November 11, 2015
By George Varga
Casey Harris is not the first rock musician to study keyboard technology and piano tuning in college. But he is probably one of the very few to support himself for five years as a piano tuner, despite being born blind.
“I always loved the piano. And I was smart enough to realize that, at least for the first couple of years, I would not be able to make a living as a musician in New York City,” said Harris, 28, who performs here Sunday at Observatory North Park with his indie-rock band, X Ambassadors.
“It seemed like something I could do, because I have a good ear. It kind of fell in my lap.”
Harris was born with Senior-Loken syndrome, a rare condition that affects his vision and kidneys. When he needed a kidney transplant in 2009, his mother offered one of hers.
“It’s pretty wild,” Harris said. “I’ve been living with her kidney, she’s been living with a single kidney, and we’re both doing fine.”
Harris plays a Nord Lead 4 keyboard synthesizer, which he favors because it does not require him to look at a menu of settings on a computer screen to program.
His double keyboard rack is topped off by a small synthesizer. All of his instruments are connected by MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).
“I prefer Nord because their interfaces are all tactile knobs and buttons, which is a lot easier for me,” he said. “We play to a click track because we got sick of having arguments about whether we play songs too fast, or too slow, at shows.”
Many people commonly assume that sight-impaired musicians are able to compensate for their lack of vision by developing a far more acute sense of hearing. Harris, who started piano lessons as a child, challenges that perspective.
“I can completely see how that would seem true,” said the Ithaca, N.Y., native, speaking from a tour stop in Minneapolis. “However, from what I’ve seen with most blind or visually impaired people I’ve met, your audio acuity isn’t necessarily that much better. It’s just that you pay so much more attention to it. You have a whole part of your brain for analyzing sound.
“For most (sighted) people, their cortex takes in what they need, and the rest is noise. For a blind person, every sound you take in is important information about your surroundings and what is going on.”
Based in Brooklyn, X Ambassadors teams Harris with his brother, Sam, the band’s lead singer and periodic saxophonist and rhythm guitarist. The siblings co-founded the group with lead guitarist Noah Feldshuh a childhood pal. Los Angeles-bred drummer Adam Levin came on board in 2005.
Their big break came when Dan Reynolds, the lead singer in Imagine Dragons, began to champion the band after a Virginia radio station driver played him a song by X Ambassadors. Thanks to Reynolds’; enthusiastic endorsement, X Ambassadors was signed to Interscope, the label for which Imagine Dragons also records.
“”We’d never been played on radio anywhere,” Harris said. “As Dan and the Dragons were being driven around Norfolk, they asked the driver from the radio station what he’d been listening to. He played them an acoustic version of our song, ‘Inconsolable,’ which we had relased ourselves. It became our first single on Interscope. Dan and the whole band really vibed with that song and took the time to bring us to attention of their producer.”
The Las Vegas-based Imagine Dragons then went a step farther, by having X Ambassadors be its opening act for two national tours.
The New York quartet’s radio-friendly music was given a more recent boost when its aspirational song of youthful independence, “Renegades,” was prominently featured in a Jeep TV commercial this year. The first minute of the song’s video is music-free and focuses on two young blind people, who engage in such activities as weightlifting and hiking.
“It was my brother’s idea,” Harris said. “He was listening to a podcast of (the radio show) ‘This American Life,’ and it featured Daniel Kish, who is blind and uses echolocation (the detection of objects using echos) to get around.
“Sam talked with me, our producer, and the rest of the band. And we all thought it would go really well with the theme of the song to feature various people, who have obstacles in their lives, doing things their own way. I feel so lucky it came together as well as it did. It was a pretty intense project, and I’m really proud of it.”