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Capital Cities may seem like an overnight success. But the songwriting/producing team of Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian were collaborating on a number of projects for years before striking electro-pop paydirt with “Safe and Sound.”
Built on boisterous dual vocals, pulsing synths and a monster trumpet riff, the breakout single has logged some six months on the Billboard Hot 100. Part of “Safe and Sound’s” winning formula is carpet-bombing listeners in three minutes with enough hooks to power three songs.
“We didn’t set out to have multiple hooks. We just set out to write good music,” Simonian says from Los Angeles, where he and Merchant were rehearsing for upcoming shows, including an appearance at the Life is Beautiful festival downtown on Oct. 26. “In order for a hit song to break out, the planets have to align, and one of the key ingredients is a lot of powerful hooks.”
Merchant and Simonian’s debut album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, expands on the all-killer/no-filler concept. Each of its 12 tracks sounds like it was written as a potential single.
Commercial ambitions aren’t new for the pair. In fact, their ambition used to be commercials.
They hooked up after Merchant answered a Craigslist ad Simonian posted offering his services as a producer. After fleshing out some of Merchant’s solo material, they began composing snippets of music for ads, eventually landing jingles in campaigns for Honda and Home Depot.
Simonian says working for a jingle house is “better than a bank job.” Also, meeting the advertising industry’s demand for immediate listener impact, often under 24-to-48-hour deadlines, isn’t bad experience for aspiring pop songwriters.
It also led to a battery of yet-unused song sketches. “We wrote hundreds and hundreds of demos for jingles, and most of them did not get used,” Simonian says. “All of those are potential ideas that could be developed into full songs.”
Many of the album tracks they co-wrote for the album brim with as many melodic ideas as “Safe and Sound.” A highlight is “Farrah Fawcett Hair,” the only song you’ll hear this year featuring guest verses from both Andre 3000 and the guy best known for announcing NPR’s funding credits.
Frank Tavares - the “support for NPR comes from…” guy - is featured over a bed of zigging and zagging synthesizers, reading off a laundry list of all things Merchant and Simonian find cool. Shoutouts include “sunsets,” “Nutella,” “Daniel Day-Lewis” and the majesty of “enjoying ceviche in Peru and seeing a double rainbow while listening to ‘Bitches Brew‘ as recorded by Miles Davis.”
But of all the guest stars to feature on an album, why the NPR guy?
“We just love his voice,” Simonian says. “The concept of the song is about listing off undeniably great things in life. One of the things we listed off was NPR and how great it is. [We thought] ‘how great would it be to have the recognizable voice of NPR listing these things?’”
Despite their success so far, Merchant and Simonian haven’t ruled out a return to jingle-writing if their pop stardom is fleeting.
Says Simonian, “At the end of the day, it’s music.” CL