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Sonic Alchemists: How Judah & The Lion Turned Suffering Towards Salvation

Monday, 25 November 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

You haven’t truly lived until you’ve heard someone rapping over the bluegrass strains of a banjo.  Or until you’ve experienced the sound of a band who smash together folk, hip hop, EDM, and punk beneath stirring lyrics that make you feel 10 feet tall. Luckily, Judah & the Lion are the wildly talented and eclectic US trio who do all the above and much more.

Unsurprisingly, given their collision of seemingly disparate styles, this Nashville threesome bring a wide-ranging variety of influences to the party. Singer and guitarist Judah Akers grew up on the classic rock of Queen and REO Speedwagon, the indie-rock of R.E.M, and hip hop, while Nate Zuercher worshipped Green Day Blink 182, Gojira and Avenged Sevenfold before bluegrass act Nickel Creek inspired him to ditch the electric guitar in favour of plucking a banjo. Mandolin player Brian Macdonald, meanwhile, cites Celtic music, classical violinists and calm, moody singer songwriter fare as sources of inspiration.  

Yet, the genius of Judah & The Lion is how they confidently cohere those touchstones, and their boundary pushing raison d’etre, into an infectiously anthemic mainstream sound with the potential to excite casual listeners and chin-stroking musos alike. Turning the recording studio into something of a laboratory, they possess an instinctive feel for their craft and propensity for unrestrained invention. In contrast to what may seem like an unschooled ethos, though, Zuercher and Macdonald come armed with a theoretical knowledge of music they honed while studying at Belmont University in Nashville, a private Christian college where the band formed in 2011.  

Being able to craft songs from the head and the heart is a huge reason why Judah & the Lion can take what appear to be incompatible elements and transform them into something unique. That said, nothing could have prepared us for this year’s ‘Pep Talks’, the group’s third and most ambitious record to date. Having gone through a series of personal traumas, Akers penned a narratively driven album that, across a number of distinct acts recalls his struggles with a disarming candour.

Few artists could take issues such as parental divorce, addiction, violence and abandonment and turn them into one of the most uplifting, thought-provoking, socially resonant and sonically experimental records of recent times without losing their inherent commercial power. Ahead of the band’s return to the UK and Ireland for shows in London, Dublin and Glasgow, we spoke with Zuercher about making ‘Pep Talks’, the importance of tackling mental health issues and how the hell you make a banjo work within songs where no sane being would think about trying it.  

‘Pep Talks’ is brave, in its lyrical content and how you’ve pushed your stylistic boundaries. When you were making it, did you feel courageous?

The record before, ‘Folk Hop N’ Roll’, broke down a lot of barriers for us. I felt a lot more nervous, or courageous, during that because we were trying things we’d never done before or never thought we’d try. That paved the way, but this was a more mature version and had more bearing on what we wanted to do and what we could sound like.

Nothing felt impossible and we tried hard to follow the story and vibe of each song and make it exactly what we thought it needed to be, rather than trying to make every song sound the same or fit sonically. Knowing what we were dealing with subject-wise was different too. We’ve always been honest and open with what we talk about, but this was a perspective I don’t think we’d touched on before. If anything, that took more courage.

At what point did you decide to tackle such a difficult subject?

Judah came over to my house about a year and a half ago and had written a lot of the songs. He had a vision for what he wanted it to sound and feel like, the order of the songs and all that. He’s basically my brother, so knowing the people involved and walking through this with him, and also knowing that writing songs is his main way of processing life, it just felt like a no brainer to help make it happen.

As opposed to previous records, this was definitely more of a ‘We have the songs, we don’t know exactly what they’ll sound like, but this is what it’s gonna be and we’re gonna figure out how to make it feel as good as possible while getting across the story.’ We had to encourage him and say ‘We’re in this with you, this resonates with me, you’re not alone in this’ and just continue to impress upon him it’s a good idea and worth the struggle to open up about these issues.

Given that it deals with Judah’s personal experiences, can you tell us what the atmosphere was like when you were making the album?

Interesting. We did the main chunk of it over four months, so there were a lot of different feelings in that time. We were so ‘in it’ and focused on getting it done, but also trying to manage our personal life in the midst of that. Even I was going through my own crap that got progressively worse, so my mental headspace was very different throughout the process. Judah was healing more and more as we were making it and getting a little further removed from the content he was writing about. And me and Brian were trying to figure out how to be honest about what we were going through, even though weren’t making the lyrics. It was a very powerful practice.  

As we continue to play these songs, they’re more and more a part of our lives and it’s forced us to be more honest with each other and have a second mentality of ‘Are you good? Are you doing OK? Is it alright that we’re talking about this every day?’ I think it’s important and amazing that it’s become this catalyst for us to be more vulnerable with each other at a core level and that will, hopefully, encourage people to do that with their friends and family, seek out help and encouragement, knowing they’re not alone. I’m proud of Judah for saying ‘Hey, this is what’s going on, this is what I’m dealing with and I need help.’

