X Ambassadors on Life as Rock 'n' Roll Renegades

By David Jenison on May 14, 2018

X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris shares a disability with other musical greats—notably Stevie Wonder, Jeff Healey, Frankie Paul, Ray Charles and Jose Feliciano, to name a few—but his lack of vision hasn’t kept him from being a visionary. Casey helped turn X Ambassadors into a hit machine with platinum-selling singles like "Unsteady" and "Renegades" and genre-crossing collaborations with Eminem and Jay Z. He and the rest of the band are also activists lending their time, talents and money to important social causes. Speaking with PRØHBTD just days before 420, Casey talked about the band's forthcoming new album, dealing with disabilities and fighting for issues like equality and climate change.

You have a new album, JOYFUL, coming out soon. What elements of past albums are still prominent in the music, and in what ways does the album take the band in new directions?

We have progressed in a lot of ways, both as a band and as musicians, but we're still the same band. We're still a rock band at heart. We're still really into musicianship and live-instrument playing, as far as not being completely digital and produced. On this new album, we branched out a little more into doing fully produced tracks. We've been working with a bunch of different producers, which has been an eye-opening experience for me. The new album has a lot more interesting production, and a lot more [of it] leans toward soul and R&B vibes. We grew up listening to lots of different music, and as important as rock was to us, R&B and hip-hop were huge too. Dad has the greatest collection of soul records ever. My brother and I grew up listening to all that stuff, and we delved into that a little bit more on this album. 

You've said before that your dad had a massive vinyl collection from the '50s and '60s. What do you remember about first hearing those albums, and what elements did you hope to capture in your own music?

It's not even a conscious thing, I would say. Often, I'll find myself jamming at the piano or trying to write a song or melody, and I'm like, "That sounds so great, but I know that's from something." Then I go around, usually for days, playing it for people on different instruments and pianos, and finally someone will point out that it's from an old song… [usually] an old soul or rock song. It was subconsciously in my musical repertoire from, I guess, having heard it so much as a youngster. 

With this album, we didn't so much as try to consciously embrace the soul and R&B aspects, but I know that's what my brother and I have been listening to over the past year or two. Since last summer, we've been listening to a ton of gospel music that my wife introduced me to. Whatever happens to be swirling around in your musical consciousness is where you draw your inspiration from.

I've got a tough question for you: Stax or Motown?

Oh man. I'm going to have to go with Stax just because I love all the classic funk, and Stax was definitely edgier and funkier. Motown is amazing, and it pains me to choose one over the other, but if I had to pick, Stax has a little more punch and bounce.

For the new album, you've already released the singles, "Don't Stay," "JOYFUL" and "Ahead of Myself." Why were those ideal tracks to preview the new album?

We wrote "JOYFUL" about a year ago and had been looking for the right opportunity to release it. We didn't really understand—I still don't really understand—the whole strategy of timing [for releasing singles]. At the top of the year, we decided to drop it and let the world hear it. Sometimes musicians agonize about the timing of releases and getting in various types of media and making sure they have the biggest exposure possible. And sometimes you just have to put a song out there. If it's a song you believe in, and if it's been burning a hole in your pocket, you just gotta put it out there. 

That was also the case with "Don't Stay," which we wrote not too long after "JOYFUL," and it was like the flip side of the coin [thematically]. It's from the perspective of someone who is all fucked up and realizes they're a detriment to the people around them. That's where the lyrics, for me, basically say, "Don't stick around while I spiral down." And again, it was another song that we felt strongly and passionately about but didn't really know where or how to release it, so we just figured we'd just put it out there.

We did videos for both those songs, as well as "Ahead of Myself," which we did last year. Around the time we did the "Ahead of Myself" video, I had the idea of tying the videos to each other in a way. That also spurred us on to release the songs at the top of this year.

When you have a new album coming out and you play the new singles live for the first time, what's going through your head? Is there a strong anticipation of how the audience is going to react?

When I'm playing the new songs for the first time, my only thoughts are, "I better not fuck this up too badly." It's always a little nerve-wracking playing tracks. Even though you rehearsed them, it's always different when there's an audience. Overall, when I hit the second or third time we play the songs live, I can take the time to focus on the audience. There's been a couple new tracks we haven't released yet that we've been playing live on this tour, and they're getting great responses from the crowd, which is always surprising to me… to hear people really getting into a track that they don't know the words to. That takes a certain enthusiasm. It's been really cool and really inspiring, honestly, to feel the crowd's reactions to some of these tracks. 

You and your brother come from a long line of rabbis on your father's side. What are the differences between being religious and being spiritual, and how would you characterize yourself within that spectrum?

