CITIES' SEBU SIMONIAN: IN A TIDAL WAVE OF MYSTERY
Like National Public Radio, Back to the Future 2, Daniel Day Lewis, Sunsets, and Farrah Fawcett Hair, Capital Cities' debut album IN A TIDAL WAVE OF MYSTERY, which was released in June of this year, is good shit. The funky and fun band was formed after founding members Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian were united via a Craigslist ad back in 2008. The duo had a successful career composing jingles before releasing their first tunes under the Capital Cities moniker in 2011. The self-titled FIVE-SONG EP came out via indie label Lazy Hooks. It featured the quirky yet highly infectious track "SAFE AND SOUND" which did the rounds on the interwebs before being picked up by the likes of Vodafone, Smart Car, Microsoft, and HBO. Following the viral success of the song, Capital Cities acquired additional members (bassist Manny Quintero, trumpeter Spencer Ludwig, guitarist Nick Merwin, and drummer Channing Holmes) and hit the road, building an avid following of fans, who, to complete the feedback loop, were invited to contribute voicemailed vocals about their favorite things for the song "FARRAH FAWCETT HAIR."
We caught up with Sebu Simonian to talk about the album and the band's upcoming tour.
NP: I've been listening to your album for the past week in my car. It's good shit.
SS: Thank you.
NP: What's come across is that you guys seem to have a really fucking good time.
SS: Thank you. It's a compliment.
NP: I understand that you met your partner in crime on Craigslist. Whom advertised for whom?
SS: I put out an ad to provide services as a music producer, and Ryan was looking for a producer to help him with his solo project. So he called me up and we started working together.
NP: According to your bio, you just sort of stumbled into an advertising career. How did that happen?
SS: Ryan, who I had just met and started working with, was interning at a music house which writes music for ad agencies and advertisements. So he asked me to help him with some of the jobs, and that resulted in a three-year career as a music composing team.
NP: How did you transition from writing jingles to becoming an artist unto yourself?
SS: Well I've been an artist, as it were, since I was 18. I've been making music for about 16 years or so, and I've been a producer in my own recording studio and I've produced a bunch of acts as well. So the transition wasn't really a transition, it was just, now all my time is made up of doing Capital Cities and nothing else at the moment, so the commercial music career is on the back burner at the moment.
NP: I love the lyric "I sold my bed but not my stereo." There are so many people that can relate to that sort of mentality. Where did that lyric come from?
SS: Our imagination. When we write songs, we try to put ourselves in an interesting character's shoes. I don't think Ryan or myself actually have experienced a situation in which we've had to sell our beds before giving up our music, but of course, that's the sentiment, and music is so important to us. It's kind of a quirky love song to music and the power of music. If you venture into the themes of each one of our songs, you'll discover different worlds and different characters and different scenarios. We're basically storytellers.
NP: Right, this isn't an album of generic love songs, it's full of stories. I understand "Kangaroo Court" is about a horse that wants to be a kangaroo or something?
SS: It's actually a zebra that disguises himself as a horse. This is in the MUSIC VIDEO, it's not necessarily in the lyrics of the song. But in the video, we developed a story of "Kangaroo Court." We follow the hero, which is a zebra that is rejected at a club because no zebras are allowed at the club. And so he disguises himself, paints all his white stripes black, and he's now a mustang and is accepted into the club. Of course, his true stripes are revealed at some point and he is caught as an imposter and he's tried in court, in a kangaroo court, and found guilty. The ending is kind of twisted. You have to watch the video, I don't want to spoil it.
NP: On "Farrah Fawcett Hair" I love the way you incorporate samples of people talking about random stuff they like. You give a hat tip to NPR, and every time I listen to that track I think, Oh my God, I like it when public bathrooms have scented candles too!
SS: Exactly, we we're trying to come up with quirky items that if you really thought about it, no one's going to deny that they are cool and good things.
NP: It's a fairly esoteric song. What was the original concept? How did that come about?
SS: Beats me. I mean, I think it happened because we chose not to think about what to do. It was intentionally experimental. We said, hey, let's just have fun with a song here and lets just throw out random ideas and see where it ends up. If you hear the live version that we've been playing at our shows, which is kind of first incarnation of the song, it's completely different from how we finally ended up recording it and releasing it on the album. The reason for that is because it was a work in progress, and as we went along we threw out random crazy ideas, replacing our vocals with the gospel choir vocals, asking Frank Tavares of NPR to do some voice over, reaching out to André 3000 and getting surprised with a wonderful vocal verse from him, reaching out to our fans and having them submit voice messages which we incorporated into the song...We just kinda threw out all the rules and decided not to follow any, and that's what came out.
NP: On the list of good shit, which are your personal picks?
SS: Let me see, ceviche in Peru. I mean, obviously, all of the items are favorites of mine. But, yeah, I would say ceviche in Peru is undeniably great.
NP: I love ceviche, but I've not had the pleasure of it in Peru. That seems like a very specific memory. Where does that come from?
