Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Show Preview - Interview - Ambassadors w/ Lights - 2.29.12 - Altar Bar - Concert Preview - Pittsburgh

Sam Harris has been playing music with his friend Noah and his brother Casey since they were kids in middle school in Ithaca, New York. Years later, the three moved to New York City for college, where drummer Adam Levin joined the group. Despite their years of music together, only in the past six months has their band, Ambassadors, really surfaced in the blogosphere. Their drum-driven song “Unconsolable” has been making the rounds for several months now. In January, the band released their first LP, Litost. On February 29th, Ambassadors will make their first trip to Pittsburgh, opening for Lights at Altar Bar.

Sam spoke with me about the band’s early influences. “I remember going to see the Arcade Fire when they first started touring Funeral, and bands like Fiery Furnaces. But we also listened to music like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and some shit that was on mainstream rock radio.”

The middle school days left a seemingly deep imprint on these musicians. “Somehow, the music has evolved now into something that is almost hearkening back to stuff we were listening to in like 5th grade,” Sam said. “We're drawing on influences of like 90s R&B stuff, like we're doing covers of that kind of stuff.” The core of the music has always remained the same. “Ultimately at the end of the day we have always just wanted to write catchy songs.”

Their catchy songs, blending a range of influences from rock, synth, and tribal, have culminated with their first album, Litost. The title of the album comes from a book by Czech writer Milan Kundera. “Oh man, I looove that book,” Sam exclaims. “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. That was like the book that I was reading at the time I was writing a lot of this stuff. I love his language. I try to emulate as much as possible lyrically. He finds a way to write about something so beautifully, using words that are sometimes really harsh words or ugly or phrases that are a little mean, but when put together it turns into this beautiful, beautiful work of art. I think he's so brilliant.”

This literary record was completed in the spring of last year. The band immediately began shopping it around to labels, before ultimately self-releasing it. “We had our hearts set on getting it on a label. We were like, ‘We're gonna do it!’ We started building our team up , we started working with a great manager, Seth, booking shows, got a lawyer.” Ambassadors chose not to sign with a label, however. “You know the offers we were getting, some of them were OK. But at the end of the day we just had to say no to all of them, because none of them were perfect.”

Nonetheless, Ambassadors released Litost on their own. It can be found on Amazon, iTunes, and Bandcamp. Sam is thankful that the changing music industry has made such a career path possible. “This is the time when you can do that. Now more than ever bands are putting out material on their own. People in the music industry will always tell you to hang onto as much as you can. But it's hard, because things are expensive and you have to figure out ways to make money in order to keep on creating stuff.” Sam laughs. “I mean, if it was up to me I would have given our record away for free and not thought twice about it.”

There is a certain method to succeeding in the internet age. Sam tries to stay ahead of the curve. “I think what's really exciting for us is that we are always writing stuff, constantly recording, and perfecting out sound. And I think what this new way of experiencing music is allowing us to do is to let other people in on that process. If you release as much material as possible, all the time and just keep pumping out the songs, even if it's not a full record, if you're just pumping out EPs, you know, people will love it.” He seems to really understand the evolving relationship between the listener and the musician. “People want to get more and more involved in the life of a band. I keep seeing these demos that Frank Ocean puts up on his blog. You know, he's got all these people who are behind him, repping his stuff and pushing his stuff. And that's all the better, because he can just put this out and say, ‘What do you guys think? I hope you guys like this little snippet of something I'm doing.” He can judge how he's going to make the next record off of the reactions to these little demos that he's putting out.”

In the past two years, since finishing school, Ambassadors have worked hard on their writing and live show. In videos online, Sam can be seen drumming on stage. He explains, “I primarily play bass and what we call 'the indie tom.' I guess I play auxillary percussion and bass. And I sing. That's really my main instrument. When we first were a band back in middle school and high school I didn't play anything.” It wasn’t that he didn’t play anything, it was that he played saxophone. ”I've been playing saxophone since I was 8 years old. Eventually I started writing songs and I wanted to accompany myself, so I picked up guitar when I was around 14. Then I learned how to play drums and some other things like piano. I play a little bit of everything. I like to be able to jump around from instrument to instrument on stage and add whatever sound is necessary. But I would say primarily I am a singer.”

Body Bag by Ambassadors from Big Ugly Yellow Couch on Vimeo.

Ambassadors is one of the few bands today which have something which could be called a logo. The three A’s in the word Ambassadors are represented with red, yellow, and blue triangles. “It was a design that your friend Meryl did for us when she was listening to our record, and we just immediately loved it. I do a lot of the graphic design for the band, I did the album cover. Our friend Diggy Lloyd did the photos on both the first EP and our newest record. She is just incredible. Her work sort of speaks volumes with simplicity. And I think the band logo is so simple. It just allows for so much to be done with it.”

The triangles are thematic for the Harris brothers, Sam said. “Oddly enough, Casey and I both have matching tattoos that I designed of these two triangles with a closed eye and an open eye in each of them. It's sort of symbolic of our brotherhood. I guess the triangle thing has somehow worked its way into the theme of the band. I don't really know what it means, I just like it. It looks cool.”

With Litost completed almost a year ago, Ambassadors have already developed new material as they begin their tour with Lights. They’ll still be playing the songs that are generating buzz for them online, like“Unconsolable,” “Weight/Lightness,” and “Litost” (which was recently played on a television episode of One Tree Hill. Sam says we’ll hear new stuff too. “We have a bunch of songs that are in the works right now that we will be working on the road and playing in front of audiences and getting reactions. We're just going to keep touring and supporting this record that we have right now. Writing stuff, recording stuff on the go. Like I said before, this is the age where you just have to have a volume of material to keep putting out. People want to know what you're doing all the time and what you're working on. And we're always working anyways, so now it's just a matter of remembering to tweet about it, or post it on your tumblr. We're just gonna keep rolling and we're excited right now, and excited for the future.”

“I can't wait to come through Pittsburgh. It's gonna be our first time playing there,” Sam says.

I tell him that Altar Bar should suit their sound well, because it has a big stage.

Sam laughs. “Well, we just happen to love big stages.”  


-Daniel Hammer