Interview: X Ambassadors

July 2, 2013 1 comment

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Brooklyn-based alt-rock quartet X Ambassadors have an addicting song in “Unconsolable.” The band’s fusion of tribal drumming and electronics strike an emotive, honest genre-bending chord that invigorates your ears. It’s that same sound and musicianship that got them noticed by Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Grammy Award winning English producer Alex Da Kid and a deal with KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records.

I met up with Sam Harris (vocals, guitar), Casey Harris (keyboard), Noah Feldshuh (guitar) and Adam Levin (drums) at their place in Brooklyn to chat about everything from getting signed to Interscope Records and putting out an EP within a few months, to their childhood music inspirations of Will Smith and their new tour with Jimmy Eat World.


What were you like in high school?

All: Pretty much the same. Haven’t changed that much – haven’t really matured since then.

Sam Harris: [Noah and I} have known each other since we were in kindergarden – since we were six years old. So, we’ve been through every grade together through college.

Noah Feldshuh: We just celebrated our 20th anniversary.

Sam: Almost our 20th anniversary! So we haven’t changed a lot. We were in a band in high school – Noah, Casey [Harris, Sam’s brother] and I called The Fuzz Brothers and we had some pretty funky, fun – more rocky. We played in a lot of bands in high school and fucked around and played a bunch of instruments that I play on stage now. We were like we are now except… shittier. Or better.

Noah: We were causing as much trouble, just in a different setting.


What did you listen to growing up?

Noah: Well, the first exposure for me in music was through my parents. And it was my mom who after dinner would play Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston and all the 100% funk compilation CDs that had everyone from Earth, Wind, Fire to Cameo to whomever on it. So that was my first, first music that I listened to.

Sam: It’s funny: our parents would all have us listen to really great music like The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel and Carly Simon and Nat King Cole and that was all great and well and good. And now, we all love those artists, but when you first hear them as kids… I mean the first CD I got, I think it was a Matchbox 20 CD, Backstreet Boys, N*Sync…

Noah: Savage Garden.

Sam: Smashing Pumpkins record which I think was the only semi-cool one that I got. Will Smith Big Willie Style and that was definitely the most influential record. I had the CD, I had the Cassette. Then you know, in Ithaca, we really didn’t get exposed to too much great music super early on. You had to find it. When I was in high school, that’s when I really started looking and searching for good music. Growing up, we would listen to Top 40 bands. We were obsessed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We didn’t know what “cool” music was. To us, that was the coolest thing. Then we got to college and we talked with our friends and kids that grew up in big cities about music we listened to as kids and our influences and we were almost embarrassed to talk about our influences.

Me: You don’t need to be embarassed!

Sam: You know, listen, I think a lot of these Top 40 artists are where they are for a reason – because they have a lot of catchy songs and catchy material that gets in people’s heads and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. So that was the foundation for everything. And then we all started discovering really cool, different music. I remember two concerts the most from growing up. First was Red Hot Chili Peppers in this HUGE arena. Them and Queens of the Stone Age. And then I saw The Arcade Fire play when they were touring on Funeral and I had never heard of them. My girlfriend was going and I snuck in with her. And it was the greatest thing. And it was like what kind of got me thinking when she would tell me about these bands or show me these bands and then she wouldn’t tell me who the band was! She’d be like “no this is mine. You don’t understand this world, this indie world. We keep our artists to ourselves.” And I was like, well share this music with the rest of the world goddammit! It’s good!” Anddd I just went on a tangent there.

Me: No it’s fine!

Sam: I realize 3/4 of the way into my anwer sometimes that I totally forgotten.. totally gone off topic.


I’ve read that you were into 90’s music growing up… Backstreet Boys or N*Sync?

Sam: Oh, you mean N.S.Y.N.C.? That’s what Noah thought the actual name of the band was.

Me: Who finally corrected you?!

Noah: I think it was the first person I told. They were like, “Dude, what the hell are you talking about?”

Sam: I mean, N*Sync all the way. I love that new Justin Timberlake record.


How did you guys meet and start playing music together?

Sam: I wanted to start a band in middle school and started one with my friend Nick Farry who is a drummer and we needed a guitar player so I told Noah. I knew Noah had started to mess around and I was like “You have to be our guitar player.” And he just said “Okay.” and then we got our other friend Brand to play bass and the rest is history, man!

