Somewhere along its development, the pop-industrial-complex bred the notion that music’s quality positively correlates to the amount of styles it incorporates. Rubbish. It’s not that genre-mixing is a bad practice – it’s just that all too frequently, people assign the “eclectic” label to an album that channels trap-beat-inducing debauchery on one track and piano drenched heartbreak on the next. This is how commercial pop stars sell albums: appeal to the basic emotions of the lowest common denominator, even if their coexistence yields the feelings equivalent of a Frankenstein.
The X Ambassadors, a Brooklyn-based alt rock collective, combine country stomp, hip-hop swagger, stadium-sized rock euphoria and piano-arpeggio- backed melancholy all in one song – but it’s magnificent. The band, through its high-level musicianship and inventive approach to songwriting, captures nuggets of authenticity from the modern pop world and fuses them into something captivating, cohesive, and original. Turns out, embracing pop styles really can be eclectic. I had the pleasure of speaking with the X Ambassador’s front man, guitarist, and saxophonist Sam Harris, where we discussed the musical influences, production, and what it means to start all over again.
JH: Let’s talk about your new EP, “The Reason EP”, which came out this year. There was a country vibe to it, but it also had elements of trap music, indie-pop. It was pretty interesting.
SH: I’m glad you noticed the country influence; I don’t think many people pick up on that.
JH: Yeah, well even in the lyrics and themes, it was rooted in the everyday grind, which has a country thing to it. From your point of view, what musical influences do you and the band take from this EP?
SH: You know, it’s funny – a lot of the influences that we draw upon are contemporary influences. A lot of those are hip-hop based. In terms of the production, we’re really big on a lot of the hip-hop producers like Just Blaze, No I.D., and guys like that. Those are the dudes we look up to, like J. Dilla. The trouble is, we’re a rock band. We have always tried to incorporate elements of hip-hop into our music without becoming like Linkin’ Park. That’s always been a big thing, getting the groove right and the vibe right and having it be a little weird. In terms of songwriting, I grew up listening to a lot of classic songwriters and a lot of soul and R&B. I love Lauryn Hill, I love Bruce Springsteen – a lot of the songwriters that touch through the bullshit. I love that kind of style. I really wanted to make sure that I was getting the point across with all of these songs. I think Bruce Springsteen’s a big influence on this EP. But with Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye there’s just this simple kind of songwriting that I’m most attracted to right now.
JH: I felt that – your songs felt very urgent. Now, I know you guys have done tour dates with Imagine Dragons and Panic! at the Disco. Those are both pretty poppy bands – Imagine Dragons is definitely on the more commercial end of indie-pop. How was it to play with those guys?
SH: It’s great. They’re both incredible bands. Imagine Dragons in particular have been a big help for us in our careers and they’re good friends of ours. Dan Reynolds, the lead singer, actually executive produced both of our EP’s. He’s got a great ear and he’s really helped us out a lot. You know, we all love pop music. We grew up in Ithaca, New York, upstate, near Rochester – when we were growing up, we weren’t exposed to a lot of the cool indie music that was going on in New York, Chicago, Philly, and California. We heard what was on the radio, and my favorite rock bands were alternative rock bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay. That was what I listened to for the most part. So that’s still kind of ingrained in us. As years have gone on I’ve been exposed to tons of great indie musicians and songwriters like James Murphy and the dude from The National. With these songs, I want to try to get the point across to everyone and to really connect with a live audience. Again, we grew up in a small town and the music that we made is inherently striving to be bigger – to break free from its tiny world. So the pop thing has always attracted us. That said, we really love the fact that we have started to create this sound that’s really unique but yet poppy at the same time. That’s what we strive towards: something that’s different. If we’re looking at what everybody else is doing – which we try not to do, we try to keep our heads down and focus on what we’re doing – but if we are looking at what everybody else is doing in the music world, we try to do somewhat of the opposite, or take what they’re doing and make it our own.
JH: I definitely felt that with what I listened to. It’s tough to bridge that gap between ambition and accessibility, but I definitely noticed that you guys took from a lot of popular music elements, like, as I said before, the trap music vibe. Also, the production on what I listened to was spacious, clear, and colorful – I thought it was really awesome.
SH: Thank you. Yeah, we take a lot of pride in our production. Essentially all of this EP was done on the road. We didn’t do any of it in the studio – it was all done in hotel rooms, laptops in our rehearsal space, on tour backstage. It’s cool how it all came together. It turned out to be pretty exciting.
