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On 'Holiday' with Capital Cities
MUSIC Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2013-11-19

Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian created the pop band Capital Cities. Now, thanks to the bonafide hit single "Safe and Sound," the two are known globally.
In a Tidal Wave of Mystery was released this summer, fittingly on Capitol Records. With heavy rotation on many radio stations sales continue to grow.

Windy City Times went backstage at their last Chicago show to learn more about the duo and what the future holds for them.

Windy City Times: Hi, guys. So you are both from California?

Ryan Merchant: I am from San Francisco.

Sebu Simonian: I'm from Los Angeles.

WCT: So the two of you met up on Craigslist?

Ryan Merchant: Yes; it is funny because people think it is a crazy story but it is really very Los Angeles to be honest. It's a common way for musicians to connect on there. It may sound strange in other cities but it is fairly common there. We also met our bass player on Craigslist. I was looking for someone to produce the music I had been working on so I just went on Craigslist. Sebu had happened to post something that day offering his production services. I responded to it and we got together.

WCT: You both had been making music before the coming together of Capital Cities, then?

Ryan Merchant: Yeah, we had both been in bands before this, taken music lessons and both been involved in music for a long time.

WCT: You both did commercial work I read, so that is a good way to start off and make money.

Ryan Merchant: Yes, we both did commercials for a few years before we started Capital Cities.

WCT: How long have you been together as a band?

Sebu Simonian: We formed it toward the end of 2010, so that makes it about three years.

WCT: Where did the band name come from?

Sebu Simonian: It was a brainstorming session. We were trying to come up with a name and ideas. It kind of popped up and it looked good. We stuck with it.

WCT: The video for "Safe and Sound" is truly special. It won a VMA. Did you go to the MTV Music Award show?

Sebu Simonian: We had a previous engagement but it worked out fine. It wasn't one of those awards where they actually announce the winner and you go and pick it up. It was an earlier thing where they announce it in the middle of the show. There was a clip of the video when it was announced so there was definitely a moment there.

Ryan Merchant: Although they showed the wrong video. Someone fucked up and played the wrong one.

Sebu Simonian: I think that is a fun fact to the moment of winning the award.

WCT: Who came up with the concept for it?

Sebu Simonian: We both did. We had two previous versions for that video. The first one was one that Ryan and I did after collecting footage off of YouTube. It was mostly dance but some war juxtapositioning them back and forth chronicling over 100 years. So based off of that we did more of a high budget video with some assistance. We had to forego all of the war footage and make it a mashup of dance scenes.

WCT: Maybe you could have war in a future video...

Sebu Simonian: We will fit some in one day and do some damage!

WCT: There was even some gender-switching in the video.

Ryan Merchant: It was fun.

WCT: I loved the whole Xanadu and disco vibe.

Sebu Simonian: Hey, we love Xanadu, too! We do a cover song of a disco song.

WCT: Yes, you have a song: "Farrah Fawcett Hair."

Ryan Merchant: It is an embodiment about things that are undeniably good. Farrah Fawcett's hair epitomizes that idea, like the perfect hair.

WCT: The perfect 10...

Ryan Merchant: Exactly.

WCT: Andre 3000 is on that particular song. How did you wind up working with him?

Ryan Merchant: We wanted to put a verse on the song because we had this middle section. We wanted to find a good hip hop artist so we came up with Andre because he is a quirky artist that tows the line between hip hop and pop music. He has a really interesting sensibility that is similar to ours. Our manager just reached out to him and sent him the track. We were pretty much done. We had recorded everything except for his part. He loved it. He recorded a verse in his studio and we did a little bit of back and forth over the Internet then finished it off.

WCT: What inspired you to cover Madonna's "Holiday?"

Sebu Simonian: Madonna! Well, not directly but the song is so good it needed to be covered.

WCT: Is it hard to have your own take on something like that?

Sebu Simonian: It is a challenge. It was a homework assignment that we assigned ourselves.

Ryan Merchant: That first album that she released still sounds like modern electropop if you listen to it today. Some many bands sounds like that now. I remember listening to that song and how it sounds so modern.

WCT: I wonder if Madonna has heard your version.

Ryan Merchant: Her manager has heard it because he has tweeted at us.

Sebu Simonian: She lives in a bubble so may not have heard it.

WCT: She is surrounded by bodyguards all the time. You guys went to Mexico?

Ryan Merchant: We are going to Mexico and South America. We love Latin America.

WCT: What is your ethnicity?

Sebu Simonian: I am Armenian. My family immigrated here in the early '80s.

Ryan Merchant: My family are both Irish and Hungarian mixed.

WCT: You just toured with Gold Fields, one of my favorites.

Sebu Simonian: We are labelmates.

WCT: I am hoping they will break through, like Capital Cities has. They were playing your music on the radio when I was driving over to meet you. Are you aware of how big your music is right now?

Ryan Merchant: You are kind of in a bubble.

WCT: Like Madonna!

Ryan Merchant: Yes, but because it is blowing up right now we are just so busy. It is nonstop and we have no time off to walk through the world and realize that "Safe and Sound" is being played everywhere.

Sebu Simonian: I don't know about you but I have my radio stations set to the six stations that might be playing it and I just push the buttons back and forth whenever I am in my car.

WCT: You are supporting them and they are supporting you at the same time.

Sebu Simonian: It is just exciting to hear your own song just for the fact that a lot of people are listening to it at the same time. That is really thrilling.

WCT: Do you feel pressure for the next single to be huge again?

Sebu Simonian: There is some pressure but we should just be confident in what we have done and just hope for the best.

WCT: You are DJing at after parties, also. Do you do that often?

Sebu Simonian: Not as often as we like. We should because it is fun. Our set is very DJ-ish, anyways. We usually end the set with a remix to keep the party going.

WCT: What is coming out in the future?

Ryan Merchant: We have a lot of stuff coming out.

Sebu Simonian: More touring...

Ryan Merchant: We are touring in Europe then we will be back in the U.S. with Fitz and The Tantrums headlining.

We have a new music video for our second single, "Kangaroo Court."

Ryan Merchant: It is experimental for us and gets a little darker, comparing it to "Safe and Sound." It is about alienation and being judged or feeling like you don't belong. It follows a character around who is looking to let go and be free. He wants to be accepted so he goes to the dark part of town. He parties his way out of his problems. That is the idea of the song. The music video tells that story but with animals. We are all dressed up like animals for the video.

WCT: Which animal are you?

Ryan Merchant: I'm a zebra.

WCT: I would be a monkey if it was me!

Sebu Simonian: There are monkeys in there.

WCT: Many of our readers in the LGBT community have suffered from alienation and being picked on, including myself, so it seems like we can identify with the track.

Ryan Merchant: The video kind of touches on that idea.

Capital Cities return to Chicago Friday, Nov. 22, at the Aragon Ballroom. For more on the band, visit capitalcitiesmusic.com .