X Ambassadors’ “Renegades” is back to the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, knocking Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” out of its 27-week reign at peak position. Reaching the Hot 100’s top 20 in its 25th week, “Renegades” boasts the steadiest climb on the chart in two years, since Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” also took 25 weeks. Coincidentally, frontman Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons is the very man who “discovered” X Ambassadors, and is primarily to thank for their initial success.
The New York-based rock band consists of Sam Harris (lead singer), Casey Harris (keyboard), Noah Feldshuh (guitar), and Adam Levin (drums). The Harris brothers met fellow Ithaca native, Noah, in kindergarten and have been playing music together since 7th grade. In college, the trio met their drummer, Adam, and welcomed him into the group.
The band’s desire to create genre-defying music lends them the opportunity to incorporate a patchwork of musical styles. The X Ambassadors consider themselves an “alternative rock band with a lot of soul, R&B, and hip-hop influences.”
The popularity of both the band and their hit single shouldn’t be too much of a surprise — take one listen to their debut LP, VHS, and it all makes sense. The catchy, often emotionally raw songs never get stale, no matter how many times you press repeat. Hence the survival of “Renegades,” which has remained popular since it’s debut over seven months ago.
Charts and numbers aside, the X Ambassadors have become a personal favorite of mine. When the opportunity to interview frontman Sam Harris comes my way, I am thrilled. Read on as Sam talks relationships, “American Oxygen,” and just what makes him feel “so goddamn handsome.”
Lauren Kruczyk: Hi Sam — I have a lot of questions for you today!
Sam Harris: Hi Lauren. And great, I love talking about myself!
LK: Ha-ha, perfect. So how did the Jeep campaign come about? How did the company notice your band?
SH: Our label, Interscope, and Alex da Kid had formed a relationship with them. Alex and I had already written “Renegades” and, coincidentally, it fit the campaign really well. Just one of those one-in-a-million serendipitous kinda things. They really took to it.
They were going to put it in one version of the commercial to see how it did. People were really responding strongly to the song and “Shazam-ing” it a lot and they decided to put us in the commercial itself, which was very cool. We’ve been really lucky to have that type of exposure. It’s one of the few ways that bands can “get discovered” nowadays and make a little bit of money and continue to do what they do. We’ve been really lucky.
LK: Imagine Dragons discovered you and introduced you to Alex da Kid, correct?
SH: Yeah, and we owe them a lot. If they hadn’t heard us in Virginia when they did three years ago, none of this would be happening. If they hadn’t been bold enough to take a chance and bring us to the head of their label and say, “Hey these guys are really good, you need to check them out and give them a shot,” we wouldn’t be where we are now.
LK: Is Imagine Dragons generally on the lookout for new bands?
SH: I don’t think so. I think they just really liked us and maybe saw a bit of themselves in us. They worked so hard. It seemed like their success was an overnight success but it wasn’t. They worked for a long, long time together and played so many shows. They wrote so many songs before they “hit it big.” It’s the same with us. We’ve been a band for almost a decade.
Me, Noah, and my brother, Casey moved to New York and met Adam, our drummer, in 2006. But myself, Casey, and Noah — we’ve been playing music since we were in 7th grade! We’ve been at it for a long time, putting in the hours… I’d like to think they saw a little bit of that and said, “Hey these guys are working hard and they’ve got the drive and talent, so let’s go out on a limb for them.”
But it’s kind of unheard of! No other band has ever done that for us. It really speaks to their character. They’re really great people and we just couldn’t be more grateful.
LK: You met Adam in college — how did you know he’d be the right fit for your already tight-knit group?
SH: The cool foundation of our band is that the connection is honestly less through music and more through friendship and family. That’s what brought us all together. Not, “Oh, we need a guitar player, let’s hire this guy! Let’s have this guy join the band!” Or, “We need a drummer, let’s hire this guy!” It was never like that.
I heard a rumor and searched for Adam in our dorm. He became such an integral part of our group. It’s really friendship and family first, above everything else. Our band is based on the four of us being a family.
LK: In a Billboard video interview, you share the concept behind VHS and explain the album track-by-track.
You’ve said, “VHS is our story. It’s about growing up, falling in love, messing up, starting over and trying again; about family, commitment, broken promises and going up against the odds. It’s an intimate, personal look into our past — to figure out what made us who we are today, and who we want to be.”
SH: Yeah, it kind of goes from the very beginning to where we are now.
LK: I think it’s really special that the interludes are outtakes from home videos — you wanted it to be like a story. I’ve read that your dad was a filmmaker, so it’s interesting to me that you wanted your music to tell a story. Like a film.
