One minute, you're writing commercial jingles with your buddies. The next, you're touring the United States as the opening act for Katy Perry.
Alright, a career jump like that doesn't really take 60 seconds. It actually took Capital Cities' Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian about four years, following the release of their debut EP Safe and Sound, but even that's a pretty fast track for an up-and-coming band.
What makes them so successful? They found a way to fuse art and pop in a fun, intelligent way -- never too serious, but always with a touch of the unexpected. We here at Crossfade spoke with Merchant to learn more about working with Andre 3000, Capital Cities' crazy music videos, and how to make pop sound smart.
Crossfade: How has the tour been so far?
Ryan Merchant: It's been really good. We played like four or five shows already, and every one has been pretty cool. We've gotten better at performing in front of such a big audience, performing in front of people that are first and foremost there to see Katy Perry. We've just learned how to catch their attention which has been really fun. We've been to some good cities, like Nashville, Washington D.C., so I can't complain.
I've realized pop shows are head and shoulders above any other type of show you can go to. The production on these things is insane, and Katy Perry is obviously a larger-than-life figure. Do you guys get to dabble in that on this tour?
Our show is definitely bright and visual, in the sense that we have a pretty substantial light setup on the stage. We're wearing very colorful outfits that are a new addition to our set p. But it's definitely not Katy Perry's level. She is absolutely insane. Sometimes, I think for her, it works having all that production and it goes with her show and her persona. But for us, it's more about being a live band, playing in front of people and I think people appreciate both sides of performance. It's fun to see just an outrageous light show and video and dancers, and everything's synced up, and then it's also just cool to see a band play for 30 minutes.
It seems like you guys are a smart, arty kind of dance group, but you also bring that really fun pop sensibility that's easy to relate to. Do you strive for that?
I think the sound of our music is just a reflection of Sebu's and my taste in music in general. We both are in our 30s, we've written a lot of music, consumed a lot of music, traveled a lot in our lives. We like a lot of more sophisticated music, but we also really appreciate pop music. So whenever we write a song, we love coming up with melodies that are catchy, things that people can grab on to because that's just our natural inclination and it's fun. We also just strive to give our music more complexity, so that someone that's maybe a more sophisticated music listener can appreciate the nuance of us using a more interesting chord progression or chord voicing, just coming up with melodies that are a little unexpected. Also, incorporating a lot of trumpet in our sound. We're both fans of jazz, so the trumpet is very jazzy element that we bring into our music.
In the past, you had experience writing commercial jingles. From a critical standpoint, that seems almost like a dirty job. But from an artistic standpoint, how do you see it?
I think writing for commercials can be a very artistic, interesting pursuit. We did do that for a long time, and a lot of the jobs you're asked to do are very mundane and they don't really lend themselves to a very creative piece of music. But every once in a while, a job would come to me where they really wanted something out there and weird and a lot of the people that were composing alongside of us were really interesting. Some of the music I heard these people make in a day was pretty incredible. It was kind of a really interesting music boot camp. We wrote constantly, we were always coming up with different melodies, writing in different styles, and that really had an influence on what became the Capital Cities sound. I think the playfulness that you hear in our music is kind of a result of writing for commercials and fusing different styles is also a direct result of that. I feel it was a very positive experience, we learned a lot.
I guess the biggest difference would really be that when you're writing for a commercial, obviously it gets played on that commercial, but what is the lifespan of that song. And now your writing is going to last, it can really resonate with people.
I definitely am happier now that I'm in a band that's successful and I can do that. As much as commercials were fun, I'd much prefer playing in bands, playing live shows, and working on albums. It's more satisfying.
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What was it like working with Andre 3000? He's an icon across genres. How did that come to be about? Who approached who?
We were really lucky to get someone of his caliber with some leverage. He's quirky and respected and has an interesting style to play on our song. We reached out to him because we'd written the song that he's featured on, "Farrah Fawcett Hair." It's all about good shit, good stuff, undeniably good things in life, so we basically just list off all the things that we love, and we had this middle section of the song and we were like, "OK, what goes here?" We wanted to have some kind of hip-hop feature and we were thinking to ourselves, Who's the most undeniably good hip hop artist that we know of and people across the board think is great? And Andre is the person that came to mind.
