The last year has been nothing if not busy for alternative band X Ambassadors. Amidst an album release, they’ve also found time to collaborate on a variety of other projects as well as balance their personal lives. To top it all off, they’re hitting the road this week to kick off their current tour, in support of their sophomore album ORION. We got a chance to catch up with X Ambassadors’ vocalist Sam Harris before “The Orion Tour” makes a stop in Denver later this week.
303 Magazine: The tour kicks off this week, are you feeling ready?
Sam Harris: Yeah! I’m feeling ready. I think once we get into that it’ll feel real. I just got back from my honeymoon actually, so I’m still kind of readjusting to the real world.
303: Congratulations! That’s a quick turnaround to get back on track for this tour, which follows the release of your latest album, ORION, earlier this year. How are you feeling about taking all of these new songs on the road?
SH: You know, it’s been great so far. We kind of tested this tour out for a couple of weeks right after the record came out, and it was so, so fun to be playing these songs live for our audience. I think now that our fans have had some time to live with the record a little bit longer, I think it’ll be more fun to see what songs people gravitate towards. We’re going to rotate a lot of the new ones in and out of the set. And also still play some old favorites too. So yeah, I’m looking forward to — you know, it’s always just so good to get back in front of our fans and play for everybody, ‘cause that’s who the music is for.
303: Can you give me some of the biggest highlights of this record?
SH: Well, I mean, the highlight is that we finally finished it and put it out and we put out something that we felt like really encapsulated what we’ve all been through. You know, for me personally as the lyricist and what I’ve been through over the last couple of years, it’s been a time of celebration and also a lot of grief and hardship. We started off this album making process as a four-piece, our guitar player ended up leaving the band and that was a big blow. You know, he was a founding member and my best friend since I was five years old, and that was a very complicated situation having to do with substance abuse. It was rough, it was really rough. Personally, I had to kind of grapple with a lot of things — a lot of my co-dependencies and realize things about myself and how I can’t fix everything and I can’t fix everybody. Which is a pretty heavy thing to go through. But I also, I just got married — I got engaged during that time. My brother had a baby, my brother got married. So, you know, it’s just life. There’s ups and downs. We wanted to do something with this record that looked forward to the future a little bit, and acknowledged what we’d been through and what we were going through, and try to make a very human record. I think we did that.
303: I think so too. There’s a few other things I want to talk about other than the record because it’s been a big year for you. You’ve been involved in a few projects outside of the band this year, including collaborating on Lizzo’s album and co-producing the Game of Thrones Soundtrack. How do those projects compare to writing with X Ambassadors?
SH: Well, it all feeds into each other. It’s been so inspiring to work with an artist like Lizzo who is so — the thing I admire the most about her is that she really really knows who she is and what she likes, and also is not afraid to embrace that she is multi dimensional, like we all are. I think that’s given me confidence in my own songwriting and my production style, you know? Just learning from her and working with her.
The Game of Thrones soundtrack was just so much fun to do. I was a big fan of the show to begin with, and Ricky [Reed] and I had already done our record, had done ORION together. So we built this pretty great rapport, and just go to write all of these cool songs with and for all of these amazing artists. Using such rich material to draw from, it was really great. I feel like I learned — or I discovered a new side of myself as a songwriter and sonically, started going into some pretty cool territory. There are actually a couple of songs we wrote for that project that I think that we’re going to actually use for our next project. So it was really exciting to kind of get outside of the X Ambassadors world for a minute.
303: Apart from those songs that you might use in the next project, can you talk about how those experiences might influence some of your future work with X Ambassadors?
SH: As I said before, what I loved about working with Lizzo is how she really really embraced her multi-dimensionality, and didn’t want to just have one specific sound for a record. She has some pretty pop stuff, she has some real trap like cool southern stuff, and then she has her rockier stuff. For us, we’ve always been a band that embraced that kind of cross-pollination and having different genres all blending together and morphing from one track to the next. I think that moving forward we’re going to continue to do that and be a little bit more confident in it.
Again, through the process of working on Game of Thrones stuff, I just kind of tapped into a darker side of myself that came out through writing for a story — you know, through these other characters and kind of turning my actor brain on a little bit. I studied theater in college, and I’ve been an actor my whole life, as long as I’ve been a musician. So to go into that world and have the two work together was really fun. I think I want to do more of that on the next project that we do as X Ambassadors.
