Sam Harris Discusses X Ambassadors' New Album "ORION" & Tour Dates: "We Wanted It to Be Personal and All Encompassing"
X Ambassadors have been busy since the release of their debut album, VHS in 2015, and that’s putting it lightly. In the past four years, fans across the globe have heard the band literally everywhere, from their song, “Renegade” getting major airplay and making it into a Jeep commercial, and their feature in the Suicide Squad soundtrack, all the way to their latest massive single, “BOOM,” it seems like they’ve been going non-stop. Amidst near constant tour dates (the band headlined the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre just last year), charity work and the release of countless singles since VHS, the band has been hard at work on their follow-up album - the recently released sophomore effort, ORION.
For many listeners, VHS was the first introduction to X Ambassadors, which makes ORION a perfect opportunity for the band to really show their fans what they’re made of. Like their debut album, ORION is filled to the brim with massive, radio-ready singles, but even more than that, these songs provide a glimpse into the band members’ lives. Following the departure of founding member, Noah Feldshuh, the birth of keyboardist Casey Harris’ son, and just ahead of vocalist Sam Harris’ wedding, ORION marked an important time in the band members’ lives, so it only makes sense that the album is incredibly personal and lyrically, much heavier than their debut.
As frontman Sam Harris has said, they wanted ORION to be a personal record, and that meant paying close attention to detail with everything from the lyrical content and the sound of the album all the way to the packaging, which was chosen specifically to suit the needs of Casey, who was born blind. They even recently released an audio video app for their single, “BOOM,” so fans who are blind or visually impaired can still experience walking down the streets of Ithaca, New York or Bushwick, Brooklyn with the band.
Ahead of their upcoming tour in support of ORION, where the band will be hitting the stage to perform their new songs for the first time in Colorado, we had the chance to catch up with Sam to talk about the band’s transformation since VHS, their powerful new single, “OPTIMISTIC,” which centers around gun violence, and the “BOOM” app. Read the full interview below and grab tickets to an upcoming show HERE.
You guys have kind of had an insane year so far, with the release of your new album, ORION, your new single, “OPTIMISTIC,” you have been touring, you've got your next tour coming up and you released an app… There’s been a lot. What has been the most exciting thing so far this year?
I mean, I think I gotta start with the record, you know? Yeah, we really put a lot into this record, and it's been a minute since we put VHS out. So you know, we put a lot of singles out since then, but we really wanted to take our time and put a second record out that we're seriously proud of, and not try to rush anything. So I think just getting that done getting that out and having it feel as good as it feels... that's the biggest accomplishment, I think, for us so far.
ORION sound-wise is still kind of in the same vein as VHS, but lyrically is a super heavy album at certain points. Was there anything you really wanted to talk about lyrically, when you were working on it?
Yeah, I mean, I was kind of processing a lot. One of the founding members of the band, our guitar player, Noah ended up leaving the band recently, and it was not really the greatest turn of events that led to that. He struggled with alcoholism his whole life, and, you know, it just kind of got out of control. This is my best friend and someone I care about and love a lot, so it was really hard to go through that. I was kind of processing my own frustration and fear and sadness with with the whole thing, and a lot of that went into the record.
And simultaneously, trying to figure out who I am now as a 30 year old guy who is about to get married - and I’m married now, but I was engaged, when we were writing the record - and my brother just had a baby… Just growing up forces you to look back on your life a little bit, and forces you to confront some of your deepest fears and take a look at yourself in the mirror. And that's what this record really was for me.
We really wanted to make the whole packaging of the record feel as much us as possible. You know, I always worry that we're kind of like a faceless band that people know our songs more than they know us. I was kind of determined to change that. Part of who we are is we're family - my brother plays keys in the band, and my brother is blind, he was born blind, so I wanted everything to be accessible for him too. He has a little bit of his vision, so he can see some color and see some high contrast stuff, so the artwork and everything being yellow on black - he can see that. When we wrote out “BOOM” in yellow Braille on the single art, he was able to take a look at that and read that even without touching the Braille. We’ve done some tactile Braille stuff on our vinyl. So there is actual Braille on the vinyl, if you pick it up. We did a Braille billboard in LA that you could touch and feel, and if you were blind or visually impaired, you could read that it said ORION. So, you know, we wanted it to be personal and all encompassing.
“…I always worry that we're kind of like a faceless band that people know our songs more than they know us. I was kind of determined to change that.”
