X Ambassadors Talk 'Renegades' Success, Imagine Dragons and '90s Hip-Hop: Interview
2015 has been a massive year for X Ambassadors. This year, the previously relatively unknown band has exploded on the scene thanks to their No. 1 single "Renegades," unique debut album VHS and a little help from Imagine Dragons.
Tonight (Nov. 12), X Ambassadors will cap off their monumental 2015 with a performance at VH1's You Oughta Know concert. Previously, this series has celebrated the early successes of the likes of Adele, Lorde, Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran and more. So, it's kind of a big deal.
Ahead of the annual show, X Ambassadors' Noah Feldshuh spoke to Music Times about their explosive year, upgrading from a church van to a tour bus and making a rock album in the hip-hop tradition.
Music Times: X Ambassadors has had a huge year with your new record and with "Renegades" so I was wondering if you could talk me through the last six months of your life. How does it feel to kind of finally really broken out?
Noah Feldshuh: It feels amazing; we are super busy and the shows have been getting better and better. That is really where we can see it hit the ground the most because we are pretty much doing shows every day, so the immediacy for us is just having bigger and more sold out shows and having better audience participation and reaction and stuff. Also we are on a bus now. We, six months ago were driving ourselves with one crew member in a dilapidated church van and a trailer that we bought in Brooklyn and now we're on a bus with a full crew and lights and stuff. That's really been the biggest immediacy in how we can see it happen.
MT: How much of a relief is it to not have to lift your own equipment anymore? That sounds so good.
NF: Oh my god. It's incredible. Also not having to sell merchandise, and I would be like liaison between all the promotional stuff that we had to do it's really awesome and it feels like we have started like more of a professional thing going forward
MT: "Renegades" has been a huge hit for you guys. You went No. 1 on the Alternative and Hot Rock charts, and it was a top 20 on the Hot 100, too. Why do you think that song in particular crossed over, in a time when there aren't many rock hits on the radio anymore?
NF: I think [it hit] for a bunch of reasons. The Jeep campaign we were placed in brought the song into everyone's living room. When we worked with Jeep, they didn't really try to change the band or have the band write a song. We wrote the song outside of the car and the Jeep stuff and it just happened to be a perfect pairing. So it wasn't something like they tried to mold us to sell their car. They were endorsing us. When you have your program director at radio, it helps to to throw a song on there that everybody knows.
But, I think the main reason it hit with people is because of the song. We have a blind member of our band, and he's a real inspiration to us. We wanted to share his story as well as the stories of others who defy the odds and break barriers, both social and otherwise, to have them accomplish amazing things. I think that's very applicable message to everyone, not just people who are "disabled." I think that resonated with a lot of people, or I hope it did.
MT: Do you feel that other than inspiring this song that having your keyboard player being blind has affected your band at all or is just another a thing?
NF: Well, we haven't tried to be defined by that in many ways, so it's not something we've talked about in interviews or anything like that until "Renegades" came out. But to answer your questions absolutely has affected us. I grew up with Sam and Casey [Harris] and I've seen Sam fight for his brother when we were little kids and Casey being bullied in school and vice versa too. There's a lot of give and take with having a sibling and a best friend who has a disability like that and you have to be... he's there for us all the time and we're there for him all the time but I wouldn't take Casey any other way.
MT: X Ambassadors have just rolled "Unsteady" to radio and really kind of getting the ball rolling on the follow-up single after "Renegades" blew up. As a band or from the label do you feel any pressure right now?
NF: Oh, I mean absolutely. But to tell you the truth... six months ago when we were trying to tour and didn't even have the church van and were applying for small clubs opening slots, there's pressure to get the church van, then to get the trailer, then to get insurance. There is pressure every step of the way. We are trying to be better and get better, and we really hope that people connect with "Unsteady." I think it's a really powerful song and I'm actually, it's almost as ubiquitous as "Renegades" and can be applied to a lot of situations. It's not as uplifting as a message, unfortunately, but I think it's a very powerful song and we hope that the people connect with it.
MT: X Ambassadors got a big early boost from Imagine Dragons and Dan Reynolds, and they appear on your album. Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with that band?
NF: They're the best dudes ever and I'm so happy to be friends with those guys; they're just good friends of ours beyond our working relationship. They were down in Norfolk, Virginia, where we had a song that was hitting on the radio just out of the blue on an alternative station down there. The band had to go to lunch or go do something and one of the interns at the station played them a different version of the song "Unconsolable" that we released on our first EP Love Songs, Drug Songs. They loved the song and they loved the music, and I think they looked at our story a little bit and saw who we were and brought us to the label.
Not only that, they brought us on tour at their first amphitheater tour and then subsequently their first arena tour and they were there to if we had any questions and to give us a helping hand and stuff every step of the way. So they really sort of kept the ball rolling on this whole thing.
MT: You also worked with Jamie N Commons on VHS. It's a little different for a rock band to have collaborations on their album. Why did you decide to include Imagine Dragons and Jamie N Commons on VHS?
NF: Imagine Dragons brought us to the label and our producer Alex da Kid, who has had a lot of huge, huge success both in the pop world but also in the hip-hop world, which is where he started. So, as a hip-hop producer -- hip-hop is full of features all left and right -- so I think it's sort of taken from that cloth. We're also huge collaborators as well. We go into the studio with a lot of other people and ghostwrite for people and everything, so it was not something that was new to us. It's all whatever is best for the song. We don't have much ego, so if I were to write a lyric that was really good for the song and then Sam had a different lyric and that lyrics would change it is whatever is best for the song.
With Jamie for those two songs, which are "Lowlife" and "Jungle," we had these great songs, these great choruses and this great music, but we couldn't finish the song. Immediately when we went out and met with Jamie and were emailing back and forth with him, he just put that missing puzzle piece in there that made the song perfect, and we thought it is kind of weird to have a feature -- well not weird different -- but it was what was best for the songs. Also our songs take from hip-hop in the way the album is structured. It has interludes and stuff, so we wanted to sort of really model our record, our first record after the 90s hip hop records we grew up loving so much so I think that has a lot to do with why we kept those songs with the features on the album.
MT: I kind of wanted to talk about the inclusions of the interludes other than the nods to '90s hip-hop. It seemed like they really told your story. What were you sort of trying to convey with this record?
NF: You hit the nail on the head. In form, it's a nod to '90s hip-hop, but in content and what the interludes are about, it's essentially telling the story of us from Sam and I met when we were 5 years old and Sam and Casey are brothers. So, from us when we were very young to us going to college and becoming a band and our early years touring. We've just included it to tell the story of the band for lack of a better way of describing it.
MT: I'm talking to you ahead of the VH1 You Oughta Know concert. How does it feel to be included in that sort of event. They have had some biggest names in music right now... Ed Sheeran, Lorde they've all been a part of it so can you talk more about it?
NF: Yup. Oh my god Adele, Sam Smith, I know Ed Sheeran, Sia. Being in the company of all these people is incredible, and we've been super lucky to just be in the camp with everyone. We're super stoked to play with all the people that are playing this year, too, because I know Elle King is playing, which they're good buddies of ours too, and we actually played with. Hozier is playing again, and we've actually spent some time with him and stuff at all these festivals so we're beyond excited. I heard Hannibal Burress might make an appearance, so we're all huge fans of him too so it's going to be great. I know it's only one song but it should be amazing to be in that company on a fun night.
X Ambassadors will play VH1's You Oughta Know concert tonight, which will air at 9 p.m. The band's new album VHS is out now. Beginning next January, X Ambassadors will hit the road with Muse on the Drones Tour.