X Ambassadors front man, Sam Harris talks influence, inspirations and collabs.
Since forming at the end of the 2000s, the Harris brothers – vocalist Sam and keyboardist Casey – have been pursuing music that pushes the envelope. Through their ongoing work at the creative helm of X Ambassadors, the siblings have done everything within their power to differentiate from the established norms and conventions set out for genre. Their fearless approach has lead them to tours with Jimmy Eat World, collaborations with Lizzo and two acclaimed studio albums – the most recent of which, Orion, hit shelves this past June.
As part of their ongoing world tour in support of the album, X Ambassadors are hitting Australia next month for their first-ever tour of the country. Ahead of the shows, we spoke to band leader Sam Harris about influence, inspiration and collaboration under the X Ambassadors banner.
What kind of role did music play in the Harris household growing up? Did you and Casey always know that playing music was something that you wanted to do?
For us, it started kind of gradually. Our mum was a singer – she sang jazz cabaret, and she worked as an independent musician for years before she met my father. She would do shows locally and make records while we were kids, so there was always music in the house. Casey and I fell in love with the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, and it kind of expanded out from there.
When I was maybe 12 or 13, I formed a band with my best friends from school. I had always loved singing, and this was a vehicle for me to do that. I don’t know why, but we never did cover bands. Any band I was in back in high school, it was always original songs – so I began writing songs at a really early age.
To be honest, Casey and I weren’t really that close until he started coming in and jamming with my band when we were practising at our house. We started to really connect musically – from that point on, I knew we had something special.
Whereabouts was all of this taking place?
We grew up in Ithica, in upstate New York. It’s a small little college town – Cornell University is there. It’s a sleepy, grey town with not a lot going on. It was the perfect place to really connect with music. It was so rare to find people who liked the same music as I did – not only did those people become my best friends, they became my bandmates.
Eventually, Casey and I moved to New York City. Once we were there, we picked up where we left off. I found Adam, our drummer, within my first week of school in New York. It just went from there.
What kind of stuff was driving X Ambassadors when the band started? What influenced the direction the band took?
When we were in high school, I was obsessed with bands like Kings of Leon, The Strokes, The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I wasn’t really making that kind of music, though – I was making more of the alternative rock that was closer to, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. To be fair, they were also a band I was obsessed with in school. It was this kind of more radio-friendly rock music, but it had a little bit of a soul and rnb edge to it. I was a singer, y’know? I was a trained vocalist, and I wanted to sing like that. None of what we were doing had any real cohesion – really, it was kind of this big mess.
I was living in New York in the mid-to-late 2000s, so of course, I was listening to a lot of TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, The National… all of these bands that were blowing up around the same time. They were all cool, hip, up-and-coming… I was definitely learning from them, but I was not making that kind of music myself. We were still making this kind of arena-type alternative rock. It wasn’t until I wrote this song in my senior year of college – this song ‘Inconsolable’ – that I really felt like I’d written something that felt right. It felt cool, it felt different and it felt big but not trying to be too big. From there, we kind of latched onto that sound and explored that a bit more. It’s gradually evolved from there.
It sounds as though an eclectic approach in your music listening has always influenced the way you make music in one way or another.
That’s true. I mean, I say all of those bands, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. I was listening to everything under the sun. A lot of hip-hop – Kendrick, Kanye, J Cole. A lot of rnb. We’re lucky enough to be living in a time where there are so many heavy-hitters in just about every genre you can think of.
By proxy, that’s also played into the acts that you’ve both toured with and collaborated with. Jimmy Eat World, Imagine Dragons and Logic might not have much in common on paper, but you’re at the centre of their Venn diagram. Is it a point of pride to you that X Ambassadors can be an epicentre to a myriad of different artists?
Yeah, it definitely is. It doesn’t just stop there, either – I mean, we worked on Lizzo’s latest album [Cuz I Love You]. We produced and wrote three songs on that, and being part of it was so cool. It feels very natural to who we are when we collaborate. I’m just interested in telling really good stories in terms of working with other artists. We’re interested in other artists speaking their truth, and us facilitating that by speaking our truth in return.
Fear – X Ambassadors, Imagine Dragons
What is it, to you, that makes a great collaboration between two artists?
I think it’s when you are fans of each other’s work. When you go in, your goal is to bring out the best in each other. Whether that ends up leaning in one person’s favour or not – who’s singing more, who does it sound more like – you don’t worry about that. You just want to make something that moves people. I only collaborate with people that I’m a genuine fan of – I’m there to watch and learn when they do what they do. We have to trust one another’s instincts, and not be afraid to come up with ideas – good and bad. You trust that something good will come.
You spent most of 2019 on the road. How has the X Ambassadors live show changed from when the band was starting out to what you’re presenting to audiences now?
Obviously, it’s a lot bigger. When we were first starting out, we were playing on really small, cramped stages. We couldn’t move around a lot, but I tried to as much as possible. I think a lot of the same energy from when we were starting out still exists when you see us play now. We’ve just gotten nicer equipment and more of a crew – there’s a bit more of a flow to the show. I’m not struggling to tune my instruments between songs – we have more time to interact and engage with people. I think the performances are really liberating. We’re not trying to wrestle five different beasts at once – it’s just about the audience and your own efforts.
We’ve always maintained the philosophy of giving live shows our all. We leave our fucking blood and guts up on that stage. It’s so important to us – that’s why people come to see our shows, because they know we’re not going to hold anything back. I think that’s the purpose of art in general, really: To be your complete self.
The X Ambassadors will be bringing their powerful and anthemic musical experience to the first time in Australia as they celebrate the release of their second studio album Orion. Tickets on sale now.
Listen to Orion.
Words By David James Young