X Ambassadors' Sam Harris Brings New Cayuga Sound Festival to Ithaca: 'It Was A Cathartic Full Circle Moment'

Anna Lee
X Ambassadors

After earning global fame and dominating the charts with a steady stream of rock hits like “Renegades" and “Unsteady," X Ambassadors are heading back to their humble roots by launching a new music festival , Cayuga Sound, this fall in their hometown of Ithaca, N.Y.

The alt rockers created Cayuga Sound with the help of longtime manager Seth Kallen, founder of This Fiction (Savoir Adore, Great Good Fine Ok, Morgxn) and local promoter Dan Smalls, in tribute to the band's city of origin. Featuring an impressive and diverse lineup, the inaugural fest, set for Sept. 22-23, will include a headlining set from the band themselves, as well as co-headliners The Roots, K.Flay, The Knocks, Tei Shi and many more.

For Kallen, the thought of starting a festival was always in the back of his mind, but he floated it to the band as their debut LP VHS first started breaking. The obvious choice for everyone was always Ithaca, and specifically in the fall, when the seasons are changing and the city is full of energy from the local colleges. "We're not looking to compete with the big guys, but we do want to become the premiere event in the region for bringing an eclectic mix of music to town," says Kallen. "The overall experience for both the artists and the fans will be special. I wouldn't be surprised if you see Sam jump up on stage with The Knocks, or see Paul from Savoir Adore do some covers with Jukebox the Ghost. And our biggest hope is that Ithaca's mayor, Svante Myrick, sits in on drums with someone." 

A major incentive for the event was also to help support local businesses and nonprofits in Ithaca. "Somehow in a smaller city than Syracuse, Rochester, even Buffalo to an extent, we have established a place that artists want to play," says Smalls, who has booked the band since their early days as The Fuzz Brothers. "They are so thankful and humbled by their successes and wanted to give back to this place that made them who they are. It's not a payday, but a huge give-back as we plan to support nearly 10 local not-for-profits that are near and dear to the band."

And for X Ambassadors, the fest is partly inspired by the fact that growing up, they were always left disappointed when their favorite artists didn't stop in their town for shows. “It’s pretty isolated and we didn’t really get a lot of bands that we liked as kids who would come through Ithaca to play,” X Ambassadors frontman Sam Harris tells Billboard. “And whenever they did, it always felt really, really special -- almost like they were coming and playing for us in our own living room, like they cared about us, like they cared about me -- a little 13, 14-year-old kid in a town not too many people had heard of. Putting on this festival was a cathartic full circle moment for us.”

Below, the X Ambassadors frontman & Ithaca native opens up about the origin of Cayuga Sound, his hopes for its growth, and more.

How does it feel to be able to come back and plant a flag in your hometown with a festival after all of the success you’ve had?

It feels incredible. First of all, I have to give credit where credit's due. A lot of the hard work and preparation for this festival was done by our manager Seth Kallen and the local Ithaca and upstate promoter Dan Smalls. They really took the initiative and started to get things in motion and before I knew it, it turned into a real thing. That’s when we really started getting involved, by picking the bands and what organizations we were going to donate some of the proceeds to -- local groups in Ithaca, non-profits, youth groups and other organizations that I grew up a part of.

To be able to come back home and bring a festival like this to the place that nurtured me, raised me and made me the man that I am, the artist I am today -- is really so special.

Tell us about the venue Stewart Park -- how did you choose that location and why is it special?

It’s so perfectly located in Ithaca. It’s right at the bottom of Cayuga Lake, which is where the city is horseshoe'd around. It’s got so many memories for me. The Ithaca festival, which is more of a food, arts and craft and some music festival that happens every year in downtown Ithaca, in Stewart park, is right there too. It’s very Ithaca, so it’s the perfect place to put [the festival] on.