SS: Well, we have a particular bond with the Peruvian people because they were the first to embrace Capital Cities. There was a radio station in Lima that played us, and we shot to number one on that station. That was what led us to want to take it further and fund our own tour. We went down to South America, Lima to be specific, and played a couple shows there. So we have fond memories, and we obviously had some good ceviche while we were down there.
NP: Wow! So you're an LA band in the entertainment capital of the world, and it's a radio station all the way down in Lima that first picks you up?
NP: How did that come about?
SS: Well, our song was already out on the internet, and the blogosphere was picking up on it, so this radio station just happened to be the first one to independently discover the song and was able to just add it their playlist.
NP: Which song was this?
SS: "Safe and Sound." This was a year before "Farrah Fawcett Hair" was even recorded. Before any of the songs on the album, this was in 2011, before the album came out.
NP: I have to ask, the beard, are you a hipster or an anarchist? You could go either way with a beard like that
SS: I'm just lazy.
SS: Yeah, I know, none of the above. I could see myself being a little bit of both though.
NP: Fair enough. Now the album cover, it's almost like a children's storybook in that it's got all of these different adventures going on. What's the story behind the album art?
SS: The album art is exactly as you described it. A fantasy world that feels nostalgic and reminds you of your childhood, but if you dig deep, it's kind of a scary place. It's a mysterious, dark place sometimes, this universe. We commissioned our favorite artist, JOÃO LAURO FONTE, who's done all our art work since the beginning. He's based in the UK and we told him here's the album, show us what you've got, and he came back with exactly what we felt represented the album. One day I'm going to blow it up and put it on a wall.
NP: It's interesting that talk about your childhood and there being a dark undercurrent. Was that something that you experienced as a child?
SS: No, not at all. I usually say that my life has been blessed with good fortune and I've had the opportunity to make music all my life. But life is obviously challenging, and has its ups and downs. We're all aware that life comes with the good and the bad, and so as an artist I think it's important to be well rounded and show the dark side of things and the bright side of things side by side.
NP: What was your path into music? Growing up in Los Angeles, what high school did you go to?
SS: I went to Glendale High School and I went to Cal State, Northridge and studied music there. I started playing music since I was a child, when my parents forced me to take violin and piano lessons. I've just been immersed in music since then.
NP: What did you listen to as a child and teenager?
SS: Pink Floyd, Blur, Suede, Depeche Mode, Stevie Wonder, Radiohead.
NP: That makes sense. I can hear all of that in this record. That explains a lot.
SS: Thank you.
NP: Do you have any guilty pleasures in your record collection?
SS: I can't think of any.
NP: You've got nothing in there?
SS: How about Kajagoogoo?
NP: There's nothing wrong with a bit of Kajagoogoo. "Too Shy"?
SS: Yes. "Too Shy," exactly. That's one of my favorite songs of all time.
NP: That is an awesome song. That album was produced by Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, did you know that?
SS: Oh really? I haven't even heard any other Kajagoogoo songs. Actually, I tried listening to one once and...well, let's just say "Too Shy" is a great song.
NP: Yeah, it's definitely the best song on the album. "White Feathers" is another good one.
SS: Okay, I will check it out. [Laughs]
NP: I understand you are heading out on another quite substantial tour. Where are you going this time?
SS: We are hitting the road in the States on a co-headlining tour with Fitz and the Tantrums, and we're kind of zigzagging across most of the East Coast on this particular tour.
NP: Do you enjoy the process of touring? Because I guess as a producer, you were mainly a studio dweller for a long time.
SS: Yeah, it's a new world to me, and I'm embracing it. It's very difficult and tiring, but also very rewarding and fun.
NP: What are the best and worst things about it?
SS: The best things about it is to be able to play music every night in front of cool people, and the worst thing about it is trying to get sleep on the bus.
NP: You've not mastered that one yet?
SS: Not yet.
NP: It must be nice, though, to actually get reaction from the fans in person, because you don't get that feedback in the studio.
SS: Oh, absolutely. Fans are great. I'm a music fan and I know what it feels like to see a band that I love and just show appreciation. So it's good to be on both sides of that.
NP: Well, it's been an absolute pleasure talking with you. I hope you have a wonderful time on this tour; I'm sure you will. You're just a band that exudes a good time. That's just what I hear when I hear this record. Do you and Ryan just have fun hanging out?
SS: Yes. When we find time to hangout. We've been touring pretty much nonstop since April and any downtime at home we spend with our families it seems.
NP: Is there anything that you're jonesing to do?
SS: Yeah, finding some time to play basketball again. Shoot some hoops at the park.
NP: You need to get one of those portable hoops, so when the crew is setting up for soundcheck you can play ball.
SS: I think we're gonna do that. Now that I think about it, that's in the plan.
Capital Cities US tour kicks of on October 20. For a full list of dates visit CAPITALCITIESMUSIC.COM.