STORIES

Judah & the Lion on Faith, Folk and Living Hell

By Justin Caffier on March 21, 2018

With a fusion of sounds that expertly marry strange bedfellows like bluegrass, EDM and hip-hop, Judah & the Lion has dominated the indie charts and made believers out of many a skeptic over its recent time in the limelight. Now, after the success of their 2016 album Folk Hop N Roll and subsequent tour with Twenty One Pilots, the band is once again revamping its sound with a series of singles, their latest being the cosmically catchy “Going to Mars.” PRØHBTD spoke with Judah & the Lion banjoist Nate Zuercher to discuss the band’s infectious positivity, their Christian rock background and which EDM producers they want to work with on their next track.

As evident by the 2016 album title, people clearly have a difficult time describing your sound. That said, does the group have an agreed answer for describing your sound, or do you each have your own take?

We definitely get asked that quite a bit. I think the name of the title is a pretty good description. Basically, [it's] just the fact that all of us came up with all the different influences and styles we played before we met. Judah [Akers] called Brian [Macdonald] and me, who had just started playing mandolin and banjo, pretty early in college, right around the time we all met. We started writing music together and figured we needed to be a bluegrass folk band, just because of those instruments, but as we started to write and play together more, all the other influences started to come out.

These instruments are what we play together now, but I grew up a punk metalhead with parents in the symphony and was also in a jazz band throughout middle school and high school. I had all these different influences that started to peek out as we played together more. I think we’ve committed to the banjo and mandolin as the staple of who we are, but everything else we can sort of mold and mix around depending on how we’re feeling.

Since you’ve already successfully folded in so many, are there any other genres you’d like to experiment with in your music?

I think we’ve gotten pretty close to what the “real” Judah & the Lion sound is. We also look at these other artists who continue to change their sounds and progress, and I think we’ll be doing that as well. But, I guess with the way our records have come out, once we get in the studio, that’s when we try a new sound or play with a new synthesizer or push the limits a little bit. Right now we’ve written a lot of songs for that new record, but it’s hard to say what actual styles we’ll end up with until we’re sitting in front of the console trying things out.

So no plans to bring in any major hip-hop producers to make some beats for you?

That’s something we’d be very interested in. I think you’d get some different answers from the other two as to who that would be. For me, I’d love to get someone like Diplo or Skrillex involved. I’m super into the EDM world, and I know those are two of the most cliché answers, but I also love the fact that Skrillex was super involved in Incubus’ last record. And Diplo has his hands in all kinds of things. I like when someone has a specific style and can come into something else to add that flavor.

We’re good friends with the Paramore crew, and we talked a lot with Taylor [York], the guitar player. I think he might be someone who actually could get involved with what we do on the next record.

Beyond collaborative goals, what other artists are you currently listening to or inspired by?

I kinda got back on a bluegrass kick lately. When I was in high school and college, that’s sort of all I would listen to. [I was] getting back into Nickel Creek and Bela Fleck, who was always my favorite banjo player. There’s this new artist, CASS, I like. She’s a sort of EDM producer. Been getting back into Zedd as he’s about to get back on tour. Looking forward to seeing him at a lot of festivals this summer. I’d love to work with him, too, by the way.

Speaking of festivals, are there any you’d love to perform at some day that you haven’t played yet?

We’re doing a few this summer. I think Coachella and Lollapalooza are the two looming over us that we’d love to hit. Hopefully we’ll get to do those next year. We’ve done a few other fests early in our cycle where we didn’t get the main stage and that full experience we were hoping for, although they were amazing. We played Bonnaroo pretty early on, and that’s sort of our hometown fest, the one we all grew up going to, so to be able to go back to that and have a later-in-the-day slot would be pretty amazing. And I’m from Colorado originally, so Red Rocks is the venue that’d be the holy grail for me.

The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and now you: all breakthrough folk-rock bands influenced by Christianity. So, I have to ask, do you have any idea why Jesus and the banjo work so well together?

