Renegades of music:
How X Ambassadors made the world of music-making their own
By: Mallory Biggerstaff | Photos by: Dianna Augustine
The term renegade is a noun that’s generally defined as a person who deserts his or her cause or party for another. Some synonyms include traitor or apostate, however a renegade can also be used in similar context as rebel or outlaw. Rebels aren’t always classified as troublemakers or rule breakers, but rather trailblazers and game changers. That’s exactly what the alternative rock foursome, X Ambassadors, bring to the table of music. Aside from having a specific track entitled with this exact term, they sing in another tune of theirs, “Gorgeous:” “we are young, we are free. Like renegades, like James Dean.” Reverberating throughout their entire musical catalog, both recorded and live, is the truly rebellious mentality that above all else, family is important (vocalist Sam Harris and keyboardist Casey Harris are brothers) and that you keep your art close to heart and true to what matters.
You’ve heard them nearly everywhere, whether you’ve realized it or not. Taking over multiple popular television shows, video games and even commercials, these New York natives have managed to covet a multi-faceted media portfolio for themselves. If you’re a gamer, your ears may have spotted their “Unconsolable” and “Shining” tracks in various Need for Speed games (Most Wanted and Rivals), as well as the loud percussion-riddled anthem “Jungle” in the Battlefield: Hardline trailer. “Unconsolable” and “Jungle” have also appeared on television multiple times, including features in episodes of ABC Family’s The Fosters, NBC’s The Blacklist, MTV’s Teen Wolf, a Supernatural promo, and even Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Their tunes have likely even penetrated the seams between your favorite television shows, also appearing in popular commercials such as their most popular single “Renegades” in the 2015 Jeep Renegade Advert commercial and “Jungle” in WWE Shop commercials (as well as the official theme song for the WWE 2014 PPV event, WWE Battleground).
There’s more to this group, however, than a high multi-media demand for theme songs and soundtracks. First and foremost – what type of listeners does this band appeal to? It’s easy to confine them to one specific outlet (they are clearly defined as alt-rock, which is a fair description), but similar to fellow alternative rock brethren (think Imagine Dragons or The 1975) X Ambassadors have no problem blurring the lines of boxed-in genres. As the aforementioned comparison, the brothers and long-time friends that make up this group easily draw in listeners with a soft spot for loud drums and fast-paced guitar riffs comparable to Imagine Dragons. Aside from their musicality similarities, Imagine Dragons played other roles in the uprising of this group. Originally titled simply Ambassadors, the band released their first EP (Ambassadors EP) and used a Kickstarter account to create a music video for the now widely used “Unconsolable” before being noticed by Imagine Dragons frontman, Dan Reynolds, while in Norfolk, and overhearing their acoustic version of the song on a local radio station. Reynolds quickly advised Interscope to sign the band as soon as possible, which led the group into their next two EPs, Love Songs Drug Songs and The Reason under their slightly tweaked band name, which now donned the precursing “X.” Imagine Dragons continued as a tool for the group, including co-writing by Reynolds on a 2013 track, “Stranger,” as well as acting as multiple tour supporters.
Their debut LP, VHS, successfully captures the essence and talent behind this four-man vehicle. Also featuring a cameo by Imagine Dragons as well as Jamie N Commons, the album highlights the band’s ability to represent the alt-rock genre along with their ability to fully illustrate who they are both as a united band and as individuals. Sprinkled throughout the album’s tracklist are authentic home audio interludes spanning from childhood to present time, including dialogue recordings from their first show, thoughts shared from bandmates Adam and Noah, a phone call sharing good news on an anticipated track remix, and a homemade audio Y2K time capsule sharing the guys’ pre-teen aspirations at the top of the album.
So, who are X Ambassadors anyway, right? Simply put, they’re a four-piece group made up of brothers Sam and Casey Harris, longtime friend Noah Feldshuh (who’s been friends with the brothers since kindergarten), and Adam Levin, who struck up a friendship with Sam in 2010 while both attended New York City’s New School. More specifically, they’re brothers – by blood and by friendship.
Casey Harris is also more than the band’s keyboardist – he’s also blind. You wouldn’t know it by listening to them, of course, but it may become apparent when seeing them live. Within this same scope, you’d also be able to witness what makes this group more than just a band that makes music.
When first taking the stage at a show, it becomes obvious that one of them is blind as well as how his brother and the group’s lead vocalist, Sam, unquestionably tends to his brother’s needs. There’s an undeniable warmth and family-style unity between them that puts very little boundary between performing a live show for a venue full of people and simply hanging out in a friend’s living room jamming in an old school sort of way.
There’s also nothing done differently than any other band or show with one bringing a disability to the table; once the guys get going musically, there’s not much left that can classify Casey as the one who has the disability compared to his brothers. There is clearly no performance difference between the four of them, blind or not.
In addition to bearing their souls on their latest album, the group also left no question to whether or not they’re capable of style-hopping. The album features an array of traditional alternative rock, including adrenaline-inducing tracks like “Jungle,” “Fear” and “Unconsolable,” more stripped down tracks that give way lyrically such as “Unsteady” and “Skin,” as well as a happy median between the two ends of the spectrum like “Renegades,” “Gorgeous” and “Loveless.” With their version of a love ballad seemingly more straightforward and upbeat, illustrated in “Naked” and “Gorgeous,” the boys are more easily relatable than most bands these days. Their feel-good perspective goes beyond their music, though; the jokesters upkeep a lively Instagram feed and remain close to family and community more than most artists at their level do.
While other artists elude honesty and authenticity, unable to manufacture the kind of emotions that groups such as this demonstrate organically, X Ambassadors are true renegades of their time. Abandoning the norm of unnecessary excessiveness and theatrical drama-baiting, this close-knit crew has instead embraced the simple artistic religion of community, family and just really, really good music. Want to see for yourself up close and personal? Gather up some of your own tribe and head to The Fillmore on Saturday, March 12, to check these guys out live and in person. Shutter 16 will be there bringing you live coverage. Stay tuned!
Catch them on tour :