This week cued a homecoming for alt-rock stars, X Ambassadors.
Composed of brothers Sam and Casey Harris, along with long-time friend Adam Levin, the band formed during the members’ years at The New School in New York. Since its formation, the band has labored for their love of music and now, following a number of major successes – including releasing a top-10 charting album (their debut titled VHS) – the band has returned to the city to play one of the greatest venues on earth: Madison Square Garden.
The show on Monday night, organized in collaboration with Bud Light for its One Night Only series, was set to be unforgettable. The event brought the performing artists – X Ambassadors and the American rapper, Post Malone – closer to their fans. In between sets guests could also visit Bud Light’s interactive onsite footprint to celebrate their music friendships and more.
Before the band took to the stage, The Knockturnal sat down with them to talk about “making it,” the artist’s role in today’s world, and the band’s latest collaboration.
Welcome back to New York! I know that the city and the state have been significant places for the band. How does it feel to be back to place Madison Square Garden?
Sam Harris: I mean, we were just driving up to the building and saw our faces massively on the side of the building. That has been a childhood dream of mine – and I think I can speak for the rest of the guys, of ours – since like, forever. It’s so cool! I’ve been having friends who still live here text me pictures all week. You know, seeing posters up around town and seeing the photo on the side of the building, it feels really good. It feels really good. We’ve worked very hard.
Congratulations! It’s one of the biggest venues in the world.
All: It’s amazing.
There are many young, aspiring musicians in New York right now who want to follow a similar path to X Ambassadors. What advice would you offer to those trying to break into the scene?
Casey Harris: Take every opportunity you possibly can. [If we didn’t], we wouldn’t be where we are right now.
Adam Levin: Yeah, that’s what we did. Most of the time, the things that seem very insignificant or a waste of time are the things that [count]. Someone in a position of power heard or saw the interview or heard the performance that we thought was going to be a waste of time and that is what led us to the next level, depending on where we’ve been in our careers. So, like what Casey said, take every opportunity, do even the trivial things that you think don’t matter because all those little things add up.
SH: Yeah, like, free shows where it’s an open bar and just tips, do those. If your friend has a blog and wants you to do an acoustic performance in their tiny apartment, do it. Just do everything that you possibly can to get your music out there, if you believe in it.
For sure. Do you guys have one defining moment that you can think of?
SH: We got really lucky with a performance that we did for a blog in Pittsburgh. It was for Altar TV and it was at 7:00 a.m. We were so tired. We were in the middle of our first big tour and we were exhausted, but we had this on schedule, so we went. We played a song of ours and that performance was later seen by people at Interscope Records, who ended up signing us.
Oh my gosh! That’s huge!
SH: And [the signing] was like, a year later. It wasn’t immediately after it went up. So, you never know when it’s coming.
You’ve reference bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Kings of Leon, and more as some of the earliest influences on your sound. Are there any artists that you love right now? Who would you love to collaborate with on a track?
AL: There’s a lot. We love Post Malone, who’s playing the show with us.
CH: You know, like all the obvious people. We love Kanye and all the contemporary rappers, like Jay Z, who remixed our song “Jungle.”
SH: I would say that [Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, etc.] and all those bands were the skeleton structure when we formed the band early on; when Casey and I started playing music together when we were teenagers, and then when we met Adam when we moved here in 2006. That was kind of the template. Those bands were the level that we wanted to be at and in terms of influences, I mean, we grew up listening to a lot of Soul, a lot of RnB, a lot of Hip-Hop and a lot of Classic Rock. Adam is a huge Zeppelin fan. I grew up listening to Jackie Wilson and Otis Reading and Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone and, even further back, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. I love jazz and soul and RnB music, and Casey –
CH: (Smiles and nods.) I was a Funkateer, you know, [listening to] Parliament and Ohio Players and Commodores and all that [from] the 70’s when funk was in its hey-day.
SH: (Smiles.) So, it’s been fun to experiment with those real influences beneath the surface of “we are a band.”
Earlier this year, X Ambassadors released a song titled, “Hoping.” It was a song, you claimed, for everyone living in fear at this time. Building off of this song, can you speak at little bit about the role of the artist in times of strife or struggle?
CH: It’s your responsibility as an artist – especially as a successful artist – to do the right thing, to step up and make your voice heard, and to try to make the world a better place. [You have] to fight against tyranny and fight against bigotry and it can’t be overstated how important the voices of celebrities are in this day and age. That’s a huge amount of power you have and you’ve got the responsibility with that power to try and use it to make the world a better place.
SH: It’s been very frustrating for us to see other artists shy away from [the responsibility] because they’re afraid of losing fans. If anything, you just have to be true to yourself. There are so many people who come to our shows and are afraid right now. The current political climate is not welcoming for a lot of minorities, a lot of immigrants, any person who in any way feels marginalized. This is a very scary time for them and in turn, for all of us. It’s kind of like an obligation for us to do whatever we can to make people feel safe and welcome.
