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For X Ambassadors, an unshakable sense of brotherhood has long shaped the sound and spirit of the band. Growing up in small-town upstate New York, frontman Sam Harris, his brother Casey, and childhood friend Noah Feldshuh bonded over an obsessive love for punk, rock & roll, soul, and hip-hop that defied the conventions of their peer group. Forming their first band in middle school, the three channeled their infatuation with artists as eclectic as The Stooges and The Staple Singers into a string of musical projects that sharply clashed with their local scene’s favoring of folk and country. After graduating high school and decamping to New York City in search of a greater music community, the Harris brothers and Noah joined up with L.A.-raised drummer Adam Levin—a move that helped X Ambassadors solidify their sound into a groove-fueled take on alt-pop, and ultimately land a deal with KIDinaKORNER/Interscope Records.
Produced in collaboration with KIDinaKORNER founder Alex Da Kid, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds and friend Dan Stringer, X Ambassadors’ new EP Love Songs Drug Songs finds the Brooklyn-based foursome building off their singular chemistry to create a collection of songs both stylish and soulful. “They’re bringing together alternative and R&B in a way I’ve never heard before, and at the core of that are these great songs with so much authenticity,” says Alex, a Grammy-winning producer hailed for his work with heavyweights like Dr. Dre and Nicki Minaj. “The music comes from a very real place,” he continues, “and it’s made even more powerful by the deep connection that they have as a band.”
Throughout Love Songs Drug Songs, X Ambassadors weave elegant melodies and sweetly smooth vocals into taut arrangements powered by percussion. From the Afro-pop-inspired beats of “Unconsolable” to the fuzzed-out stomp of the title track to the slinky groove of “Stranger,” the heady rhythms at the heart of the EP endlessly mesmerize but never overshadow X Ambassadors’ graceful musicianship. Still, even on the EP’s breezier tracks—such as the shimmering, harmony-kissed “Down With Me”—X Ambassadors flaunt their finely honed pop sensibilities while radiating a raw intensity and darkly moody emotionalism.
For X Ambassadors, the passionately charged pop heard all over Love Songs Drug Songs is the product of a lifetime of sonic exploration. Born into a highly musical family (Mom was a jazz and cabaret singer, Dad once aspired to be a country songwriter), Sam and Casey each began playing instruments before the age of ten. While Casey discovered his love for piano at seven, Sam (who “started singing as soon as I could speak”) moved from drums to guitar to piano to bass to saxophone throughout his childhood. In junior high, Sam prompted Noah (his best friend since the first day of kindergarten) to learn guitar so that the two could start a group. “Casey eventually started playing with us too, and ever since then I’ve only been in bands with the two of them,” Sam notes.
In 2006, the three moved from Ithaca to New York City so that Sam and Noah could attend the New School while Casey worked as a piano tuner. Within the first month of college Sam and Noah met Adam in the freshman dorms, learned he was a drummer, and slipped a demo under his door in a successful attempt to lure him into the band. With the lineup complete (Sam on vocals and guitar, Noah on lead guitar, Casey on keyboards, Adam on drums), X Ambassadors began playing local gigs and writing material for their debut album. Then, just before the band was scheduled to begin recording, a lifelong medical condition left Casey in urgent need of a kidney transplant. With both his brother and mother (who volunteered one of her kidneys) recuperating from the transplant, Sam began working on a new batch of songs, including a fierce yet tender ballad that would emerge as the title track on X Ambassadors’ debut.
Released in early 2012, Litost soon caught the ear of the program director for Norfolk, Virginia-based radio station 96x. After hearing “Litost” on a friend’s Spotify playlist, the PD threw the song into heavy rotation and quickly drew a rabid response from listeners. Beating out heavy-hitters like fun. and Of Monsters and Men, “Litost” ended up emerging as 96x’s number-one song of 2012. In the meantime, X Ambassadors began opening for the likes of the Lumineers and Imagine Dragons, as well as scoring slots on the lineups of such festivals as Lollapalooza.
To expand their sound on Love Songs Drug Songs, X Ambassadors deepened the collaborative dynamic that’s long been essential to their strength as a band. “To me one of the most magical things about making music is taking a song idea to a group of people and letting them tear it apart and build something entirely new,” says Sam, who serves as X Ambassadors’ chief songwriter. “I strongly believe that you discover so much more about the song in other people’s hands than you ever would on your own.” And during the recording of Love Songs Drug Songs, he adds, involving Reynolds and Alex Da Kid in that process yielded more than its share of sublime surprises. On “Stranger,” for example, Reynolds encouraged Sam to adopt “this straight-up R&B, Prince-y, Michael Jackson-y kind of vibe” in his vocal work. “Dan was like, ‘You’ve got the voice, don’t hold back, just go for it’—which I wasn’t expecting at all, but the way it worked out was so cool,” Sam recalls.
Not only fuel for their creative spirit, X Ambassadors’ commitment to collaboration reflects an unfailing belief in the unifying power of music. Noting that the band’s small-town beginnings infinitely inform their output, Sam points out that “all those middle-school dances where they played Ginuwine and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and all different kids would just come together and dance” have proved to be one of his most formative musical experiences. “It’s always been my goal to make music that’s unique and personal and completely true to who we are, but in a way that’s got a very communal feeling to it, that can be shared with everyone,” he says. “If a song’s melodies can feel perfectly formed but also natural, where you’re feeling it so much that everyone else can’t help but feel it too, then that’s just beautiful.”