By SAM SWANTEK
June 20, 2016
Nashville based folk-rockers Judah & the Lion are as smooth and down-to-earth as their tunes. With their versatile sound—mellow one moment then upbeat the next—and relatable lyrics, the young musicians are taking modern music by storm. Their accolades now include praise from Teen Vogue, USA Today and Consequence of Sound— and that’s just in the past few months. On June 11, they got a major break playing the second largest stage at the 15th annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, and their set did not disappoint.
I had the chance to sit down with the guys after their performance and, despite my lack of musical talent, they instantly made me feel like part of the band. Amidst the hustle, bustle and heat of “The Farm” (the beloved nickname of Bonnaroo’s location), they were collected and wise-cracking as we discussed their newest album, performing at ‘Roo and what they would do if they were president.
Two years ago, you were volunteering at Bonnaroo. Now, you’ve just played the second largest stage with a killer time slot. How does it feel? Surreal?
Judah Akers: I think for all of us this was definitely a big dream. We all went to Belmont University [in Tennessee], and Brian has been camping [at Bonnaroo] for a while now.
Brian MacDonald: Yeah, me and Dylan, our accordion player, came five years ago to our first [Bonnaroo] and we volunteered. Then two years later, Judah and Nate volunteered. We’ve all been here together and camped out together. So it was a huge honor to be able to play here in the slot we did in front of all these cool bands and people.
This was, in a way, a really big break for you. Were you nervous at all?
All in unison: Yeah a little bit.
Spencer Cross: For me, it took a little warming up.
BM: Yeah for the first couple of songs. But not nervous, more excited.
Nate Zuercher: It’s one of those shows too that, I remember we got the email saying we were playing back in August, so there’s just been so much time to build up and work for it, and all the preparation and camping and logistics have to be figured out. And then you finally get on stage and you’re like “This is it.” So, I don’t know if it’s nervous as much as it’s just hoping that it all works out and really wanting to be present in that moment. I was trying to be really intentional to just be where we were, enjoy it for what it was and then worry about what’s next later. It was special, it turned out awesome.
Your lyrics have been praised for being real and relatable—especially “Insane,” which is about struggling with depression. What inspires you to write the words that you do?
JA: I think, for us, that at the core of what we want is honesty. We like light-hearted songs and we like having fun, which is honest for us, but we also love songs like “Insane” or “Better Man” that talk about being depressed or people going through addictions, or alcoholism, and other things that effect people. We want to write songs that make people feel comfortable, like light-hearted songs, but also not just talk about things that don’t mean anything. Because then what’s the point of music at the end of the day?
BM: Our lyrics have evolved, too, from album to album. There are messages threaded through each album. One new aspect of our lyrics comes through the song “Insane.” Judah hit on it too. Basically, everyone has struggles but they don’t like to talk about them, like with addictions. Whether they’re actual addictions to substances or just different addictions that you have in life. We like having that aspect of the more serious [subjects].
Folk Hop N’ Roll recently debuted. What was the inspiration behind the album name?
SC: Since out first album, Kids These Days, we’ve been hitting the road a lot. We’d been traveling quite a bit before, but we really started hitting the road after that, and we started realizing the music that we listen to and the influences that we all had. We all have our own variety of influences and come from different backgrounds. There’s a huge melting pot of music, and we didn’t want to feel confined to [labels] such as, just because we have a banjo in the band, we’re going to play this [certain type of] music. We wanted to push the boundaries. We love hip hop, we love rock n’ roll and we love folk too. So whatever we can do to be, like Judah said, as honest as possible but also as creative as possible. I think that kind of sums it up in a way.
Do you have a track on the album that you feel really resonates with where you are in your lives right now?
JA: I think one, lyrically, that makes a lot of sense to me is “Better Man.” I think that should be the cry of human-ness, to always continue to get better at whatever you’re doing. If you’re really good at something you’re probably really bad at something, but you can always choose to get better. That’s been kind of what I’ve been thinking about.
SC: Yeah, I agree. We’re all basically the same age and we’re at a place in our lives where we’re not boys anymore, but we’re kind of moving into manhood. I think it speaks to striving to continue to get better and love people better. As we’re gone on the road more, [missing] people that are back home or just us together on the road, just striving to love others and each other better is important.
BM: As a band, there’s always things that we need to get better at with each other. We live together on the road, so we’re definitely going through a lot of “bro time,” and that kind of speaks to where we’re at right now.
NZ: It requires vulnerability and not just hiding behind what we want to project, but really saying what’s going on. You can’t have that tension building up. It’s important to be real with each other, and the song [“Better Man”] speaks to that.
You all attended Belmont University together. When did the band form?
JA: It was my junior year, about four years ago now, we met during Christmas 2011 and we first started playing music. Ever since then we’ve been playing together.
What keeps you humble and motivated?
JA: It’s always been a reminder for us just that moments like playing [Late Showwith] David Letterman or a dream venue in Nashville or even moments like this, playing at Bonnaroo, that at the end of it, it’s just done. You go back to your normal life, and you’re mowing your yard the next week just like everybody else. You’re going through stuff just like everybody else is. Life is constantly hitting us in the face with the reality that these are just moments, and they’re beautiful and we’re so blessed to be a part of them and have those moments, because not a lot of people get to. But at the same time, they’re gone like that, and it’s back to reality. So, I think as a group we all push each other for things like this not to become too much more than one show or moment.
BM: If you’re always trying to feed off of those small moments, then you’ll starve. So learning to cherish those moments, like Judah said, and growing to know that these moments are fleeting is important. We cherish them that much more.
If you were president, what is one thing you would do or change?
JA: I wouldn’t tax musicians. Especially independent musicians. I wouldn’t tax independent musicians.
SC: I love the National Park Service. Teddy Roosevelt is the man. That’s one thing that I think is really cool about our country, so trying to cherish and grow that system is one thing I’d do.
BM: I think something with more sustainability, like people eating food from a farm rather than food that’s been in a lab. There’s a lot of places that don’t have access to good food.
NZ: I would figure out a way to make a law to enforce recycling. Instead of just making it something that you’re encouraged to do and have the option to do, somehow I’d enforce it and really make people start doing that, because it’s becoming such a huge problem and the environment is deteriorating because of it.
SC: Yeah, that’s cool.
NZ: And, require every citizen to grow out a beard.
JA: Only men though, not women.
NZ: Yeah, make razors illegal.
Parade: How long have you been growing yours, a while?
NZ: About a week.
Judah & the Lion are on tour through September, with upcoming performances in Kalamazoo, MI and Lexington, KY.