For X Ambassadors, an unshakable sense of brotherhood has long shaped the sound and spirit of the band. Growing up in small-town upstate New York, frontman Sam Harris, his brother Casey, and childhood friend Noah Feldshuh bonded over an obsessive love for punk, rock & roll, soul, and hip-hop that defied the conventions of their peer group. Forming their first band in middle school, the three channeled their infatuation with artists as eclectic as The Stooges and The Staple Singers into a string of musical projects that sharply clashed with their local scene’s favoring of folk and country. After graduating high school and decamping to New York City in search of a greater music community, the Harris brothers and Noah joined up with L.A.-raised drummer Adam Levin—a move that helped X Ambassadors solidify their sound into a groove-fueled take on alt-pop, and ultimately land a deal with KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records.
Produced in collaboration with KIDinaKORNER founder Alex Da Kid, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds and friend Dan Stringer, X Ambassadors released their major label debut EP Love Songs Drug Songs in May 2013. The set finds the Brooklyn-based foursome building off their singular chemistry to create a collection of songs both stylish and soulful. “They’re bringing together alternative and R&B in a way I’ve never heard before, and at the core of that are these great songs with so much authenticity,” says Alex, a Grammy-winning producer hailed for his work with heavyweights like Dr. Dre and Nicki Minaj. “The music comes from a very real place,” he continues, “and it’s made even more powerful by the deep connection that they have as a band.”
Throughout Love Songs Drug Songs, X Ambassadors weave elegant melodies and sweetly smooth vocals into taut arrangements powered by percussion. From the Afro-pop-inspired beats of “Unconsolable” to the fuzzed-out stomp of the title track to the slinky groove of “Stranger,” the heady rhythms at the heart of the EP endlessly mesmerize but never overshadow X Ambassadors’ graceful musicianship. Still, even on the EP’s breezier tracks—such as the shimmering, harmony-kissed “Down With Me”—X Ambassadors flaunt their finely honed pop sensibilities while radiating a raw intensity and darkly moody emotionalism.
X Ambassadors toured in support of Love Songs Drug Songs with a string of dates opening for Imagine Dragons at arenas across the country as well as an opening slot on the Jimmy Eat World tour last summer and a fall tour with the Mowgli’s. Life on the road proved productive for chief songwriter Sam Harris and the band released their second EP, The Reason, in January 2014, right before they embarked on a sold out tour with Panic! At The Disco and another run of dates with Imagine Dragons.
A recurring theme of the working class struggle that often inhibits the American dream makes up The Reason EP. Most people will tell you that if you work hard enough at something, you can make any dream come true. But what happens when putting in your hours just isn’t enough? On the opening track “Free & Lonely,” Harris sings against a stomping rhythm “Get a job, get married, have kids… I left my life behind, but I ain’t got time to look back on when I was free.” “The Business,” is a rock anthem that has Harris singing “So long, so long, going back to nine to five…so much for keeping the dream alive...I’m going to give up the business.” “The Reason is our attempt to tell the story of someone who gave up chasing a dream and who had the courage to start over,” says Harris. “Sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re all afraid of failure, but there’s bravery in knowing when it’s time to move on. You never know what’s next.”
For X Ambassadors, the passionately charged pop heard all over both Love Songs Drug Song and The Reason EP is the product of a lifetime of sonic exploration. Born into a highly musical family (Mom was a jazz and cabaret singer, Dad once aspired to be a country songwriter), Sam and Casey each began playing instruments before the age of ten. While Casey discovered his love for piano at seven, Sam (who “started singing as soon as I could speak”) moved from drums to guitar to piano to bass to saxophone throughout his childhood. In junior high, Sam prompted Noah (his best friend since the first day of kindergarten) to learn guitar so that the two could start a group. “Casey eventually started playing with us too, and ever since then I’ve only been in bands with the two of them,” Sam notes.
In 2006, the three moved from Ithaca to New York City so that Sam and Noah could attend the New School while Casey worked as a piano tuner. Within the first month of college Sam and Noah met Adam in the freshman dorms, learned he was a drummer, and slipped a demo under his door in a successful attempt to lure him into the band. With the lineup complete (Sam on vocals and guitar, Noah on lead guitar, Casey on keyboards, Adam on drums), X Ambassadors began playing local gigs and writing material for their debut album. Then, just before the band was scheduled to begin recording, a lifelong medical condition left Casey in urgent need of a kidney transplant. With both his brother and mother (who volunteered one of her kidneys) recuperating from the transplant, Sam began working on a new batch of songs, including a fierce yet tender ballad that would emerge as the title track on X Ambassadors’ debut.
Released in early 2012, Litost soon caught the ear of the program director for Norfolk, Virginia-based radio station 96x. After hearing “Litost” on a friend’s Spotify playlist, the PD threw the song into heavy rotation and quickly drew a rabid response from listeners. Beating out heavy-hitters like Fun. and Of Monsters and Men, “Litost” ended up emerging as 96x’s number-one song of 2012. In the meantime, X Ambassadors began opening for the likes of the Lumineers and Imagine Dragons, as well as scoring slots on the lineups of such festivals as Lollapalooza.
X Ambassadors’ commitment reflects an unfailing belief in the unifying power of music. Noting that the band’s small-town beginnings infinitely inform their output, Sam points out that “all those middle-school dances where they played Ginuwine and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and all different kids would just come together and dance” have proved to be one of his most formative musical experiences. “It’s always been my goal to make music that’s unique and personal and completely true to who we are, but in a way that’s got a very communal feeling to it, that can be shared with everyone,” he says. “If a song’s melodies can feel perfectly formed but also natural, where you’re feeling it so much that everyone else can’t help but feel it too, then that’s just beautiful.”