Judah & the Lion are traveling the country on their Going to Mars tour and stopping in Las Vegas on February 10 to perform at the House of Blues. The Nashville-born band formed while at Belmont University in 2011 and since have found ways to bend genres creating a mashup of styles, including banjo sounds and hip-hop beats. Lead vocalist Judah Akers, mandolin player Brian Macdonald and banjo player Nate Zuercher have found their songs topping the charts, including “Take it All Back” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart in 2017. Zuercher recently spoke to Vegas Seven about the band’s success on tour, how they’ve created their sound and the importance of his beard.
What is it like to perform back-to-back almost every night while on tour?
We came off a two-month break right before this and it was a bummer being away from everybody. It feels like we are back with our family now, doing what we are supposed to do. Some days we will feel a little more energized and some days we won’t, but it is just that mentality of “the show must go on.” Our performances are our favorite thing we get to do. I love being on tour. I love creating connections with our fans. I think the reason I love it so much is that it is the most unifying thing we do. All six of us on stage and our whole crew all have the same goal for the night. Sometimes you just have to crash right after, but we love performing and being on the road. It is good to be back.
What is different about the Going to Mars tour than previous tours?
Everything is more dialed in. … We have more crew. We used to all show up early in the morning and work all day until the end of the show. But now responsibilities are split up and people can focus on doing what they are gifted in. Everyone’s a little bit more relaxed instead of having to do 10 jobs when they should really only have two or three. It is fun to see how much everyone has grown and progressed. It is really just a product of time. Also people know our songs more now. So the shows are more interactive and involved. That adds another level of excitement too.
Your shows are exciting, positive and upbeat. When you are on stage, what are you trying to accomplish?
We look at it like we are hosting a party. We want it to be an exciting, fun and welcoming environment. We like to have high energy and run around and dance and have a good time. But we also want everyone, no matter who they are, where they are coming from or what they are going through, to know that when they walk through the doors they are wanted and welcomed and they can be themselves and it will be okay. It is this crazy environment where you can be yourself.
How did the idea start that your band would combine so many different genres of music to create your sound?
I don’t think we ever had a meeting where we decided we were going to make something new or put these things together. Brian [Macdonald] and I started on the banjo and mandolin in college, and I had played the guitar and piano before that. When we met Judah we were just stepping into the bluegrass world. As time progressed, we got to know each other more and grew more comfortable with what we were playing. It became apparent that we wanted to incorporate a bunch of different sounds and influences as opposed to limiting ourselves to what we thought we were supposed to sound like. It has been a process of learning what we wanted to sound like and becoming comfortable with pushing boundaries. It was also really exciting to be able to explore and figure out how to be a better and more true version of ourselves.
How did you start playing the banjo?
It was a high school graduation gift. One of my friend’s dad had a banjo that was just laying around. I was into bluegrass at the time and I had played the guitar for eight years at that point. But I never, ever thought it would become my main thing. If you would’ve sat me down my senior year of high school and said, “Hey, you’re going to be a professional banjo player and this is how you are going to make your living,” I would’ve laughed and walked out of the room. For whatever reason, it just really clicked with me. It is hard to explain, but I just got it under my fingers and I knew that it is what I wanted to do.
Belmont University is known as a “music school,” so when you were in college did you expect to form a band?
That was always my goal. I am so thankful that I met a group of guys that had the same drive and passion as me. It doesn’t look at all like I thought it would. I never thought I would be a banjo player. I didn’t know what type of music we’d be playing. I always imagined I’d be in a band that would do and think the same as I do, but that’s not the case. But that is such a big part of who we are and where we are. We are constantly sharpening each other and giving each other new perspectives. There are a lot of circumstances where each person’s opinion is right, so how do we perform the best and find a result where everyone is incorporated? That comes through in our music. We aren’t going to just go in one particular direction, we are going to try to represent everybody and what everybody likes. It has been such an amazing journey. I can’t believe some of the opportunities we’ve been given.
Tell me about the long hair and beards.
I’ve always been focused on my beard and not so much my hair. I’m kind of worried that if I cut off my beard they will kick me out of the band. It’s like there is Judah, and I have the fuzzy beard like the lion. I feel like my beard is the one staple and without it, we would fall apart.
House of Blues inside Mandalay Bay, Feb. 10, 7 p.m., $26–$186, houseofblues.com/lasvegas