X Ambassadors Interview
X Ambassadors may not be a familiar name yet, but you should know them. Breakthrough song “Jungle” featuring Jamie N Commons became a sports and pop culture anthem last year, remixed by numerous acts including Jay Z. New folk-tinged tune “Renegades” is inescapable this year, already breaking the Top 10 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. This Brooklyn band (by way of Ithaca, N.Y.) is comprised of singer and primary songwriter Sam Harris, his brother Casey Harris on keyboards, Noah Feldshuh on guitars and LA- musician Adam Levin on drums. The foursome were scooped up by producer Alex Da Kid following a phone call from Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds. X Ambassadors are rooted in soul music, punk, rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, and there are moments of gospel and electronic that really stand out. Their debut album “VHS” is years-in-the-making, and includes audio clips of VHS tapes from Sam and Casey’s childhood, as well as others from the band. Touring with German duo Milky Chance this summer including Central Park SummerStage on July 22, Sam took some time to speak with New York City Monthly about the band’s long-awaited debut, his love for Bowery Ballroom and early NYC memories.
NYCM: Sam, you and your brother Casey and Noah grew up in upstate New York. Did you ever take trips to New York City prior to living there? What are some stand-out memories of the city?
XA: Yeah, I went to New York when I was in middle school a couple times just for auditions cause I was an actor as a kid. I actually acted all of high school and college. In high school I went more, I had a girlfriend who moved to New York and at the end of our relationship I would visit her. I would also go hang with my friends and I got to see some really amazing bands. I got to see a show at CBGBs (The So So Glos) before it closed. We had our band in Ithaca and to see other bands doing it in New York – it was very cool, I loved it. I knew I wanted to move there when I was in high school, that was always the destination, it’s got such a vibrant, artistic community.
NYCM: Between your voice, the band’s supporting vocals and the strong, masculine, yet approachable production, X Ambassadors has some really anthemic tunes. I know your inspirations span punk, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and hip- hop, and all of these elements can be heard and felt in your music. Can you speak to the energy in the room when you are playing?
XA: I grew up loving performers like James Brown and Little Richard and Iggy Pop and guys who really left it all on the stage, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. Those performers who – you could feel it. They weren’t up there just singing their songs, they were giving their blood and tears. That’s always kind of – I’ve taken cues from those people, I don’t do it nearly as well as they did. But one day I hope to be half the performer that those guys were. That’s just what we try to emulate and yeah, I want to give it my all when I’m on that stage.
NYCM: Every collaboration you touch turns to gold – “Jungle,” which was recorded with Jamie N Commons was featured in the Beats by Dre 2014 World Cup commercial, the closing credits of “Hercules” and the trailer for “Pitch Perfect 2” not to mention inclusion in the Netflix promo for “Orange Is The New Black,” a show set in New York state. And now “Renegades” is in a Jeep commercial. Can you speak about how these songs are resonating on a global stage and what that means?
XA: It feels great. It still feels like nobody knows who we are. That’s just my own insecurity that I gotta get over. I’m very honored that these songs have been picked for these ad campaigns and these programs. We’re really lucky. It’s a great way for people to discover new artists. We just work really hard at making these songs as lean and mean and direct as we possibly can. We have an incredible team of people behind us that work their asses off for us and help us get these songs in stuff.
New York City Monthly: Your debut album “VHS” was finally out June 30, produced by Alex Da Kid (who has worked with greats Eminem, Dr. Dre, Imagine Dragons) as well as Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds and producer Dan Stringer. Following two strong EPs (“Love Songs Drug Songs” & “The Reason,”) what’s it like to finally share your creations with the world?
X Ambassadors: We have some other cool stuff coming up. It’s hard to kind of put myself in that place because it’s such a long time coming and I’ve said this before – this album is really a culmination of everything we’ve worked towards – as kids in 7th grade dreaming of playing in a band. It’s hard to get that perspective, but I think we’re all so proud of this record. This morning I actually listened to the full album all the way through, it’s personal. We’ve been together for so long and dreaming of putting out a record on a label for so many years. There are so many bands and genres we have been influenced by our whole lives, it almost feels like a retrospective for me, but for everyone else it will feel like something different. We are accomplishing that by being ourselves and by being different and by pushing ourselves and I think that comes across on this record. I’m just so proud of it. A year from now it will probably hit me what we’ve done. We’re doing some artwork for the vinyl and the CDs and I hand wrote all the lyrics and I laid them out on the bed and I was there with my girlfriend and she said “wow, that’s a lot of words.” I said wow, you should have seen all the other words that didn’t make this cut. It’s really crazy man.
NYCM: You experimented with genre, collaborating with Zedd (and rapper Logic) on the new track “Transmission” and with The Knocks for a shimmering nu-disco track “Comfortable.” How did these pairings come about?
XA: They’re fucking amazing man. I’ve known them for a while. I remember when they were first starting when we were in college and I’d always see them around when I’d go out. I thought they were like the coolest guys. I knew JPatt before B-Roc – he’s amazing. We just kinda threw other people and they had heard our music. We just had so many mutual friends and said we basically know each other. And I wrote that song and it became a single of theirs. I’ll work with them any day of the week. Working with Zedd too, it was such a banger, I’m really proud to be on that one too. I still haven’t met him, we did it all over email.
NYCM: You’ve been touring the better part of the past 2-3 years and have played major tours like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Made In America and others as well as headline dates, with your upcoming July 22 show with Milky Chance at Central Park Summerstage. In terms of New York shows, you’ve played many popular rooms – Rough Trade, Bowery Ballroom, Brooklyn Bowl, Santos Party house – is there a special memory from a show here with New York fans that you can share?
XA: Well I mean, when we headlined Bowery Ballroom, that was pretty amazing. I was so excited about that. That was the first venue that when I moved to New York I walked past and said “wow, some day I’ll play there.” That’s where I want to play, and we did it. That was so satisfying to do that and to have our fans there. To not play in front of a New York crowd standing with their arms folded. Every time we come to New York it’s not like that, it’s great, it’s our people and it’s our show. That’s something to be proud of. I want to play there for the rest of my life.