By Jesse Hamlin
The first two things children of Armenian ancestry learn about their heritage are that “we were the first Christian nation, and the slaughter of 1915,” says Sebu Simonian, the big-bearded half of the hit-making indie-pop duo Capital Cities. He’s referring to the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman government that killed an estimated 1.5 million people.
“It’s ingrained in the Armenian psyche,” says Simonian, 37, who spent the first six years of his life in Beirut — where his paternal grandfather had fled from southern Turkey in 1915 at the age of 3 — before his family immigrated to Los Angeles to escape the Lebanese civil war.
The singer, songwriter and keyboardist will headline a free concert in San Francisco’s Union Square at 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, commemorating the centennial of the genocide and celebrating “the resilience and endurance” of Armenian arts, artists and culture around the world. The Anna and Anaïs Duo (Anaïs Alexandra Tekerianof the Armenian a cappella trio Zulal, with guitarist Anna Garano) will also perform, and visual artist Kevork Mourad will “paint” the concert as it unfolds.
“It’s important for this atrocity to be recognized by the global community,” said Simonian, for the United States and other governments to officially recognize the mass killings as genocide so that the families of the victims can seek legal damages against the Turkish government for confiscated land, and from American life insurance companies for unpaid policy claims.
“A crime was committed, and somebody has to pay. All we can do is raise awareness. I make music. I thought I could participate by providing some entertainment at these events that can stir some emotion,” says the artist, who hopes that emotion can move people to take action. He doesn’t plan to give a speech, “but I may say a few words between songs.”
He’s on the phone from Los Angeles, where the next night he was playing on Conan O’Brien’s show with one of his heroes, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who features Simonian on his new record, “No Pier Pressure.” In San Francisco, Simonian is playing a stripped-down solo set, probably mixing songs of his own that connect to Armenian themes with a couple of Capital Cities tunes, and new versions of old Armenian songs. He may sing an Armenian lullaby, or orror. (Simonian speaks Armenian, and his first job was as an editorial assistant in the English section of the Los Angeles Armenian newspaper Asbarez.)
Simonian formed Capital Cities in 2010 with Ryan Merchant, with whom he’d connected on Craigslist a few years earlier, and with whom he wrote the 2013 dance-pop hit “Safe and Sound” that really launched them. Their band toured with Katy Perry last summer.
He’s not big on labeling his music, but indie-pop “is a good start,” says the good-humored musician. “There’s funk, there’s rock, there’s electronica in it, and dance.” Performing with Wilson “was obviously an honor. I’m a big fan and he’s a big influence.” His top five bands: the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Queen.
Rolling Stone declared last year that Simonian by far had the best beard — “luxuriant, Rasputin-like” — at the 2014 Coachella music festival.
“It’s part of my look at the moment,” said the artist, who started growing the beard about five years ago “out of pure laziness” and was curious to see “how far my genes were going to let my facial hair grow.” The Rolling Stone pronouncement “was something to smile about.”
The Union Square concert is one of several Bay Area events organized by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee, including the “Witness and Rebirth: An Armenian Journey” concert April 26 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre featuring theFresno Philharmonic, Fresno Master Chorale, Fresno State Concert Choir, mezzo-soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, violinist Catherine Manoukian, baritoneEugene Brancoveanu and the premiere of composer Serouj Kradjian’s “Cantata for Living Martyrs.”