Yahoo! On the Road Q&A: Capital Cities

Capital Cities in Seattle [photo: Lydo Le]L.A. buzz duo Capital Cities, aka Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian, recently performed at the Yahoo! On the Road tour's Seattle show on an epic bill with Gossip, Willy Moon, and Twenty One Pilots. There, they got the entire audience dancing with their groovy originals like "Farrah Fawcett Hair" and "Safe & Sound," as well as totally unexpected, and totally awesome, cover songs like Sinead O'Connor/Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," and Madonna "Holiday."

But before Capital Cities' Seattle dance party commenced, Yahoo! Music caught up with Ryan and Sebu in their Moore Theatre dressing room, to talk about their background writing commercial jingles; their unusual collaborators (everyone from a famous rapper to an NPR voiceover icon); and of course, everyone's favorite subject, Nutella.


YAHOO! OTR: So I understand you got your start writing music for commercials. Tell me a bit about that.

RYAN: Sebu and I met on Craigslist, because I was looking for a producer to help me produce some of my songs. We started collaborating, and then soon afterwards I kind of fell into jingle-writing and asked Sebu if he'd like to collaborate with me. That led to us basically writing jingles for three years, and we were pretty successful at it. We wrote for Home Depot and Wal-Mart and Honda and tons of companies.

SEBU: [singing] "That's how I know, that's how I know of love….Helzberg Diamonds." That might qualify as the only real jingle that we've written. We do music.

YAHOO! OTR: Did working in ad music prep you in any way for doing your own thing?

SEBU: The recording industry is 50 percent creativity and 50 percent technicality and skill — craftsmanship, I would say. So yeah, writing for commercials, especially with really fast turnaround times and writing in a wide variety of genres, helped us improve our production skills and obviously affected our band's production.


YAHOO! OTR: How did you transition from making music for others to making your own music?

SEBU: To be honest, it's not black and white. I try not to differentiate writing music for a commercials or writing music as a piece of art. At the end of the day, it's still music, and whether it's commissioned or it's just coming from out of nowhere, it's still creative and interesting and fun. We were lucky to get really cool gigs for the commercial stuff, where ad agencies were looking for really creative, interesting, artistic works, half the time. So it really felt like we were being creative artists in our work, so there was a lot of overlap.

YAHOO! OTR: Would you ever write scores or soundtracks for film and TV?

RYAN: Yeah, we would definitely consider doing that at some point, if we have the time to do it. Right now we're just swamped with touring, so it's hard to find the time even to work on songs.

YAHOO! OTR: You have some interesting collaborations on your upcoming debut album, In A Tidal Wave of Mystery. Tell me about how they came about.

RYAN: There's one song that André 3000 is on that's probably one of the more interesting songs, as far as collaborations are concerned. It's called "Farrah Fawcett Hair" and it's basically about all those things in life that are undeniably good, whether it's something in pop culture like Farrah Fawcett and her beautiful, flowing, blonde hair, or Nutella as a food item that everybody loves. So that's kind of the concept of the song. The production just sorta took on this crazy life of its own and became by far our most experimental song.

YAHOO! OTR: There are some other interesting people on that one…

RYAN: Yeah, we brought in this guy named Frank Tavares, who's the voice of NPR, that guy who does the funding credits. We live in L.A. and we drive around constantly, so the voice of NPR is like the soundtrack to my life in some ways. So we reached out to Frank and said, "Would you do some narration on this song for us?" And he was like, "Sure, I'd love to do it," so we sent him a list of undeniably good things according to us, and he recorded it and sent it back. So we've got him on the song, and we thought it'd be great to have an amazing female gospel singer sing the chorus, so we found this woman named Shemika Seacrest. She's one of Macy Gray's backup singers and she's an amazing vocalist. Then we wanted to have an undeniably great rapper out there, so we reached out to André and André said yes, that he loved the song and wanted to do it. So it was just this crazy collaboration.

SEBU: We also hit up our fans and they submitted a bunch of voice messages that we incorporated into the song as well. So four major collaborations, all in one song. In addition, there's a female singer named Soseh, who sang on a track on our album called "Chasing You."

YAHOO! OTR: You are known for doing some really awesome cover songs in concert. Tell me how you go about picking the songs and reworking them.

RYAN: We're a glorified cover band [laughs]. They're not straightahead covers, like they're more reinventions of the songs, because obviously like "Nothing Compares 2 U" is a very slow, brooding ballad and we've kind of turned it into this upbeat dance song. And in the case of "Stayin' Alive," we actually slowed down the song and gave it a little more gravitas. The way we choose them is we try to do songs that are very well-known that are in the popular consciousness, but that haven't been covered that much, so that we can sort of be the ones to reinvent them.


YAHOO! OTR: Do you consider Capital Cities a studio band first, or a live band?

SEBU: I think the best way for any band to develop properly is to go back and forth. I would say that it's first production and then live, but we've gone back and forth a lot. We'd start with production and make sure the songs were great, then we would start playing live and test it out and develop it and improve upon it, and come back to the production and actually tweak the production based on our experience on the stage.

RYAN: At different moments in my life I like playing live and at different moments I'm like, "I just want to be in the studio working on a song." It just depends how you're feeling, for me. When we work on songs we really try not to overproduce it too much, so that it is easy to execute live. That's really important for us. We obviously layer vocals and stuff like that, and there are tricks, but we always make sure it's something we can execute well.

SEBU: "Less is more" is probably my favorite saying.

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