X Ambassadors are finally returning with a new album this week. After releasing their album, VHS in 2015, X Ambassadors had yet to release a follow up. There was a tease of an album called JOYFUL in 2018, but ultimately that wasn’t meant to be. Now, they’ve got their new album, ORION ready to go and it will be released this Friday. Alternative Addiction recently got to chat with X Ambassadors vocalist Sam Harris about the band’s new album, what took so long to make it, and how it's their most personal record yet.
“We’ve been working on this fucking thing for so long,” laughed Harris. “I’m so nervous. I feel like every morning I wake up and my stomach is in knots when I think about it coming out.”
Harris has a right to be nervous, following up VHS and the impact that the band’s single, “Renegades” had is a tough challenge, especially when the period between releases has been as long as it has.
“We toured the shit out of that thing,” said Harris talking about VHS. “We played that until mid-2017. During that time, we were writing a bunch of music and starting to work on that next record. Along the way, one of the founding members of the band left the band and that was tough. He and I had been playing music together since we were kids. That was a rough time for us and a rough time for him and that took a toll on the writing process.”
“Simultaneously, we had some personnel changes with our team. We drifted away from some people creatively. Our A&R with our label left to join another label halfway through working on the album. Our publishing company got bought out by another publishing company. So, there were a lot of changes for us during a critical time while we were out on tour. All of this was happening while we were trying to make a second record following up a fairly successful first album too.
“When we took a step back, we had this body of work for an album we were going to call JOYFUL, based on that single. We listened to everything and it felt so scattered as a body of work. I think that was because emotionally and physically we were all feeling that way. So, we made the decision halfway through the Joyful tour in 2018 that we needed to take a minute off the road to work strictly on the album. We did that and then we came up with ORION.”
Just because JOYFUL didn’t come to fruition, it’s not exactly a situation like Dave Matthews Band and the Lillywhite Sessions. Some of these songs still exist, they just exist in a different form on ORION than they would have on JOYFUL.
“We ended up reworking some of the ones that ended up making it. ‘CONFIDENCE’ was one that was going to be on the Joyful record. ‘HISTORY’ was too but it turned out a lot different than that version. “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO PRAY” was there but it was very different too. Then we had versions of ‘RULE’ and ‘RECOVER.’ Those songs have been around for a while, but we adapted them to make the whole album of ORION feel cohesive. We ended up using those songs because they felt relevant to the project.”
With X Ambassadors, the song writing has always been great, but a big part of their success is Sam’s voice. Going all the way back to 2011 when the band was unsigned and they had their performance on the Big Ugly Yellow Couch get noticed by every A&R rep in the U.S., Sam’s voice is what drew everybody in. Harris’ voice is a critical part of the band’s success, but this time he tried to let the songs do more of the work.
“I tried to attack this record more from a song perspective. I wanted to focus mostly on the songs and what my voice could do to support them. I wanted to work together with the songs rather than have that be the primary focus,” added the X Ambassadors vocalist.
It's easy to let the songs do the brunt of the work when they’re as good as they are on ORION. Listening through the album, the initial impression is mostly about how intensely personal these lyrics are. The latest single is “HOLD YOU DOWN” and it might be the best example of how personal this album is. The song is about a few different things, one being the relationship between Sam and his brother, X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris.
“The song is about devotion to someone, saying that know matter what, through good times and bad, I’ll always be there for you. The video for the song shows me and my brother, it’s old footage from us as kids and early days in the band. We have a unique relationship. He’s my older brother. He was born blind. A lot of my life, he’s depended on me for a lot of things and I’ve always been there. In return, he’s always been there for me. He’s someone I go to in my darkest times. He’s always been a beacon of hope and a support system for me. We lean on each other for that and it’s such a big part of who I am.”
“The whole point of this record is to make this a defining record for us. We want people to know us as human beings. That song is also about my girlfriend, we’re getting married. She and I have a special relationship. We’ve been together for years, we were high school sweethearts, and she and I obviously have that kind of devotion too. I have a lot of relationships like that in my life and I wanted to write a song about it.”
When making an album as personal as this one is, an interesting thought is how difficult it was emotionally for the band making it. Rehashing unpleasant memories and dissecting them into a song for hours at a time doesn’t seem like a fun mental exercise.
“Once I consciously make that decision to open that door, it’s easy,” explained Harris. “I say to myself, ‘this has actually happened to you, write about it, go for it.’ Then it just pours out. It’s scary listening back to it, once it’s been put all down and I hear how personal it. But you put it out in the world and people react to it. If you’re honest and personal in your songs, that will be met with gratitude.”
“It’s hard to be honest and vulnerable, especially for men. I love it when I see the burliest guys come up to me after a show and they tell me how much a song like ‘Unsteady’ helped them get through something. I want to promote that kind of vulnerability with our work. The kind of environment I grew up in, there was a lot of toxic masculinity and you can’t help but let it infect you. I fight so hard against that, so when I try to be open and honest in my music that’s where I go. I respect that the most in other people’s music so that’s what I try to do.”
With the new album coming out this week, X Ambassadors are slated to start promoting the album. They’ll be doing some promotional stuff throughout the summer and in the fall, they’ll head out on The ORION tour.
“I think we’re going to do a healthy mix of old stuff and new stuff. It will probably be half and half. I’m excited to play these songs on the road. I want to go there first and get that out of my system. We’ll adjust on the tour if we need to. I really love playing all the new stuff because it’s new. When you play the same set, it gets monotonous. But I love playing ‘HEY CHILD’ and ‘BOOM’ live, they’re so much fun. I haven’t gotten a chance to play some of the ballads yet, and that’s what I’m excited to do. I love singing those ballads.”-aa