draw like they do.


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