X Ambassadors: Straight Outta Ithaca

X Ambassadors formed in the Upstate New York town of Ithaca in 2009, though the three current members––Sam Harris, his brother Casey Harris, and drummer Adam Levin––were playing together for three years prior to that, messing around with sounds as young friends do.
They eventually formed X Ambassadors alongside childhood friend Noah Feldshuh, who is no longer a member though he continues to inspire the music in a variety of ways. The last couple of years have been big ones for the band though; they signed with Interscope in time to release the 2015 album VHS, and now they’re all over the radio.

A major-label record deal, massive radio play and enormous tours is a huge first step, and it would be easy for them to sit back now, but it would also be naive and these guys know that. It’s their DIY work ethic that has brought them this far and, as Sam Harris told us, they’re not about to let complacency take it all away. There’s much work still to be done and, as they prepare to release their third album this spring, X Ambassadors know that this should be another massive year. We spoke to Harris about the past, the present and the bright future…

Music Connection: As a cultural area, what is Ithaca, NY, like for a band to get its start? What else was going on there?
Sam Harris: It’s pretty isolated. It’s way up in Upstate New York, and about five hours away [from New York City]. But it’s a college town, so there’s arts and culture there. So, as kids growing up, Casey and I definitely had resources available to us for music lessons, and had a community that supported us being weird and adventurous in terms of our musical styling.
Not really much of a music scene there when we were growing up. There were a lot of reggae bands and bluegrass bands, and hippie-roots-rock bands. A similar environment to Burlington, Vermont. Very entrenched in the world of academia. The colleges are what keep the town alive. But it’s also in the middle of rural upstate New York, so you have this weird melting pot of cultural identity. It was an incredible place to grow up.

MC: How did the members of the band find each other?
Harris: Casey and I are brothers and we’ve been playing music together since we were young. When we moved to New York, that’s when we met Adam and started playing music during our freshman year of college in 2006. We’ve been playing together ever since. We’ve been a band now for over 10 years.

MC: Who or what were your early influences?
Harris: We all grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop and R&B, and were heavily influenced by that. But also, we’re a band and we loved rock music, alternative and indie rock. Because technologically, as a live act, we were pretty limited to just our guitars, keyboard and drums. Our sound started in much more of a regular rock genre, just because of the physical limitations of our instruments. Gradually, we learned that we can play to a click track and that will allow us to trigger some electronic elements live. We started to incorporate more of the hip-hop and R&B influences that were so strong in us originally. When we first started out, I listened to a lot of Kings of Leon, Coldplay, I was very influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I loved Iggy Pop, and I went through a serious obsession with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz. Rage Against the Machine is a huge influence on me, and also Audioslave. I know a lot of people didn’t like Audioslave because it wasn’t Rage. Chris Cornell was an incredible vocalist, God rest his soul, and as a vocalist, I really loved someone singing his ass off over that heavy instrumentation.

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MC: The name changed from Ambassadors to X Ambassadors... why?
Harris: Every band struggles to pick a name at the very beginning, and it’s the worst part of being in a band. I think it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done––pick our name. It boiled down to us sitting in a room, pointing at different objects in the room and trying them out as names. Our drummer, Adam, looked at his drums and he was using a Remo Ambassador Coated drum heads. We were, like, that sounds good.
The “X” came about when we were signing our record deal and had to avoid paying a ton of money to all the other bands or artists using the name Ambassadors. So we experimented with different combinations of words and letters. “X Ambassadors” was a random one that I came up with. It sounded good, everyone liked it, and it gave us a little bit of an edge. Now, I feel like we try our best to be allies and be a voice for anyone who feels disenfranchised or marginalized, and we try to write songs for them. The X Ambassadors name feels appropriate for that.

MC: You self-released the Litost album in 2012. Talk about that experience…
Harris: The title is a Czech word that I stole from a Milan Kundera book. It’s something very emo and moody. But we really bet on ourselves with that record. We actually convinced a friend who was working in a studio at the time to let us record there and rack up $60,000 worth of recording time, which we could not afford at all. We basically signed a contract with them saying that we will make money off of this music eventually, we can’t pay this now, but we will pay it back. That EP got us a record deal and we were able to pay that money back. But we really put all our money down on that and bet on ourselves. It was quite the risk. But a great payoff.
We have been thriving at Interscope Records. We love our team, and there’s been ups and downs, staff changes and we’ve lost some of the people we were originally working with, but regardless it’s been an epic journey.

MC: How did your sound evolve between that indie debut and the VHS album for Interscope in 2015?
Harris: It absolutely did evolve. And a lot of that has to do with working with Alex da Kid, who produced Love Songs Drug Songs, The Reason EP, and then also VHS. As a hip-hop producer, he’s also a musician himself, so for the first time we almost had another member of the band come in and work on the music side. For me, it was also very interesting to have someone come in and work on the songwriting side, who is very much a filter. I would send him an idea for a verse or a chorus, and he would say, “No, it’s not good enough, write something better.” So I would go back and write another thing, and it was still, “No,” and still, “No,” until finally it was a “Yes.”

And so to have that sounding board was important to me as a songwriter. I grew a lot and got to know pop structure better, and got to know the limits of pushing myself. I can push myself pretty far until I get a song right. I won’t stop until I get it right, and it was working in that way which helped me realize that.

MC: Is it important that the three of you have stayed together since the very beginning?
Harris: Absolutely. It’s really important. Now, where we are at, we’ve gone through a lot together and our brotherhood is stronger than ever. It’s really made this next record the best work that we’ve made up until this point. Look, this industry is really tough. There have been a lot of hurdles for us to navigate. Life is tough. We’ve had some blows in the last couple of years. But where we are now, the three of us are stronger than ever.