Our manager reached out to him, because our manager used to be in the hip-hop world and he just knows a lot of people there. We sent the song to Andre, and he wrote back and was like, "Yeah, I'd love to do it." We never actually met him in person. We worked over the Internet and over the phone and sent him the track. He worked on something, he sent it to us, we just gave him a few notes, and he was totally down to nail it. Really nice guy, very down to Earth considering his status. It's funny that this summer Outkast is headlining all these festivals and playing Coachella and everything, so people are constantly asking us, "When's Andre going to come out and sing with you guys?" We hope it happens one day.
Who are those other people talking on "Farrah Fawcett Hair"?
"Farrah Fawcett Hair" has a lot of different people on it. The guy in the beginning that's doing the narrative voiceover is Frank Tavares and he's the voice of NPR. He does the funding credits. He's the guy who's like, "Support for NPR comes from the Carnegies" or whatever. We listen to NPR driving around Los Angeles all the time, and we just thought it would be funny. His voice is so monotone and just interesting, so we thought it would be funny to have him. We sent him the track and got him to do it.
At the end of the song is a bunch of people talking about things that they like and that was actually a bunch of our fans. We put out a posting on Facebook saying, "You have a chance to be on our song. Record yourself saying something that is undeniably good or 'I like it when...'" We got tons of these little iPhone recordings and we picked out the best ones and put them in the song. There was a really talented singer, her name is Shanica, she's a very soulful singer in Los Angeles, and she came and sang the chorus for us. So it's one of my favorite songs on the album, because it's the one song where there's really no pop structure to it. Any idea we have, we just put it in there. It's a fun song.
Your videos are stimulating visually in the way that I think your songs are stimulating sonically. How much of a hand do you actually have in putting those together?
We're very much involved with our videos. I mean, we didn't do the technical side of it, obviously, but "Safe and Sound" is based on a video that we created when we first released "Safe and Sound." It's on the Internet right now. We just ripped this footage from people dancing over the course of the 20th Century, and we cut together this little DIY stock-footage video. We signed to Capitol Records, they wanted us to do a higher-budget live-action video, so this director Grady Hall sent in a brilliant treatment that was redoing that video but taking it to a ridiculous level, getting dancers, and integrating the real and stock footage.
Then "Kangaroo Court," we were extremely involved with that video. It was actually a concept developed with our manager and this other guy, but we just didn't have the knowledge to execute it. And then we were signed, we had momentum, we had a label that would pay to make a idea like that. We got a great director, and technically, we co-directed it. We came up with the story line and we were very involved with that video as well.
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I'm sure this experience of being on tour with Katy Perry is taking a lot of time and energy. But are you looking to the future? Are you starting to work on more music?
It's hard to really work on music when you're on the road. You don't necessarily have the space and the equipment, but we're always coming up with ideas and planting the seeds for what will probably become a Capital Cities song. We're just really going to get through this tour and then we have some time off, probably do some writing then. Then we have another tour, hitting South America. In early 2015, we'll regroup and probably start on a second album, but also take a break. We've been touring nonstop for like two years, so I think it's important to pursue some other things, just go travel and do something non-music related before you jump right into it.
Not have a mental breakdown sort of deal.
Yeah. Haha. Exactly.
It seems like this whole thing has really escalated quickly for you guys.
In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. "Safe and Sound" was put out in 2011, so it actually feels like kind of long, steady growth of the song. It became an Internet hit first, and then it actually got on the radio, and that made things move a lot quicker when the song crossed over to Top 40 and became a global hit. We had to chase the success everywhere and make sure that we were playing in all these places where there's demand. That's when it got kind of chaotic and crazy.
Was there a moment when you realized, "Oh, this is on another level now."
Yeah, definitely moments on this tour. Opening for Katy Perry is kind of a crazy experience when you think about the fact that you're providing the opening entertainment for this massive superstar that's about to come on. It's a pretty interesting realization to be in that. But I think when you're in a band and things move at the right pace, everything happens at the right time, when you're ready to deal with it. You're psychologically ready for it. If we were doing this tour a year ago, I would probably be way more nervous and way insecure about opening up for Katy Perry, but now we've played so many shows and I feel like we're at a point right now where we're very confident in what we do. It seems like the natural thing to be doing right now.
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Katy Perry with Capital Cities. The Prismatic World Tour. Thursday, July 3, 8 p.m. American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000; aaarena.com. Tickets cost $29.50 to $128.50 plus fees via ticketmaster.com.
Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.