You collaborated with with Dave Cobb on your last two albums, a producer who works at a notoriously swift pace. This record took much longer, was that because the previous way would have been impossible given the consideration the material required?

It definitely would have been different. We appreciated working with Dave but wanted to have the final approval on everything this go around, so the three of us were the main producers along with two of our friends. It was a five man project where no one really had more power than anyone else. We all had to sign off and agree this was something we were proud of. That was important for the subject matter but, also, to finally have time in the studio.

It’s beautiful and powerful, being able to flesh out every single idea without time constraints. We had multiple engineers helping so if I had a day when I just wanted to work on banjo parts I could go off in a different room with one of our guys and geek out without immediate opinions. As opposed to when we were doing it with Dave, where it was ‘You got 30 minutes to do your banjo part and all of us are gonna listen to you figure it out right now and give immediate feedback.’ Like, that sucks.  

I don’t think I played any banjo until two months into the project because I wanted to sit with everything. Then I did all of it back to back, figured out what I wanted to do and presented it to them exactly how I wanted to do it. Some of it changed but it was like ‘This is my baby, you can critique it but I’m not hurt, offended or annoyed because I got to put all the time into it that I wanted.’ All of us had that freedom and it made for something we could walk away from and say this is exactly what we wanted to do and say. It’s the first record we’ve made where I feel that way.

I’m interested to hear about your approach to playing the banjo in songs where most people wouldn’t.

The banjo, for me, has always been a very intimidating instrument. Most of the people I look up to have been playing since they could breathe and in the bluegrass world there’s a very right way to do it. Brian and I went to school for banjo and mandolin respectively and were trying to find our footing in a world with a very specific way of doing things. We tried our best to learn the right way but also were experimenting with what we wanted to sound like. So we would often write together and come back and play what we did for our teacher. He’d be like ‘that sounds cool but...this is how you should do it.’  

While we appreciated learning different perspectives, to me it always feels like I’m getting away with something. Like I shouldn’t be able to do what I do and I’m doing it wrong. The music we make is always pushing boundaries and it’s funny how there’s a banjo that consistently shows up. I enjoy the challenge of ‘How do I make this not be overbearing?’ It’s something I’m continuing to learn and will hopefully get better at. But I come back to my jazz teacher in high school: ‘People who really know how to play are people who play less. They’re not trying to always show up when they don’t need to and it makes you appreciate it more when it’s there.’ We want to have it on every song. Even if it’s just 30 seconds of a four minute song, maybe that’s enough.

Did you discuss how to pace the album and how to approach the beginning stylistically, so the turmoil didn’t last too long before the healing begins?

Yeah. Even though it’s lyrically obvious the first third is pretty rough, on a couple of songs we wanted to keep a relatively positive feeling. Why Did You Run? is the best example because that’s got difficult content but is one of the happiest sounding songs on the record. So it was finding that balance of ‘Yes, we’re dealing with hard stuff but we don’t want that to be the vibe that gets stuck.’  

When I listen to music I don’t pay attention to the words first. So when I make a record I’m always way more focused on how the song feels and can it encourage a certain kind of emotion that might even be different to what the lyrics are saying. The main focus was getting the message across, but also how do we keep that optimism, even if it’s just through the music at certain points, that’s infectious within our group.

One song that defines the album’s musical and lyrical synergy is I’m OK, which goes on an interesting journey when Judah’s perspective shifts during the epiphany-like rap section.

In the studio I was the biggest critic of the rap section. I was like ‘I don’t think we need to have a rap. Can we try singing those words?’ It never hit me right but as we’ve played it more and more I’ve started to get it. Last night I looked up, because the parts I’m playing during the rap are somewhat involved and a lot of the time my head’s not facing the crowd and I’m not paying attention to what’s being received, and saw people really into it and singing every word. I’m like ‘OK, I didn’t have to be right. I’m glad you fought for this because it’s more powerful than I ever would have imagined.’ You never know how it will come across when you’re creating it.

When the mood of the record does turn, things get very anthemic. Was it important to make those numbers as rousing as possible to sell the transformation and end on a real high?

I think so. We don’t like to stay down in our hole any more than we have to so those songs, and even the punk songs at the end, we needed because we don’t take life too seriously and it’s important to keep our heads up and be goofy. As cheesy as that can feel or come across sometimes, it’s a more honest representation of who we are. We’re trying to deal with what’s going on better, but if you hang out with any of us hopefully you’ll say ‘Oh, these guys are real but they’re also just a bunch of jokers, not taking anything too seriously and having fun.’ We try to get that across in the music.

Judah & the Lion Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue November 26 2019 - LONDON Dingwalls
Thu November 28 2019 - DUBLIN Whelans
Fri November 29 2019 - GLASGOW SWG3

Click here to compare & buy Judah And The Lion Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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