Capital Cities: How to compose the sweet sound of success
Cai Subijano (The Philippine Star) - January 17, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - To describe an artist’s music as “commercial” could mean either two things: it is catchy, marketable, potentially successful or it’s a dirty word, synonymous to “sell-out.” But Capital Cities, which just played four shows in Manila exclusively for Ayala Malls over the weekend, is in a peculiar position. Though their music is often described and marketed as “indie pop,” the two come from a very commercial background, literally — their day jobs used to be composing jingles for TV ads.

“When you’re working on commercials, it’s a very fast-paced process, so a lot of times, we would get maybe 24 hours to completely write, produce and mix a piece of music,” says Ryan Merchant, who splits song-writing duties with Sebu Simonian. As the legend goes, the two met on the online blackmarket known as Craigslist and started collaborating as jingle writers. “I’m not sure how it works out here, but in the States, you’re hired to create demos, and so we created many, many demos. Many of them — most of them — did not get used for commercials. So we ended up building a library of music and a lot of them that didn’t get used became inspirations for original material,” Sebu explains.

After two and a half years, the duo decided to focus on composing proper pop songs. Their first big hit, Safe And Sound, which was self-released in 2011 and sold over two million copies in the US, was an amalgamation of their best jingle-writing work, but unlike their process for creating jingles, the single actually took them years to get it right. “It took us probably two to three years to finally produce it the way we wanted to produce it. When it comes to your own music, I think you’re much more detailed and precious about all the elements because you have the luxury of more time,” Ryan says. In 2012, the band was signed with Capitol Records and early last year, their debut album “In A Tidal Wave Of Mystery” was released. Since then, things have moved pretty quickly: They’ve toured the US, Europe and Asia, played at several festivals, including SXSW and Summer Sonic, appeared on Conan and recently, they’ve been included in the line-up for this year’s Coachella and Lollapalooza.

The two are equally attentive when it comes to conceptualizing and producing their own music videos. The concept for Safe and Sound, which won an award for Best Visual Effects at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards and was nominated for an Emmy for Best Music Video, started out as a DIY music video by Sebu and Ryan, who stitched together various footage of people dancing on the Internet in order to create a chronological history of music and dance. The same went for their second single, Kangaroo Court, which they co-directed with Carlos Lopez Estrada and featured Glee’s Darren Criss, who is a fan of the band. “We really enjoy the idea of doing more than just music. Music is the core, but the aesthetic around our music is very important to us. We’re artistic by nature and we like to be involved in the visual arts as well,” Sebu says.

They translate the experience of their videos to their live shows, as well. Rolling Stone singled them out for having one of the best sets at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas show in L.A. I attended their hour-long gig at the Alabang Town Center Activity Center and sure enough, I was entertained: the music was catchy, there were synchronized dance moves by Sebu and Ryan, and they even mashed-up the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive and Weezer’s The Sweater Song. That their music in general is heavily inspired by the ‘80s, with the vocal unison of Sebu and Ryan, which calls to mind — dare I say it? — Hall & Oates, the synth-heavy ditties, the band’s shoulder-padded jackets and Culture Club onstage moves, didn’t seem to faze their young crowd. Their screams were deafening, hands waved in the air incessantly, and I saw kids from all over the mall (I browsed nearby stores in-between songs) running towards stage.

When their set ended, a young girl and friend walked past me, slightly giddy from the experience. “I wanted to touch his beard!” one of them exclaimed, referring to Sebu’s impressive facial hair. While I’m sure being hirsutically blessed has nothing to do with being a successful artist, it probably doesn’t hurt.


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