Well, that kind of ties in with the app you guys just released a little bit ago, too. So when you were working on that, how did you even start formulating that idea of like putting the soundscapes into it? I listened to it and even as somebody who isn't blind or visually impaired, you can really like visualize like those environments. It's insane.
Yeah, it’s so cool. We actually had them go down to go to Ithaca and Bushwick in Brooklyn, and record some audio and put that in there. It was my brother's idea. We we sat down with Microsoft, because we had done some work with them already, and were trying to come up with some ideas for what we could do for this record. He always used to listen to these audio books, or radio dramas, actually, and a couple of the newer ones had done some cool stuff with surround sound and 3D audio. And he was like, “Well, you know with music videos, I can't really get much out of that, but if we created an audio experience for our song, that was more than just a song, I think that would be really cool.”
So with the help of Microsoft, we've created this kind of world where you can navigate through the sounds of Ithaca, New York, where we grew up, or Bushwick, Brooklyn, where we used to rehearse all the time. The song kind of plays in the background, you can fade it in and out if you want. If you want to just listen to the sounds of the environment, you can do that, too. And it’s 360, so you can move around, and you can hear it from different angles. If you hear something over to your left, you can turn to it and hear it a little closer up in the center. Yeah, so it was a lot of fun to work on it with them.
That's really cool. Like you said, you've already done stuff kind of leading up to this before - do you think you'll do it with future music videos?
I think that's something that we want to try and continue to play around with. We we had live audio elements in the videos for “Ahead Of Myself,” “Joyful” and “Don't Stay” and look forward to doing some stuff like that again in the future. In the beginning of “Hold You Down,” there's some live audio of Casey and I just playing that song in the room. So you know, continuously toying with live audio in our videos will be a lot of fun.
“I'm so mad, because we haven't done anything yet. I didn't want to be another one of those people that didn't do anything…”
What do you want people to take away from songs like your latest single, “OPTIMISTIC” or the album as a whole?
For “OPTIMISTIC” specifically, I want you to go onto everytown.org and I want you to contact your representatives, wherever you are, and ask them to help push for stricter gun legislation and sensible gun control laws in this country, because we don't have them. It's insane, and people are dying, and and that's why we wrote the song. That's why we put it out, after what happened in El Paso and Dayton, I was just so mad. I'm so mad, because we haven't done anything yet. I didn't want to be another one of those people that didn't do anything, that just said, “Oh, how tragic, someone should really do something about that.”
Overall, I think it's great that people aren't shying away from from being political on their records. I think we need more of it. I think that to even frame it as politics instead of life is kind of whack. Just talk about the world - that's your job as an artist, to talk about the world that you live in, and to connect with the world that you live in. That's what I hope people take away from the song. That, and going to everytown.org and finding out information on how you can actually make a difference here. We can all actually make a difference.
Sonically, that one sounds so different than anything you guys have done recently, too. And I mean, lyrically, it kind of just sounded like it was a breaking point. Did you have anything in mind for what you wanted it to sound like when you started writing it?
Yeah, I sat down and the first thing I did was that guitar. So that was pretty angry. I just wanted to do something, and then everything came together pretty quickly, I'll be honest with you. It was a very fast writing process, which is not always the case, and it did feel a little stream of consciousness, you know? It felt urgent. It wasn't really planned.
I listen to everything, and some of my biggest influences, when I was a kid were the Stooges and the Dead Kennedys, The Cramps and The Damned... Siouxsie and the Banshees, and bands like that. And also, obviously, you hear a little of The Killers in there, you hear a little Springsteen in there… it's all in there.
The chorus is a conversation that I have every day with my wife. We just got married, and we are always talking about the idea of having kids in a world like this, and it's hard, you know? It’s a real decision. What are we doing, bringing kids into this world? Do we want to? Is it smart? So it's a conversation that we have actually had before and it's a hard conversation to have, but I wanted to throw that in the song because it's personal. This affects us all in all different sorts of ways.
Some bands when they come through will partner with different local non-profits for the shows. Are you guys planning on doing anything like that on this tour? Or do you have anything planned while you're out on the road?
In a few different places, we’ll be helping people register to vote. We’ll have Planned Parenthood tabling at a lot of the shows and Headcount tables, too.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to at the upcoming shows? Is there anything else you want to add?
I am so excited to play this new stuff for our fans in Denver. I’m the most excited about that.