For us, yeah, we started as a Christian group, but that was before we all got involved with writing and cast a vision of what we want to do. Having shifted out of that a bit, and wanting to create an environment that’s welcoming to everyone, there’s still something about spiritual songs. Whether you believe and agree with what they’re saying or not, they’re still such a unifying experience.

Judah, Brian and I were all worship leaders in our own regards at our churches growing up so figuring out how to get the people in front of us on board with what we’re leading and singing together has been at the core of how we were raised musically. There is something with the banjo as well. When there’s a banjo present, it’s kind of hard not to smile and feel a little more comfortable and goofy. It breaks down barriers and walls. People go, “What the heck? Why is this even a thing?” But it’s also drawing them in closer.

Has the increase in fame and success and the difficulties of a touring lifestyle presented any challenges to your faith?

Yeah, I think that as everyone grows up, it just becomes more real. Do I really believe what I always believe and have been told? That just comes with life experience. And with this career, we’ve been able to travel so much and see many different people and cultures that it maybe even enhances the ability to see and just not be so blind—to not be like, “I grew up in Colorado, and I’ve only been in Colorado, and I only know Colorado people.” And I’ve been all over the world now and seen what faith looks like to so many different cultures. It’s made it a more tangible and real experience for me. It’s no longer just the middle-class white version of faith.

Especially last year, whether it was related to or giving credit to God or not, people were sharing so many stories of hope and how our music gave them inspiration or reminded them how it’s all gonna be ok. We all had our different versions of what success looks like, and doing all the late-night shows and festivals is an important part of the process of enjoying the moment and taking pride in what you’ve accomplished. But, at the end of the day, it’s about something much bigger, and that fan reaction has strengthened what I believe and why I get up in the morning.

Shifting over to the themes of your latest songs and videos, where did all the space ideas come from?

I think it was somewhat of a group decision. Judah probably was the most thoughtful in that regard, especially because he writes a lot of the lyrics in our songs. "Going to Mars" was sort of the frontrunner for our last couple of songs and setting the tone. It’s like, “Let’s call the tour this, let’s make the music videos centered around a theme.” It’s partially just us learning from these other artists who’ve done a great job of marketing themselves.

Aside from that, it’s kind of funny because, in the last few years, everything has become like, “We’re going to Mars,” which is kind of missing the song’s point of “don’t reach for the moon when you’re going to Mars.”

So, you’re not courting Elon Musk and trying to make this the official anthem of SpaceX?

I mean, if that’s how it ends up… come on! But when we were writing the song and planning this out, there was no idea…. Especially now with it being promoted as our new single, it’s almost too perfect.

Since the audience plays such a big part in your shows, what do you consider some of the all-time classics in the realm of call-and-response and participation?

The lighter’s probably an easy answer for that. I always love it when I go to a show, and the singer will show up in a random spot in the crowd. When we were out with Twenty One Pilots last year, Josh [Dun] would get in a big hamster ball and roll out onto the crowd. I always wanted to do that. Judah got to do that. I haven’t quite gotten the opportunity yet.

Positivity is another huge element of your live performances, and, right now, people might find it harder than ever to push forward and stay optimistic. What advice or words of encouragement would you give them?

With positivity being such a staple of who we are, it might seem like we’re not always coming across as genuine, but finding that balance and acknowledging the crap you’re going through is real. There are so many days when we’re going through that stuff ourselves. In my own story, I’ve had to go through my own rehab and counseling projects, and I try to surround myself with people who remind me that there is a reason to get up, and there is a reason to be excited about life still, as crappy as I might feel.

It’s easy, given our position, to feel judgmental, like how could we have a bad day. But I truly believe everyone goes through their version of hell. There’s so much to get down on, especially with all these shootings. All this evil in the world, it’s easy to feel like just giving up. But, no matter what you believe, there is good in the world, and there is a reason to have hope and survive.

Photo credit: Connor Dwyer.

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