From the college town of Ithaca, NY to stages around the world, X Ambassadors have definitely come a long way, baby. Since signing on with Alex Da Kid’s KIDinaKORNER division of Interscope Records and releasing their full-length album VHS in 2015 which boasted the signature hits “Unsteady,” “Jungle” and “Renegades,” brothers Sam and Casey Harris, Noah Feldshuh and Adam Levin have taken on the world like bosses via hitting the festival circuit, on tour with Milky Chance, Muse and with sold out runs of their headlining VHS and VHS 2.0 tours. This is the business and X Ambassadors can’t stop, won’t stop.
Back in March were there when the band stormed the Wiltern in Los Angeles. The tour has rolled and, while out there on the road somewhere doing what they do, Sam took the time to talk about the past, the present and the future.
High Voltage: Back in July of 2013 I remember being so pleased that you guys were finally on my concert calendar: your headlining show at the Viper Room! How long ago and far away does that show – that stage of the band’s career – feel?
Sam Harris: Yeah, it feels like a lifetime ago. At that point we had only just signed our record deal with KIDINAKORNER/Interscope – our first record deal ever – and I think that was our first headline show, ever, in LA. We were babies.
HV: Granted, just a few days later and a couple of miles east on Sunset Blvd you were pulling opening band duties for Imagine Dragons at the Palladium which was the first time we got to speak to you – backstage at the venue. One of the veins of conversation that I vividly remember was you mentioning how when the band met with some label folks, they kind of wanted to repackage or alter your sound…which makes not a lot of sense since one would assume that they were interested in the band BECAUSE of its sound. It’s difficult to envision what effect that would’ve had on you as a band and what you’ve accomplished since then, but have you ever thought about it?
Sam: Hm, I don’t really remember saying that to be honest. Our sound certainly developed a lot more after we started working with Alex, but the whole reason we ended up signing with him and Interscope in the first place is because they were all really excited about where our sound was already going. There had been a couple other labels who had expressed interest in signing us before Alex/Interscope, but had wanted to do stuff like bring in other co-writers immediately, make our sound a little more folk-centric, etc. and we turned those people down. Maybe that’s what you were remembering us talking about?
HV: Yep, that’s exactly it. By the way, I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Blues Brothers movie but were you aware that that Palladium stage you played on is the very same stage where they shot the film’s climatic concert scene with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi? A random fact of awesome.
Sam: Very cool. I’m a big fan of that movie. I even helped my friend put together a Blues Brothers cover band in high school for his senior project.
HV: We’ll just call that another random fact of awesome. Since your first EP, you’ve made some dynamic leaps forward with your sound, which you vividly showcased on VHS, an album that apparently took you three tries to get “right.” How different was that first version of VHS from the final album?
Sam: Very different. The first version was a lot rockier, less soulful. We were riding off the initial success of “Jungle” at the time and were making a lot of heavier tracks. When interest in “Jungle” started waning, we had to go back and reconsider the direction we wanted to go in.
HV: Of course, the next logical question is where are your heads at as far as the next album?
Sam: Already working on stuff as we speak. I’m sitting backstage with my recording apparatus all around me right now, bouncing back and fourth between three different sessions. There’s a lot of stuff… hoping to have something out by the top of the new year.
HV: As years go, you’ve started 2016 like bosses: on the road with Muse on their Drone Tour and then on to on to the VHS Tour 2.0. Muses’ live shows are extraordinary: what’s it like being their tour mates and are any of their English ways rubbing off on any of you?
Sam: They were great to tour with. Their team was all super helpful and professional and the band themselves were perfect gentlemen. We learned a lot from watching them play every night – they’re all incredibly comfortable up there on stage in such a big space, it was fun to pick up on that.
HV: Considering Muses’ particular stage set up, is it a little strange performing in the round? There’s a lot more ground that you have to physically cover.
Sam: Yea it wasn’t ideal for us. We had to all play with our backs to each other. But lucky for me I had free reign to run all around the stage and interact with everybody. It was probably hardest for Adam who’s used to hiding behind the band at the back of the stage.
HV: I saw that in between your tour dates you’re making time to head to Austin, TX for another round of South By Southwest – I caught at least two of your sets last year. Now as a music fan, I adore SXSW but it’s a completely different animal if you’re an artist. Why are you subjecting yourself to that incredible madness again?
Sam: It was actually pretty amazing this year. We only played two shows in two days, so it was very chill. Plus we had the luxury of hotel rooms right in the center of downtown AND our bus being there, so getting rest wasn’t a problem. The biggest highlight was our jam session with The Roots… serious childhood dream come true for all of us. We played “Renegades,” “Jungle,” and then a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” – I was seriously walking on air after.
HV: As a Roots fan, cannot imagine how special that must’ve been for you. When you’re at an X Ambassadors show, it’s impossible not to notice this level of connection that your fans have to your songs, particularly “Unsteady.” At its best, songwriting is a singularly emotional and personal act. As the guy who stands before that audience and sings his feelings to them and 100 times out of 100 gets serenaded right back, what do those moments feel like?
Sam: Just the other night, a young girl was in the front row who we had met at our meet-and-greet before the show. She had told us how a few of her friends had just recently passed away in a bus crash, and that our song “Unsteady” has been helping her get through it. As I started singing the song, I looked over at her and she was crying so hard it made it difficult for me to keep it together, myself. But that was the closest I think I’ve ever come to breaking down in the middle of that song.
HV: That’s incredibly powerful; thank you for sharing that. Some friends in a band are currently touring and doing so for the first time in – wait for it – a proper tour bus! Needless to say, they’re over the moon about it for a number of reasons like being able to actually get good sleep between shows. What was that first tour bus feeling like for you?
Sam: It’s amazing. The ins and outs of travel are no longer anything that we really have to worry about with the bus; it’s a big weight off our shoulders. Tell your friends good luck with the “no number 2 on the bus” rule, though…
HV: Isn’t that always the case? How good are the four of you at taking care of yourselves while on the road? Taking care of yourselves as in whatever it takes to give you comfort or peace of mind, whether it’s getting a massage or do not disturb time or having a Big Mac or Taco Bell when you really, really want it?
Sam: We are all pretty conscious of the way we treat our bodies now. When we were 21, it was different. Our bodies could sustain a lot more damage. Now, it’s very different. In order for us to put on the best show we can, we have to be in good shape. Every day we have a show, I have a 2-hour warm-up routine that I do which includes an hour of stretching, yoga, and calisthenics, plus 40 minutes of vocal warm-ups and a 20-minute hot-water steam. On top of that, I have a strict diet I adhere to for my voice which includes no dairy, no acidic foods (tomato, vinegar, etc), no fried foods, nothing spicy, a VERY limited amount of caffeine and alcohol (one drink of each a day, at the MAX), and a few other things, too, that I’m probably forgetting right now.
HV: Now be honest: Did you give even the slightest damn who won the Super Bowl? I’m from Brooklyn: no Jets, Giants or Bills? No care.
Sam: Personally I didn’t really care. I’m a Seahawks fan: Casey and I were born in Seattle, then moved to Ithaca when we were three and four.
HV: What does the rest of 2016 look like for X Ambassadors?
Sam: More touring, more writing, less sleep.
HV: This is the part of the program where you get to say absolutely anything that you want to your fans: GO.
Sam: We love you and we owe you everything. Thank you.