303: It sounds like you’ve worn quite a few hats this year, and there’s another project you’ve worked on that put you in a new role, which was creating an app. Can you talk to me about that app?
SH: It was an app in conjunction with Microsoft, it’s called the ‘BOOM’ App. What we wanted to do, it was actually Casey [Harris]’s idea — for this record we really wanted it to be an identity-defining record for us, and show people more of who we are personally. Part of who we are as a band — we are a band, and we are a family band. My brother plays keys, and my brother is blind, he was born blind. So, we incorporated tactile braille on our vinyl, hopefully we’ll find a way eventually to get it on our CD’s too. We had a billboard up in Los Angeles, that was actually tactile braille billboard. We had huge circles put on that you could feel. If you are blind, you could go to this billboard and feel and actually read the word ORION, written out in braille. So, accessibility is a big thing for us. It’s his record too, and I want him to be able to appreciate the media behind it as much as we do. Music videos don’t really do much for my brother. We did something cool with our last couple of videos where we used live audio. That was really cool. That was the first time that Casey watched the videos and was like “oh, this is actually a new experience and a new way for me to experience the song, because there’s live audio and I can hear that difference.”
So, Casey wanted to do something with 3D audio and using the technology that Microsoft had provided us, and we had been experimenting with a little bit. We created the app, and you can — you know, you download the app and you put on your headphones and with your phone in your pocket you can kind of spin around 360, and experience the sounds of either, you can choose, either upstate new york where we’re from, or Bushwick NY which is where the band really started, and hear those sounds. Hear, what Casey would hear everyday walking around, and simultaneously listening to the song and experiencing that in this immersive kind of 3D audio experience.
303: That sounds incredible. Is that immersive and more inclusive experience something you have plans to incorporate into your live shows?
SH: You know, maybe. We’d have to figure out a way to do that, I don’t really know how we’d do that. We’re definitely trying to think about ways to make the show — to kind of experiment with things like that in the show. Quite honestly, I hadn’t thought about incorporating that into our live show. But, on our tour, we’re going to have a VIP experience where people can test out the app and then also be surrounded by stuff from our lives and from growing up. Things like old backpacks and microphones that we used to record our first demos on. Fans will be able to interact with those things, and kind of add a whole new dimension to it.
303: It sounds like it’s been a year of creating for you, and in keeping with that trend I know that X Ambassadors also released a beer in collaboration with Magic Hat Brewing. How did that come to be?
SH: Yeah we did. They had made a beer for our festival that we created in upstate New York in our hometown — it’s called Cayuga Sound. They created a joyful beer, this was around the “Joyful Tour.” It was so good, and we kind of built a pretty solid relationship with them, and they were like “well, let’s make you another beer and we’ll really sell it for real.” So, they concocted this incredible beer based on what we said we kinda liked. We helped design the label and come up with a name for the beer, it’s called the X Beer. That’s kind of how it came to be. We’re so, so thrilled about it. It’s really, genuinely delicious. The Magic Hat has always been one of my favorite beers. I’m not so much of a beer drinker anymore, but when I was that was always a go to for me.
303: I know you just said you aren’t much of a beer drinker these days, but since you collaborated on X Beer, do you have any ideas of what would make a great food pairing for the beer?
SH: Our beer is like an IPA, so I would go with — you could do like fish and chips, you could do a burger and fries. If you wanted to take it easy you could do a cobb salad. I feel like those would be good pairings with it.
303: Denver is a big fan of beer, so you’ll no doubt find a few thirsty fans when the tour stops here on October 11, which is only the third date on the tour. Is there anything you’re excited about for show in particular?
SH: I mean, playing it. We are really proud of the show that we’ve put together. We’ve already started taking it on the road a little bit earlier this year, and it’s only gotten leaner and leaner. So, it’s a really tight show right now, and an exciting one. We have a set now, which is pretty cool. We have these three circular screens that are Orion’s Belt, behind us. They’ll show some pretty cool video content. We’ve got some fun people up on stage with us playing. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m stoked.