Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities

by Dan MacIntosh

The hirsute half of Capital Cities makes a good point about writing jingles: it's very artistic.

Sebu Simonian and Ryan Merchant found each other on Craigslist in 2008, forming a partnership called Lazy Hooks. Their greatest hits were the music beds used in commercials for Home Depot, Walmart and Honda.

In 2011, they independently released a 5-song EP as Capital Cities. A song from that EP, "Safe and Sound," caught on in Peru and found a good home on the SiriusXM station Alt Nation, where it topped their countdown in 2012. This got the attention of (fittingly) Capitol Records, which signed the duo and issued a new version of "Safe and Sound" as their first single in 2013.

The duo's debut album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, contains a distinctive blend of beats, trumpets and Andre 3000. It's a humanized digital sound honed from working on those jingles. As they put it in their song "I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo":

In a town of ones and zeros
You are one magnetic hero
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): What I didn't realize from the songs I hear by you on the radio is that you guys have a wicked sense of humor, particularly in songs like "Farrah Fawcett Hair."

Sebu Simonian: Oh yeah? Thank you.

Songfacts: So, which of you is the funniest? You or your partner?

Sebu: Definitely me.

Songfacts: Well then let's start by talking about that song, "Farrah Fawcett Hair." I'm old enough to remember Farrah Fawcett. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about what inspired that song. It seems to be a song that talks about the good stuff in life. Where did the idea for that song come from?

Sebu: Um, our brains. We just wanted to do an experimental track that followed no rules. So whatever idea came to mind, we just threw it at the wall and most of them stuck.

Songfacts: Andre 3000 raps on it. How did you propose the idea to him to be included on the song?

Sebu: Well, it started simply as an idea to incorporate some kind of vocal or hip-hop vocal. Maybe a rap. Maybe a singing verse by one of our favorite hip-hop artists. We had a very short list of hip-hop artists that we both truly loved, and at the top of that list was Andre 3000, so we thought we would reach out to him and ask if he wanted to sing on it or rap on it.

So our manager was able to reach out and connect with his manager. We actually sent him a couple of songs to be considered to work on, and this was the one he gravitated towards.

Songfacts: Is that a true story you tell in the song "I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo?"

Sebu: No. Neither of us have had to sell our beds.

Songfacts: But I imagine, as hardcore musicians and music fans, that you would probably sell your bed before you'd ever think to sell your stereo.

Sebu: At least that's what we would like to assume (laughs). The idea of the song is that music is one of the most important things in life, and the hero of the song will give up anything first before he gives up his trusty stereo that has been there by his side for years getting him through the tough times.

Songfacts: The song mentions Pink Floyd.

Sebu: Pink Floyd is a huge influence. We have done a Pink Floyd cover of "Breathe," and we've released that on the internet. So they're definitely a huge influence.

Songfacts: One of my favorite lines from "Safe And Sound" is also the title of your album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery. Can you remember where that image came from? It's such a great word picture.

Sebu: Thank you. The only memory I can think of is our tiny little recording studio control room in which we holed ourselves up and brainstormed on lyrical ideas as we wrote these songs. And that was just one of those inspirational descriptions that popped in our heads as we stumbled across English phrases and ideas to try to write lyrics.

Songfacts: How has the success of "Safe and Sound" changed your life?

Sebu: It has allowed us to tour extensively, so therefore visit many parts of the world that I would have otherwise not been able to go. Experiencing cultures and arts and heritage and food from different parts of the world is a beautiful thing.

The "Safe and Sound" video takes the integrated dance idea - as seen in the 1985 Kim Carnes video for "Invitation To Dance" - to another level. Merchant and Simonian returned to Craigslist to find the dancers. About 70 hoofers representing a wide variety of dance styles and abilities show up in the clip, which features more than 40 dance sequences.

A marvel of compositing, there are over 80 special effects shots in the video, including a scene where two dapper dancers have their heads replaced with Ryan and Sebu's. All this rotoscoping paid off with a win for Best Special Effects at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Previous winners in this category include Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" and Outkast's "Hey Ya."
Songfacts: The video is pretty cool because it's got all kinds of different dancers and styles of dance. Was that your idea to do that, or was it the idea of your video director?

Sebu: It was our idea.

Songfacts: And are you good dancers?

Sebu: Very. Natural born dancers.

Songfacts: One of the songs I saw you do live was "Stayin' Alive." But you completely redid it and stripped it down. Where did the ideas come from to reinterpret that song and what does that song mean to you?

Sebu: Well, I think it's a great song, to begin with. The classic Bee Gees version of that song is universally loved and enjoyed, but I feel like it's such a great song that it can easily be performed in different ways and impart a different kind of emotion. And to our surprise, it was never really covered in a different way. When we cover songs, we like to pick songs that are great and timeless, but haven't really been covered much or haven't been covered in a new way. So that's what we decided to do with this one - give it a different emotional impact.

Songfacts: What are some other songs you've covered in concert?

Sebu: There is the Prince-penned Sinead O'Connor song, "Nothing Compares 2 U." We cover a song by Madonna called "Holiday." Then there's the Pink Floyd and the Bee Gees covers that we talked about. We've done some other experiments with the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love."

Songfacts: The titles of your songs are so great. There's one called "Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast." Something tells me that describes you guys a little bit. Are you kind of restless and impatient?

Sebu: You know, it's hard to say what we are, and it's harder to say what the message of that song actually is because sometimes patience can be a virtue and sometimes patience can hold you back. Life is unpredictable and everything needs to be looked at case by case. In the song, it's reflecting the feeling: Stop waiting around. Start going. Start pushing. Start moving.

