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“I feel like we’ve got a good thing going on our own right now..”: An Interview With X Ambassadors

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I spoke to Sam Harris, the singer and guitarist for X Ambassadors, the Ithaca, New York outfit whose VHS album is comfortably lodged at #50 on the Billboard Top 200 chart–a slot they have maintained for 15 weeks.

Their song “Renegades” was featured in a Jeep advertisement for the Renegade vehicle this last May and on July 8th, the song was nominated for a Teen Choice Award.  This Q&A includes our discussion on a variety of topics including his thoughts on the band’s sponsorship, the evolution of the music industry, his experiences with “The Today Show” and “The Tonight Show,” the development of shoes that benefit individuals with physical disabilities, matters of race, and his approach to recording.

On corporate partners:

Stereo Embers: In March, “Renegades” was featured in a Jeep commercial and received over 247k views on Youtube. Was this a big break for you? Has it driven album sales?

Sam Harris: The Jeep placement was huge for us, definitely.  We’ve been very lucky to have had our music featured in a couple different commercials, movie trailers, etc., and those placements have all helped get our name out there as a relatively unknown band.  Jeep was very cool with us and letting us be who we are, they didn’t try and package our music with anything that we didn’t vibe with.  I think it gave the song a great platform to be heard by people, and now it’s taken on a life of its own which is an extraordinary gift to have been given.

On the Music industry:

SE: VHS will now be included on Apple Music. Any thoughts about the service and how it will impact the recording industry, the exposure you receive, and the manner in which you are compensated?

SH: We’ve been asked this question a lot lately, and honestly, I have no idea what it all means for the future of music.  All I can say is that this is the way everything seems to be leaning now, and it’s pointless to try and fight against streaming services.  Everyone in my band uses Apple Music and Spotify.  All of my friends use them too.  It’s convenient, it’s easy, and you have almost any song under the sun with the touch of a button.  I do think that there are ways for musicians to make more of a profit off their streams, but I think a lot of that has to do with record labels and publishing companies taking less of a cut of everything.  But that’s the way it’s ALWAYS been.  And it’s also a struggle that a lot of artists are realizing they don’t have to deal with anymore; there’s plenty of other ways to get your music heard, you don’t necessarily need all that behind you.

SE: Consequently, do you have reservations about Jay Z’s music service, Tidal?

SH: No.  I have so much respect for that man and I wish only the best for him and his company.

On performing and relationships:

SE: Your appearance on “The Today Show”-was it exciting or nerve-wracking for you? What were your impressions of that experience?

SH: “The Today Show” was much more hectic than “The Tonight Show” for sure.  But only because we were running late and didn’t get much of a chance to soundcheck.  We weren’t as nervous because we’d already done our first TV performance on Fallon, but it was still pretty wild.  Two of our moms were there, and they loved it.

 SE: You played the Montreux Jazz festival-what was your synergy like with the jazz guys? Was it strange hanging around musicians from another genre outside of the alt-rock/indie rock scene?

 SH: We didn’t really hang with any other artists at that festival.  We just got to enjoy the beautiful scenery in Montreux, play our show, and then fly out.  It’s rare that we ever get a chance to go see any other acts these days, we’re so busy.  But we all love Jazz music and all of us have a little bit of a musical background in it.  Plus, I think the festival isn’t exclusively one type of genre anymore— I think they’re more interested in booking bands who push the boundaries of genre and style, and who aren’t stuck in one particular way of doing things.

On social issues:

SE: You were enthusiastic about Nike’s Flyease technology which improves the lives of disabled individuals through shoes that slip-on without enlisting the help of others. What do you think the impact of this development will be?

SH: I think that all great progress starts small, and this is one small step towards making things better.  It’s very admirable for a company like Nike to acknowledge the importance of this for the disabled community and to make steps towards helping out.  It’s these small battles that mean so much.  With Casey, it’s things like having voice-activated technology on his smart phone.  Now he can do everything that we can do on our phones; he can google things, look up directions, send text messages, etc., all by speaking commands into his phone.

SE: You posted a video from “Black Lives Matter.” What are some of the best ways to reduce tensions and fatalities in the future?

SH: There is not one simple answer to this question, and it would be naive to think that there is one to begin with.  I think the first step would be for us all to agree and acknowledge that we have a serious problem in our country (which I DON’T think has happened yet… a lot of us are still living in blind ignorance to the racial injustices and biases that exist).  We need to start talking more openly about race, and not making it just a “black” issue.  This is a UNIVERSAL issue.  We need to talk about it in classrooms, with our friends in bars and coffee shops, on street corners, talk openly and honestly and listen to what each other has to say. Once we do that, hopefully we can start moving forward.  Just putting cameras on cop’s chests isn’t going to change things.  That’s not going to stop the nervous rookie from pulling the trigger on a black man who pulls out his wallet to show his ID, or the cop who feels entitled to beat up a group of innocent black kids at a barbecue because they didn’t turn down their music.  The problems we face are deeply rooted, and far too complex to be fixed with just a few practical changes.  For example: right now, the front-runner for the Republicans in the Presidential race is a guy who says that all Latinos are “rapists” and shouldn’t be allowed in this country.  That’s a huge population of people who think that this racist asshole should be President.  Something is not right with us if this can be a real situation in 2015.

On recording:

SE: This June, Tame Impala just released Currents in high-resolution at 24-bit-44.10 kHZ, an improvement over CD-quality, which is 16-bit. Do you envision releasing your next album in high-res?

SH: Maybe, sure.  Honestly that’s not our number one priority.  We tend to focus more on the songwriting and the overall vibe, not how clean and pristine we can make the recording sound.

SE: What are your dream producers to work with and which studios would you most like to record in if you had abundant resources with which to do so?

SH: I’m not really sure anymore.  I feel like we’ve got a good thing going on our own right now, with just us and Alex doing things on the road and not confining ourselves to a studio.  But I guess we all fantasize sometimes about buying back my parents’ first house in Ithaca, where me and Casey and Noah first started playing music together when we were kids, and turning our old basement into a recording studio.  That would be a dream come true.