I remember this one point when we were in Ithaca playing music when we were The Fuzz Brothers and there was this instrument store I always used to go to called McNeill Music and this dude that used to work there – who we actually just saw again for the first time in maybe 10 years! – and he was kind of my guru. I would nerd out over equipment, music, and bands with him and just talk and would hang out there after school. I remember one time I showed him the band and told him we were thinking of moving to New York to do the band thing and go to college out there and focus on music. And he said, “I think you guys would do great in New York.” And I remember that being something I just had in the back of my mind – this guy thinks we can really do it. Legitimately do it. I might not be crazy. And I still kind of think that I’m a little insane and don’t know what is happening – none of us do really. But, that’s how it all really started – with just playing music in high school with friends and playing everywhere. We played in all these weird places. We played at this internet cafe once called Wow Net – awesome.

Adam Levin: I remember I played in my old band at the Filipino version of a quinciñera is. So I think the girl had just turned sixteen and this was a hard-core, scream-o band by the way. Everyone there had an arranged marriage pretty much. It was the most amazing show. And it was all filmed.

Casey Harris: How have we not seen this shit yet!

Adam: I’ve been talking to my buddy Phil and basically this girl had a huge crush on Phil so paid us to play and it was the most awkward thing in the world. The whole room left.


You have a huge upcoming national tour with Jimmy Eat World and We Are Scientists starting at the end of June. Any memories of listening to either band when you were growing up?

Adam: Yeah, I listened to them growing up a lot. I was really excited when I heard. At first it was just going to be a couple shows then they asked us to do the whole thing. It’s awesome.


Favorite song of Jimmy Eat World?

Adam: What was the big hit?

Sam: The Middle.

Adam: Yes! The Middle. I don’t know, I kind of came into the whole emo world just as they were getting into the whole mainstream world so I missed them a little bit. I think they were really cool in the late 90’s early 00’s and then I started listening to them as soon as they got huge along listening to bands like Taking Back Sunday, Thrice…I was totally in that world.

Sam: We were just totally in the hip-hop world at that point. And we’ve heard great things about We Are Scientists too.

Me: And you’re playing next at Neon Gold’s Popshop July 11th?

Sam: Yes! And we are so excited for that. They kick ass over there. We are so happy to do ANYTHING at all for Neon Gold. The fucking shit.

Me: Oh I agree.


Where did your album name Love Songs Drug Songs come from?

Sam: Came from the lyric in the song which came from my head which came from my parents.

And that was the first track we did with Alex [da Kid]. It kind of appropriately summed up everything we wanted to expand – and what the EP represented. This duality of light and dark and how the two can easily…

Me: Coexist?

Sam: Coexist! Thank you.


Who writes the lyrics?

Sam: I do.


The opening line of your single “Unconsolable has some powerful imagery about binding relationships. “I hope we stay thick as thieves, butter and bread, pillars of colonial homes.” Where did the inspiration for the song come from?

Sam: It’s all about growing up in Ithaca. It’s about our experience as just high school kids. And we had a really tightly knit group of people that we hung out with. I was always kind of unhappy growing up in a small town. I wanted to get the fuck out ASAP but it was so fun. It was such an idyllic kind of childhood. That suburban kind of isolation is really weird and extraordinary and does really cool things to you as a person. To me, at least it did. And a lot of it is about stupid mistakes you make as a kid. And then you get older and you think you’ll grow out of them, but you never do. You make them just in a different place. A lot of the song focused on repetition and doing things over and over again. Not necessarily questioning why it happened or lamenting it, but kind of reveling in it and laughing at it a little bit. A lot of people listen to that song and they immediately think it’s like a really dark song and that’s not at all where it came from. It came from such a different place. Again, speaking of that duality – there’s a little bit of darkness in everything, there’s a little bit of lightness in everything.


Marry Fuck Kill – NY themed: Allison Williams, Lana Del Rey, Caroline Polachek (Of Charlift)

Sam: SO, Marry Caroline. Fuck Allison Williams. Kill Lana. I wanna fucking kill her I think – is that so brutal?


What is the last concert you went to that you weren’t performing at?

Sam: We were on tour with them but they were playing two nights and we saw Imagine Dragons in LA.

Casey: Does that count though? We were on tour with them and saw them every night.

Sam: Oh! But we also saw McCoy Tyner play and that was awesome.

Casey: He used to play piano for the longest time for John Coltrane and he’s the I think last original member of that John Quartet lineup. He was pushing the boundaries of piano playing back then and is just a spectacular piano player. And he’s maybe 90 now but he’s still killing it.

