Monday, 25 September 2017 11:38

Mission To Mars: Rising ‘folk-hop’ band Judah & the Lion proves anything’s possible with unique sound, stardom

Written by  Eric Mitts
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Mission To Mars: Rising ‘folk-hop’ band Judah & the Lion proves anything’s possible with unique sound, stardom COURTESY PHOTO

A lot of bands like to say that the sky’s the limit for their music, their career, and their dreams, but for Nashville-based alternative band Judah & the Lion, it’s especially hard not to believe.

Just look at the year the band has already had in 2017. The group rang in the New Year at the top of the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, where its hit song Take It All Back enjoyed three weeks at the No. 1 spot.

From there, Judah & the Lion joined fellow genre-defying chart-toppers Twenty One Pilots on their massive, sold-out Emotional Roadshow Tour for the next two months, before embarking on its own successful headlining run in the spring, and later joining alternative-rock veterans Incubus and Jimmy Eat World on their joint tour this summer.

That sort of skyrocketing success makes the band’s latest headlining tour – the Going To Mars Tour – sound less like a sci-fi spin off and more like a mission statement from a band charting a course for the biggest and brightest stars.

“It’s been a big part of my journey, just trusting that we really can do anything,” Judah & the Lion banjoist Nate Zuercher told Revue. “No matter what someone tells you, or what you believe about yourself, or any circumstance that any of us have been through, the reality is that anything is possible.”

A dreamer from a young age, Zuercher came up in a musical household. Both of his parents are members of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, and both taught music lessons at home, where he learned to play guitar and grew up on both rock and classical music.

Ironically enough, his first concert ever, at just 12 years old, was an Incubus show.

“I was super into punk and metal in middle school in particular, and I think my parents got a little sick of the loud distorted music coming out of my bedroom all the time,” Zuercher said. “So we started looking for some musicians that played folk or bluegrass music that were shredding on guitar.”

Starting with the mind-blowing mandolin work of Chris Thile and Nickel Creek, Zuercher dove headfirst into the world of bluegrass, and went on to study music at Belmont University in Nashville where he played the banjo and met fellow music student and future Judah & the Lion mandolinist Benjamin Macdonald.

Together with lead vocalist/guitarist Judah Akers, the band started out in 2011 playing mostly Christian music with a more traditional folk/bluegrass sound. By 2013, the trio had released its first EP, Sweet Tennessee, and earned attention for its steady touring.

With the release of the follow-up EP Kids These Days, Judah & the Lion had begun changing direction the very next year, staying true to the band members’ diverse influences and boldly finding its own sound. The band later gave that sound a name with the title of its full-length debut album, last year’s Folk Hop N’ Roll.

Hitting on a unique combination of genres and packing a direct emotional earnestness courtesy of Akers’ lyrics, Zuercher said he felt like the current digital soundscape, where so many styles of music are readily available to anyone at any time, helped his band cross over to music fans eager for something new.

It also helped Take It All Back become a hit both online and on the airwaves, which allowed the band to live out the very dreams of musical success Akers describes in the song’s verses.

“When we started playing (Take It All Back), we knew it was special,” Zuercher said. “We’ve always had goals to play certain things or do certain shows, or get on the radio, but we never knew that it would actually happen, or what would be the lead-in to that.”

Written in just about a half-hour of jamming more than three years ago, the song has changed the band’s lives. The group has since expanded to include drummer Spencer Cross, rhythm guitarist Dylan Oglesby and pianist Daniel Weatherby. Most recently, the group parted ways with one of its longest members when it retired its beloved van, Cletus, after more than 200,000 miles of traveling between sweaty shows.

“We still have Cletus. He’s parked at a storage unit in Nashville, and we plan on using him at some point, (but) we just got a bus, Cletus Maximus,” Zuercher said.

Judah & the Lion also released a deluxe edition of Folk Hop N’ Roll earlier this year with four new songs, including the new hits Suit and Jacket and Going To Mars. And although the band has concerts booked through next year, Zuercher said they’ve already begun writing the next record.

“I think when we recorded these last few songs on the deluxe version of Folk Hop N’ Roll, I think that we really felt like we hit that Judah & the Lion sound, and we’re really excited about it,” Zuercher said. “So who knows if we’re going to stay there, or what? There’s so many different influences and ideas that we all have. It’s hard to say where we’ll go.”

Judah & the Lion
Going To Mars Tour
The Intersection
133 Grandville Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
Oct. 1, 7 p.m., $20, all ages
sectionlive.com, (616) 451-8232

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