The Mix Q&A with Sebu of Capital Cities

Capital Cities are almost scary-infectious. After smashing into the mainstream with last year’s incredible “Safe and Sound,” the band’s monstrous choruses and bright hooks have helped them achieve superstar status; currently, they’re the proud owners of a Grammy nomination, an MTV award, and a spot opening for Katy Perry on her arena tour. But, as evidenced by their approach to pop music and songs like their latest single, “One Minute More,” Capital Cities stay grounded with a fun, experimental attitude that keeps things catchy, even when they touch on some heavier themes. When we sat down with Capital Cities’ Sebu Simonian, we discussed the group’s predilection for incorporating darkness into their songs to make their brights even brighter, along with his favorite albums growing up, his favorite movie director, and what, to him, makes a great pop song.

GGM: You recently released “One Minute More,” which is very pretty. I read an interview where you say that you like each song you write to have a little world built around it. Could you describe the world of “One Minute More”?

Sebu: Sure! So “One Minute More” is kind of an anthemic, grab-life-by-the-horns kind of a song. It’s about noticing when the sun is out and when it’s bright, going out there and appreciating it. When we thought about putting visuals around it, we felt like we should put a lot of bright colors around it, and that’s what the artwork speaks to. There’s a comet/planetary object, but it also looks kind of man-made, and there’s a couple that want to enter it and go for a ride. The video is kind of a twisted concept showcasing you really can’t have the good without the bad. There’s always gonna be a balance between love and hate, dark and light. If you follow this character’s teardrop and zoom in, you discover there’s a party world on a lake. Without the tears, the party goes through an Armageddon sort of deal.

GGM: You mentioned an Armageddon. One of my favorite quotes from you is when you described “Safe and Sound” as “an antidote to the human tendency to think in apocalyptic terms.” Is that something you’d say is true of all your music?

Sebu: Kind of! I think it’s more entertaining when there’s conflict in the story. Juxtaposition of two extremes. I think Capital Cities likes to touch on that artistically. We’re always showing dark ideas and visuals in order to make the positive message even more exaggerated.

GGM: Keeping with this dark vs. light conflict, one thing I read is that growing up, you were most influenced by “good pop songs.” You’ve obviously written some great pop songs. Do you think the dark vs. light thing is essential to a good pop song? Or what, to you, makes a good pop song?

Sebu: I think a good pop song, or a good song in general, is one that is creative and artistic and innovative and groundbreaking, but at the same time catchy and simple and accessible to a wide variety of listeners, different age groups and fans of different styles. We always try our best to mix it up and take influences from different genres while always being aware that sometimes the simplest, catchiest, most common ideas are the best, the most brilliant. I guess the message here is be artistic, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

GGM: You guys are in the middle of an incredible North American tour opening for Katy Perry and you’re playing some of the continent’s best arenas. Which gig are you most looking forward to?

Sebu: To be honest, every show on this tour has been amazing so far and I think all the shows coming up will be just as good. They’ve all been in huge arenas. This is the first time we’ve played huge arenas in this context. Every night, there are awesome Katy Perry fans to entertain. It’s going really well.

GGM: What were the albums that influenced you growing up?

Sebu: Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd. Violator by Depeche Mode. Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles.

GGM: Solid list! What about this year? What’s a 2014 album you’re blown away by?

Sebu: This came out a few years ago, but I’ve been playing it constantly: Poolside’s Pacific Standard Time. Our entire crew has been playing that on the bus non-stop for the past year. Royskopp and Robyn just came out with something too, and I’m looking forward to analyzing that one.

GGM: Obviously you’re super busy, but when you get downtime, what do you like to do? Do you like to read? Watch TV?

Sebu: Well, I just had a child, and he’s about 4 and a half months old, so there’s no such thing as downtime! (laughs) But whenever I get a spare moment, I try to discover music.

GGM: Before you had your child, which obviously takes up all of your time, did you have any books you really liked?

Sebu: Yeah! But honestly, I spend a lot more time making music. I wish I had more time to do some reading. Actually, I have this book I just started reading called The Fool by Raffi, which I haven’t finished, but I hear it’s great.

GGM: What are your favorite shows?

Sebu: I don’t watch a lot of TV. Maybe classic shows, like Three’s Company occasionally.

GGM: How about movies?

Sebu: I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I seriously love all of them from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction to Inglourious Basterds to Django Unchained.

GGM: You’ve done a lot of touring. What are some restaurants or shops you have to hit every time you hit the road?

Sebu: We’re in Miami now, and I just had a breakfast at a place called Camila’s. Little hole in the wall place, and that was great.

GGM: One thing I was interested by is the song “Farrah Fawcett Hair.” I thought it was really interesting how the voice starts off listing all these things, like NPR, Back to the Future II, Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m wondering, are these all things that fall under the category of “good shit,” as the chorus says? Can you tell me a bit about how that song came about?

Sebu: (Laughs) That voice is Frank Tavares, and he is the voice of NPR. When you hear the funding credit, that’s the guy. We thought it’d be really funny if we had him list off all these items we felt would be cool things and make it a fun, experimental song about cool things. As we threw ideas on the wall to see what stuck, everything stuck. Like “hey, what if we incorporated one of our favorite, most undeniably great hip hop artists, Andre 3000, and get him to do a verse?” We reached out, and sure enough he said “Sure, let’s do it.” We also invited fans to submit voice messages, and we included the interesting ones we got on the recording. Yeah, it was a fun experiment.

GGM: And an interesting experiment, but it has such a super chorus. Are you fans of Daniel Day-Lewis?

Sebu: Oh yeah. There Will Be Blood is the best.