January 8, 2016
By Tom Lanham
Writer Thomas Mann once coldly posited ‘You can never go home again,’ but X Ambassadors bandleader Sam Harris would respectfully disagree.
The Ithaca, NY-bred group’s recent debut VHS opens with a scratchy recording from the family archives, taped at the turn of the new millennium, wherein father Rob Harris asks his young aspiring-artist, son Sam, where he’ll be in 15 years, and junior curtly replies, “I will not be here – I will be away from you guys, far away” – it quickly segues into the band’s handclap-kinetic breakthrough hit, a tale of teen rebellion called “Renegades,” then plays back like old Super 8 footage through other vintage dialogue snippets ‘interludes’ like “Smoke,” “First Show,” and “Moving Day.” They work as transitional scenes that set up musical, decidedly autobiographical reflections such as “Fear” – featuring KIDinaKORNER Interscope labelmates Imagine Dragons and “Jungle” and “Low Life,” both boasting an appearance from the bluesy Jamie N. Commons. And, indeed, the kid and his keyboardist, brother, Casey had to leave town to find fame and fortune.
However, looking back, Sam Harris, now 27, can see his career path all too clearly, unfolding like a docu-drama. He despised his small-town surroundings as a child, but – even though he just moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend – he has a whole new appreciation for Ithaca as an adult. “I definitely remember feeling like, ‘I want to get the fuck out of here,’ because I wasn’t a really big sports guy and there wasn’t much to do other than play hockey or wrestle,” he recalls. “I guess there was football, too, and I tried. I played on the football team, and it sucked. I was just obsessed with music, and I wanted to move to New York really badly – I wanted to do something big with my life, and that wasn’t going to happen if I was going to be sticking around Ithaca.”
And now? Ithaca is fantastic, he enthuses, and he loves going back to visit his friends and folks. “So much of who I am is because of where I’m from,” he believes. “And I feel that so strongly in everything that I do. I’m proud to be from upstate New York, and proud to know about a place in the country that a lot of people don’t know much about. Ithaca is beautiful, but there’s a real sinister quality to it. During the winter, it gets real cold and dark and desolate up there. And that darkness is a big part of me, so I love it when the weather starts getting cold and the leaves start falling off the trees. That’s when I feel like I’m most in tune with myself.”
In retrospect, the rocker also understands the crucial part his film-industry dad – who worked as a unit publicist on countless features, like Black Swan, The Sandlot, and Air Force One – played in the X Ambassadors story. He practically grew up on movie sets, he reveals, and he even flew to Malta on a school break for a Gladiator shoot, where he appeared as a crowd-scene extra and got to hang around with director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe. So – much more than most youngsters his age – he had a knowledge of the vast outside world that spurred him on. “Being on set with my dad was a real eye-opening experience,” he says. “Wanting to be an artist, I was able to see that that was a viable career, and that people can really make a living out of forms of entertainment. And that’s a really special and unique position to be put in when you’re a kid.”
The rest of Harris’ story flickers past like some feel-good, hometown-heroFrank Capra flick from the ’40s, with Harris in the traditional Jimmy Stewart role. With his childhood guitarist buddy Noah Feldshuh, he enrolled in Greenwich Village liberal New School; Initially, he toyed with becoming an actor, but songwriting gradually took over, and again, his experience in the movie industry prodded him forward. His father had carefully chosen classic films to show him as a teen, starting withThe Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “He really schooled me, and that exposed me to a lot of storytelling,” he says. “So that’s something that I’ve always been drawn to – telling stories and inhabiting other characters and stuff. So I try to do that myself, and I love songwriters like Bruce Springsteen – I’ve recently been obsessing over hisNebraska and Born in the U.S.A.”
Then, the tale turns almost fabular. Once Harris and Feldshuh formed their group – initially known as Ambassadors – they eventually added an X, plus his sibling Casey, who had overcome the hardship of being blind since birth. With drummer Adam Levin on board, they self-released an Ambassadors EP in 2009, and began gaining a following in the Northeast. Then they were discovered by Imagine Dragons anchor Dan Reynolds, one day in Norfolk, VA when he was racing by taxi to the hospital to procure flu-fighting antibiotics. The cab driver had local radio station connections, and when Reynolds asked him what he’d been listening to, he played him the band’s early track “Unconsolable.” Reynolds promptly informed his label honcho, producer Alex Da Kid, who signed X Ambassadors and wound up co-writing most of VHS with them.
And Harris is stunned to have such a prestigious, prescient mentor. “Alex is involved in pretty much everything we do, and he’s a great foil for me,” notes Harris. “He’s helped me a lot, and he also has a really tough work ethic, and I think I needed that in the point in my career when I met him. My songwriting was good, but it wasn’t very controlled – I would write only when I had flashes of inspiration, but Alex taught me to just write constantly. And even if it’s bad, you’ve got to get all those bad ideas out before you get something good – you can’t just sit around and wait for the good ideas to come, because they’re not always going to come.”
And Harris makes no bones about “Renegades” – that was another part of his leaving-Ithaca plan, he swears: He always wanted to have a huge hit single. It reminds him of a lesson he learned back in high school, courtesy of his first girlfriend. She would play him intriguing new bands, but refuse to divulge the artists’ names when he inquired. “She would say, ‘I’m not going to tell you, because if I tell you who it is, you’ll tell somebody else, and then they won’t be my band anymore’,” he concludes. “And that whole precious thing? It stuck with me forever, and now I don’t want anyone to ever say that about my band and my music. It’s meant to be shared and enjoyed by everyone.”