SH: He would love to hear you say he was a filmmaker! Ha-ha. He was a publicist —he was basically in charge of coordinating the publicity around movies. For example, bringing Entertainment Weekly on set to do an interview with Russell Crowe, or arranging for Variety to come in and take photos. He’s the guy who orchestrates all that. So it’s a little more boring of a job than actually directing or producing a film
But yeah, my dad is in the entertainment industry, and a huge part of our childhood was visiting movie sets. My dad was often gone for months and month, but we’d get a chance to visit him on set. We’d see his form of entertainment that everybody sees as just that: entertainment.
But as kids we realized that there are real people doing real work behind all of it. People do this and it’s their career. To see that as a tangible thing made it easier for us to swallow the idea of doing something in the entertainment industry ourselves.
LK: Right, and it’s so different to see something from the inside than what you see on TV.
What was the catalyst for you in writing “American Oxygen?” How did the collaboration with Rihanna come about?
SH: Alex da Kid had worked with her on “Love the Way You Lie;” he had produced that with her. He worked with her and Skylar Grey. Sometimes, Alex will send me beats to write to. In addition to the writing I do for the band, I’m also writing for other artists. So he sent me this beat; it could have been for anyone. I just started writing and we worked on it for six months, trying to make the chorus perfect.
That song came out of nowhere for me — I don’t know where it came from. Once I had “Breathe out, breathe in, American oxygen,” I wanted to write something à la Bruce Springsteen. “Born in the USA.” Something celebrating America but also kind of putting the idea of the American Dream under the microscope and analyzing it. Saying, “Yeah, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be but it’s still a dream.” It’s still a positive thing people try to reach for. That’s where the initial idea came from.
When the chorus was done, he immediately brought it to her. He thought it would be great for her. She really took to it and she loved it. I don’t know if, prior to that, she had wanted to make some sort of political song, but she really took to it. Her and Alex collectively came up with a concept for the verses, then I helped with words to that concept. The whole thing took about a year to put together.
I’m really proud of my work on it. Her performance is incredible. She directed the music video for it. She helped come up with the concept of the video. I thought it was a really bold move for her to do something like that. There have been people criticizing her for the song, but I think at the end of the day, it’s important for artists to address issues going on in the world. Anyone who does that is okay in my book. I think that it’s an artist’s responsibility, whether you think of yourself as a political person or not.
Politics is life. It’s the world that we live in. It’s social injustice and inequality we’re talking about. It needs to be addressed. Some people might say it better than others. But you have to talk about it. The conversation has to start.
LK: I agree, and I think a lot of people may not even think of the song as “political” because it’s so personal to them.
There’s a song called “Litost” from your EP, Love Songs Drug Songs. The word is a Czech term that means “a state of torment created by the state of one’s own misery.” You discovered the term in a book you were reading at the time. You must have related to it in some way — is there anything specific that was happening in your life, causing you to feel that way?
SH: The point I was at in my life was a very frustrating time. I was not in the most reciprocal relationship… I kind of put myself in that position, and it was almost as if I had created the whole situation myself. It was a perpetual spiral of, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I doing this to myself?” Like, “God, I hate this situation!” But yeah… unrequited love is great fodder for songs. That’s not even what it was about, really. It was more my thing. And you know, we’re good friends.
LK: I think a lot of people get into that kind of situation, whether it’s a relationship, job, friendship. There was a quote from the [Billboard] interview where you said, “If something you’re doing or writing isn’t making you uncomfortable, then you’re probably not digging deep enough.” I think that’s why your music is so great, because it’s so open and vulnerable and real. “Unsteady.” “Free and Lonely.” All of your songs, really.
SH: I think it’s very important to do. The whole foundation of great art is vulnerability. If you’re not allowing yourself to be vulnerable and take a chance and go to that place where you feel uncomfortable, maybe you’re not making the best art you could be making.
Maybe that’s not necessarily true all the time. But for me, I find the stuff I’ve written that people react to the most is the stuff that’s the most personal or that comes from a place of brutal honesty. In writing the song “Litost,” I don’t know if I ever played it for the person I was in the relationship with. I don’t know if she’s ever heard it… she probably has. She’s probably read some of these interviews with me talking about how it wasn’t the greatest relationship.
“Unsteady” was about my parents and their divorce. After they heard it, I talked to them about it. For them, it wasn’t even like, a thought. It was just like, “Wow, you made something really beautiful.” That was when I started to think, “Oh, people get it.” It’s all about honesty, and that’s what matters.
I mean, sometimes people will be hurt or offended. That’s just something you’ve got to deal with. But for the most part, people just respect the attempt to do something very personal. People see that and recognize that.
LK: I was actually going to ask you about your parents’ response to the song…
SH: Yeah, and it’s hard, because I have such a great relationship with both of my parents and my stepmother. It’s hard because that was such a vulnerable spot for me to be in, as a 15 year-old — falling in love for the first time, and then my parents split up. Deep down, that’s every kid’s fear. That their parents are going to split up and leave them behind.
