The members of Judah & the Lion met a little over five years ago while studying at Belmont University in Nashville. Though they wanted to play music together, the band’s banjo player, Nate Zuercher, says that finding a style that would represent the musical tastes of all four members was an early challenge.
“I was a punk rock metalhead kid from Colorado that also liked bluegrass,” he says.
Vocalist and guitarist Judah Akers was influenced by church music and singer-songwriters, and mandolinist Brian Macdonald appreciated an even more diverse range of styles. (The group is rounded out by drummer Spencer Cross.) There was, however, one thing all four could agree upon, Zuercher says.
“We all had this big love for hip-hop, but we started playing a lot of folk music just because we had a banjo and a mandolin, even though that didn’t represent what we really liked to play," he says. "So the first record that we put out was definitely in that folk vein.
"But after that, we realized more and more that we really liked to play everything and listen to everything, and so wanted to make a record and sound that really represented us rather than really limiting us to what we should sound like or what people expect us to sound like. So that’s where we landed with this kind of odd fusion of folk, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll and lots of other things.”
The fusion has worked. Rolling Stone magazine recently named Judah & the Lion among a batch of 10 new acts that music lovers should know. The group’s visibility has also been helped by the hit song “Take It All Back,” which Zuercher says was written much more quickly than some of the band’s other songs.
“I just started playing the main riff in that song,” he says. “Judah and Brian started playing along and Judah said, ‘This is sick! This is really cool!’ Then, within 30 minutes, we had written ‘Take It All Back.’”
The song quickly became a part of the group’s live shows and a crowd favorite. It also went to Number One on Billboard’s U.S. Alternative charts and landed in the Top 10 on the rock charts. The group’s 2016 album Folk Hop ‘N Roll has come very close to the top of the Heatseekers chart, which tracks emerging artists.
This success has meant a change in the group’s core audience, Zuercher says.
“We’re no longer just playing for college kids or young adults. We’re seeing older families and younger kids,” he says. “One of our goals is to bring people together and this has only helped that. Also, you never expect to have this kind of success. It’s something you dream about. Every record that we’ve done, we’ve thought, ‘Oh, maybe this song could be our hit.’ But we never actually thought about what that meant or what it would take for that to happen.”
Judah & the Lion perform upwards of 250 shows a year and is now on an arena tour with Twenty One Pilots, a group that has also experienced a recent spurt of success. Zuercher says that the double bill is one that he can appreciate as both a fan and performer. Twenty One Pilots, he says, is an act that he’s watched closely.
“We’ve been fans of them for years,” he says. “I saw them in Nashville when they were playing for 50 people four years ago. So to see what they’re doing now is so inspiring and ridiculous. I wouldn't say that our sound is the same by any means, but they’re another band that’s pushing limits and trying new things. So, in that, we feel like kindred spirits to them because we’re a little unorthodox in that as well.”
Judah & the Lion performs Friday evening at Intrust Bank Arena with Twenty One Pilots.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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