When Sam Harris was growing up, he started out like any music-obsessed kid, sneaking into college shows in his hometown of Ithaca.
“You had to know somebody there to get into them, but yeah I remember seeing some of them. Usually we’d get the big bands coming through Cornell…I saw Arcade Fire play in this tiny cafeteria and there was like 200 people there. The Roots, I Saw Common, Talib Kweli, De la Soul at [Ithaca College], yeah I saw a lot of great shows and it definitely had an impact on me ‘cause that was the one time I really got to see these bands that I idolized come through my town. To see them up close and personal, that was cool because it feels very isolated from the rest of the world, so when the rest of the world kind of came to Ithaca it felt very special.”
Since then, it’s been a wild journey for Harris and the rest of X Ambassadors. Putting out two EPs in a little over a year, you may have seen these guys touring with the likes of Imagine Dragons, Jimmy Eat World, The Mowglis, and Panic! At the Disco on the Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die tour this past winter.
If you’ve never heard the band, their sound is unmistakable. Their first EP, Love Songs, Drug Songs, has this darkness that digs at you with a chugging rhythm. It makes you feel like bouncing to the beat. Their newest EP, The Reason, has a bit of a different vibe to it. It’s brighter but with an overarching theme.
“The reason we wrote that EP is that we have a lot of friends. We’re in our mid-twenties right now and a lot of friends we knew finished college, went to pursue artistic careers and are realizing how seriously difficult that is. A lot of them are finding that their dreams that they dreamed of becoming are not working out, and they’re not going to work out, so they’re changing paths to figure out what’s next. That’s a very scary thing, but a very real thing that a lot of people have to deal with, you know?” said Harris. “When life gets in the way and changes course, it’s crazy, it’s scary, but it can also be exciting! It can be invigorating and vitalizing, and it can teach and show you things about yourself you didn’t know beforehand and allow you to do things you’d never think possible. So that’s a real thing a lot of people we knew were going through and for us. The reason I started writing about that was because we’re in a position where the pressure is on. We’re at a big label, things are starting to build, there’s momentum and what if that momentum stops? This is all we know. All we know is music. This is all we’ve done our entire lives. We’ve all been doing this for so long what if it all fell apart? What’s the plan? So that’s what I wanted to explore and study,” Harris said.
The EP is about a man looking back at his life and tracing it back to where he is. He’s living a suburban life with a suit-and-tie job. He had dreams of what he wanted to do when he was younger, and goes back in time to the beginning when he was a child. It starts on “Free and Lonely” and ends with “Unsteady.” “Shining” is a bonus track.
What I love most about this band is that no matter how big or small the venue, they bring this larger-than- life sound, something that they learned from the music they grew up with. Harris explained, “We all came from backgrounds where we were all listening to the music that first hit us,” Harris explained. “They sounded big! U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay: they all have a really big sound. When you really get down to it though, it’s all about chord structure and simple elements. It’s really for us about experimentation and trial and error, whatever sounds best. We’ve found
lately that you can make something sound really big with just one instrument, you just have to focus on the instrument and getting the right take. You have to get the right guitar line or piano sound or drum sound. A single drum kit could sound so huge, look at John Bonham. You have to allow for and give moments of space too, so we approach it like that.”
Their use of saxophone also adds a unique element to their band that has been growing in music popularity lately. Harris admitted the extent of his playing.
“I played from when I was 10 or 12 [years old] to when I was a senior in high school, and then I didn’t play at all in college. It wasn’t until we graduated in 2010 that I picked it up again when we were going to lay down some horn parts on the EP. I just whipped it out and started playing, and so I started up again. Now it’s become asignature part of our sound, which is really cool. I don’t think anyone out there is incorporating saxophone like we’re doing it right now….in a very basic and mediocre way, but it’s really cool! I’m not technically the greatest horn player out there, but looping technology allows me to build these cool chords to fill a hole in our sound, which is awesome,” he said.
With their headlining tour winding down, the boys are ready to get back into the studio. “After this tour we’re going to start preproduction on our full length [album]. We’ve been writing and recording a bunch. All of The Reason was written out on the road, so we’re constantly coming up with new stuff, we probably have an albums worth of new stuff. We’ve been developing, and we’ll keep developing over the next couple of months. Hopefully in the fall we’ll be out doing another headlining run, but that’s kind of up in the air right now.” Harris said.
When asked to give the music industry and sound recording majors of the University of New Haven some advice, Harris stressed dedication to a career, not just a job. “I’d say the biggest thing about getting a career in this industry is to really treat it like a career. You’re not really going to be making major money immediately. You’re going to be doing a lot of work for free…”