That didn’t happen though. My parents didn’t abandon me, but it always feels a little bit like an abandonment, in a sense. Like they kind of gave up, you know? But it’s not giving up. That’s what I wanted the song to relay. It gives as many sides to the story as possible. That there’s a longing for the child to still feel loved and secure and okay. But that it’s not easy for the parents either. It’s ultimately what you realize.
LK: As you get older and more mature, you do start to wonder how your parents felt in certain situations, and start to think less about how it affected you personally.
SH: Yeah, and for me it was always the type of thing where I felt uncomfortable writing about it — not only thinking about my parents and what they would think about it if they heard it, but mainly thinking, “Why should I be complaining or whining about this? Everyone’s parents get divorced. It’s not a big deal. Shit happens.”
That right there was when I found myself thinking, “This is why I need to write it. I’m sure so many other people are thinking the same thing.” I think it’s a common thought people have…”I think it really fucked me up but I don’t really feel like I should be complaining about it.”
LK: Yeah. Everyone has their own issues. Sometimes you may think it doesn’t affect you, but it still leaves those imprints and you’re still allowed to feel a certain way about it.
You’ve said “Gorgeous” was one of your favorites — it’s my favorite as well. What was your inspiration for that song?
SH: That one came very naturally and easily. I had the chorus and I had the word “gorgeous.” I’m in a much healthier relationship now than I was before or have ever been. The type of relationship where the other person makes me feel good about myself and I’m not trying to impress them. I can feel secure. And that makes me love them even more for making me feel good about myself.
It’s funny, because it’s kind of a selfish way of thinking about a relationship, but it’s a really important thing to be in a relationship with someone who makes you feel good about yourself. If that doesn’t exist, then it’s not a relationship you should be in. I just wanted to celebrate that feeling. That’s ultimately what the song is about. Being able to feel good about yourself with another person. It’s self-empowering.
LK: The music video for “Unconsolable” is such a jab to the heart. Did you come up with the concept?
SH: That was a concept me, Alex, and Dan Reynolds [Imagine Dragons] came up with. Alex had an idea about making the video about brothers, and I came up with this story about the brothers that plays out in the video. Alex helped clean up the empty spots and made things more exciting. Then we got this great directing team to shoot it.
LK: It’s a very powerful video.
You collaborated with Jamie N Commons on “Lowlife.” How did that opportunity come about?
SH: “Lowlife” was the first time we wrote with Jamie, before “Jungle,” and we had wanted to work with him ever since we found out we were on the same label. I just had this chorus and Alex showed it to Jamie. Jamie wrote the verses and there it was!
It was very quick. I got an email from Alex saying, “Jamie wrote a verse to the chorus you wrote,” and I was like, “Wow, this is fuckin’ great.” We decided to put it on the record. Jamie is one of our favorite artists. A really, really incredible singer and songwriter. He’s gonna be big.
LK: What did you think about Jay-Z’s remix of the song, “Jungle?”
SH: It was the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s great. It’s very soccer-oriented. He did it around the World Cup. Apparently, Jake Gyllenhaal listened to it the whole time he was training for Southpaw.
LK: That must be an awesome feeling, that someone gains a crazy amount of inspiration from something you originally created.
SH: Yeah, definitely. I heard about that the other day and thought it was so cool.
LK: In the [Billboard] interview, you talked a little bit about the song, “Nervous.” You said, “Whenever things are going well in my life I get nervous because I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.” I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling, when things are going too well. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, to be like, “I want to enjoy this but…”
SH: “…but everything’s going to go to shit!” Yeah, ha-ha. I feel that way a lot. I don’t know what it is. I wish that I didn’t. I wish that I could really just appreciate every little bit of my life all of the time, even in the past. And that’s what I’m trying to actively do more of. But I’ve always believed in some sort of karmic shit, you know?
But it works the other way too. When everything in my life seems to be falling apart — the lowest of the low — I can always make myself feel better. It’s like I’m on one end of the pendulum, and it’s gotta swing the other way. And I think, “When it does, it’s gotta swing hard the other way. Because I am so far on the other side right now!” That thought always helps me feel better.
LK: I think you kind of have to believe that, to be able to keep going. When you’re in that state of mind, thinking, “Damn, I hope it gets better!”
SH: And it does!
And it does. (Especially if you happen to be a member of the X Ambassadors.)
I’d like to thank the X Ambassadors, Stunt Company, Interscope & KidinaKorner for the awesome opportunity. VHS is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. The album is available to stream on Spotify. For information about the band’s tour dates, visit their official website.