JH: You talk about using pop music to expand from a smaller world. I was reading on your website that your new EP touches upon themes of moving on and new beginnings. I also watched a music video of “Unconsolable” off of “Love Songs Drug Songs”. It seems like you guys are really rooted in everyday life and moving beyond it. Did that come from personal experience?
SH: Yeah. Again, growing up in a small town had a huge impact on me as a songwriter. In terms of the theme of the EP, the EP is really a narrative. It’s actually a story from start to finish of this guy looking back on his life. You go back in time with him, starting with “Free and Lonely”, and he’s looking back at his time as a free person in the world with no responsibilities, but he had to settle down. Life is not what he expected it to be. And then, with “The Business”, we go back and we see him at a point when he’s finally deciding to give up his dreams and move on and do something different, and how that’s okay. It’s not actually bad, that’s why the song is celebratory. And then we go back further, to “Giants”, where he’s a teenager and the world is still full of possibilities. When I was a kid, growing up in Ithaca, I would dream of being able to pursue a career as a musician. The world seemed so full of possibilities, and it was exciting and dangerous and scary. And then it goes back even further, to “Unsteady”, where the guy is a kid and his parents are divorced, and we see his parents are having a similar midlife crisis as he’s having at the beginning. So the story in “Free and Lonely” kind of comes full circle like that. It came from a place of wanting to write about things I knew my friends were going through. I always really strive to write about everyday things that we all go through and that sometimes aren’t the most glamorous things to talk about or sometime they’re uncomfortable to talk about, but that makes them all the more important. For instance, with a lot of people I went to school with who wanted to be actors, directors, musicians, artists or dancers, life kind of happens. I’m 25 now, so I’ve been out of college for about four years, and a lot of my friends have been out of college for that amount of time or longer, and they’re realizing that they’re dreams aren’t going to come true and they’re going to have to figure out something else to do. Life kind of happens. It’s a little bit of a scary thing, but it’s kind of not that bad, and that’s what I wanted to get across with these songs. These are things that people go through too. Again, we listen to a lot of hip-hop, and a big part of it is starting with nothing and building an empire, a really empowering thing to hear. A lot of people in the world go for these dreams and don’t succeed for one reason or another, and it’s not because they didn’t try hard enough. It’s not because they didn’t put the time in. There’s an X-factor that exists. There’s a luck factor. We all know tons of talented people who just never got a break. I wanted them to feel empowered too. I wanted to write something for them – for my friends.
JH: That’s cool – I like how this is like a concept EP.
SH: Yeah, it’s totally a concept EP. I want people to know that there are other people out there who are going through similar hard times. So are we. This whole music industry is so unpredictable these days; we just chose to dive headfirst into it. I think a big part of why I decided to write about this stuff is that I’m scared of failing too. I was thinking to myself, “Wow, we just signed a major label, we’re really going to start and try to push this band. This is really happening right now – what if it all goes wrong?” That was a big thing that was on my mind when I was writing this whole EP. Again, I chose to write about it – I sort of chose to and it sort of happened. “The Business” was the first one that really came about. I just had that hook, “I’m gonna give up the business”. Its about giving up the record industry, the “what if”. What if I had to do that? What if I chose to walk away from it? Or, what if it just didn’t work out and I was forced to walk away from it? It grew from there, and because this was a thing I felt uncomfortable talking about – failure – it was all the more important that I wrote about it. It’s the reason why “Unsteady” came about. I never saw my parents’ divorce as anything worth writing about and not coming off as whiny or too emo. No matter what the situation is, it’s always a difficult thing, for all parties involved, to go through. I wanted to write about it.
JH: You guys are playing at Rochester’s “Bug Jar” on April 8. Are you guys looking forward to playing there?
SH: Yeah, we’re looking forward to playing in upstate New York. That’s our home turf – building a fan base up there, we’re really excited about it.
JH: Is there anything you guys want to include before we finish?
SH: The tour goes from the beginning of April until the 20. Buy your tickets now because it’s selling out pretty quickly. Come out to the Rochester show, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Pick up the new EP, it’s on iTunes and Spotify. Follow us on Twitter, @xambassadors is the handle on both Facebook and Twitter – or Facebook.com/XAmbassadors. Keep spreading the good word.
X Ambassadors will be playing at Rochester’s “Bug Jar” on April 8. For more information on the band and its tour dates visit www.xambassadors.com.
Howard is a member of the class of 2017.