Before Capital Cities steps out to perform at Fontainebleau's BleauLive, we asked member Ryan Merchant what he learned from touring with Katy Perry, how he found is bandmate, and which song is their darkest.
Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant of Capital Cities.
"Sometimes we try to hold ourselves back," says Ryan Merchant, "but you need to allow yourself to go a little crazy." Not holding back is what got him and fellow Capital Cities frontman Sebu Simonian to go from serendipitously meeting on Craigslist and writing TV jingles together to headlining Coachella, Ultra, and opening Katy Perry's Prismatic World Tour. That, and the fact that they are perfectionists of their craft: For example, before landing on the final version of their number-one hit "Safe and Sound," they went through eight or so revisions. "Music is all about feeling," Merchant reminds us, and we doubt you can listen to a track from the indie group's debut album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, without feeling something—whether it’s the desire to get up and dance or something much deeper.
Before their appearance at LIV on June 27 as part of Fontainebleau's BleauLive series (purchase tickets here), we chatted with Merchant about is favorite Miami hangouts, touring with Katy Perry, his darkest moments, and his favorite songwriter.
How does it feel to come back to Miami?
RYAN MERCHANT: I love Miami. It’s one of my favorite American cities and kind of unique for me because the times that we've been here we've made a lot of friends. And Miami can be one of those cities that—if you don't have someone to show you the stuff off the beaten path—can be overwhelming. Maybe you can judge it and assume it's a certain way but then you go to these little spots that you would never have imagined and are proved wrong.
Do any of those little spots come to mind?
RM: Yes, they do actually. There’s a place called The Broken Shaker that's always a good spot to hang out and have wonderful cocktails. We spend a lot of time in Soho Beach House where we’ve played before, and some of the guys in the band are members. And as far as nightlife is concerned, there’s a club called Bardot that's small and intimate and always has really interesting, cutting-edge electronic dance music.
You had this mega tour with Katy Perry. How was that experience and what did you learn?
RM: It was a really good [learning] experience for us because we had come from playing fun, headlining shows, doing our own tours, playing festivals, and basically playing for audiences that were there to see us. And then when we did the Katy Perry tour, it was kind of, I don't want to say a rude awakening, but it was eye opening to all of a sudden be opening for someone who is that big of a star and has that big of a fan base. The first night we performed, we realized in order to engage this audience, we really needed to step up our game and become larger than life on stage and tweak our set a little bit. It was a good learning experience in the sense that it taught us how to perform better and feel confident with the audience, even though people didn't know songs beyond "Safe and Sound," we did a really good job at grabbing their attention and giving them something to think about.
You and Sebu have quite the modern-day musical love story, meeting through Craigslist. Are you a Craigslist guy?
RM: Back in the day, I used to use Craigslist quite a bit actually. I would constantly have new roommates moving in and met them through Craigslist and that typically worked out very well for me. I would occasionally buy musical equipment and sell musical equipment, and I also met a lot of musicians because there are a lot of good people who are hosting on there—and you never know who you're going to meet, like Sebu [...] I was looking for someone to help me produce some songs and Sebu had actually posted an ad offering his services. I checked out his music and stuff he’d worked on and thought it was great. The two of us fell into this jingle writing business and that became our bread and butter for a couple of years. And in that process, we started writing songs together, and then wrote "Safe and Sound" and decided to form a band together.
Do you think your foundation in advertising and jingle-writing helped you both get to where you are today? "Safe and Sound" is such a catchy song that people can easily sing to.
RM: Yeah, I do. I think writing for TV commercials, you're always trying to do melodies or create sounds that are interesting and peak people's interest because the purpose of music within a TV ad is to draw people in. It definitely helped us to write catchy stuff during that time. Also during that time we were writing so many songs and having to work on musical pieces every day with very quick turnaround that naturally, when you get into this mode of writing constantly and always working on music, eventually you're going to write something good. It's kind of a numbers game—you can't expect to write a hit song by writing one a month. You need to constantly be working and something cool will eventually pop out.
What's your creative process? You went back and forth seven or eight times with "Safe and Sound" before landing on the current version.
RM: Yeah, we produced it about that many times before we came across the current version that felt like a hit song. Typically the process, it depends on the song, but it could start out with a drumbeat or a guitar or piano. It's mainly sitting down and seeing what comes out. Sometimes I just start singing melodies or lyrics to see if something institutively comes out, and I sometimes try to craft a melody with an instrument in a more traditional compositional way.
You've said that "Safe and Sound" and most of the music you make is positive but with a dark twist. Is going through dark moments part of the creative process?
RM: I definitely think that the act of creating music is a very therapeutic thing for me, so oftentimes when I am in a more negative mindset or, say I am worrying about something excessively in my life or going through heartbreak or anything like that, there’s something about sitting down and taking that pain you're feeling and creating music with it that somehow justifies the pain and makes it OK in a way, because you've turned it into something beautiful. It never fully makes it feel OK but there's just something about creating something out of that that feels good during the time you're doing it.
What's your darkest song?
RM: We have a song called "Kangaroo Court" that's a little bit darker and is about exploring the dark side of your personality and letting yourself go a little bit at times and how that’s ok.
So you've explored that dark side?
RM: Yeah, I think everybody does to some extent. Sometimes we try to hold ourselves back but you need to allow yourself to go a little crazy, whether that means being brutally honest with people or partying a little too much and being a little more excessive but without losing yourself.
What's the most memorable story you have of performing?
RM: My favorite and most surreal tour story: we were in Paris back in 2013, and I reached out to this guy named Rod Temperton who is a really famous songwriter that lives in the UK—people don't really know his name but he’s written a bunch of Michael Jackson hits like "Thriller," "Rock With You," "Off the Wall," and written a bunch of other incredible songs that you would know from the '70s and '80s. I wanted to pick his brain, and he ended up coming to Paris and we had dinner together and got to talking about how he got involved with Michael Jackson, how he writes songs, his whole story. It was a really incredible experience because I've literally been obsessed with his music since I was 5 years old. And him taking the train out to meet me and treating me to dinner was a really incredible moment.
What is something nobody knows about Sebu?
RM: Sebu is a really good artist. He’s very good at drawing, actually.
Why should people come see you guys next week?
RM: They should come see us if they want to dance and forget about their problems for an hour. That's our main goal and that's what we do best.