Coming from the college town of Ithaca in upstate New York, it makes sense that X Ambassadors re-examined the concept of fraternity with a musical brotherhood literally composed of brothers Sam and Casey Harris, their childhood friend Noah Feldshuh, and drummer Adam Levin whom Sam and Noah met their freshman year at the New School. As Sam Harris says, many of them have “literally gone through every phase of musical taste together.”
Love Songs Drug Songs, featuring the single “Unconsolable,” is imbued with the essence of Ithaca, its weathered bygone-era buildings backlit by heathered indigo skies and two hundred year old narratives scattered through the collective unconscious of the community. On the evocative track, Sam Harris’ plaintive voice is pillared by thunderous stormclouds of punctuated Afro-pop percussives and R&B-infused melodies. The lyrics of the song seem to lament the drowned-out emotional monsoon of monotony, a suburban existence rife with still-life dramas; Dramas that X-Ambassadors managed to escape through the old-school appreciation of their song “Litost” via a radio station in Norfolk, Virginia and Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds “flipping out” after hearing an acoustic version of “Unconsolable” from a jock at that same radio station.
“It was very cool and very strange how this tiny little town just picked up on our music so quickly,” says Harris. Simply called Ambassadors at the time (they changed their name for legal reasons), the band graduated from playing a 150-person show at a waterpark at the enthusiastic behest of someone at the radio station, then playing a sold-out 1500-person gig with the Lumineers a few months later, to playing their own sold-out show exactly a month after that at the same venue. This wildfire excitement over X Ambassadors translated well into Reynold’s torrid love affair with the band. After hearing that acoustic track, Reynolds rhapsodized over the band to his KidinaKorner/Interscope Records label partner, Alex Da Kid, and prompted a Christmastime meeting in London over drinks with the popular British producer and Harris.
Harris says they talked all night, came back and had a conference call with Reynolds in New York, and then flew out to Los Angeles to co-write tracks such as “Stranger” with Reynolds who encouraged the ex-theatre student to summon forth a “wilder direction” than Harris would have on his own through the songwriting process. Taking both cues from his theatrical upbringing and Reynold’s savage stage presence (“He’s one for the dramatic,” quips Harris), the X Ambassadors frontman says that the band also brings a similar dark, tremulous emotionalism to their live shows as Imagine Dragons. And tells us Reynold’s gets some of his energy from an elliptical he takes on tour with him. “That’s the one luxury we’d want on our rider,” says Harris.
Alex Da Kid’s influence on the art of X Ambassadors has been both complementary and cutthroat, a brutal musical filter that, by “breathing down his neck,” has inspired the band to “create really good pieces of art.”
“You’re going to be so close to that music regardless,” explains Harris, “that you need an outside perspective to help craft it.” Adversely, in terms of the band’s intimacy with their sonic subjects, most of it comes from the inner infiltration of their Ithaca youth, one sans direct influence by anything other than Top 40 hits from the likes of Aaliyah, 112, Jagged Edge, Ginuwine, and Montell Jordan, who’s risqué videos for hits like “This Is How We Do It” and “Let’s Ride” Harris would watch secretly on BET. “My parents would kill me if they saw me watching those videos,” laughs Harris. “[They were] so sexual, overtly sexual.”
Even though Harris says Love Songs Drugs Songs is inspired by that “bizarre” and “dreary” suburban college town that’s “rainy and cold for 80 percent of the time,” there is sly irreverence and naughty hip-hop style sexual references in some of the songs on Love Songs Drug Songs. Even the title elicits images of more playful pastimes than one would expect in a simple stodgy suburb. Some of Harris’ favorite love songs include Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” which he sings to me over the phone, and Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind,” which he sang at his Dad’s wedding. The drug songs are a little more “incriminating” to answer jokes Harris, although he’s quick to name Miguel’s “Do You…” and Queens of the Stone Age classic “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer.”
Harris seems to enjoy this juxtaposition of light and dark; it’s captured most eloquently in his textured lyrics, lyrics that rapidly transition emotionally just like some of his favorite playwrights and directors like In Bruges’ Martin McDonagh.
“It’s like it catches you in the middle of a laugh and it gets caught in your throat,” explains Harris as he describes the film. “And that’s what I want to do with our music. Some of the most tragic moments in our lives are also some of the funniest moments in retrospect. I think it’s important to have that perspective.”
“[It’s] good to have a sense of humor in your music. Too many people take themselves too f**king seriously. If you can maintain a little bit of sense of humor and yet still get the message across it’s actually more powerful than just something that’s straight ahead super morose or very serious or dark,” continues the frontman.
“I hope we stay thick as thieves,” sings Harris in “Unconsolable.” With X Ambassadors’ ability to create an almost kinetic kinship between listener and musician, they can be consoled by the idea that where there is heat, there is fire. X Ambassadors seem to have blazed a path through the rain-drenched melancholy of their Ithacan roots into the warm embrace of their devout fans and created a new kind of family.
X Ambassadors opens for Imagine Dragons throughout their their current U.S. tour. Download “Unconsolable” for free at their website.
—Nadia Noir, KROQ