When cross-genre, GRAMMY-winning producer Alex da Kid (Nicki Minaj, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Imagine Dragons) began working intently in the studio with X Ambassadors, he had not yet signed the band. And once the band did sign with his KIDinaKORNER (Interscope) label in 2013, it would be two years before their full-length release, VHS. “It’s not about a timeline, and this is not a vanity label,” says Alex. “I’m trying to create great artists.”
Alex da Kid (Alex Grant) first heard about New York City-based X Ambassadors from Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds. While on tour in the Southeast in 2012, Reynolds heard the song “Unconsolable,” from the band’s independent debut EP, on local radio, and recommended that Alex listen to it. On that referral, Grant did some research. “I went online and checked out all their videos, interviews, not just their music,” he says. “Chemistry is important, and I wanted to make sure it was there.”
“When we got this mysterious email from Alex’s people [in late 2012], we didn’t know who he was,” says Sam Harris, lead singer for X Ambassadors. “We looked him up and he had all these amazing credits. It was hard to believe.”
After a phone call with Grant from their manager’s office, the next step for Harris was a meeting in the producer/label owner’s native London, where Harris happened to be visiting family over the Christmas holidays. “I got off the red-eye and was supposed to meet him at this fancy restaurant at 11 a.m. I went straight from the airport, looking pretty ragged and out of place. I waited for an hour, and finally found out the meeting was for 11 p.m.!”
Once the two did connect that evening, they found mutual interests, and according to both parties, talked for hours about music. “Alex told me, ‘Be prepared not to do anything other than this,’” recalls Harris. “That was not a problem for me; I was already committed.”
Once back in the U.S. in January 2013, Grant flew Harris out to Los Angeles, where KIDinaKORNER is based, followed shortly by the rest of the band. The group spent a couple of weeks in the studio, writing and eventually recording an EP, before signing a deal. “There was another deal on the table, and some others dancing around and talking,” says Harris, “but they all wanted a record of songs that sounded like ‘Unconsolable,’ and that song was an anomaly.”
To backtrack, X Ambassadors are originally from Ithaca, NY, and moved to New York City to concentrate on making a career out of the band. On the strength of their self-produced 2011 debut EP, and the Spotify popularity of the ballad “Litost,” they received enough awareness to secure a management deal (with Seth Kallen/This Fiction) and a booking agent. The regional radio success of “Unconsolable” provided additional buzz and label interest. So the band was somewhat savvy about the business before connecting with Alex da Kid, had played plenty of shows and had a fan base.
“We waited until we worked with Alex for a couple of weeks to discover what our relationship would be,” says Harris. “The best approach is an organic approach. Soft, quiet releases are the way to do it; to develop a band for a major release.” So X Ambassadors, under the flag of KIDinaKORNER/Interscope, released the EP Love Songs Drug Songs in 2013, co-produced by Alex da Kid, Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and Dan Stringer.
Why did Alex da Kid choose this approach? “You only get one shot once you put out a full release,” he warns. “If you throw them out too early, it can destroy everything. I need to get the chemistry with someone in the studio, and that can take time. It all comes down to instinct. I run band development from a creative perspective, not a schedule. You run a chair factory on a schedule.”
“We never stop writing. We’re still writing, constantly, after delivering the album,” he adds. “So many artists release a first album that they had all their life to write. And then you have two months to create the next one. And fame can destroy the art.”
It doesn’t hurt to have the deep pockets of Interscope, and their influence. The single “Renegade” can be heard currently not only on the radio, but in a national Jeep TV commercial. “I was skeptical about partnering with a corporate brand,” Harris muses, “but it’s not so taboo anymore. The experience was authentic—they didn’t tell us what to wear or anything. People recognize when something like that is fabricated.”
“Any other label would have dropped us after the first EP didn’t blow up,” says Harris. “But our initial deal was for one EP and one LP, and as of now it is for four to six LPs.”
VHS was released on June 24 on KIDinaKORNER/Interscope. X Ambassadors are touring the U.S. and Canada through the fall.
By Brett Bush