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Raising Capital Cities

The 'best band in Los Angeles' scores with its 'Safe and Sound' single

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If any new band is positioned to pull ahead of the pack this summer, it's Capital Cities. The electro-pop outfit's debut album isn't out until next month, but its highly infectious single, "Safe and Sound," recently reached No. 1 in Germany and has gotten constant airplay on L.A.'s influential alt-rock station KROQ.

Meanwhile, OutKast's André 3000 stepped up to the mic for the album's forthcoming single, "Farrah Fawcett Hair"; Perez Hilton hailed them as "the best band in Los Angeles"; and even the Recording Academy has posted a Capital Cities interview and performance on its grammy.com website.

The band, which will hit the Black Sheep on Tuesday, is a five-piece on its current tour, but frontmen Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian are clearly the driving forces. Like Foster the People's Mark Foster, they're both reformed jingle writers with a knack for quirky lyrics and insidious pop hooks.

Better still, Capital Cities shares the kinetic stage presence and New Wave/funk/soul sensibilities of Chromeo and Fitz & the Tantrums. The latter band also played the Black Sheep two years ago, before quickly moving on to much larger venues, and it's easy to imagine Capital Cities doing the same.

We recently caught up with affable co-founder Merchant to discuss the lure of '80s pop, the duo's noisy encounter with hip-hop provocateur Rick Ross, and the transition from cereal ads to Capitol Records.

Indy: I know you started out in a New Wave cover band, and I've also seen Capital Cities described as a New Wave band. How do you feel about the music from that era?

Ryan Merchant: I love that style of music, but of course that's not the only influence. We obviously use a lot of synths, but we also incorporate live instrumentation. But most importantly, a lot of those New Wave songs that people love were just amazing songs. I think the caliber of songwriting in the 1980s was so good compared to now.

Indy: Why is that?

RM: Well, one of my favorite New Order songs is "Bizarre Love Triangle," which has that epic chorus. I love how this big [synthesizer] pad comes in. I also think the lyrics from that era were a little more creative and maybe a little off, a little more interesting.

An example of a good lyric today, you know, is "Pumped Up Kicks." I think one of the reasons that song is so popular is because it was just such a unique phrase that he used in the chorus. You have to give people something to latch onto lyrically, in addition to having a good melody.

Indy: You know that Mark Foster also did a bunch of jingle writing ...

RM: I do. We worked for the same company!

Indy: So did you and Mark compete for the Honey Bunches of Oats ad?

RM: It's funny that you asked that — we actually did get something placed in a Honey Bunches of Oats commercial. And actually, you know what, one time they sent us one of Mark Foster's tracks that he had written and asked us to put a vocal over it. So we actually have, in a weird way, collaborated with Mark Foster.

Indy: So do you guys sing better than he does?

RM: Well [pause], he's a unique singer ...

Indy: That's the most diplomatic thing anyone has ever said.

RM: No, I honestly think he's a really good singer, actually. His singing is very distinctive, and that's extremely important. Ours is totally different because it's actually the two of us singing in unison. It's like our two voices blend and we have similar tones of voice. So it becomes this weird uni-voice and it creates this kind of powerful vocal presence, I guess.

Indy: Do you figure that's a big reason why "Safe and Sound" has taken off? It's obviously really catchy, and it doesn't seem like you guys had a lot of promotion at the beginning.

RM: Yeah, I don't know what it is about it. I mean, that song has a pretty long history. We actually wrote the germ of the song back in 2008, and then we probably produced 10 different versions of it. Finally, we broke out this vintage synthesizer that Sebu had laying around the studio that we'd never really messed with, and that became the foundation of it. Then we also made the choice to bring in trumpet. And thank god we decided to do that, because I think that also makes it stand apart as well. The trumpet line is just so great.

Indy: And you know you're gonna be playing that song for the rest of your life, right?

RM: Yup. I mean, I'd be totally fine with that. It's a joyous song and it makes people dance, so it's always gonna be fun to perform it.

Indy: I read an interview early on, where you were saying that there's gonna be a big hip-hop element on the album, which I'm not really hearing. Did I misinterpret, or did things change along the way?

RM: Well, the thing was, Rick Ross had somehow become aware of our music and specifically became a big fan of "Kangaroo Court," which kind of has this slower hip-hop beat. So Rick Ross was in town for a minute, and our manager is very well-connected with the hip-hop world and he said, "Hey, Rick Ross wants to meet you at this studio he's working at."

So we went and we ended up hanging out with Rick Ross and the next thing we know, DJ Khaled was there, and Swizz Beatz, the producer. And Rick Ross was in the studio, blasting our music louder than I've ever heard music played in my entire life. [Laughs.] And for a brief moment, he was interested in signing us to his Maybach Music Group, which is kind of this joint venture with Warner Brothers Records. But then Capitol came in and was obviously a much better fit for what we were doing.

Indy: I know it's still early days, but listening to your music, it seems like you're headed down one of two paths: Either toward Foster the People and Fun., where you become a household name and get boatloads of Grammys, or like Chromeo, where you have this incredibly rabid cult following. If you could only choose one of those fates — not both — which would it be?

RM: Uh, that's a tough question. [Pause.] A very tough question.

Indy: Thanks. It has a couple of land mines you're gonna have to navigate.

RM: I know, I know. I mean, I think at the end of the day I would probably choose just having a really loyal, strong fan base. Because I think sometimes if you blow up in sort of a pop sense, you can become a one-hit wonder.

"Safe and Sound" is getting worked to Top 40 and it's like number one in Germany right now, so it's kind of blowing up in a poppy way. But I think when people hear the rest of our music, they're gonna see a very different side of us — I don't know, a more serious side, to some extent.

Also, our live performances are very high-energy, and we love to interact with fans. So I think we're gonna be able to do both: Have a pop song, but also have a very loyal fan base that respects our music and is interested in more than just the one song they hear on the radio.

bill@csindy.com

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