At least to me, religion is a usually large, well-established and fairly old set of spiritual beliefs. Spirituality encompasses religions. Religions are just sort of a subset of spirituality. In this day and age, especially with young people, I'm meeting more and more who are spiritual or who have the desire to be spiritual, but they can't see past some of the glaring flaws in the major religions. I can't tell you the number of people my age and younger that I've asked if they're religious, and they say, "Not really, but I believe there's some sort of a god." That seems to be the norm these days, and I'm part of that. I don't really see a need for a god, but if there happens to be one, I'm not opposed to it, you know?

Speaking of religion, the band has roots in Ithaca, New York, and Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin is actually a professor up there. Did your paths ever cross?

We never have! I didn't find out he was a professor up there until after we had moved to New York City. I recently looked at the list of well-known people from Ithaca, and I'm very humbled and impressed at the number of pretty cool people, like Carl Sagan and Vladimir Nabokov. It's wild, man. I've got to represent my hometown. 

Band members took part the Women's March and helped support the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Unity Mississippi. How would you describe your personal worldview, and what types of social change would you like to see happen in America?

All of us grew up in really progressive households, and we're really progressive liberal people ourselves. The laundry list of things that we want to help with just goes on and on. We started to become a successful band about three years ago, I'd say, with "Renegades," and then we got on the map with "Unsteady." Around that time we started realizing that we had a platform, and that people actually listened to what we said on social media and in interviews. We were also starting to make money with the band. 

It came to us that we ought to be doing something with both this voice and this money because we've always believed in doing whatever you can to make the world a better place. It's only been a year since Donald Trump was elected, but it feels like a million years. There are so many things that need to be done and defended and protected. For us, it was a Spiderman moment where you find out you have all this power and so you realize you have the responsibility to use it to make the world a better place. We'll keep on trying to do that, but sometimes it feels like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. 

What issues tend to get more energy from the band than others?

Right now, some of the top issues for us are rights for immigrants and rights for people of all religions, as well as gender equality and equality for those in the LGBTQ community. The environment would definitely make it onto the top three list, purely out of selfish human survival. I always say that, as far as the environment goes, the Earth is going to be just fine. It's just a question of how we're going to do it. That's really a question, unfortunately, in this day and age. Of course, always on the list for me is the rights of people with disabilities and other various handicaps. I could go on. I could list a million things, but those are definitely high on the list.

Cannabis is a big issue these days. Is medical cannabis or legalization an issue that you're engaged with in any way?

We absolutely do, especially now, having moved to California. It's amazing. I don't know what I should say in an interview, but in some ways, it makes life a lot easier, if you know what I mean. We've been very pro-legalization of marijuana across the board in all states. Federally, I think it is absolutely absurd that it's Schedule I—it's at least less dangerous for you than alcohol. So, if we're going to use alcohol as a standard, then recreationally, it ought to be legal across the states as well. 

Is there any chance it's not a coincidence that you don't have a show on 420?

You know, it's actually not, but not for the reason you'd think. It's my brother's fiancée's birthday on 420. We will be celebrating with her, but there may be some side benefits as well. 

Obviously you're a huge inspiration for people dealing with vision issues and other disabilities. What are some of the tools you found in life that helped you to stay confident and motivated and positive?

I think the key, and I would tell this to anyone with a handicap or disability, is to be good at something. Preferably be good at multiple things. I think that's true for anybody, whether they have a disability or not, as far as confidence in life. Knowing you're good at something, knowing that you have a skill of value, is really crucial. Even more so for someone who's handicapped, who maybe can't participate in all the normal activities that ground people in life. It's very grounding to have skills that you can be proud of. 

In living with blindness, are there areas in which you might view life more clearly than those with sight?

I feel it would be a little arrogant to say I view things more clearly, but I definitely view things differently. I hope it's clear. I try my best to be as clear as possible, but I think I don't take things for granted. By being blind, I have to learn how to do things like walk down to the corner store, where most people would think that's just a given. I think that's true in a lot of cases for most normal people. In general, people with disabilities have more of an appreciation for things that other people take for granted. 

Last question. What's it like doing songs with Eminem?

Well, it's a completely disconnected process, if I may say so. We never met the man. For this recent collaboration ["Bad Husband"], my brother recorded the vocal hook over a beat that Alex Da Kid gave him back in 2014, and we got an email about half a year ago saying, "Hey, guys. Please, sign off on permission to use this." And lo and behold, it was a track on the new Eminem album. It was this chorus that, frankly, we'd all completely forgotten about. To be honest, the first time working with him [on "Wicked Way"] was about the same.

It's amazing how a lot of modern collaborations are done electronically. It's so easy to send tracks back and forth now, and sometimes that's how we work amongst ourselves in the band. It was actually similar when we wrote "American Oxygen" for Rihanna and when Jay Z did the remix of "Jungle." I wish I had a chance to meet all these people, but it was all done completely through email. Still, I will never forget the moment I first heard Jay Z's remix of "Jungle." It was the craziest thing ever. We had not expected that at all. It was amazing. 

Photo credit: Catie Laffoon.  

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