Sam: It was amazing. And he just – his style is so dramatic and heavy bass. It’s such a breath of fresh air as a musician to go see that.

Casey: To see something that you could never – not never – but something you would have to work your ass off for years and years to be able to do. Something I’m nowhere near being able to do.

Sam: Bands are fucking competitive. We all go see other bands play and look at see what they’re doing and think ok I can do that. But something like this, you can do nothing but STARE. There is no fucking way I’d ever be able to do that. It’s powerful; it’s really powerful.  It reminds me of this one time I went to in LA at House of Blues – this Sunday Gospel Brunch. Oh my god. I thought it was going to be this campy thing, but it was just one of those shows that just completely brought me to tears. These big black woman just fucking just sang their asses off. It was so amazing.

You were discovered after Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons heard your song and insisted on signing you immediately. What was it like getting that call?

Adam: I remember we were sitting in our engineers bedroom where we were mixing our stuff and they were like, this guy Alex is interested.

Sam: Alex reached out to us first and then we found out later it was Dan [Reynolds] who had heard us on the way to the hospital and the person driving him showed him our stuff. And then I spoke to him on the phone maybe in November. December, I met up with Alex in London since we both just happened to be out there at the time and got a few drinks and talked music. Came back and then in January, he wanted to get us in the studio and he wanted Dan to come in too. We were in the studio for two weeks. Dan came in for a couple days and we wrote some stuff together. He co-wrote the hook on “Stranger.” And it was a super chill and organic process. They’re all such nice dudes and great musicians. And they’re killing it right now.


How did signing to Interscope change things for you?

Casey: The major difference that I saw is that we recorded the entire EP in three weeks – recorded, mixed and mastered in that short of time and we had never done that before. And put it out!

Sam: And it’s not supposed to be like that. For most labels, it takes so long to put stuff out. Put for this, it was like [snap] done. These people work really fucking hard for us. And anytime you sign to a label, you’re just like “Wow. This is really great.” There are so many awesome people on the team. So many people hustling doing great stuff who have done great stuff. But, you can’t sit back and let them do it. We are all still just as involved, if not more so, in everything then before when we didn’t have a label. We want to be in control of everything. We want to make sure everything is representative of us. So you have to work even harder; it doesn’t stop.


In the age where people are being inundated in images on the internet, on social media like Twitter and Instagram, how important do you feel visuals are to your music?

Sam: I think they are absolutely essential. A visual accompaniment to your music will have a huge impact on how your seen people listen to your music. We are in the process of making our first music video and it’s such a delicate balance. Talking about “Unconsolable” before which is going to be the first single. On first listen, it’s kind of dark but it’s not a dark song. And if you have an accompanying visual that embraces that, it changes everything. I did the art design for our EP cover with Interscope to create a steady visual and theme so that someone else can say, I know what you do. And it’s constantly changing too, from record to record, which is how it should be.


In the latest news of Jay-Z partnering with Samsung on the release of his newest album, how do you as artists feel about corporate sponsorships?

Adam: Oh yeah, he sold a million records before it’s out!

Me: SoundScan isn’t counting it though, I think.

Adam: The whole SoundScan thing is going to be… you know, now they’re adding subscription services and streams… I think it’s going to be a thing of the past soon.

Sam: I think with corporate sponsorships and partnering up with corporations, there are some people who are doing it really tastefully and there are others who aren’t. You see Nicki Minaj in a Pepsi commercial or Drake rapping about Sprite all the time, but at the same time, you have to hustle. You have to make your money and do your thing because album sales are not going to cut it anymore. Touring is big, but you’re only human and you can only be on tour for so long.


Any advice for aspiring musicians?

Sam: Work harder than everybody else.


Lastly, favorite junk food?


Noah: Cheez-itz. Pretzles. Freeze pops. Sour patch. Fireballs. Gobstoppers. Swedish Fish.

Casey: Popcorn.

Me: You have to put M&M’s in there so they can melt.

Casey: That’s a good call actually.


Huge THANK YOU again to Sam, Casey, Noah and Adam. Listen and download their single “Unconsolable” for free and stream Love Songs Drug Songs on Spotify.

See X Ambassadors on tour now in the U.S. with Jimmy Eat World and We Are Scientists (dates here). [NYC] Don’t miss their Popshop next Thursday July 11th at Santos Party House. Listen to the purity of this live performance below and you will understand why you need to see this band live.