Written by Christian Bischoff
Folk rock has become something of a trope in the wake of the breakaway success of bands like Mumford and Sons, and the Head and the Heart. Understandably, many young bands mirror the style of these early bastions of banjo-rock, and some even go on to achieve modest success. Judah & the Lion took a different path. After finding success on the Billboard bluegrass and folk charts, the band made made a risky decision – they wanted to change their sound. Their risk payed off – their sophomore album, Folk Hop ‘N Roll, spans multiple genres, and has propelled the band to breakaway success on the back of their single “Take it All Back.”
We spoke with drummer Spencer Cross about their latest album, their cross country tour with Twenty One Pilots, and their famously good live performances.
You latest release, Folk Hop N’ Roll, is an album that blends elements from several different genres – what was the inspiration for this?
The four of us grew up in different parts of the country, with varying backgrounds in music. During our Kids These Days tour, we got to know each other more as people and musicians, and through that grew more as a band and became more comfortable in our own sound and influences.
One of the common influences that kept popping up was hip-hop. In entering the studio to make Folk Hop N Roll, we really wanted to be honest as possible and let our distinct influences shine through. We didn’t want to be put or put ourselves in any kind of box because of our instrumentation; rather, we wanted to push the limits of our own creativity and explore a new realm that was all our own.
The album was recorded in under two weeks – how much of the record emerged during recording?
We went in with a decent amount of demos, but there were several songs that were written and recorded within those two weeks. On top of that, songs that had already been written took on a completely different face once we entered the studio. One example is the song “Forever, Always.” We went in to the studio and showed the demo to our producer, Dave Cobb. He liked it, but said he thought it would sound even cooler quite a bit faster and had an idea for a Beastie Boys inspired beat underneath it. It took on a whole new energy! That’s just one example of how you can enter the studio with one idea, but then the environment of the studio and the people you surround yourself with help you to see an entirely different side of the song.
What inspired you to work with Dave Cobb, a renowned producer known for his work in country and folk music, when you considered who to collaborate on the record with?
We worked with Dave on our Kids These Days album, so we already knew what he was capable of. Although he’s most known for his Country/Americana records, he has a very wide range as a producer and an extremely refined musical palette. He would pull up all kinds of different listening examples from a wide range of genres when we were in the studio to inspire us. We love how spontaneous he is and how driven he is to let the music speak for itself: it doesn’t have to sound “perfect,” it just needs to feel good.
What were you listening to when you started writing the album? How did it affect your writing process?
We are always listening to a ton of different stuff. Right before and during that album, we were listening to a lot of Manchester Orchestra, Noah and the Whale, Beastie Boys, Tom Petty, 50 Cent — like I said, a lot of different stuff! We were particularly inspired by a lot of the hip-hop artists we were listening to at the time of writing, and wanted to change up our process a bit by using a drum machine beat as a launching pad for inspiration.
Your sound has changed considerably as a band since your debut. Songs like “Folk-Hop Sound” and “We Own the Night” are a far cry from anything on your debut EP, First Fruits. How do you develop your sound while staying true to your roots?
Just as people grow and change, our music has grown and changed. It makes sense that as you go through life and culminate different experiences, you’re going to have a different outlook and express yourself differently. We are who we are through and through, but we want to be honest about where we’re at presently, rather than necessarily staying in a box and sticking to the same sound album to album.
Why “Judah & the Lion” – Who came up with your name, and what does it mean to the you?
Judah [Akers – Guitar & Lead Vocal] wanted to be a rapper as a kid and his mom told him that his rapper name should be the Lion of Judah. When we were coming up with names, that came up, we turned it around, and it just felt right.
“Take It All Back 2.0” is your first crossover success – it’s been played on radio stations across the country, and streamed millions of times online. Did you know the song was a hit when you wrote it?
We knew that song was special, but you can’t ever predict when something’s a “hit.” The song was written several years ago during a rehearsal, and it came together spontaneously over a matter of minutes. When we started playing it live, people seemed to really connect with it. Once it hit radio, the fans made it their own and breathed new life into it again. It’s amazing how a song that was written several years ago still feels so fresh every night. We’re so grateful for all the people who have listened and helped support us in our dreams.
Your performances are famously high energy and incredibly well received – How have your live shows evolved over time? Can you point to a particular show that everything first came together for you?
No matter the environment, we’ve always been committed to giving people a show and giving 110% of ourselves to it every night. We think concerts are really special and we don’t take that experience lightly. The first time we played in Athens, GA, was the moment where everything first started to come together. It was our first time playing outside of TN and we had no idea what to expect.
We booked a show at the 40 Watt, which is a historic rock club. A lot of our mentors thought we were crazy for booking such a big room, but we showed up and the show had sold out. It was such an electric experience and definitely the first moment where we thought “wow, this could really be something.”
Is there a particular song you love playing live?
It honestly changes from night to night. Right now, with all the radio airplay, I really love playing “Suit and Jacket” and “Take It All Back.”
What are your plans for the rest of 2017?
Right now we’re on an incredible tour with some of our heroes, Incubus and Jimmy Eat World! Next, we go on a Fall Headlining tour in the States, and then we head over to Europe for the first time to open for Kaleo over there in November. It’s a busy and exciting year for us!
Judah & The Lion are currently on tour throughout the U.S., click here for dates.