Frontman Sam Harris discusses the autobiographical concept behind X Ambassadors’ debut album VHS and its hit single “Renegades,” how a love of film influences his music, what it’s like co-writing for Rihanna, and why endurance is the key to success.
What has it been like to see “Renegades” explode the way it has over the last two months and see it hit No. 1 on the Alternative Chart? Has its success sunk in yet?
No, not yet. I mean, I’m sitting here writing this to you in a filthy 15-passenger church van that we bought in Brooklyn, still sore from loading our own gear off and on stages for the past two weeks, running on barely any sleep cause we have to wake up early and drive ourselves everywhere every day.
We’re still grinding away out here, but our live shows are getting more and more crowded and starting to sell out all over the place. We’re seeing the biggest changes in the live setting.
The recently released video for “Renegades” is really powerful with how it shows various people coping with and overcoming disabilities to still accomplish incredible things, including your brother. Who came up with that idea and was that kind of imagery in your head when the song was being written?
That was an idea that Alex and I worked on together. I was initially a little hesitant, because it’s such a sensitive topic for me and so personal. Also, because pairing this subject matter with a music video could have easily been construed as exploitative and come off corny. I didn’t want to make like a PSA or something, but we found some pretty incredible stories and tried to just show them as objectively and naturally as possible.
I think my brother is an incredible dude, and more people need to know about him and what he’s accomplished in his life. Although he’d deny having done anything extraordinary, he is an inspiration to anyone who knows him. I wasn’t consciously trying to write the song about what the video is about, but it’s a different side to it that feels just as authentic.
How does it feel knowing you’ve made a song that’s been able to connect with such a large audience, and one that features a positive message as well?
It feels great. I think ultimately that’s always been my goal as a songwriter, to try and bring some good into the world.
Has the success of “Renegades” started to open up new doors and possibilities for the band that were previously unavailable?
We have yet to see…
So the new album is called VHS. Where does the title come from? Do the film references throughout the album (Kubrick, Spielberg, Indiana Jones, etc.) tie into that?
I was so pleasantly surprised when I listened back to the whole record and realized there were so many of those references in it. The subconscious is a crazy thing. Yes, those filmmakers and those movies were a HUGE part of all our childhoods. For me, it was whenever my dad was in town and we would have movie nights on the weekends.
My dad worked in film, so he couldn’t afford to be home for more than a couple months a year. It was one of the only times when he and I would get to sit and hang with each other, and he’d show me all the classics: The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Apocalypse Now (Kubrick was only when I was a bit older), and some of the ones he had actually worked on too, like Goonies, Gremlins and Dragnet.
But the title VHS actually comes from the interludes on the album. We pulled REAL audio clips from home videos that our parents took or that we took as teenagers and in our early days as a band. Most of those clips were taken from VHS tapes or Hi-8 tapes.
What was the VHS tape you most wore out as a kid?
High Fidelity. After I hit puberty and discovered my dad’s record collection, that movie was EVERYTHING to me. That, or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The album is structured in a way that makes it feel like a journey of sorts. At what stage did the concept to use the interludes/audio recordings come into play? Did that have any impact on the songwriting?
I wanted to make it a concept album from the very beginning. It wasn’t until we were already halfway through the process of writing and recording that I settled on making it what it is.
The whole album is our life story, from when we were toddlers to now in our mid-late twenties. We wanted our first formal piece of work, our debut LP, to be as honest of a representation of us as possible. So what better way to do that than with real footage from our lives?
We all grew up together and there’s so much history there. More than anything, I wanted to show that. And all the songs on the album are personal explorations as well. I tend to dive pretty deeply into what makes me tick – my faults and flaws, where I may be a little hypocritical, what drives me, what attracts me, etc.
At the end of the album’s journey, what was your intention to leave the listener with? Was there a particular arc or message you were aiming for?
I guess at the end of the record, we realize that we have to go back to the beginning in order to move forward. Back to basics. The album ends with “Naked,” which is a song about laying it all bare, showing all your flaws, and really, truly wanting to be vulnerable, even if it’s painful. And then the outro does a kind of quick retrospective of all the interludes, starting with us as basically babies, and ending with us fucking around in the car, acting like we haven’t aged a bit.
Hopefully, people leave the album with that idea – that we never really change. That where we come from and who we were as children, that shit sticks with us for the rest of our lives. And to know that and really understand that as we get older.
Much of the album seems to be at least tangentially about you and your brother Casey’s childhood and upbringing. What was it like to revisit and explore that time period from a lyrical point of view? Was it more difficult or easier than you expected?
Well, it’s only tangentially about that because I had to draw from my own experiences. But the lucky thing about it is that a lot of my own experiences growing up included both Casey and Noah. And when we met Adam, that was at a very formative time for all of us too, us all being out on our own for the first time, starting over in a new city.
So really, it’s about the four of us. But yes, some of the songs come from pretty personal and painful places for me. Not only is it cathartic to write about them, but I’d like to think that on most of the songs I’m still trying to look forward, rather than backwards.
