Like a musical microcosm of the vast and diverse melting pot that is American culture, the members of Judah & the Lion came together from far-flung points, bringing divergent experiences, tastes and influences together in service of an envelope-pushing sound that acknowledges neither fence nor border.
Meeting while attending Belmont University in Nashville, guitarist/vocalist Judah Akers, drummer Spencer Cross, mandolin player Brian MacDonald and banjo ace Nate Zuercher threw their own individually favored spices into a gumbo that ended up melding folk, country, rock, pop and funk with a distinct Hip-Hop aftertaste.
The band's willful commingling of influences struck a chord with listeners quickly, and Judah & the Lion found a home in the modern alternative music mosaic, where the group's latest effort, the appropriately named "Folk Hop 'n' Roll" earned ample support. The quartetperforms Dec. 2 in KeyBank Center as part of Alternative Buffalo 107.7 FM-sponsored "Kerfuffle Before Christmas" show.
I chatted with drummer Spencer Cross via email on Thanksgiving, and he filled me in on J&TL's rather meteoric rise to buzz-band status.
Question: What struck me immediately about you guys is how willfully you defy conventional notions of genre. This is particularly remarkable during a time when there seems to be more and more pressure to stick within the borders of specific musical genres. Was this disregard for playing it safe there from the beginning?
Answer: It has always been a part of us, in a way, from the beginning. But it has especially manifested itself on this past record, "Folk Hop N Roll." Nate and Brian, who play banjo and mandolin, both didn’t pick up their respective instruments until college. They form the core “folk” sound in the band, but have diverse musical backgrounds with other instruments, like guitar and piano, that help them approach these instruments in a unique way. You can hear through our recordings over the past couple years as we’ve striven to become more and more 'us'.
One of the main things we clung to entering the making of "Folk Hop N Roll" was to not put ourselves in any kind of creative “box” whatsoever. We wanted to push ourselves creatively and not be constrained by any genre. We ended up coming up with something that we’re proud of and that we think is unique and vibrant and a musical gumbo of sorts.
Q: As a listener, you can approach J&TL casually and be immediately taken by the hooks, the upbeat energy and the positivity in the songs. But if you dig deeper, there’s a lot of substance there, both musically and lyrically. I’m wondering if you’ve gotten feedback from fans about songs like “Insane” and “Better Man,” which deal with some heavy issues – depression and substance abuse. These seem like songs that might reach the right person at the right time, when they really need it.
A: Songs like the two you mentioned are particularly meaningful to us. We get asked a lot what our favorite song is off our last album, and of course, the answer changes all the time, but the one that comes up the most is “Insane.” I think this is so because of the depth and honesty we tried to communicate in that song. We know others have felt the same way and want them to know they’re not alone, even when it may feel like they are.
We’ve gotten feedback on “Insane” and several other songs from fans where they’ve said that a particular song has impacted them and gotten them through a really tough period in life. That’s such a meaningful thing for us to hear. It’s stories like that that humble you and remind you why you make music in the first place.
Q: The country is obviously pretty divided and going through a truly tumultuous time right now. What role do you think music can play in helping us all get through tough times like these?
A: Absolutely. Music is such a uniting power. It has the ability to speak straight to our souls in ways that words can’t always do by themselves. We live in a time where there’s so much noise coming from every direction, and it’s hard to know who or what to believe. Music is a common glue that people of all different backgrounds can stand together in. It helps you realize that we're all humans and we're all in this thing called life together.
Q: You guys have a pretty serious run of multi-act radio station-based gigs coming up. Tell me how these kinds of arena gigs compare to headlining your own shows in more intimate venues.
A: We haven’t played in arenas much at all, so this will be a really exciting experience for us! We love playing in all different kinds of environments. There’s something exciting about being at your own show where everyone knows the words to your songs, but there’s also something super exciting about feeling like you’re meeting a large amount of people for the very first time and you get one shot at giving a good first impression. We love the element of surprise at our shows, and whether you’ve seen us 10 times or never heard of us, we hope you would enter the show expecting the unexpected every night.
What: Kerfuffle Before Christmas
Who: Judah & the Lion, Grouplove, Dirty Heads, Capital Cities, Atlas Genius, Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness
When: 5 p.m. Dec. 2
Where: KeyBank Center
Tickets:$28.50 - $48.50.