If Los Angeles synth-pop duo Capital Cities has an above-average way with hooks, that only makes sense considering the background of the group’s members. Before hooking up with Ryan Merchant, programmer Sebu Simonian spent his nights playing in bands around L.A., and his days working as a producer.
Merchant also didn’t lack for hands-on experience. After moving to Los Angeles from his hometown of San Francisco with the intention of breaking into the film industry, he found himself getting more enjoyment out of jazz and vocal lessons than movies. That inspired him to put together a cover group that would prove invaluable when he was figuring out what he wanted to do with Capital Cities.
“I formed a band with Nick [Merwin] who plays guitar with us in Capital Cities now,” Merchant says, on the line from a Detroit tour stop. “The two of us thought it would be fun to do an electronica ’80s cover band where we basically reprogrammed old songs and did sort of updated versions of them.”
When Merchant realized he wanted to do something original, he brought Simonian in to help him on the producing end of things. What was meant to be a solo project quickly become a partnership, but not under the banner of Capital Cities.
“I had some songs that I wanted to get out of me, but I needed someone with more production experience to work with,” Merchant relates. “I met Sebu through Craigslist—he had an ad on there offering his production services. Shortly after we met, I fell into the jingle-writing world. I asked Sebu if he wanted to collaborate with me on that, and that spawned a three-year jingle-writing career before Capital Cities came to fruition.”
The project’s debut release, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, is not surprisingly a reflection of the path that the two musicians have taken. Vintage new wave is the primary reference point, with numbers like “Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast” and “Origami” bringing to mind Duran Duran during the lipstick-and-white-suits glory years. Merchant makes good use of his jazz education, meanwhile, in tracks like “Kangaroo Court”, which gets big cool points for its Chet Baker trumpet flourishes, and “I Sold My Bed But Not My Stereo”, which hints at a mild obsession with the sound that made the Buena Vista Social Club famous.
What’s turned Capital Cities into the favourite of no less than Perez Hilton, however, is the duo’s grasp of what makes a great hook, with In a Tidal Wave of Mystery the kind of record that sticks on first listen. The group not only wrote jingles, but actually sold them—you’ve heard their work in ads for Honda and Home Depot, among other multinational corporations. Clearly, they’ve managed to figure out how to not only get the attention of the unwashed masses, but also do it fast.
“I can’t say that we made an amazing living, but we did pretty well,” Merchant says of his former career. “While we were writing jingles we also started writing songs for Capital Cities. And some of those jingles actually became songs. A lot of times when you’re writing for a TV ad they want you to come up with a song really quickly. You end up having a lot of stuff lying around.”