Chasing Down Graffiti Dreams: A Conversation With Judah & The Lion
Originally published on Slant.
Judah Akers, Brian Macdonald, Nate Zuercher, and Spencer Cross are four down-to-earth dudes pushing the boundaries of folk music as Judah & The Lion.
While folk and Americana are the obvious starting points for the banjo-friendly Nashville quartet, they've taken creative risks with each new release, mashing roots influences with hip-hop, hard rock, Top 40 pop and dance music. The sound of Judah & The Lion is fairly representative of a millennial generation raised on iPods, Spotify and music festivals, ensuring wider musical variety and development of well-rounded tastes that transcend traditional genre allegiances.
That sound is perhaps best realized on their newest LP, Folk Hop 'N' Roll, 10 tracks traversing diverse sonic territory, but all battle-tested on the road and tailor-made for live singalongs or dance parties.
While the record, produced by Dave Cobb, relies on high energy and emotion, when I met with the four guys at SXSW in Austin, they were chill, low-key and totally relatable. We talked about staying sane on tour, being unafraid to be one's true self, and an innovative business strategy to actually make money on Spotify.
SD: How did you guys come together as Judah and the Lion?
JA: We all went to school at Belmont University in downtown Nashville. It's a liberal arts, music school. My junior year I started getting more serious about writing music, writing songs. The band I was playing with at the time was more electric guitar, heavy drums. Not folky at all. And I was writing these songs where I'd hear banjo or rootsy sounds in my head. Through a friend of a friend I knew Nate and I called him one day and was like, "Hey, do you want to jam?" He was like, "Sure." He brought Brian along. That day we all had lunch, really hit it off, and went and jammed out in the Bell Tower at Belmont. After that, we were just doing the band thing.
SD: Where does the band's name come from? Is there any special significance?
JA: I always wanted to be a rapper growing up. And my mom, funny enough, was like, "Well, that's great. You can call your group 'The Lion of Judah.'" That's just Old Testament.
We really liked the description of a Lion and Judah was unique enough. Other than Judas Priest (laughs).
SD: There's definitely a pronounced transition in terms of how your sound has evolved between your earlier, folkier records and the genre-hopping that you do on the new record.
NZ: Well, we really love folk music. That's part of what we play and enjoy. But I think the first couple records we put out, it was like, "Well, we have a banjo and a mandolin so we need to sound like this. We need to dress like this. We need to fit into this scene." It's just how it was supposed to be.
And as we continued to grow, we were realizing that our sound doesn't have to be bound to one thing. We listen to everything. Like, I'm a punk-rock, metalhead kid from Colorado that grew up going to all these festivals. So how do we incorporate that? How do we incorporate hip-hop? How do we incorporate classical music or jazz? Can it be done? And if so, then why not?
I know people think it's a little strange how we fuse all these sounds together. But we like these sounds and we now feel like we have the freedom. Dave Cobb pushed us to try new things rather than worry about everything.
SD: What was it like working with Dave Cobb? He's more of a roots guy to me, when you think about his records with Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. It's strange that he would be working on your new record. You compare your guys' album with something like 'Southern Family,' which is so old-school and traditional and there's such a gap in the two styles.
JA: It was a blast working with Dave. You never know what he's going to say. But he has this sense of what someone really wants to do or what's inside them. A good example is that the first day we came in, to record the song "Forever, Always," originally we did this demo that was a little more poppy and probably 20 bpms slower than it is now.
And we just walked in and Dave, right off the bat without even hearing the song, goes, "I'm kind of going for this Beastie Boys vibe." And he played us "So What'cha Want" and that groove was sick. He's like, let's try that with this song. And it just completely changed the song and added so much energy. And we just snowballed from that with the rest of the record. That's what we'd been wanting: a ton of energy. That's what we bring to our live shows.
SD: How do you keep this experimental spirit and willingness to try a lot of different sounds and genres without producing a record that's completely discordant or lacking a center?
BM: A lot of times when we're making new music, we're thinking about how it's going to translate at the live show. One cool thing we saw in the Foo Fighters documentary is that one of the songs that Dave [Grohl] wrote, he started jumping up and down, like a crowd would at a show. And he wrote a song just to that tempo and it turned out to just completely slam.
Along the mindset, we want the songs to be high-energy where they're going to translate at a show and people in the crowd are going to be moving. That's key. And also, we want to make something that they can sing as well. When we're writing, we're also writing for the live show, not necessarily for a record.
SD: Was it a struggle to get the creative freedom to make this record? If I'm a promo person or an A&R person, I'm like, well Judah and the Lion has a specific sound. I know how I can pitch them, I know how I can package this. But now you've taken this huge leap sonically and creatively. Was it difficult to get to this point in terms of creative control?
