Interview: Spencer Cross From Judah And The Lion

One of Nashville’s most genre-bending bands comes to St. Louis tomorrow. Judah and the Lion is a folk band that combines influences from rock, hip-hop, and pop—all products of their very different upbringings. Formed during their time at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, the original trio—introduced through mutual friends— discovered the differences in each other’s backgrounds. There’s the city slicker, Brian Macdonald from Illinois; the lead singer-songwriter out of Tennessee, Judah Akers; and the mountain man, Nate Zuercher from Colorado.

Photo by Sully Sullivan

Photo by Sully Sullivan

“Folk Hop N Roll” is the title of their most recent album, which (like their debut album, “Kids These Days”) was produced by award-winner Dave Cobb, who has worked with Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. The album reflects the band’s energetic live performances (seriously, watch this)and captures that real, raw sound in the same respect. Drummer Spencer Cross spoke with me about his experience with the band, working with Dave Cobb and of their excitement about playing St. Louis. 

Since you all come from different backgrounds, has that ever caused a problem during the writing process?
Spencer Cross: It definitely can. There’s differences of opinion, but ever since I’ve started playing with the group, I’ve always thought our differences kind of make us stand out; our differences are our strength. As far as the writing process, really we’ve learned to be open with each other and open to each other’s influences.

What does the writing process usually look like?
The writing process just looks so different song to song. Judah writes a lot, even if it’s not for Judah and the Lion—that’s just one of his main hobbies. For this album especially, we wanted to not hold anything back creatively. Some songs, rather than starting them with acoustic guitar, Judah would ask me to make a beat on this little drum machine. He would write some lyrics on top of it, or Brian or Nate would make a banjo or mandolin riff on top of that, and kind of go from there.

Can you recall the first moment when you knew the band was going to be successful?
A big defining moment for the band—I wasn’t able to make that show because of school—but for the band collectively was the first show we played in Athens, Geogria. It was several years ago; we didn’t know what to expect. We heard there were fans in that town, decided to go down there and ended up selling out the 40 Watt. It was kind of a crazy moment, we thought, “This can really be something. We have fans.”

As an independent band, did you ever consider signing to a label or have that as an end goal?
I think the way that we look at is if the right deal comes along, then great. We kind of like to view it as a partner where we mutually benefit each other, so I think that’s not the end goal necessarily. Being an independent band is hard sometimes, but we love it. We’re great being an independent band, and we’re great if the right people come along to partner with. We’re just kinda taking it one step at a time.

Judah & the Lion by Sully Sullivan

How does it feel to have songs hit the Billboard charts?
It’s awesome. We’re so grateful when moments like that happen. We all have dreams and goals. Getting to play on Letterman last year, stuff like that is so great. It’s about enjoying that moment because you have that moment then it’s like, “What’s next?” Just learn to be thankful for that moment.

How much time did you guys spend on the road touring/promoting?
That’s one thing, too, with being an independent band—we’ve kind of been road warriors. I can’t remember total days, near 200. This year will probably be more than that. We definitely spend a lot of time on the road but we’re loving it. We’re in the van right now—we spend a lot of time in our 15-passenger van.

What was it like working with Dave Cobb?
He’s awesome. He’s got the Midas touch. It’s our third time working with him and our second full album that he produced. He has such a broad musical palate that he comes up with these ideas that seem kind of out there at first, but you just have to trust him.

We came in the first day with a demo of “Forever Always” (a song off the new album) and it was quite a bit slower, more of a pop ballad. So we came in and Dave was like, “It’s got to be faster and more energetic.”

He sent us the “Check Your Head” Beastie Boys album and we got into that vibe and that kind of set a tone. The song turned into this whole different thing that we wouldn’t have had. He works in the moment and he wants to get the raw take even with this album where it’s more loop based and electronic, he’s still very much into that live, natural sound.

How would you describe the new album “Folk Hop N Roll?”
I think this album we really just tried to be as honest as possible, be ourselves as much as possible. For people who haven’t seen us live, it’s easy to listen to the first album and then listen to this album and say, “Where did the band I know go?” People who have seen us live can kind of connect the dots.

With this album we tried to capture that live energy in the songs even though it was in the studio. We have these ideas, desires and goals to incorporate all kinds of music and to not really set too many barriers. Even though it’s a little shocking to people at first, were happy that people are still listening.

Folk Hop N Roll Official Album Cover

Does this album have a single?
“Take It All Back,” that’s kind of been the song people are connecting with most. It’s definitely the song people are singing the most at shows right now. We actually wrote that song over a year and a half ago, and so we’ve been sitting on that song and playing it live for so long, but we were able to finally put it on this album.

Have you ever been to St. Louis? Where did you play?
We co-headlined with the Oh Hello’s at Off Broadway, but this is our first true headlining show. We’re super stoked for St. Louis. The coolest thing about this tour so far is  that the cities we’ve played where we haven’t headlined before turned out to be really, really great.

What are you plans for the future of Judah and the Lion?
This summer we have some festivals lined up—Bonnaroo, Hangout Fest—and then we’re waiting to see what the fall looks like. We’re just excited to see what the rest of the year holds. We’ve started baby steps of talking about the next album, but for now we’re just soaking in the rest of the tour.

Be sure to check out Judah and the Lion tomorrow night at Off Broadway Music Venue. Doors at 7pm, $14 adv./$16 dos. Get tickets here!

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