The band has been steadily releasing music since the beginning of this year with tracks like the mentioned “Hoping,” along with “Torches” and “The Devil You Know.” A new album seems to be in the works and set for an upcoming release. How do you think your sound differs on this next record in comparison to VHS? Did you begin working on this record with a specific vision for the finished product or did it develop through collaborating in the studio?
AL: I think we went into it with an idea [for the record] but VHS came out in 2015 and we’ve been working on songs and new stuff since [its release]. Some of those [songs] will be on the album but most of it’s newer than that; I feel like we’ve discussed [tapping into] a more soulful root. At the same time, I think the initial idea we had going into it and the final concept is pretty different. I think we went into it experimenting, writing a bunch of things that were very different and that kind of influenced where we continued to go.
At this moment, the band members turn to one another and nod in agreement.
AL: We’d write a rock song and then a soulful song and then say, “wow, this soulful song is really cool and different, there’s tons of rock bands out there but there’s no one doing stuff like this, let’s try to do more stuff like this.” Then a new element would come in and we’d be like, “this is really cool, let’s try doing more stuff like this.” At the end, where you literally have 50+ songs, you start to narrow it down. I’d say every two or three months in the writing process – now that it’s almost done, it’s not changing directions – but there’d be a moment where we think: this new thing we did, it’s really unexpected and weird, let’s try going more in that route. It’s really cool. You go into it with a plan and as you’re getting deep –
CH: A plan’s got to be flexible.
AL: Yeah, a happy accident happens or someone hears a song and they’re like, “that is what you need to focus on.” So, it’s really changed as we’ve worked on it. It’s really a cool experience and that’s honestly how VHS was too.
SH: I think the difference between this album and VHS is that VHS was more of a retrospective. [It was] the telling of the story of how we got to where we are with everything from the themes of the songs to the interludes from our childhood. This record is more of a statement of who we are. I would say it’s an identity defining record for us. We’re really, really proud of it. We all really are getting to play on it, it feels like a liberation.
CH: We’re pretty stoked about it.
SH: That’s an understatement.
We’re really excited to hear it! In a previous interview, Sam spoke of having a form of ritual or routine to keep your body and soul in check while on tour. Do you have any pre-show rituals to prepare for performing?
CH: I’ll have a beer sometimes. (All laugh.) I usually read on my phone or something like that too, you know.
SH: I stretch and I do some yoga. I have to be really careful about my voice because the sets are long and I’m singing all over my vocal range. So, I’ve got to watch what I’m eating and I’ve got a little portable steam inhaler that I use before I do my vocal warm-up for 40 minutes or so. I make sure to work out that day – whether it’s before the show or fist thing in the day – just at some point, as I have to keep physically fit whilst on tour. That’s a constant thing. Those are my rituals; I spend all day preparing.
AL: Even when he’s not on tour. If there’s a month off he has to sing every day. It’s like a muscle.
We’re here tonight with Bud Light for their One Night Only series, which was created to bring fans closer to the music they love. What drew you to this collaboration?
SH: What we’ve witnessed [with Bud Light] is how they really bring people together, bring fans together, and bring friends together for an intimate experience. We were lucky enough to see what their collaboration with Lady GaGa was like in LA when she did a small concert series at these little bars all around the United States. It was so cool to not only see her in a context of something like that, which was reminiscent of where we started playing and where she started playing, but to see her die-hard fans – to watch them watch her – was such a special thing. I mean, Bud Light has also brought us to this incredible venue, which is such a historic venue here in New York and holds such significance for us.
CH: It’s been a childhood dream.
SH: Yeah! I mean, we’re native New Yorkers, not native to the city but to New York state.
AL: Although we lived here for ten years in the city. It’s amazing.
SH: So, to be able to be here and put on a show like this for our fans – for our real hardcore fans – it’s very special. I think that a brand that knows how special that connection [between artists and fans is] is a brand that we want to work with.
So, you’re releasing new music and you’re finishing up a tour later this year. Do you have any upcoming plans that you’d like to share?
SH: Other than vacation? (All laugh.) Well, we’re just still writing, honestly. We’re at a fun stage where the album is pretty much done and we’ve got singles picked out and now we’re working with artists and creative directors to come up with the full, complete vision for the record and we’re also still writing, which is cool because a lot of the best, best stuff comes right at the end.
SH: We learned that on the last record when we wrote “Renegades.” That was a very similar situation. So, we’ll see. We’ve got the record done right now but we could always surprise ourselves.
Do you want to learn more about X Ambassadors’ performance at Madison Square Garden? You can read our review of the event here.