On Saturday October 15th, folk hop collective Judah & The Lion – comprised of Judah Akers (guitar, lead vocals), Brian Macdonald (mandolin, vocals), Nate Zuercher (banjo, vocals), and Spencer Cross (drums) – wowed a large audience at The Kansas City Zoo at the annual Brew at The Zoo (& Wine Too!) fundraiser. Just hours before the performance, we were able to nab a little bit of time with the band to walk around the zoo, make faces at the animals, and chat.
The biggest part of it all, however, was the fact that Judah had never been to a zoo. So our adventure that day was taking us to see animals in person that he had never encountered, and we were able to see the zoo for the first time through the eyes of a 26 year old.
Our interview portion largely took place on the tram headed toward the Africa area of the zoo, where we were sure to encounter some lions. It was a crisp, cloudy fall day and we were surrounded by families with small children who had lined up to trick or treat in their costumes around the zoo. I’ll admit, it was pretty funny to hang out with the guys surrounded by such mass chaos, but getting to know them on a more personal level between photo ops and tape rolling made it all the better.
Detail for us your origin story, if you could?
Spencer: We all met in Nashville at Belmont University. Judah had been writing some songs, just kind of for fun. He wanted to hear what it sounded like with the banjo. He had some mutual friends with Nate, so he called him up to play banjo and Nate knew Brian from some classes, so he brought him along to play mandolin. The first time the music was played together was at the tower at Belmont. It was one of those magic moments where it just clicked. I knew Brian because we lived in the same dorm and I had common friends with Nate, so they asked me to come in and play drums.
What is the first record or song you remember hearing, and who introduced it to you?
Judah: Mine was Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent. I was in fifth grade when it came out and my big brother introduced it to me. It’s still one of my favorite records.
Nate: Mine was Yellow Submarine by the Beatles. My kindergarten music teacher shared it with me. It hit and my parents got me a bunch of Beatles stuff for Christmas. Beatles and Legos. I listened to the Beatles all day while putting together the TIE Fighter from Star Wars. That was a good day.
Spencer: I can’t remember the exact earliest, but the first record that stuck out to me was Now That’s What I Call Music! 4. Remember Now? Particularly, “All The Small Things” by Blink-182. For whatever reason my brother played it for me and it just clicked with me as a second grader. Even though I probably didn’t know what they were talking about at all. Just something about it.
Brian: Mine was Sweet Baby James by James Taylor. My dad and I went on a road trip and he played it for me and I made him play it on repeat the entire trip. We just listened to it again and again and again. It was really funny. I was probably eight or nine.
Was there a moment when you realized you could pursue music as a career, even individually?
Judah: I still don’t think that way. I think for me, personally, it was the first show we ever had outside of Nashville. It was in Athens, Georgia. The culture with Nashville is that a lot of people are doing music and a lot of people like to support. Even if your friends don’t like your music, they still go out and support you. That was kind of the first show where we weren’t sure if anyone would show up. It ended up selling out, like 600 people came. It was one of those moments where we thought, “Oh my gosh. Somehow this music is reaching people outside of our moms and friends.” That was, for me, when I realized it was this.
Nate: That was a good moment for the band.
Do you have any fun anecdotes from performances that stand out?
Judah: Mine was this place called Falkenburg, Sweden. It was fun because we did two tours over there, one in the winter and one in the summer. When we went back in the summer, people were singing the songs and it was in a different country so it felt bigger.
Spencer: The first time we played The Tabernacle in Atlanta with Mat Kearney. Something about the energy in the room and the fans. Atlanta is one of our biggest fanbases anyway, but something about that room sounded so good and it’s such a beautiful place. Every time I’ve played there – and it’s only been twice – I have felt that something about it is really magical.
Brian: We did Bonnaroo this summer. That was always a dream of ours to play. It went really well and it was really fun.
Since we’re at a zoo, what were your favorite animals growing up?
Nate: Mine would probably be a bear or a lion. They’re both really furry and exciting. Like teddy bears and teddy lions. Beanie Babies were a big part of it, and those were my two favorites.
Spencer: I grew up with cats, they were great. They were really good cats so I’ve always loved cats. But I had this fascination as a younger child with giant squids. It was one of those elusive animals that they had never been deep enough in the ocean to see them living. They only had seen them dead, washed up on the shore. I had this science book that talked about them and I was so fascinated. Cats and giant squids.
Judah: Puppies? I just love puppies a lot. If we’re getting specific, I’d go with a husky puppy. Golden retriever puppies are pretty great as well, but big dogs as puppies are so great.
Brian: I have kind of always loved the predatory cat the lynx. They’re elusive in the way that they hunt and they take down things that are many times their size. It’s crazy.
If you guys could have a spirit animal, what would it be any why?
Judah: I would say probably a wolf. I don’t know why, I’ve just always been fascinated by them.
Do you have one of those tie-dyed wolf shirts you can find at random gas stations across the US?
Nate: Wolf shirt Wednesdays? That was a thing in high school. You never knew that?
Brian: Don’t start that.
Spencer: I always liked otters. I don’t know.
They sleep holding hands!
Spencer: They’re so cute. I don’t know if that’s why, but they’re so relaxed and I feel like I relate to them somehow.
Nate: What do you all think would be my spirit animal?
Brian: Uhhhh Duck Dynasty.
Judah: A bear?
Nate: Yeah? Maybe a golden retriever or a bear.
Spencer: Maybe a bear. But like, Baloo.
Nate: Yeah. Baloo the bear. I think that’s part of why I loved bears growing up. They’re furry, friendly and fun! (laughing)
Brian: I would be a lynx. Let’s stick with that.
Nate: Dude! That’s an elephant! LOOK!
At this point, our tram was passing the elephants and the guys had to pause so Judah could glance at their majesty. (And wave, like the rest of the kids on the tram with us.)
What’s your favorite song you have heard lately?
Spencer: Uh, “Take It All Back“. Joking!
Judah: I like the “8 (Circle)” song by Bon Iver.
Brian: This band Tall Heights has a song called “Spirit Cold“. It’s really cool.
Spencer: “Let the Rain Come Down” by Brent Cobb. It just came out recently. That song is just like, mind blowing.
Nate: “No Way” by The Naked and Famous. That’s my band. New record out yesterday.
We got off the tram and continued on our journey, catching glimpses of storks, gorillas, warthogs, and others. We talked about touring and their “boring” rider list – which includes kombucha, coconut water, and “healthy options” -, the friends they stay with usually when they come to Kansas City, and craft beer. Nate even borrowed one of Erin’s lenses to snap some photos of his own.
Running short on time, we speed walked to the lions and Judah got to see them for the first time.
What is it like seeing the lions? Does it feel wonderful?
Spencer: Like looking in the mirror.
Then one of them muttered, “No, that’s stupid.”
Judah: For whatever reason, I thought they were going to be a little smaller. They’re massive. It makes sense why they’re The King of The Jungle. It makes so much sense now. Their heads are so big. I’m terrified and excited.
**photos by Erin P.S. Zimmerman