X Ambassadors’ debut album VHS reflects on the events that shaped lead vocalist and lyricist Sam Harris and his older brother, keyboardist Casey Harris’ life growing up in Ithaca, NY. “It was us looking back on everything that made us who we are,” says Sam. The gold-certified album, which Rolling Stone called “bombastic rock that’s as stomping as it is diaristic, leavened by big-tent pop hooks and a hint of hip-hop swagger,” debuted at No. 7 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart and spawned the platinum-selling “Renegades,” which spent 12 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Alternative chart, and the double-platinum “Unsteady,” which went Top 10 at Alternative, Hot AC, and Top 40 radio. The success of VHS sent X Ambassadors on a nearly two-year touring odyssey that found them winning over fans around the world and performing at the Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Life is Beautiful, and Shaky Knees festivals, among others, and establishing themselves as a world-class rock band.
Their rise has been studded by an impressive list of accomplishments. The band, which also includes Sam’s college friend, Los Angeles-raised drummer Adam Levin, were nominated for an iHeartRadio Music Award, two Teen Choice awards, two Billboard Music awards, and an American Music award. They guested on tracks by Eminem, The Knocks, Zedd, Skylar Grey, and Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, and their KIDinaKORNER labelmates Imagine Dragons (“Sucker for Pain”). “Collider,” a song they wrote with Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, was chosen as the soundtrack to ESPN’s season-long college football marketing campaign. Sam co-wrote a song for Rihanna called “American Oxygen,” produced by Alex da Kid and Kanye West. And finally, at last year’s SXSW, Sam and Casey sat in with The Roots, performing two X Ambassadors songs and a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me.” “That was a dream come true for me,” Sam says. X Ambassadors returned the favor by inviting The Roots to co-headline the band’s inaugural Cayuga Sound Festival, which takes place in Ithaca this fall. “We wanted to give back to the community that raised us,” Sam says of the festival, which is curated by the band, and also features K.Flay, The Knocks, and Tei Shi on the bill. Proceeds will be donated to the city’s Community School of Music and Arts, where Sam took music and dance lessons as a kid, along with other local programs and organizations.
Ithaca looms large in the story of X Ambassadors. Not only did it serve as major thematic inspiration on VHS, but Sam cites returning to their hometown to headline a sold-out fundraiser for the city’s State Theatre in May 2016 as one of his highlights of the last two years. “My teachers and mentors were there, my mom was there,” he recalls. “She came up on stage and sang ‘Georgia on My Mind’ with me while Casey accompanied us. It was really incredible. Everything kind of came full circle in that moment.”
Since coming off the road, X Ambassadors have been writing songs for their second album, pushing themselves to infuse each new song with a soulful feeling. “These are influences we’ve had for forever — artists like Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Otis Redding, and The Band — but I think I held back a lot on the last record,” he says. “I was so focused on coming up with something that would really open doors for us that I forgot to use my voice to its fullest extent.” Not any longer. The album’s first single, “Ahead of Myself,” is an impassioned, fervid song inspired by Sam’s tendency to jump into things before thinking them through. “That’s the story on paper, but in reality, it tells a much bigger story,” he says.
X Ambassadors’ fans got a taste of the band’s current sonic direction with three songs released earlier this year, the rollicking “The Devil You Know” (which was featured in a trailer for the upcoming Tom Cruise film American Made), the slow-burning “Torches” (which was heard in the film Transformers: The Last Knight), and the inspirational “Hoping,” which was written in the days after the presidential election. For six months, all proceeds from “Hoping” went to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is fighting Donald Trump’s immigration ban, among other things. X Ambassadors also performed at a benefit concert to support Planned Parenthood on the eve of International Women’s Day at the Roxy in Los Angeles in March.
“I believe that life and politics are inseparable,” Sam says. “And this is a time when a lot of people are feeling very scared, so to show a bit of solidarity can’t hurt. And we really, truly believe in human rights and equal rights for everyone.”