X Ambassadors Talk Spontaneity, Willingness to Experiment

At summer’s end, when the idle pleasures of having no responsibilities turn to boredom and the countdown to the first day of  school reaches a state of denial, conversations always turn into a heated debate over which overplayed radio hit should be awarded the winning title of “the song of the summer.” One of the contenders for summer 2015 was “Renegades” by X Ambassadors, made famous by a Jeep ad campaign. While this points to the commercialism of the music industry, it also speaks volumes to X Ambassadors’ potential as artists. The catchy hook and lyrics — “It’s our time to break the rules/Let’s begin” —  evoke the feelings of freedom and invincibility that come during the summertime.

While X Ambassadors only recently gained their footing, their identities as musicians run within their bloodline. Lead singer Sam Harris and keyboardist Casey Harris are brothers from Ithaca, New York. It was there, at their elementary school, where they met guitar player Noah Feldshuh. In 2010, Sam Harris came across drummer Adam Levin in college, and the band was formed officially.  

Although “Renegades” has been their only smash hit, X Ambassadors’ vision as a band exists well beyond that one hit. Their debut album VHS showcases songs that seek to be equally grandiose and imposing, pointing towards the ‘stadium-show sellout’ trajectory that the band intends to move towards.

X Ambassadors performed in Atlanta at the Tabernacle last night. The Wheel corresponded with them over email about topics ranging from their band name to escaping the “one-hit wonder” trope to their plans for the future.

Hannah Conway, The Emory Wheel: Originally, your band name was just “Ambassadors.” What made you add the X?

X Ambassadors: The real reason for the change is a pretty boring story. The “X” was added when we signed to Interscope/KIDinaKORNER, and the legal department tried to trademark it. There are a LOT of other bands with “Ambassadors” in [their names] that we would’ve had to pay a lot of money to in order to clear the name for ourselves, so the easiest thing to do was incorporate something else before or after it. The “X” just looked cool written out. But now it’s come to represent a bit more than that for us.  We’ve always tried to write songs for anyone who feels marginalized, underrepresented: [people] who feel like they’re different or are unable to speak up for themselves. A lot of the songs off of VHS and our previous EP, The Reason, were written with that in mind. Because that’s us. That’s who we are. In our video for “Renegades,” we chose to specifically address the disabled community — a community which Casey and I have been a part of our whole lives [Casey Harris has been blind since birth] and whose people still struggle to get the recognition they deserve.  But that video [and] song aren’t just for them — it’s for anyone who feels alone, isolated or like there isn’t anyone out there who they can relate to. We want to make music that says, “Hey, you’re not alone.” That’s what the name means to us now. To be the ambassadors of the “other.” Hence, X Ambassadors.

HC: As musicians, from whom do you draw your inspiration? If you had to listen to one musician for the rest of your life, who would it be?

XA: Well, in light of his death, I’d have to say David Bowie. Bowie’s music spoke to that same idea of being a voice for people who feel like they’re different. He sang for the freaks and the weirdos and had no problem being himself–even if that “self” took on many different shapes and sizes. He also loved experimenting with genre, which we have always tried our best to do, too.

HC: To Casey and Sam, you’re brothers. What’s it like working with family?

XA: Like anything, it has its ups and downs. But overall I’d like to think it’s what enabled us to make it as far as we have. Without our commitment to each other through thick and thin and our desire to see each other succeed, I don’t think we would’ve made it through the toughest times as a band.  

HC: You had a really big hit this summer — “Renegades” — why do you think “Renegades” was the song that became a hit?

XA: I think “Renegades” did well because it’s a song that celebrates being different. By embracing what makes us different, that makes it our greatest strength. And I think that idea brings us all a little closer together. Other than that, I have no idea why that song in particular did the best. A lot of this industry is random, and timing is everything.  I guess it was just the right combination of right time and right place, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t work very hard to make that song the best it could possibly be. I think we made like, 15 different versions of that song in the beginning.

HC: How do you make sure you aren’t defined or pigeonholed musically based on that one song [“Renegades”]?

XA: By continuing to experiment and trying to constantly surprise yourself. You only get pigeonholed when you start to think that there’s a formula to success. There isn’t. Just because you did something one way and it worked once, doesn’t mean it’s going to work again.

HC: What’s the songwriting process like? Who spearheads it?

XA: The songwriting process varies from piece to piece. Usually, we’ll start with drums, then [put in] some chord changes or a single-instrument melody and then [add] vocals–melody, then lyrics. But, as many songwriters have said before me, that’s not always the case. Sometimes the guys come to me with full instrumentals that are all structured out and I just write a song over that, sometimes I demo something out on my own fully and bring it to them to change things and sometimes Alex [da Kid] and I will work on something just the two of us and then bring it to the band to do their thing with it. But usually everyone sticks with their own instrument Adam does all the drums, Casey all the synths and keys, Noah the guitars and I write the lyrics and vocal melodies.

HC: In writing, has there been any particular lyric that has resonated with you the most?

XA: I remember writing the lyrics for the chorus of “Gorgeous” and how it was something so simple that made the chorus so complex and cool. Originally it was “You’re so gorgeous/gonna make you feel gorgeous,” but that didn’t really say anything. Just changing those last few words to “Because you make me feel gorgeous,” it changed the entire meaning of the song. It’s about that moment when you finally realize that a crucial part of falling in love is feeling loved yourself. I was so proud of myself when I wrote that.

HC: A lot of your songs appeal to a younger audience, mostly adolescents. What type of message do you want to send through your music, and if you could go back with the perspective you have now, what would you tell your younger self?

XA: I think I’ve been pretty clear about the message we want to send to our audience. But if I could go back in time and give my younger self some advice, I’d whisper in my ear and say, “Don’t be worried if you feel like you’re just pretending like you know what you’re doing. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing. We’re all just putting on a costume every day and trying to make it work.”

HC: Since your success, you’ve shifted from being an opener to becoming a headliner. How have you adapted your approach to performing?

XA: In a way, it’s much easier. You don’t have to work hard to win over any new fans, and you don’t have to stare defiantly in the eyes of people who don’t give a fuck about you and just wanna see the band they paid their money to see. But, it’s also YOUR fans you’re playing for. You owe them the best show they’ve ever seen in their lives.  And you owe that to yourself.  It’s not something that you can phone in just because you can.

HC: You are featured on The Knocks’ debut album, 55. What was it like collaborating with them? What do you think you brought to their debut album?

XA: They’re the best! We loved working with them. I’ve had the pleasure of performing the song live with them a couple times, and crowds seem to love it. I think the song is super funky and definitely has a Prince-y vibe that works well with their music. I can’t wait to hear what their full album sounds like looks like they’ve got some A+ collaborations on it.  

HC: What are your plans for the future?

XA: To try and keep making music that means something. And to keep playing shows together until we’re all too old to pick up our instruments.