“Unsteady” was the hardest one to write, because it’s so specifically about my parents’ divorce. I didn’t think it was a big enough deal to write a song about. People get divorced all the time. But it was the very fact that it made me uncomfortable that made me feel I needed to write about it, because it probably makes a lot of other people uncomfortable too, and they don’t talk about it when they should.
You’ve singled out Boyhood and The Place Beyond the Pines as being big influences on VHS, which as a devoted cinephile myself I found of particular interest. What about those two works resonated with you to incorporate them into the writing?
I saw Boyhood by myself in theaters, three times. I cried every time. It just so perfectly captures what it feels like growing up in small-town America. Ellar Coltrane is only six or seven years younger than us, so all the references felt familiar. It’s also very specifically Texan, and Linklater is so good at incorporating that in a way that doesn’t feel alienating. I wanted to make something specific to our upbringing too, and yet still make it universal.
Place Beyond the Pines really captured the vibe of Upstate New York, in all its dark and majestic beauty. It’s a place that feels outside of time, almost like it’s been forgotten. Most of the year it’s pretty dreary and depressing, but it’s what I identify as my home. So I wanted to make something that felt a little dark but was also familiar and nostalgic, just like Derek Cianfrance did with Pines.
Would you ever want to do soundtrack work on a feature, either actual scoring or just contributing a song?
Noah and I worked on my girlfriend Tess Harrison’s short film, It’s Perfect Here. We did the score for that. It was so much fun to see what effect music can have on the way a film looks. It’s really crazy.
It’s probably too early to think about, but have you decided what the second single will be?
Not sure yet. We feel like they could all be singles. But that’s what every band says.
What was the hardest moment on the album creatively to get right, both sonically and lyrically? How did you break through it?
We wrote “Renegades” towards the end of the writing process, and we almost immediately knew that was going to be the next single. At that point, we’d already scrapped one version of the record with almost all different songs. We tried pairing up some of those songs with “Renegades,” and it still didn’t feel finished.
It was that last push that was the hardest, to write just a few more songs that we felt could make room for “Renegades” on the album. After that, we wrote “Nervous,” “Feather,” “Fear” and “Loveless,” which bridged that gap between acoustic soul and the rhythmic R&B/rock hybrid we’d started to establish.
What was the biggest lesson you learned in the making of VHS?
Learn how to shut your ego out and make sure you’re not doing something out of sheer stubbornness and laziness. We made this record THREE times. That’s three almost entirely different records. Each time, we thought it was done, and then we’d all come back to it and realize it wasn’t. It’s the hardest thing to start over again, but it will always be better a second time around.
What is it like being in a band with your brother and two other people you’ve known for a long time? Has that allowed you to develop a shorthand in the way you work? Does it make things calmer or more volatile to have a shared personal history?
I’ve always thought that the biggest thing that separates us from other bands is the deep, personal connection we have with each other. We’ve all had the same collective dream for pretty much our whole lives and we will all fight to the death to see each other succeed. We’re only competitive with ourselves, not with each other.
But HELL yes, we fight all the time. But it’s usually over stupid shit, like who’s making us late to the show, who farted, who won’t wear what onstage because they think it looks stupid, etc. And if it’s ever anything more serious, it’s easier for us to work through it or get over it because, at the end of the day, we care about each other and love each other.
Casey and I fight the most, probably. But we also make up the fastest because we’re brothers and we’ve fought our whole lives.
The saxophone is not exactly a prevalent instrument in up and coming bands today. How did you get started playing it originally and then decide to incorporate it into a rock band? You’ve mentioned being a Bruce Springsteen fan before. Did Clarence Clemons have any influence on the decision?
I started when I was about 9 or 10, in school. I took to it pretty immediately, because it was such a classically soulful instrument and I was a soulful little dude. Of course I loved Clarence, but I was much more of a Charlie Parker kind of guy. Also, Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, and later Roland Kirk (blind saxophonist who played three horns at once).
I started playing it in the band when we first started in seventh grade, just so I could have something I could rip solos on (albeit very poorly). Then I dropped it because I thought it was lame. I started to learn guitar and drums and bass, so I could accompany myself while I sang, then picked it back up again when we moved back to Brooklyn and needed to figure out a way to separate ourselves from the rest of the million other bands that were playing around us.
You released a few EPs previously before this year finally saw the release of your first full-length. Knowing the ups and downs of the music industry, this might not have been your original intention, but do you think having an extended period of time to write/record and tour proved to be more beneficial than if you had just done a full-length first right out of the gate?
We were very lucky that we didn’t get dropped. I feel like anyone else we would’ve signed with would’ve dropped us two years ago, after our first single didn’t take off immediately. This time writing, recording, touring, and putting out EPs has allowed us to grow and develop our sound at a really healthy pace.
I’m happy now that our fans have been able to watch us grow and have wanted to stick with us all the while. I think it’ll make it easier when everyone hears how eclectic this record is when there’s a core group of fans who know where it’s all coming from.
When you were first starting out, you had the opportunity to tour with veteran bands like Jimmy Eat World and later on Panic! at the Disco. Was there anything you were able to glean from that experience?
