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Photo: Catie Laffoon
Photo: Catie Laffoon

X Ambassadors Speak Truth, Change Sound on New Record

From the start, Adam Levin knew it was meant to be.

“It was a natural fit. I could just play the drums immediately.”

Levin found a place to exercise his passion with brothers Sam (vocals, sax) and Casey (keys) Harris when they formed X Ambassadors in 2009. Since then, the three-piece, alt-rock group has released a full-length album, VHS (2015), and toured with Muse, Imagine Dragons and Panic! at the Disco. As they continue climbing the ladder of fame and success, Levin says he and his bandmates try to appreciate the little things in life as much as possible. This mindset is central to their upcoming album, Joyful.

On June 7, X Ambassadors will play Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna, Virginia to promote Joyful and give listeners a taste of their new sound. The band has already released six singles to test the waters with fans who have been patiently waiting for another full-length album for three years now.

Although Levin says X Ambassadors is still the same band that created VHS, which featured hit singles “Renegades” and “Unsteady,” the band didn’t want to create a “VHS 2.0.”  Their latest singles, “Joyful” and “Don’t Stay,” reveal a transition into a bluesy, soulful sound that features layers unheard of in their previous style.

“As we grow as musicians and songwriters, our music is going to grow with us,” Levin says. “We embrace our soul influences and [Sam’s] voice with big choir vocals. There’s a lot more impressive vocal work on this record.”

X Ambassadors has been teasing Joyful’s release for quite some time, but has yet to announce a solid release date.

Levin says 2018 is a safe bet, and we’ll just have to take his word for it.

“It’s like a project that never ends because you write something new and it’s really cool and exciting, so it’s a constant shifting of songs,” he says. “We’re just trying to make it the best that we possibly can, and we want to take our time to put it out.”

When asked about the message of Joyful, Levin was reluctant at first, but eventually gave a few hints as to what listeners can expect from their new venture into a more soul and R&B sound.

“A lot of it is inspired by a friend of ours who’s going through addiction right now, and Sam’s been estranged from this person. I think a good amount of the record is speaking to that and Sam’s personal battle with it. It’s also about the message of taking a step to be joyful about the things that you do have.”

Levin says that much of X Ambassadors’ messaging comes from using their privilege as three straight white males to give a voice to marginalized people. Although many bands are afraid they might alienate listeners if they speak out politically, X Ambassadors decided long ago to provoke discussion and change with their music.

“People might disagree with our political viewpoints, but we don’t let that stop us from doing what we think is right,” he says.

Some examples of their recent political activity include performing a special show to benefit Planned Parenthood on International Women’s Day in 2017 and donating all proceeds they earned for six months after the release of their single “Hoping” to the American Civil Liberties Union beginning in March of last year.

“I think there are a lot of people right now who feel alienated and attacked, and we want to do what we can to represent them,” Levin says. “If that empowers them to keep fighting the good fight, then we’ve done our job.”

Since they began writing music together in 2009, the bond between Levin and the Harris brothers has flourished because of all the trials and tribulations they experienced together as rising musicians.

“There were so many times where this band felt like it wasn’t going to happen,” Levin says. “All of the different hurdles we’ve jumped have made us so much stronger.”

But to Levin, hurdles and failures are no more than signs to turn around and go the other way. This philosophy is part of what gives X Ambassadors the drive and dedication to put out the best music they possibly can for their fans.

“All of the things we’ve been through together and our ability to communicate is what it’s all about. The most important thing in any creative relationship is the ability to be candid and not afraid to say what you think, even if it might hurt some feelings.”

Along with their fearless, go-getter attitude, X Ambassadors embraces a “no bullsh-t” approach that they picked up from Imagine Dragons, who they credit for discovering them.

“One thing we learned from touring with Imagine Dragons is to be overly nice to everyone you meet because it pays to do that,” Levin says. “It’s not like we were
a–holes before that tour or anything, but we learned there’s no time for any of that rock star bullsh-t.”

With the upcoming release of Joyful and a national tour underway, X Ambassadors is steadily moving toward their dream of becoming the headliners of their own major tour and selling out arenas all over the States. But no matter how big they get, they want to continue giving their fans music that they can hold onto during hard times.

“We obviously want fans to love the music, but we also want them to feel represented or to find something that they can relate to,” Levin says. “A song can be written about one thing, but a person may hear it and they might not understand what it was originally written about, but it somehow relates to their life. That’s the beautiful thing about music and art, and that’s the message we want to bring with the record.”

See X Ambassadors open for Fitz and the Tantrums at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Thursday, June 7. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30-$55 and available for purchase at www.wolftrap.org. Learn more about the  band at www.xambassadors.com.

Wolf Trap’s Filene Center: 1551 Trap Rd. Vienna, VA; 703- 255-1800; www.wolftrap.org