Capital Cities’ catchy pop hits seemingly came flying out of the sonic woodwork. The Los Angeles pop duo Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant’s very first single, “Safe and Sound,” hit number one on Billboard’s U.S. Alternative Songs chart, landed in a Mazda commercial, and got them signed to major label Capitol Records. Though it sounds whirlwind, a lot of that speedy success stems from the fact the duo hit the ground running with purpose.
The two met in 2010 through a simple Craigslist ad posted by Merchant, who at the time was looking for a producer to help him with his personal songs. Simonian and Merchant began working as a band, but when Merchant had an opportunity to start writing music commercially, the two transitioned into jingle writing. Even with their focus shifted, Simonian and Merchant never fully put their original intentions aside.
“The two of us always had aspirations to have our own bands,” Merchant said. “We fell into jingle writing because it was a way to make music and get paid. In that process of writing all the jingles, we started writing a bunch of songs. We were just in the studio all day long writing constantly, so we started generating all this material.”
In the midst of that material came “Safe and Sound.” The song felt right to the duo. To gauge that hunch, the two began sharing it with friends.
“We wrote ‘Safe and Sound’ and showed it to people, and everyone unanimously felt like there was something special about the song,” Merchant said.
From there, the duo decided to put together an EP, along with a full band to start performing some of their material live.
“Initially we were gonna just record [‘Safe and Sound’], but then we started performing and it grew organically,” Merchant said “There were no expectations for it getting as big as it did.”
Though the single picked up quickly, it wasn’t altogether instant. The duo did a lot of hands-on, DIY work, including a lot of self-promotion and self-booking shows and small tours to get their sound out.
“We did a lot of grassroots marketing in the beginning,” Merchant said. “When we first put out ‘Safe and Sound’ we literally just put it on the internet, and it slowly started to get picked up by blogs here and there, and it rose up the charts on hype machine, and labels started contacting us.”
The band didn’t immediately sign with a label. Instead, they started their own, Lazy Hooks. They also invested in a radio-promotion campaign, which helped get “Safe and Sound” into the ears of the public and the music industry, and eventually led to signing with Capitol Records.
“The song started to have this momentum” Merchant said. “Capitol came in and helped us take it to the next level.”
That next level was their 2013 album debut, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery. The album comprised a collection of precisely manicured pop pieces, with tightwire-walking synth melodies, flaring horn solos and easily digestible vocal hooks. The duo was able to create equally strong visuals to match their songs, making a music video for “Safe and Sound” that garnered them a Grammy Award nomination for Best Music Video, along with an MTV Video Music Award for Best Visual Effects. The success of their debut also landed them as an opener for the North American leg of Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour.
“When we played our first show we were all terrified, because I think we realized the scale of her concerts, just how much production goes into it,” Merchant said. “Over time, I think the biggest thing we learned from that was how to really sell yourself on stage. When you play to a crowd that’s not there to see you, and a demographic that’s not your typical demographic, you really need to sell the show. At the end of the day you realize OK, this is intimidating, but also you have this amazing opportunity to go out onto the stage and connect with people, make a statement.”
In gearing up for a 2017 sophomore album release, Capital Cities recently released their newest single, “Vowels.” While the song still has that pop simplicity, there seems to be more of an organic core to it. The vocal melody is still hook driven, but it feels less stiff. Part of that stems from the fact that Merchant and Simonian have been working on making sure the heart of their songs is palpable to listeners.
“We basically spent the last year and a half just writing as much new material as possible,” Merchant said. “I think when you have a success, you start to think your sound should evolve, and you should try different things, but in the last couple months we’ve sort of blocked out all external influences and really gotten back to the essence of Capital Cities, which is Sebu and I in this little studio in Burbank, working for 10 hours a day and just pushing as hard as we can, producing everything ourselves.”
From that material, Simonian and Merchant narrowed it down to their strongest songs, combing through every last sonic detail.
“We spent a month sitting at the piano and hammering out what key is the song gonna be, what’s the perfect melody, where’s the lyrics going to be, with the goal of trying to make it so you can play the songs acoustically and they’re compelling, and feel good to perform without all the production behind it.”
While the songwriting is being simplified, the production continues to expand, bringing in more well-known vocal cameos.
“There’s definitely going to be some interesting features on the album,” Merchant said. “We had Andre 3000 on the first album, and on this new album I can’t say who it is, but it’s gonna be another pretty prominent hip-hop feature, and we’re also working on a few female vocalists to sing on a couple songs. It’s gonna be very eclectic.”
The live show continues to grow as well. The duo recently expanded their live band, bringing in jazz vibraphonist Justefan (aka Justin Thomas) to flesh out synth sounds into expansive solos on a malletKAT, and classical guitarist Vahagn Turgutyan on electric guitar. The new arrangement and recent tour dates like the upcoming Electric Christmas show, Dec. 8, 2016, at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento have been a perfect opportunity to try out the new album live.
“We’ve been testing out new material, playing it live to see what works,” Merchant said. “We play it once for people and we have them singing the lyrics by the end of the song, so that’s a good sign.”
Catch Capital Cities with Glass Animals, the Naked and Famous and more at this year’s Electric Christmas presented by Radio 94.7, Dec. 8, 2016, at the Golden 1 Center, located at 500 David J Stern Walk in Sacramento. The all-ages show starts at 6 p.m., with tickets available for $36 online at Electricconcert.com.