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Some of our most enduring rock and roll is built upon the following truth: Sometimes you have to replant yourself to find your roots. Nearly a decade ago, three of the four young members of Ithaca, New York, quartet X Ambassadors left home with great ambition, vowing not to look back. Like so many small-town kids before them, they yearned to find fame and fortune in the city. They wanted, as they confess in one of their most powerful new songs, to “go big.” And after years of hustling and overcoming personal challenges, rock stardom felt imminent. But something was missing. Some bands never get that missing piece back, but the potentially great ones go looking for it. More often than not, the search leads them right back home. X Ambassadors’ stomping, syncopated full-length debut, VHS, is all about that exploration. Ironically it proved to be a journey — as the antiquated technology name-checked in the album’s title indicates — through the past.
X Ambassadors’ KIDinaKORNER labelmates Imagine Dragons and Jamie N Commons appear on VHS ("Fear" and "Low Life," and "Jungle," respectively), but the most noticeable guests are the band members’ younger, more restless selves. The songs on VHS are woven with a series of “interludes,” or bits of audio from the archives from their family video albums. "Moving Day" and "First Gig" provide a cinematic narrative and pay homage to their love for hip-hop. (Classic albums from De La Soul, Dr. Dre, Fugees, and Eminem also featured micro-dramas or gags between tracks.) “I wanted the album to feel like a movie,” the band’s singer and guitarist Sam Harris says. Consequently, the songs on VHS are about movement, speed, and the determination to navigate away from heartbreak and the constraints of small-town status quo. “Run away with me / Lost souls and revelry,” Sam sings, young-Springsteen-like, on the album’s first single, the Top 5 Alternative radio hit “Renegades” — a bouncing folk-rock ode to the misfits and adventurers. Then he continues: “Running wild and running free / Two kids, you and me.”
Music had always been a friend to Sam and his older brother Casey Harris (X Ambassadors’ keyboard player) even when actual friends were few. The brothers grew up with instruments and lessons and hand-me-down Beatles, Stones, Billy Joel, and Joni Mitchell records. These, as well as the musical theater that Sam participated in at school, instilled a strong sense of melody and composition, as well as great hooks. The Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie albums that their film-maker father favored gave Sam a sense of storytelling and narrative. But everything else around them pointed to a certain kind of faded American glory that screamed: There is no future for you here. “A lot of towns in upstate New York are kind of abandoned,” Sam says. “They used to be these big metropolises and they’re not anymore. Big cities like Binghamton and Rochester haven’t really been big since the ’50s and ’60s. Most of the manufacturing businesses have moved overseas.”
Hip-hop gave Sam his voice without sacrificing his love for massive, arena-ready rock. “I became obsessed with it immediately,” he says. “It was exciting. I felt like I’d found my own music.” The band bonded over hip-hop with the head of their label, KIDinaKORNER’s Alex Da Kid, a veteran hitmaker who has worked with Dr. Dre and Nicki Minaj. VHS’s main ingredient is unapologetically hard rock, like “Superpower,” and soulful, moody pop like “Renegades” and “Unsteady,” but there’s a rhythmic unpinning that can only come from a hip-hop fan, and it gives even the album’s most introspective moments a fresh swing.
It is unusual for a guitar-driven band to welcome elements of soul and hip-hop into their guitar assault with as much balance and care as X Ambassadors do. They have been, after all, all about the rock since their early days. Sam met his future guitarist Noah Feldshuh on the first day of kindergarten. “We were five years old and we became best friends,” Sam recalls. When they got older, they both loved Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, and Kings of Leon, and eventually decided to form a band. The burgeoning group began recording demos very early on. The songs were admittedly rough, but just the notion of being in a band and having a sense of brotherhood was empowering.
Casey, despite being blind since childhood, was accomplished enough on the piano to later make a living as a professional tuner. He played with a series of local bands and occasionally sat in with a nascent version of the current group. But Sam was not keen on Casey joining. “I was like, ‘No way am I going to be in a band with my brother,’” he says. Adds Casey with a laugh: “I was such an asshole to him.” Everyone else pleaded with Sam to relent. “They all said, ‘Sam, your brother is a better musician than all of us. Please!’ So I caved.”
By the time Sam and Noah enrolled at New York City’s The New School in 2006, they needed all the creative strength they could muster. This was not the scrappy Manhattan of old, but one ruled by jaded hipsters prone to dismiss an unabashedly hard-rock loving crew of perceived townies. They met drummer Adam Levin in the dorms and soon the Los Angeles native joined, but fans were in short supply, and the Harris brothers felt like Ithaca was never far behind. “We never felt like a New York band,” Sam says. “You expect to move to the city and become part of some kind of scene but that never happened. It was a struggle for us to get gigs.”
Between classes and menial work to pay the bills, there was every reason to give up, but doing so would mean facing a return to their roots before they were ready. Casey rejoining the fold, after years working and traveling, proved to be a shot in the arm. In 2012, their ballad “Litost” was included on a Spotify playlist and caught the ear of the program director at Virginia rock station 96X. It quickly became a local favorite and the station’s most requested track of the year. That lead to a management deal and a lot of buzz. Another song, “Unconsolable,” provided yet another breakthrough, this time creative, as it detailed Sam’s own relationship struggles. For Sam, songwriting became not only a way out of small-town life, but also a way for him to explore fertile themes of longing, jealousy, and personal pain. Music was a healer and others began to notice. “‘Unconsolable’ was the first song where we captured something truly unique,” he says. Enter an impressed Alex Da Kid, who was working with on-the-verge alternative rockers Imagine Dragons. Alex, Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds, and band friend Dan Stringer co-produced X Ambassadors 2013 EP, Love Songs Drug Songs, for KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records.
The songwriting got better and better with Sam figuring out how to transform even the most painful circumstances of his personal life into the songs on the band’s 2014 EP The Reason, like “The Business” and “Free and Lonely,” which resonate with universal truths about out-running your past and chasing your goals. It’s a trait that’s evolved one of VHS’ standout tracks, “Unsteady,” which addresses his and Casey’s parents’ divorce — a blow to the close-knit Harris family.
Fate dealt them yet another hurdle when Casey became seriously ill with a kidney ailment that required a transplant. (Their mother would ultimately donate one of her organs.) “In the grand scheme of our band it seems like a blip on the radar,” says Casey of that time period. “I’m not gonna lie,” Sam adds, “it was pretty stressful.” Once again, however, they emerged unbroken and even more determined to rise above their humble beginnings. Soon after, the small-town boys became a bonafide, touring rock and roll band, playing shows with Imagine Dragons, The Lumineers, and Panic! At the Disco. Each stellar live show added members to their formerly elusive fan base.
VHS brings X Ambassadors full circle. And as they prepare to strike out on their own again, they finally have the self-awareness to guide them through their next chapter. “This album is the culmination of all the work we’ve put in since seventh grade,” Sam says. “I wanted to show people who we are — a group of brothers, best friends, and family who’ve been through so much together.” In one of the interludes, “Y2K Time Capsule,” the Harris brothers’ dad asks them where they see themselves in 15 years. (The answer: “Very far away.”) That was in 1999 and now, just over a decade and a half on, Sam’s soul has been restored by re-engaging with his origins. He maintains a new sense of peace and understanding for the place that made him with fresh eyes. “It’s beautiful,” he says of the land known for its gorges, lakes, foliage and now, X Ambassadors. You can and probably should go home again.
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