If Mumford and Sons, the Beastie Boys, the Avett Bros and 70s rock got together and had a baby, it might sound something like Judah & the Lion. The Nashville-based foursome combine elements of folk, pop, rock, and hip-hop – with a swirl of twangy banjos, picking mandolins, and a high dose of meaty vocals from frontman Judah Akers. Along with Akers, the band is rounded out by Brian McDonald on mandolin, drummer Spencer Cross, and Nate Zuercher, who holds the affectionate title of “banjo wiz.”
Just a few short years ago, these four friends met at Nashville’s Belmont University, where they bonded over a love of music. Now they are creating their own hits like “Take It All Back," which has become a favorite from Sirius Radio to Spotify.
Judah & the Lion have been riding a wave of success with their second full-length and sonically impressive album Folk Hop N Roll. Along with opening for big names like Twenty One Pilots and Kaleo, the boys are about to embark on a summer tour with one of their childhood heroes, Incubus.
The “banjo wiz” himself, Nate Zuercher recently spoke with AXS about Folk Hop N Roll, working with Nashville’s hottest producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell), and how it feels to tour with a band he had plastered all over his walls as a kid.
AXS: Can you describe your sound and how you guys have evolved as a band?
Nate Zuercher: The first year or so as a band, we were kind of stuck in the folk realm of like Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers and such; mainly because of the instruments we were playing like the banjo and mandolin. I grew up as a punk metal kid but also loved EDM, and I was in the jazz band at school, so I had all these different influences. We all have our own influences. With this last record, Folk Hop N’ Roll, we got rid of all the boundaries and all the walls, and we made whatever music that sounded good to us and just be us as a band.
AXS: All four of you guys come from different parts of the country, grew up listening to all kinds of music. What do you bring from Colorado and what turned you on to music?
NZ: My parents are in the symphony in Colorado, so from a very young age they were teaching me piano and trumpet. When we were in the car they’d listen to the local classical station. When I was six years old I got my first record, Abbey Road by the Beatles. When I got older and was into skating and video games, I got introduced to a lot of ska and punk bands like Dropkick Murphy’s, Goldfinger, and Reel Big Fish. I think that’s still my favorite kind of music.
AXS: Your latest album Folk Hop N Roll has really been doing well, getting a lot of playtime on radio and streaming. The lyrics on are inspiring and talk about everyday kinds of struggles. What are you guys trying to say on this album?
NZ: On our last record, we are all just graduated or dropped out of college, we were single, and celebrating freedom for all different reasons. For this album, we are all in a new season of life, and as a band. Judah, our singer had just gotten married when we recorded the record. We were also a few more years into the band. Hopefully Folk Hop N Roll represents our growth as a band, as we try and navigate this whole adult thing (laughs).
AXS: What does a producer like Dave Cobb, who’s had great success bring to your albums?
NZ: Dave’s been an integral part of our journey in the studio. We love that guy! One of the biggest assets he brings to us is encouraging us to trust ourselves. Dave has a strong vision for what he wants, and since we’ve worked with him so much he knows how we function. He’s all about the feel.
AXS: You used to have Incubus posters on your wall growing up and now you are going to be opening up for them this summer. Is that just a big trip for you?
NZ: Isn’t that just wild? We just opened for Twenty One Pilots on their big tour, and that was amazing. Opening for a band like Incubus, a band I grew up loving, puts this at a whole other level of insanity. At least for me anyway. I have about 30 things I want them to sign for me (big laugh). I am looking forward to getting to know them as well.
AXS: Coming up in the next few months you guys are playing BottleRock Festival in Napa, the Governors Ball in Brooklyn, and the KROQ Weenie Roast in Los Angeles. Why have festivals become so important these days and why do you guys like playing them.
NZ: Festivals are just fun (laughs)! I think it’s a cultural, exciting environment where people come together. It basically becomes a new city for a few days, where people are there for a good time – to band together. These days it’s not just about the music, it’s about making new friends, eating good food, drinking good drink (laughs), and of course the music. For us that get to play those festivals is a whole other level of excitement. It’s a very unifying experience for all.
Folk Hop N Roll (Deluxe) is out now, with several new tracks, including the adrenaline pulsing single, “Suit and Jacket.”
Judah & the Lion kick off their next tour leg with a stop at KROQ’s Weenie Roast y Fiesta in Los Angeles this weekend, followed by dates at the Governors Ball in New York City, and the Firefly Festival in Delaware. In September, the band play a couple of hometown gigs with two almost sold-out nights at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Then it’s onto a string of European dates with Kaleo in the fall.