“Very scenic…very appropriate behind the scenes look” quips Adam Levin, drummer for X Ambassadors. Their bus driver, who is all but scratching his head, is walking in and out of the green room of the House of Blues — where the group played a sold-out show of their VHS Tour 2.0 run on May 8 — attempting to deal with the ultimate tour crisis: a lack of running water on the bus.
Fame is a nascent concept to the band. Just a little while ago, the group was traveling in a fifteen-passenger van, making that tour bus a recent acquisition (October 2015 to be exact). And that bus driver running around attempting to fix maintenance problems? Non-existent. The first time the group played in Boston was in 2011 with Lights, for whom they opened at the Middle East Downstairs. While most of the group traveled in guitarist Noah Feldshuh’s mom’s mini-van, vocalist Sam Harris drove his Prius separately; he had an early shift at a coffee shop back in New York the next morning. “This is pretty new for us to come to a venue like this and sell it out,” says Sam. “We’ve been a band for about ten years and the majority of our shows were played to very little people. You know, it wasn’t until recently that we started actually seeing the hard earned results of all the work that we put in. It’s very rare that a band will all of a sudden go from having ten people at their shows to having thousands of people at their shows. For us, it was a very slow progression of five people, to ten people, to twenty people, to eighty people and so on and so forth.” “Exponential growth,” chimes in Adam.
Exponential growth, indeed. The band has gone from familiarizing themselves with being broken down in nowheres-ville, Pennsylvania at 3 AM, truck-stop motels in Toledo, and in Noah’s case, being impaled — “If I were in better shape I’d show you the scar” — to working with the likes of Eminem and Muse. After hitting what seems to be nearly every milestone a band can, what’s even left for the group to accomplish? “Well, you know, I think the funny thing about our band is that the majority of the people are familiar with our songs, but still don’t really know us,” says Sam. “And I think that is partially just because we are fairly new, and as we put out more and more records, people will get to know us a little more as a creative unit.”
X Ambassadors — the people, not the musicians — owe themselves a little more credit, though. Yes, the band is looking to be recognized beyond their musical repertoire, but it is that same such repertoire that helps define them as the “creative unit” they strive to be. In listening to VHS, the musical influences are endless: from rock to soul-infused R&B. And these influences are evident in the group’s live performances. Wearing a Nike sweat-suit and running shoes, Sam Harris presents himself with the bravado of a hip-hop legend, accompanying each song with ceaseless movement and flow. And yet at times, I feel like I’m watching a religious awakening, comparable to but only a gospel choir. The metamorphosis continues as the frontman picks up an alto sax, losing himself in the group’s performance of “Love Songs Drug Songs.” And I can’t help but question in what other context the Top 40-listening audience members would ever come this close to watching a live jazz performance.
When I asked the group whether they felt pressure to cultivate a more pop-oriented sound in order to remain radio-friendly, Sam answered, “I don’t think it’s as polarized as it used to be. There’s maybe a last bastion of people who still think that indie artists should remain indie artists and pop artists should remain pop artists, but I think the lines are blurring a little bit,” says Sam. But that’s putting it kindly. The reality is, X Ambassadors is a catalyst in differentiating the product of pop-culture mass consumerism.
That isn’t to say X Ambassadors should be known only for a unique sound in a world of homogenized pop. They’ve been fortunate enough to be taken under fellow Interscope-signee Imagine Dragons’ wing (no pun intended), emulating them not just on stage — where Sam frequently abandons the mic during “Renegades” to play around on the drums in Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds’ fashion — but in human decency. In an, “industry full of people that are snakes and are really trying to screw you over or just don’t have your best interest in mind,” as Adam puts it, Imagine Dragons have demonstrated something invaluable to X Ambassadors: the gravity of, “treating people right and making people want to help you…especially in the music business, where there’s a million artists,” and little room to distinguish yourself to record labels, radio stations, and fellow artists as a worthy investment. But X Ambassadors have managed to demarcate themselves as such by forgoing rock star pretense.
Aside from being recognized for more than their singles? “I think I can speak for the whole band here,” says Sam. “Our only aspiration is to continue to challenge ourselves musically and creatively and to keep making stuff that has integrity for us, but that also appeals to as big of a group as possible. I’m not ashamed at all to say that we want that. Of course we do. I mean, we come from a small town where next to nothing happens. We want to connect with the rest of the world. That’s very, very much a part of who we are.” There’s nothing shameful about that, nothing shameful at all; especially when in the process, you’re broadening the horizons of pop for your audience.