That we can really make a life-long career out of this if we want to. Jimmy Eat World aren’t exactly the most relevant of bands that are out there right now, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still incredibly important and influential to the thousands of people who still come out to their concerts. They still mean something to a lot of people and are still making music that they enjoy. And they still play every show like it’s their last.
That, to us, was the most inspirational thing to see. And the other thing about all these bands we’ve toured with – Panic!, Jimmy Eat World, Imagine Dragons – they’re all the nicest people in the world. That’s what will take you far – if you’re grateful and gracious, then people will flock to you and will want to work harder for you.
A big part of the X Ambassadors story to this point has been hooking up with producer Alex da Kid and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, who have been integral with helping you shape your sound and getting the band exposure. How did those partnerships first come about and how would you describe those relationships?
The Imagine Dragons guys were essentially the first ones who discovered us. They brought us to Alex’s attention, but it was Alex who incubated us and helped us really start to craft our sound.
I really cut my teeth as a songwriter with him. I’ve probably written a couple hundred songs in the past two and a half years we’ve been signed with him, all under his guidance and direction. He never settles and works us to the bone, but that’s a big part why we’ve had so much success with him.
The Dragons guys are like a big brother band to us. They’ve been so supportive throughout this whole process, and are always there to lend an ear and give their input on a creative level when we want their opinions.
On a certain level, comparisons to Imagine Dragons are probably inevitable, being on the same label and working with the same producer. How do you feel about that? Are there things you have intentionally tried to do differently as a result?
We’re honored by it. Those guys work hard as fuck and they’re damn good at what they do. That said, I think our music is inherently very different.
What was it like collaborating with Imagine Dragons on “Fear” and Jamie N Commons on “Low Life” and “Jungle?” Are you open to more collaborations in the future, or even being featured on other people’s stuff?
Absolutely, yes. We loved collaborating with Jamie and Imagine Dragons. Both are so talented in their own ways and brought something new to the table that none of us would’ve been able to come up with ourselves. That’s the beauty of collaboration.
It’s a lot like why being in a band is so great. You can write a song on your own, but then you bring it to your band, deconstruct it together, and it turns into something completely different. It’s much more exciting for me to work that way.
In addition to X Ambassadors, you were also one of the writers on the Rihanna song “American Oxygen,” which took a year to complete from start-to-finish. How did that come about and what was that process like? Was the songwriting and how the song eventually turned out drastically different than if it had been an X Ambassadors song straight through?
It started just me writing a hook over a beat that Alex made. We do that a lot, he and I, and so the actual process wasn’t that unfamiliar. I always try to write stuff that I like and not try to shape it for another artist, even if the intention is to have someone else sing it.
My theory is that if someone like Rihanna wants a new song, they don’t want a song that sounds like a knock-off Rihanna. She IS Rihanna. She’s going to want something that’s unique and authentic to whoever the songwriter is. That’s what “American Oxygen” was.
I wrote it for myself, but the minute I heard she wanted it, I was down. That’s when we started writing verses, and I was able to run with a concept that she and Alex came up with, one that was more along the lines of an immigrant story of coming to America. I just helped put that concept into words and melody. That part was me acting as more of a vessel.
I’ve heard to write for artists like Rihanna sometimes you are required to attend a songwriting seminar of sorts beforehand. Did you have to go through anything like that? Have you similarly worked with other artists before, or was that your first time?
No, that sounds horrible hahahaha. I’m very glad I didn’t have to do that. Lucky for me, Alex had already written a bunch with her before, and they had even won a Grammy together, so it was just me and Alex working on stuff via email/texting voice-notes to each other. I wrote/recorded parts of that song all over the country. That was my first time working with someone of her caliber, though.
There’s many co-writing stories out there, both good and bad. Would you say yours so far has been a positive or negative experience? Any plans to do more co-writes in the future?
It’s been great because I’ve done most of them by myself. It’s always a little tricky when you’re set up to co-write with other people, because it’s usually just one day for a couple hours.
That’s not enough time in my mind to get to know someone and feel comfortable enough telling them that their ideas suck, and to have them tell you that your ideas suck too, without everyone getting seriously offended and walking out of the room. That’s what it needs to be in order for a great song to be written, I feel like. That level of honesty.
But I’m very, very excited about the prospect of finding that with more songwriters. If anything, to just talk with other people who are doing the same thing as me. That’s the best. I’d love to do something with Jack Antonoff. He’s a great writer, a smart guy, and seems like he’d be a pretty straight shooter in the studio, too.
With everything X Ambassadors has gone through up until this point, what do you think has been the biggest key and motivator for the band’s success? The biggest hurdle you have had to overcome?
Understanding that the biggest part of this game is endurance. You have to deal with disappointment after disappointment after disappointment before anything good ever comes. It’s the hard truth, nothing ever comes easy.
Our fragile egos have been beaten to the ground time after time, but we’ve learned to pick ourselves back up quicker and quicker. It’s still a struggle, but it’s all worth it to be able to do what we love to do. And we all still have each other at the end of the day.
Being still such a young and fresh band, what’s the next step on your journey? Where do you go from here?
Onwards and upwards, but never forgetting who we are or where we came from. And getting a bus and some more people to bring on tour with us would be nice, too. And some sleep.