MC: Looking at Oasis and the Black Crowes, being brothers can tear it apart a little harder…
Harris: Oh yeah, when you let your egos really get too involved, I think that can hurt the camaraderie and that bond. But we try to keep our egos out of the equation as much as possible. Keep them in check.

MC: Who writes the songs? How does the process work?
Harris: I write all the lyrics and melody, and the production side we all work on collectively. We also work with other people. We collaborate, especially on the new record. I’ve written with other songwriters, which comes back to pushing the ego out of the way a little bit. That really helps, when you have another songwriter in the room. You’re both trying to please each other and trying to work together to create something. When it works well. You always come up with the best stuff when you’re feeding into each other. If I write something and this other person says, “I love that,” I can leave that aside and move onto something new.

MC: The legend is that Dan from Imagine Dragons was in the hospital and heard you, and told Interscope to sign you. When did you become aware of that?
Harris: That was really strange. We released Litost, and one of the songs got picked up by a single radio station. They played the hell out of it, which brought us to the attention of a bunch of major labels. We were scouted and had a couple of meetings, but then nothing happened. Out of nowhere, we got an email from Alex da Kid’s manager saying he would like to work with the band. That turned into, “he would like to sign the band, and we’re going to have a meeting.”

We met, and at that meeting was when we got on the phone with Alex, and also Dan Reynolds. Then it was made known to us that Dan had heard us and shown us to Alex and Interscope. Dan, I think, was sick and they were playing a show in that very town where we had the song on the radio station. They were doing a show for the station, and the driver they had that day was playing our band on the radio. It all happened quickly and it didn’t feel real because we had just come off the high of, “Oh my God, all these labels are talking to us and interested in signing us,” and the very, very low of, “Oh, nobody wants anything to do with us.” So, we were like, “Yeah sure, okay, you want to sign us too? Okay.” And then it actually happened and it was, “Oh shit, it’s real.”

MC: Has it led to a close relationship with the Imagine Dragons?
Harris: Yes, those guys are amazing. They really are the most genuine and sweetest human beings on the planet. They’ve been there for us since day one. Dan and I speak every once in a while. They’re super-busy on tour supporting their new record, which is fantastic. It’s so awesome seeing them out there doing their thing and killing it. They were our big brother band in the early stages of our career.

XA-0406MC: Would you try to pass that on and help out new, unsigned bands down the line?
Harris: Absolutely. To be honest, we’re still in a zone where we are very much still trying to make our mark on the music scene as a whole, and I feel like we are so focused on really showing the world what we are doing, as a band and as artists, that I’m not in a space right now to be making my own record label and signing bands. Eventually, that’s something I would love to do.

MC: We’ve heard the new singles––“Ahead of Myself” and “Joyful”––what kind of response have you been getting?
Harris: “Joyful” is not even out yet––we’ve just been playing it live. People are responding so well to it live, and it’s so cool to see that happen. “Ahead of Myself” was a slower climb. It’s still getting a little radio play, but we are more focused on this new stuff that isn’t out yet. I truly believe that this is the best work we’ve ever done, and I think that this record is going to be an identity-defining record for us.

MC: It’s done?
Harris: Yeah, the album’s pretty much done. We’re just finishing up the production side of things and getting stuff mixed right now. It’s slowly coming together. There’s always room for something last minute to come up. We all never stop writing. We’ll just keep writing until then.

MC: Where was it recorded?
Harris: We recorded all over the place. Mostly in L.A., but some at our individual houses, and a couple of times we rented an Airbnb in town and had that as our home base where we come together and write and record. A couple of times, we recorded at different people’s personal studios. Mostly in L.A., though. We’re very mobile, the way that we record. We don’t do too much live drum tracking, which is really all you need a studio for these days. We’re programming a lot of stuff onto our laptops, and I’m recording a lot of stuff onto our laptop with the microphone that I carry around in my backpack. That’s how I do all my vocals. We’re very mobile, and we learned how to do that by being a touring band and recording on the road. That’s how we did all of VHS, so we continued that on the next record. But, we were mostly in L.A. for the writing and recording.

MC: Is there a theme or concept to the new record?
Harris: It is a bit of a concept album. Over the last few years, a dear friend of mine, and we’ve kind of become estranged, they’ve been struggling with addiction and have been in and out of rehab. It’s been a really trying experience for me and them, too. This is a person who’s very, very close to me, like family, and now I have found myself not really speaking to this person. This record ended up being my way of communicating with them, from far away. In doing so, it was my feelings of betrayal, loss and heartbreak. Also, going deeper and trying to put myself in their shoes. In their mindset, dealing with these demons. That’s the concept of the record. These last few years have been a reminder for me of how therapeutic songwriting can be.

MC: Has the band gotten better at the process of producing a record, since VHS?
Harris: Absolutely. The process of making this record has really been incredible. I feel like we’ve found our voice more distinctly than ever before, and that’s just been because we’ve been doing it so much and we’ve written so many Goddamned songs. I’d say for this record we have three albums worth of material. The songs are all great in their own regard and I feel like they could be three great records. We’re choosing the most gut-wrenching one, the one that gets right to the heart, because that’s who we are as a band. Just doing it over and over again, and writing so many songs, taught us a lot about how we create, and gave us confidence in ourselves. ... As great of a record as VHS is, I feel like this one really speaks to who we are, as performers, as artists and as human beings.

X Ambassadors' third album will be released this spring. The latest single, "Joyful," is available now. Watch the video at youtube.com/watch?v=AuWwlxym68g.

Contact christine.wolff@umusic.com

Check out MC’s recent podcast with Sam Harris at podcastone.com/music-connection.