In a Los Angeles studio, X Ambassadors’ Sam Harris was flicking through his phone in search of a drum sample. Buried in the voice notes - amidst snippets of lyrics and almost-forgotten melodies - was a prototype verse: “My feet go boom boom boom, boom boom boom…”
When the band’s latest creative collaborator, superproducer Ricky Reed, heard the clip, he immediately stopped the session in progress.
Re-worked, that seven-second fragment would become X Ambassadors’ blistering new single “BOOM”. Visceral and instinctive, the track is a quick-fire anthem for emphatic recovery and personal revolutions. As its beat rocks, personal demons and toxic relationships recede in the rearview mirror.
It’s a song that is the essence of the band and their work to date. Beneath their arena-sized sound and high-gloss exterior is a complex network of relationships, neuroses and the prospect – under the weight of a grueling tour schedule, co-dependence and creative turmoil – of personal and collective collapse.
Like so much great art, X Ambassadors’ finest work is rooted in the process of pain, relief, relapse and recovery.
Oh shit! That says BOOM!” – Casey Harris, keyboardist
The artwork for “BOOM” is written in Braille and designed in a yellow-on-black colourway. For Casey, the band’s keyboardist and Sam’s brother, who was born blind, it is the first physical manifestation of his work that he has been able to experience visually. He has just 10% of his vision.
Casey’s reaction: “Oh shit! That says BOOM!”
This moment, shared between brothers, represents a key concept behind X Ambassadors’ current mode. For Sam, his relationship with Casey forms a songwriting cornerstone of the band’s upcoming album. Growing up, Casey experienced anger incited by his disability. Sam – 3 years his junior - was occasionally caught in the crossfire. “It was hard,” explains Sam, “and sometimes I took it better than others. I tried to understand.”
For many of their younger years, the brothers’ relationship was fractious – loving, but pockmarked by teen angst and frustration. Music - eventually - proved to be a tonic. They began playing together, experimenting with a sound inspired by their Jazz singer mother and the soul and rock records that filled their childhood home in Ithaca, NY.
Sam’s artistic intentions drew him south to New York City, where, during his time at The New School, the first iteration of X Ambassadors was formed.
Now settled in Brooklyn, a series of demos followed as the band’s classic influences coalesced with the underground hip-hop and almighty alt-rock acts (Kings of Leon, Coldplay, Red Hot Chili Peppers) that influenced the group as teenagers.
The result was an expansive, expressive sound that belied their small-town beginnings and alienated the introverted, self-conscious Brooklyn indie scene. “We never felt like a New York band,” Sam says. “You expect to move to the city and become part of some kind of scene but that never happened. It was a struggle for us to get gigs.” Feeling that they were outgrowing their roots, but existing as outsiders in their new surroundings, X Ambassadors were destined to go it alone.
Resolute in their vision, the band’s refusal to adhere to passing trends yielded success as their ballad “Litost” - taken from the debut Love Songs Drug Songs EP - was championed by Spotify and then caught the ear of the program director at Virginia rock station 96X. It became the station’s most requested track of 2012.
“It felt like the only route to recovery. I just said fuck it.” – Sam Harris on writing “Unsteady”
Enter producer Alex Da Kid, who would coax from Sam his rawest, most personal work to date on The Reason EP. The record’s standout track “Unsteady” addressed Sam and Casey’s parents’ divorce with earth-shattering honesty. Approaching such a personal topic was against the singer’s instinct to protect himself and his family at all costs, but it proved to be an exercise in personal catharsis and the catalyst for a creative emancipation. “The idea of writing about my home life, about my parents’ divorce, it was super uncomfortable” explains Sam, “But I had to do it. It felt like the only route to recovery. I just said ‘fuck it’.”
The track became the band’s biggest hit to date and the bedrock of their debut album, 2015’s VHS. While establishing a signature transcendent sound, the record channeled the honesty of “Unsteady” throughout, exploring Sam and Casey’s Ithaca childhood through a series of interludes snatched from home movies, cell phone videos and soundchecks. Amidst the soaring choruses, expansive soundscapes, and features from the likes of Imagine Dragons, Jamie N Commons and Tom Morello (on the special edition re-release), these moments of intimacy felt all the more profound.
Led by the everyman anthem “Renegades” the album was a resounding success, accumulating hundreds of millions of plays and propelling X Ambassadors further up the hierarchy of American alt-rock bands. Sold out shows and global tours followed, as did a collaboration with the Knocks (“Comfortable”) and a contribution to the Suicide Squad soundtrack that featured Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Imagine Dragons and Ty Dolla $ign.
In the afterglow of the record’s release, though, X Ambassadors would once again have to draft inspiration from life’s challenges. As a songwriter, Sam began to focus on the intricate personal relationships in his life, observing their potential to flower or fade with time.
On an even grander scale, the band joined the rest of the world in responding to the election of Donald Trump, re-calibrating their lives in a world where – on a political scale at least – empathy was hard to find. In dark times, X Ambassadors found hope in contributing to causes greater than their own. They released a charity single - “Hoping” - with proceeds going to support the American Civil Liberties Union and performed with other artists at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre in aid of Planned Parenthood, an event that coincided with the International Women’s Day March.
When sessions began for their sophomore album, Sam’s introspection and existential unease was translated onto record. He began stretching his voice and mining his own experiences deeper and deeper; in part in search of healing, in part in search of a creative spark. “I was trying to prove what we could do,” he says. The project inevitably faltered – “we recorded two whole albums and released neither of them.”
But there were diamonds in the rough. “JOYFUL”, a gospel-tinged ode to gratitude, and “Don’t Stay”, a post-pop anthem, crystallized Sam’s vision of an X Ambassadors project full of artistic scope and compelling intimacy.
Soon after those releases, the band began working with Reed, whose sessions began to yield tracks that directed all of the X Ambassadors’ influences and Sam’s deeply personal songwriting into an alt-rock sound designed for 2019 and beyond.
The result is a record that places Sam’s understanding of human connection at its core. Narratives about his and Casey’s evolving brotherhood and the fragility of friendship and family intertwine. And so the album has become both an ode to brotherhood – a concept no more present than in the “BOOM” artwork – and a record of crushing heartbreak.
For Sam, opening up about these issues has become an artistic compulsion: “There was a part of me that was afraid to tell these stories, afraid to be vulnerable.” He says, “It’s really fucking hard to be vulnerable. To be OK with showing people how fucked up you are. But you have to try.”