So, sometimes being too patient is not good for you.

Songfacts: One of your songs, "Center Stage," was used by ESPN. Are you guys sports fans?

Sebu: Absolutely. I'm not a sports fanatic. I don't follow one team religiously, but I love sports. I especially love basketball. "Safe and Sound" was actually used for an NBA clip in a montage of highlights a few weeks back. That was a really proud moment.

Songfacts: Are you a Lakers fan or a Clippers fan?

Sebu: I'm an L.A. fan. I will admit I've been a Clippers fan for a very long time, even during the dark days, the '90s. But I do not dislike the Lakers. I'm a fan of the sport.

Songfacts: I read you guys were going to be touring with Katy Perry. Are you excited about that, and is there a chance you might do some kind of collaboration with her while you're on the road?

Sebu: We're very excited about the tour because we'll be hitting up some new towns we haven't been to before and, of course, huge crowds and arenas. So that's going to be a lot of exposure for us. As far as collaborating with Katy, I don't know if that might happen. I think that's a great idea. I should pursue it and I'll give you credit for it.

Perez Hilton came early to the Capital Cities party. In 2012, the celebrity blogger included a remix of "Safe And Sound" on his first Pop Up compilation album, which was tied in to his "Perez Hilton Music Tee Series." The T-shirts and tank tops in the fashion line were sold with digital hangtags that allowed buyers to download the compilation, including artist biographies and pictures.
Songfacts: Tell me about your relationship with Perez Hilton. You got some of your first exposure on a compilation he curated. Is that right?

Sebu: Yes. Perez has been a fan since the very beginning. I do recall how he heard our music. One of my good friends, who goes by the stage name "La Coacha," is kind of Perez' sidekick in a way. She goes out there on the red carpet and interviews celebrities for him. And I guess through that mutual friendship, he heard our music early on and became a fan.

Songfacts: He's so influential that if he says he likes something, that has a big impact, does it not?

Sebu: I really appreciate his taste in music. We were really proud to be on his compilation because there are great tracks on there.

Songfacts: I've talked about the songs that you do that I like. Maybe you can tell me about a few others that you're particularly proud of off that album that you think deserve more attention.

Sebu: Sure. One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Tell Me How To Live." That one incorporates the oud, which is an ancient Armenian stringed instrument; kind of like an ancient guitar. It has a little bit of a guitar vibe, with this strong hip-hop feeling to it.

I think we were able to do something clever with that: it's got electronic sounds mixed with the very ancient Armenian stringed instrument. I think it's special and new, so I like that track a lot.

Songfacts: How do you write songs as a duo? Is one more of a lyricist, whereas the other's more musical, or do you do a little of each?

Sebu: We both do pretty much everything equally.

Songfacts: I read that you met each other on Craigslist. When did you know that you would make a great musical pair?

Sebu and Ryan aren't the first songwriters to develop their craft writing songs for commercials. Barry Manilow was one of the best, composing "You Deserve A Break Today" for McDonald's and "Like A Good Neighbor" for State Farm.

Mark Foster of Foster The People wrote a tune for Muscle Milk before he came up with the slyly subversive "Pumped Up Kicks," a song that takes aim at consumer culture. Foster wrote that song and the band's first album while working for a company called Mophonics, which develops music for commercials. The Mophonics approach is to have composers write full-length songs that can then be transformed into commercial cuts and/or released on albums. Foster remains partnered with the company, which he calls his "creative home."
Sebu: Pretty early on we realized that we had good chemistry because right off the bat we fell into the opportunity of writing music for commercials. We were able to do that for about two years, just writing for commercials and have that be our day job, essentially. But it wasn't until about two to three years into that where we realized we should start a band and do the whole Capital Cities thing.

Songfacts: Was it ever frustrating when you were doing commercials when maybe you wanted to do something a little more artistic and less commercial?

Sebu: Not at all, because it was very artistic.

Songfacts: So you were able to combine the best of both worlds. Sort of the creative side and the commercial side.

Sebu: We developed a career in which we were making money making music. So that's kind of difficult to not enjoy.

Songfacts: A lot of artists get hung up on being anti-commercial and they end up starving themselves. In an era when it's really difficult to make money making music, you guys have definitely succeeded.

Sebu: Thank you. It's a lot of hard work. We're in our 30s and we've been doing this since we were in our teens, so it's only been a few years that we've been able to safely say that music is solely responsible for paying the bills. But hard work pays off.

May 13, 2014. For more, including tour dates, visit
More Songwriter Interviews


Be the first to comment...

Editor's Picks

Dino Cazares of Fear Factory

Dino Cazares of Fear FactorySongwriter Interviews

The guitarist/songwriter explains how he came up with his signature sound, and deconstructs some classic Fear Factory songs.

Graham Nash

Graham NashSongwriter Interviews

Graham Nash tells the stories behind some of his famous songs and photos, and is asked about "yacht rock" for the first time.

Superman in Song

Superman in SongSong Writing

Not everyone can be a superhero, but that hasn't stopped generations of musicians from trying to be Superman.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater RevivalFact or Fiction

Is "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" about Vietnam? Was John Fogerty really born on a Bayou? It's the CCR edition of Fact or Fiction.

Crystal Waters

Crystal WatersSongwriter Interviews

Waters tells the "Gypsy Woman" story, shares some of her songwriting insights, and explains how Dennis Rodman ended up on one of her songs.


DevoSongwriter Interviews

Devo founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale take us into their world of subversive performance art. They may be right about the De-Evoloution thing.