Interview: Judah & the Lion not taking anything back

Judah and the Lion

Photos: Alessio Neri

NAPA — Nashville’s Judah and the Lion wasn’t the first band to blend other influences with Americana and folk. Mumford and Sons have made their careers out of it; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the Avett Brothers spawned dozens of copycats. Yet no band in the past couple of years has had a hit with such a blend as the Nashville quartet with “Take It All Back.”

The song, with its mix of hip-hop beats, anthemic sing-along chorus, lead banjo and mandolin flourishes, reached the top of Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, and peaked at No. 10 at Hot Rock Songs.

Suddenly, legions of pop fans found themselves asking ,“Who are Judah and the Lion?”

“It’s been fun to be on radio,” said mandolin player Brian Macdonald, interviewed with his bandmates at BottleRock Napa Valley. “I think people can take what they want from the lyrics and … the chorus is very repetitive and catchy, so it’s something that could potentially get stuck in your head, and that, for whatever reason, connects to people. They remember that line or connect to it in some way. When they hear it for the first time, it makes that first impression.”

The song came together in just a few minutes and is the oldest track on Judah and the Lion’s sophomore full-length album, Folk Hop ‘N Roll. The band had been rehearsing for a tour in a garage in Nashville. After finishing, the four jammed for a while longer, when banjo player Nate Zuercher started playing the song’s surging riff. Frontman Judah Akers began singing, “Take it all back,” over and over again.

“I think there’s a lot you can explain why somebody would catch on to a song and it would become a hit, but there’s also that side of it that is just very mysterious,” Macdonald said. “We were just jamming and the song came just from that, and it came very quickly.”

Judah and the Lion

Judah and the Lion photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 27, 2017.

“Take It All Back” may be the introduction music listeners get to the band, but it was neither Judah and the Lion’s first sign of success, or its first evidence of musical DNA-slicing songwriting.

The four band members met at Belmont University in Nashville in 2011. Akers had written some material and wanted some acoustic musicians to play it live. He brought in Zuercher, who knew Macdonald, and drummer Spencer Cross. Belmont is a well-known music institution, and all four studied various aspects of it—Macdonald and Zuercher were studying their instruments, Cross social entrepreneurship and Akers business. He also played on the baseball team.

Akers wrote the majority of the songs that ended up on the band’s second EP, Sweet Tennessee, in his junior year, during batting practice. By then he was shifting his focus from one passion to the next.

“I could just tell, even just in my heart,” Akers said. “There was a point where I got finished with a baseball game and my dad pulled me aside, and he said, ‘I want to see the passion that I see on stage from you on the baseball field.’ … You can’t really fabricate passion. I loved baseball and it was a big part of my life at the time, but I think music has kind of always been one of those more of like a heart-wrenching emotional passion for me than sports.”

The band members bonded over their different tastes in music, which ranged from modern rock, hip-hop and bluegrass, to gospel and folk, as well as their own differentness. While Akers and Cross are both from Tennesse, Macdonald is from Chicagoland and Zuercher from Colorado. They credit the university for creating a culture that allowed them to come together.

“Belmont reaches a lot of people from all over the country and so you have this kind of melting pot of people from all these different regions,” Cross said. “At Belmont you might meet people from Hawaii and from Maine. … Nashville has all these different people in it and it’s just this big creative energy.

The band’s first fans were the members’ moms and their classmates, they joke. But it’s true that the school requires students to attend the showcase concerts of others, which is how Judah and the Lion’s first crowd was 4,000-strong. From the outset, the band was able to work not only on its musicianship but also the presentation. At BottleRock, the four members practiced synchronized dancing and butt-shaking, goofily pulled their shirts over their heads (while continuing to play) and were otherwise displaying so much manic energy that it became contagious.

Judah and The Lion

Judah and The Lion performs at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 28, 2017.

Word spread from there, and because many who attended the school were from other parts of the country, the band was soon talked about at countless hometowns. But before Judah and the Lion chose its current genre-blending direction, it was on a different course. Its first release was a Christian worship EP. Akers believed he and his bandmates would be a worship band on the church circuit. All four still hold firmly to their faiths, but it was Macdonald and Zuercher who suggested that the band can reach a larger audience, just like bands like MuteMath and Switchfoot.

“There was this Martin Luther quote that, at least for me, was kind of life-changing,” Akers said. “He said that as a Christian, if you’re a shoemaker, the best thing for you to do … is to make great shoes; not put a cross on every one of them. I think that that’s become true for our music and for the kind of music culture that we want to cultivate.

“Sometimes when you put the cross or the Christian stamp on music, or whatever you want to put it on, it can be exclusive, and it can hurt because people might be offended by it. They would have their own stories about maybe Christianity hurting them. We’ve always wanted to be accepting and be unifying and to make good music and not essentially put a cross on it.”

Those who go to church or Christian music concerts will likely see some of the parallels with Judah and the Lion concerts; the calls to love one another, to accept differences and to strive to be one’s best. It’s likely to go unnoticed by non-Christian fans, but that doesn’t affect the shows.

Their next EP, 2013’s Sweet Tennessee, saw the shift to a broader audience. It reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums chart, No. 15 on the Folk Albums chart and No. 9 on the Heatseeker’s chart. The band was off and running in multiple directions, as those chart placements indicated.

Judah and The Lion

Judah and The Lion perform at The Masonic in San Francisco on April 13, 2017.

A full-length debut, Kids These Days, followed the next year and during its first week reached No. 4 on Heatseekers and No. 2 on Folk Albums. Folk Hop ‘N Roll, like its predecessor, was produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) and again quickly reached No. 2 on the Heatseekers chart, No. 7 on the Folk Albums chart, and this time, made it to the top 20 on the Independent Albums chart. Then the band released “Take It All Back” as the first single. USA Today described Judah and the Lion’s sound as the Beastie Boys discovering the banjo.

The band’s sound has continued to evolve with each record, even though the band members knew from the outset they wanted to try something different.

“I don’t know if we’re officially at the Judah and the Lion sound necessarily, but I think we’re getting closer and closer to who we really are,” Zuercher said. “Just because we play banjo and mandolin doesn’t mean we have to sound that way. It’s been a fun journey [and] it feels more like a true representation of us.”

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