Fest ’14—A Capital Idea
By Jessica Forbes
Late afternoon on Day 3 of a festival can be an iffy time—fatigue has likely set in, and you need an act to help you push through and keep your spark alive. For that, Capital Cities is just the ticket.
Happy, catchy and fresh are all words that come to mind when considering the L.A.-based band, currently touring with material from “In a Tidal Wave of Mystery,” their first LP, released in June 2013. Usually labeled as indie pop, Capital Cities, led by founding duo Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian, are carving a special niche in the genre with their infectious hooks and dedication to celebrating all things positive—and also fusing trumpets, synthesizers and Daniel Day Lewis references into dance-y pop tunes.
Blazing their own trail has been a pattern for Capital Cities. Merchant and Simonian met in 2008 in L.A. through Craigslist and began writing music for commercials, which they did as a team for two years before forming the band.
“We both played in numerous bands throughout our lives,” Ryan Merchant told the IN. “The commercial thing was actually a very short detour in our musical lives where we found this opportunity to write music and make money, and it was fun. We took a little break from playing in bands, but through that process we started writing songs together.”
Merchant said the two built a catalog of extracurricular pieces while writing for commercials, including what became “Safe and Sound.” Merchant explained that while seeking a direction for the band, the “electronic place” they found themselves in with that track shaped the “electronic, funky, disco-inspired” music that Capital Cities creates. The duo also happened upon what has now become a trademark of their unique take on dance pop while searching for a way to elevate the song’s melody then (in its tenth incarnation) played on synthesizer.
“We both felt like it needed to be played by an instrument that elevated it and took it to this regal, epic place,” Merchant recalled of their decision to use a trumpet on the track. “Serendipitously, a few months later we met our trumpet player, Spencer Ludwig, who now plays with us live. He’s such a creative, amazing musician that we started incorporating trumpet on a bunch of the songs, and it became this integral part of our recording and our live show.”
While generating buzz on the web in 2011, an alternative radio station in Lima, Peru discovered “Safe and Sound,” and put it on heavy rotation. The band quickly built a following in South America. “Given the size we were at in the United States, it was interesting to go there—we could play a show to almost 1,000 people there even though in the U.S. we were much smaller,” Merchant said. The international buzz only helped. From that point, touring (including appearances at South by Southwest for the past three years) and continued blogosphere action resulted in Capitol Records signing Lazy Hooks, Merchant and Simonian’s indie label, and releasing “In a Tidal Wave of Mystery.”
The album showcases the good things in life, most explicitly in the recent single, “Farah Fawcett Hair” featuring fellow Hangout artist, Outkast’s Andre 3000.
“It was the one song on the album where we really were not following any conventions as far as pop music is concerned,” Merchant said. When looking to add a little hip-hop to the mix of elements, one artist came to mind: “Going along with the theme of the song, which is the idea of undeniably good things in life, the person that come to mind was Andre 3000, because we really respect his work and we love the tone of his voice and his whole persona.”
The collaboration occurred and now Capital Cities, like Outkast, are playing some of the biggest festivals in the U.S. this summer, including Coachella and Bonnaroo. The band will follow up the festival run by opening for Katy Perry on multiple dates this summer, a move that may have some raising their eyebrows, but is par for the course for the band’s thus-far wild and self-determined ride.
“This is different because you’re opening up for a much bigger artist and playing to her crowd. It will be an interesting experience because in a sense you’re trying to win over people who might not know you,” Merchant said. “Our goal is to put on a compelling show and have them say, ‘Wow, I really like that opening band. I want to follow them or see their next show when they come back to town.’”