NZ: It may not feel this way to someone looking in, but to us it felt like a natural progression. Kids These Days, we kind of implemented the synthesizer, bass. That energetic rock feel. We wrote our song "Take It All Back" before the headline tour for Kids These Days. So we've been playing that song since the last record came out. And that song is in that folk-pop genre already, so in our minds, we were already there.
We're also not on a label. And so our management might have been the only opportunity to control us. But they were already seeing it happen in the live show. So when we went to make this record, we weren't really worried about it. There definitely is an element of "this-is-kind-of-weird," but then we got Dave Cobb on board. It's the third time he's worked with us so it's a natural thing for him to help us capitalize on our goals and push each other toward our potential. So it was more "How is this going to work?" and figuring it out and less being really worried about it.
BM: Adding to that, people are even still a little confused by what we're doing and what crowds we want to play to and what kinds of bands we want to play with. We're still in the midst of battling that. It's a "brand change." But our music is always changing and the fans are loyal enough to go with you on that journey.
SD: You guys have logged some serious hours on the road over the past few years. How do you stay sane being on the road all the time?
JA: I think we're all very grounded with our families and friends back home. I recently got married. Having your anchors back home has been super important to all of us. But we've been learning to cultivate a family vibe on the road. Our van is like a safe haven. We've learned to be more vulnerable with each other. But it's really, really fun to be doing this with people that you like. I think we'd be miserable if we didn't like each other.
SD: All the artists and bands I've been talking with at SXSW this week may be at different stages of their careers, but they're all under this broad umbrella of "emerging acts." And given that, you need to find time to make the art and you might need some money to support yourself while you're making that art. I'm sure plenty of people have discovered or connected with your music via Spotify or other streaming services, which some would argue don't compensate artists fairly. Do you think those services ultimately help or hurt art?
NZ: We're just stoked that people would want to listen to our music. Spotify's become something that enables that in a really cool way. It throws your music into other playlists and makes everything super accessible. We just hope that those people might come to a show or buy a T-shirt. We understand that our revenue comes from other places. It's just key to have people listening in the first place and Spotify is a great tool for that. We've heard about a lot of people being introduced to this new record by finding one of the songs on a playlist they wouldn't have normally accessed otherwise.
BM: As a young band, that's how we got our start. We gave our music away for free. We have to give credit to those services for helping people find us. The industry is changing and I think people will find better ways to monetize it. There is already a huge boost for our live shows. More people are coming out, more people are buying tickets, more people are buying merch. So we are about it.
JA: You can just play our record on loop while you're streaming. I think 1500 streams equals an album sale for us? (laughs)
SD: Just follow the model that Vulfpeck pioneered with their 'Sleepify' record.
JA: So brilliant.
SD: You guys came up originally in the Nashville scene. It's a Mecca for live music, but that also makes it that much more difficult to break through. What was it like in the early days trying to get people to just come out to your show and listen?
SC: Like Judah said, we went to Belmont. And the community at Belmont is fairly similar to the community in Nashville in that there's a lot of musicians. It's kind of saturated. But there's a community of people supporting each other and going to each other's live shows. In the beginning, it was just taking opportunities when we could. We played a lot of house shows, a lot of free shows. People would come and support us and we'd give our music away for free. It ended up building upon itself.
JA: The most recent Nashville show we did was at this place called War Memorial. I was telling the boys that it was like the first time we'd broken out of our friend group in Nashville in terms of the audience (laughs). It's essentially like our friends who are artists might not even listen to or like our music, but they were supporting us by coming to the show. But this time it felt great because you look around and it's not all just your friends.
SD: Would you give any advice to a band that is in that position? Any advice for yourselves four or five years ago?
NZ: I think it's important to have patience, to be persistent, and to do your craft to the best of your ability. I've heard so many stories and had so many friends who moved to Nashville where there were these huge expectations, like in six months they'll be making enough money for this to be their only job. But that's usually not the way it goes. We were all in Nashville for at least a year and a half before anything started happening. I was in a couple other groups trying to make something work. But if I had the mentality of "it's-gotta-be-now-or-i'm-out," I wouldn't be here doing what I'm doing.
I'm grateful for that extra time we had to develop our craft. Playing again and again, going through those experiences of how to handle this crap situation, like when your guitar breaks on stage or whatever. Learning how to work through that before a lot of people are watching has been very valuable. The time to grow and learn, being patient, it's all been great.
JA: When we were a young band, one of our mentors said, "The one thing you always need to remember is to stay true to yourself. Don't allow somebody else to dictate who you are." To go back to Folk Hop 'N' Roll, a lot of people did pigeonhole us into this folk thing. And we love folk music, we still play most of those songs at our live show. But it's not necessarily who we are. You know what I mean?
Stay true to who you are, and if that changes, just change with it. Grow. I was so inspired by the other guys in the band and Dave Cobb for allowing our sound to go to another place and mature. But it's still us coming through.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo courtesy of Judah & The Lion