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Musical Joy and Surprise: Capital Cities

“We can have moments of musical sophistication and moments of absurdity that might surprise people.”
From jingle writers to top charting indie rock duo, Capital Cities are turning heads with their summer hit “Safe and Sound,” the seventh most Shazam-ed track in America. Formed in Los Angeles after a serendipitous Craigslist encounter became three years of successful partnership in commercial music composition, Capital Cities is a product of two people sharing the intention of having a long term career as artists. And so far so good, the lead single was released in 2011 and has since been heard in promotional campaigns for HBO, Smart Car and Nike, and is exploding in Europe, especially in Germany. SHK caught up with Ryan Merchant, one half of the indie rock duo, and talked about the emotions of sound, celebrity collaborations and the volatility of their creative process. — Maria Eilersen

SHK: I read somewhere that you guys met on Craigslist. Tell me about that — there must be a good story there!

Ryan Merchant: I wish there was a crazy story, but the reality is that Craigslist is simply an online community where people offering something find people looking for something. In our case, I was looking for a producer to help me finish some songs and Sebu happened to be offering his production services that day. The meeting was pretty commonplace, but at the same time serendipitous because it led to Capital Cities and a hit song.

You both have a background in advertising and wrote jingles together after meeting on Craigslist — how did the idea of starting a band together come about?

The two of us have always been in bands and despite working on commercials for a few years always had the intention of having long term careers as artists, not commercial writers. So the idea to form a band was always in the back of our minds.

Capital Cities is a nice alliterated name. How/why did you choose it?

We chose it for a number of reasons.

A) The alliteration sounds good and rolls off the tongue nicely

B) It conjures up images and feelings related to interesting cities through out the world

C) It’s a name that lends itself to cool visual design and

D) It intuitively feels like the right name for us.

How does the name reflect/embody your sound?

When you think of Capital Cities, you think of all the cities in the world with their sophistication, absurdity and character. I think there is a parallel between those feelings and the feelings one gets when they see our band. We can have moments of musical sophistication and moments of absurdity that might surprise people.

If your sound were an emotion what would it be?

Joy and Surprise.

Tell me about the journey from the release of your debut, self-titled EP in June 2011 to where you are now, boasting a Top-10 Modern Rock radio hit and collaborations with the likes of NPR’s Frank Tavares and Andre 3000.

Our success has been anything but “overnight.” We began promoting our music online through tiny blogs. From there, industry people started to take notice and some of them jumped on board. We continued our grass roots marketing until we hit a crossroad where we needed to do something bold. What’s bolder than investing your own money in an alternative radio campaign with no label? It worked and we were able to sign some really good record/publishing deals that gave us access to a talented team of people and marketing power that ultimately brought us to where we are today. The music industry is really crazy and there is no rhyme or reason to what works.

Speaking of collaborations, do you get starstruck? What were Travares and 3000 like, respectively, to work with?

We’ve never met either of them in person. Both collaborations were done through the internet. That said, we spoke on the phone with André a few times and got a little giddy and nervous. Thankfully he is incredibly nice and humble.

How has your background in advertising benefitted and/or influenced your approach to this newfound fame of yours?

It has benefitted the music we make greatly. There is no effect on this new found fame.

As successful jingle-writers turned indie rock duo, the two of you obviously work well together. Tell me about your dynamic. Do you consider yourselves colleagues or friends? Describe your relationship.

We are co-workers and friends. Our collaboration works because we have similar taste and always strive to be better.

What is your creative process like?

We both contribute to all aspects of our music; lyrics, melody, production etc…. Usually, one of us will create a beat and chord progression and show it to the other. If we are both digging it, we will sit for hours and riff melodically and lyrically until something interesting comes out. We then know that we have what could be a Capital Cities song and continue working on it until it’s done. That process could take two years or two weeks.

You’re popular in Germany — your song “Safe and Sound” was in a German Vodafone commercial and eventually reached number one on the German Singles Chart. Does that surprise you?

I’m surprised by how fast things happened in Germany. It feels like the song reached the top of the charts overnight. It was much faster than how things are happening in the US. It’s a testament to the power of paring a song (Safe and Sound) with a nice story (Vodafone Ad) and then showing it to people thousands of times on TV.

Has music always been an interest of yours?

Yes, since I was 2 years old.

Tell me about your childhoods. Did you both grow up in L.A.? How has your upbringing influenced your musical style?

I grew up in San Francisco, but lived in Spain when I was 12 and France when I was 17 – 18 years old. While in France, I started my first band and was able to play at the Fete De La Musique in Paris. It’s a city wide festival where for one day they allow bands to set up and play on the streets all day and night. It was my first taste of playing in front of an audience and got me hooked on performing.

What are your hopes for the future of Capital Cities?

That we can continue to write good songs and grow our fan base.

Who do you dream of collaborating with?

Rod Temperton, the guy that wrote Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” “Rock With You” and “Off The Wall.” We are having dinner with him in Paris this September when we are on tour. I’m hoping we set up a time to write something together.