ITHACA, N.Y. — On Saturday, May 14th, X Ambassadors will headline the State Theatre of Ithaca for the venue’s sixth annual “Benefit My State” event. By some standards of popular music success, X Ambassadors is a rock band that has already made it. After getting noticed by Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds in 2012, the band signed to an imprint of Interscope Records. Their song “Renegades” became an RIAA-certified platinum worldwide hit last year, with a YouTube video that’s accumulated over 35 million views. Their music has been featured in collaborations with artists like Jay Z and Eminem, and they’ve performed on nationally-televised programs including Late Night with Seth Meyers and The Today Show.
But when I reference milestones like these to keyboardist Casey Harris, he’s quick to downplay them. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that he’d been living off a savings of a few hundred dollars in a New York City apartment that he shared with his younger brother, lead singer Sam Harris.
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“We were splitting time in one room,” Casey tells me. “I’d stay there half the week, he’d stay there the other half, we’d crash on couches… we did that until we made enough money for me to afford my own room in an apartment, which really only started happening maybe two years ago, at most.”
The band members aren’t shy about sharing their origin story with the press, and are proud to designate Ithaca, New York as their hometown. “My brother and I grew up in the outskirts of Ithaca along Danby Road,” Casey says, “a little bit past Big Al’s Hilltop.” Their mother sang cabaret and Casey grew up surrounded by music, learning the piano at a young age. He particularly credits his piano teacher, jazz pianist Molly MacMillan, and his Lehman Alternative Community School music teacher, Dara Anissi, with developing his music tastes.
“(Anissi) introduced me to a ton of music. A lot of more ‘out there’ stuff, jazz fusion and progressive rock. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Portishead, King Crimson… A bunch of it is still literally stuff I listen to today. My piano teacher (MacMillan) had me listen to a bunch of jazz that I didn’t necessarily appreciate as much at the time, but later on in my years I came back to and rediscovered. Artists like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ahmad Jamal. I didn’t realize until later the depth of music she exposed me to.”
Casey would occasionally perform with Sam and childhood friend Noah Feldshuh in basement jam sessions, but he became impatient to begin the next stage of his life. Leaving school his senior year, Casey earned his GED and enrolled in the School of Piano Technology for the Blind, a vocational school in Vancouver, Washington (Casey, diagnosed with Senior-Loken syndrome, has been visually-impaired since birth).
The current X Ambassadors line-up of Sam, Noah, Casey, and drummer Adam Levin began in New York City as Casey worked a day job as a piano tuner. “I worked there for five years. It was a fantastic store. But we started getting offers to play shows outside of New York. For a long time, the store was super understanding about letting me leave and come back, but they eventually told me if I wasn’t coming back to work for a solid month straight, they were going to have to hire someone else. That’s when I took the plunge and had to live very frugally for a couple of years.”
Since taking that plunge, X Ambassadors have spent much of the last two years touring nationally to theater and stadium crowds, but Casey still considers Ithaca home. “My mom still lives in downtown Ithaca, we have a ton of friends who are still there… It’s funny, it’s one of those towns that even when a lot of people leave, they tend to come back for the holidays. A lot of people you haven’t seen in ages will sort of congregate in Ithaca. It really is pretty magical, actually.”
Members of the band are excited to return home for the “Benefit My State” performance, and particularly to the State Theatre. “We’ve been wanting to do a ‘coming home’ show in Ithaca for a long time,” Casey explains. “We’ve known about this benefit for the State for a while, and it finally sort of clicked. So many of our formative concerts happened at the State. I remember seeing Chick Corea there when I was younger, it was one of the most insane shows I’ve ever seen. It feels so gratifying to be able to contribute to that, to bring it back home. Ithaca’s our roots, man. Ithaca’s where I formed most of who I am. It’s really fantastic to be able to come back and show people what we’ve learned.”
The 6th Annual “Benefit My State” show featuring X Ambassadors begins at 7pm on May 14th at the State Theatre of Ithaca. Tickets have sold out.
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