And the first festival I ever played with my band was back when we were called The Fuzz Brothers, when we were still in high school. It’s kind of bringing it full circle. I went to camp there when I was a kid and then I was a camp counselor the summer after college. One of my mentors, who mentored me all throughout middle school and high school and got me to the performing arts, he’s in charge of a lot of stuff at Stewart Park. And CSMA (Community School of Music and Arts) is another organization we’re donating to, the community school of the rising arts, providing saxophone lessons. So it’s all really personal.

What was it like to curate a festival line-up, where did you even begin? 

First and foremost, we thought, "Can we hold this thing down by ourselves?" I think we decided it would be cooler and make more sense to have another big band co-headlining it with us. We just played The Roots’ Picnic Festival and had developed a little bit of a relationship with them and their management from playing with them at SXSW last year. When we first told them about doing the festival their management was like, “Hey, yeah, sure! You played our festival, we’ll play your festival!’

The rest of it came together pretty easily. We had collaborated with some of the artists on the bill. The Knocks are our good buddies -- we did a song, “Comfortable,” with them on their last album. I did a new song with them called “Heat” that came out end of last year. Then it was about finding cool artists that we really loved, like Tei Shi and Margaret Glaspy and this new band called Crush Club who are good friends of ours from Brooklyn, New York.

Are there any Ithaca locals on the bill?

There's a really great, cool underground music scene in Ithaca. There’s a label called Ithaca Underground that has been working with a lot of local young artists. One of them in particular she goes by the name Sammus -- I knew her in high school as Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, and she’s a friend of mine from back in the day. I had no idea she was doing music until we were looking at local acts to book for the festival and I was like, “Holy shit, I know her! That’s my friend, I went to high school with her! So to have her on bill is cool and she’s making some really dope shit right now.

We’re trying to incorporate not only bands we’re fans of who existed outside of Ithaca, but we’re also trying to include and spotlight some really cool acts that we admire and dig. 

Festivals were typically always in the summer, but in recent years there’s been an expansion to all seasons -- what about fall in Ithaca stood out to you as an ideal time for this?

My birthday is in the fall! Other than that, Ithaca really comes alive in the springtime and in the fall. In the fall when the leaves start to change -- it’s just this magical paradise. It’s really beautiful up there when there’s leaves on the trees and flowers blooming. Even in the dead of winter I still think it’s beautiful.

Also, I think the years are just getting hotter and hotter due to global warming. So that’s probably why you’re seeing more festivals popping up earlier in the year and later in the year. 

What can we expect from the after-parties at The Haunt and The Dock?

Hopefully you won’t see me too drunk off my ass in the celebration. [Laughs.] I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think The Knocks are going to be DJ'ing and hopefully I don’t want to jinx it -- but we might have other guest DJ's at some. What used to be called The Castaways, where we really cut our teeth as a band is now called The Dock. It’s where we had our first album release party ever, when we were a band still based in Ithaca during senior year in high school. The Haunt is a classic, legendary old venue in Ithaca so should be a lot of fun. 

How do you see Cayuga Sound growing in the future? Would you ever want to expand to biannual or to other regions of the country?

I think for now keeping it in Ithaca is pretty important part of the equation for us because it’s just the nature of where it is and what we’re trying to do for the community and give back to it. But yeah, maybe biannually, I don’t know. Lollapalooza does it, and they do it all over the world now. We’ll take baby steps first and get this one going. As big as we possibly could make it. 

What is something you’ve learned from your own touring experience that you are going to apply to this?

Be prepared for anything! Anything can happen. We were supposed to play at Glastonbury last year and it didn’t end up happening. We were side-staged, ready to go on, and we’re waiting ten minutes and our monitors were not working and we’re just sitting there. 15 minutes into the set -- we only had a half-hour set, and half the set's gone. Finally, we basically missed the whole set, and we had five minutes left so I just went on stage myself and played “Renegade.” That was an unfortunate thing.

So yeah, just be prepared for anything -- but also, just doing that one song and apologizing, “Hey, sorry things are out of control.” People really appreciated it still and had a great time. 

For more information and to purchase tickets for Cayuga Sound, go here.