The City of Ithaca is known for many things — its natural gorges, signature food and local music, to name a few. Joining that list is the rock and hip-hop group X Ambassadors, which originated in Ithaca and is now touring worldwide.
The four-man band fuses bold vocals with alternative rock sounds with pop influences. X Ambassadors’ soulful lyrics stand out on their tracks, instantly drawing listeners to their music. Best known for their hit pop song “Renegades,” among others tracks, the band is currently performing on its VHS 2.0 Tour, which will come to the State Theatre in Ithaca on May 14. Three of the band’s four members grew up in Ithaca, and the city is still home to their families.
Just as the classic story of small-town kids who made it big in the city suggests, X Ambassadors formed in the seventh grade at Boynton Middle School and started playing local gigs throughout their middle and high school years. Growing up near Danby Road, Sam Harris, the lead singer and guitar player of X Ambassadors, and his brother Casey Harris, the band’s keyboardist, were self-proclaimed townies. Guitarist Noah Feldshuh, who also grew up in Ithaca and was friends with the Harrises, became the third member of the band.
Sam Harris said the middle-school, three-man band gained traction, playing local venues including The Haunt and what is now Lot 10 on The Commons, throughout their high school careers.
The members moved to New York, and Harris and Feldshuh attended The New School. There, the group collected its fourth member, drummer Adam Levin. In 2009, after college graduation, the four recorded their first EP.
Harris said the band was first discovered by the group Imagine Dragons, which heard some of X Ambassadors’ music and helped the band find musical representation and become more legitimized as musicians in 2012. Just three years after that first release, the group signed with Interscope Records and began producing professional music. With the help of Imagine Dragons, the former Ithacans took their middle school act to center stage.
“It’s been crazy,” Harris said. “Coming from the Boynton Middle School talent show in seventh grade to where we are now, I’m pretty proud of how far we’ve come.”
X Ambassadors began their VHS 2.0 Tour last year, and Harris said they have plans to continue throughout the summer. At the beginning of 2016, the band commenced its second leg of the tour, hitting Europe for about a month and coming back stateside. Harris said the band’s upcoming performance in Ithaca marks the beginning of the third leg of the tour, which includes performances in Washington, D.C.; Boston; and New York. Harris said the band has been enjoying the tour.
“It’s been going good,” he said. “Touring is very exhausting. We work very hard and take our work very seriously, so there’s a lot of preparation that goes into a show. It’s exhausting, but it’s very rewarding.”
Harris said he is excited to come back home for the State Theatre show, which brings with it a wealth of emotion.
“Home is a complicated thing,” Harris said. “You always have complex feelings towards home. Right now, I’m in a spot where I really, really love going back, and I haven’t felt like that in a while, and I’m very excited to come back and play.”
Harris said he misses all of the staples of Ithaca, including the Ithaca Farmers Market, Wegmans and The Commons. While X Ambassadors are here, Harris said, he’s also looking forward to getting Gimme! Coffee and hiking around Buttermilk and Taughannock Falls. The Harris’ and Feldshuh’s families and several friends still live in Ithaca, and Harris said he looks forward to seeing them again. Reflecting on his upbringing, Harris said he is looking forward to his homecoming.
“I just miss the whole town and all of its nuance,” Harris said. “I grew up really wanting to get out as quickly as possible. I felt very different from a lot of my peers in high school and middle school and wanted to leave. Now, as I become an adult, I cherish that isolation and that desperate desire to see the world and experience things outside my small town because that’s what’s driven me here.”
Before completing the band’s debut album “VHS,” which was released June 30, 2015, Harris said he visited his home again to reconnect with his past and origins. The album’s name was inspired by VHS tapes he found at his house, some of which he included in X Ambassadors’ tracks.
“I did some soul-searching back there,” Harris said. “It was really important for me to do that. I went back home, and I got all of this home video footage that you hear throughout the record, old audio clips from old VHS tapes. We pulled the old audio clips from us as kids and teenagers just to tell our stories, to tell the story of the band and our friendship that’s lasted for so long.”
Now, at age 27, Harris said the group has played together for almost 15 years. Harris said “VHS” is a compilation of all of X Ambassadors’ collective experiences.
“We’re really proud of the work we’ve put into the album,” Harris said. “It’s eclectic, just like our musical taste and musical influences. They’re all over the place, all across the board, and rather than shy away from that and make something that all sounds the same, we embraced the fact that our music has always kind of been all over the place. That’s who we are. The album itself is our story of growing up and what we experienced together, and we’ve been lucky to experience together a lot of moments in our lives.”
Dan Smalls is the owner of concert production company Dan Smalls Presents, responsible for booking and producing X Ambassadors’ upcoming show at the State Theatre. Smalls said the band’s homecoming show is especially important to Ithaca and the State Theatre.
“We have supported the band at DSP since they started and were called simply Ambassadors. We put them on at the Haunt several times before they changed their name and exploded,” Smalls said. “What it means to the State Theatre is a band with local roots is giving back to the place where they started and built their base and experienced the things that lead to them recording the songs that are now making them famous worldwide.”
Freshman Hanna Fuchs said enjoys the X Ambassadors’ music and performances.
“I am a fan of them, and I’ve liked everything I have heard by them,” Fuchs said. “I really want to go to their concert.”
Harris said he can’t wait to play at his old stomping grounds again. Harris said X Ambassadors have a few surprises for the Ithaca audience during the sold-out show.
“This is really a dream come true for us,” Harris said. “The State Theatre was always a staple performance space of our youth. I’ve watched incredible acts come through there. This is our big homecoming show, and we’re really stoked about it.”