Tuesday, May 21, 2019

An interview with Cage the Elephant

photo by Neil Krug
If you’ve tuned to a modern rock radio station at some point lately, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Cage the Elephant. Members of the Kentucky band first started playing together in high school. By 2009, they had emerged with a platinum-selling self-titled debut disc which spawned the big swampy rock hit “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.”

Since then, the six-piece group has continued to be a major player on the national music scene and now holds the record for most alternative song chart toppers in the 2010s. “Ready to Let Go” recently reached that summit again. It was inspired by singer Matt Shultz coming to terms with the dissolution of his marriage while on a trip to Pompeii.  

On impressive fifth studio album Social Cues, Cage the Elephant went further on a musical limb that ever before, utilizing an orchestra arranged and conducted by David Campbell (Beck Hansen’s dad), a chorale, horns, programming and more.

Shultz started writing some of the new songs from the perspective of a murderer after watching the Netflix documentary series “I am a Killer.” Keeping in a similar grim vein, the music video for “Ready” is rife with blood for symbolism.

This July, Cage the Elephant hits the road with co-headliner Beck and Spoon. They have partnered with A dollar from every ticket sold will be donated to each tour city and support local food security initiatives as they work towards ending hunger in their communities. I rang up guitarist Brad Shultz for a chat in Nashville, where band is currently based.

Q: The band’s summer tour should be a ‘must-see’ event for alt-rock fans. You’ve never toured with Beck; how about Spoon?
A: No. We’ve hung with them a few times. I really respect a band that's been around as long they have and consistently put out the records they have, which I think speaks for itself.

Q: With your brother Matt as the front man, Cage the Elephant has gained a reputation for incendiary live shows. Do you think his unpredictability has helped the band gain more attention? He’s almost like a young Iggy Pop at times.
A: He’s definitely a gigantic part of our live show. I think Matt has really committed himself to the art of the front man and really looking at that as more of an art form than just being a wild guy on stage nowadays.

In fact, for the last six months or more, he's been in New York studying this Japanese dance called butoh. He’s being taught by one of the top instructors in the world. Those [type of] dancers are in our music video for ‘Ready to Let Go.’ We’re probably going to incorporate them into the live show. We’re going to do really minimalistic, but impactful moments within the show this go-round. I think we're going to strip back the stage as a whole. We want more than lights flashing.

Q: Have it be more substantial.
A: Something that’s going to be more intentional and make more of an artistic statement, rather than just being a flashy element to draw someone's attention. We are trying to understand how we can mix theater into our live set - but not be too theatrical.

Q: For Social Cues, the band worked with producer John Hill. Did you admire projects he’d done for other alternative artists in the past?
A: One of the biggest factors in us wanting to work with John Hill were the Santigold records that he did [Santogold, Master of My Make Believe]. He just embodied so many characteristics of the production values that we were in line with…Also, the fact that he's worked all over the board - from acts like Santigold to…

Q: Portugal. The Man; Bleachers.
A: Portugal. The Man, to even more in the hip-hop world. And he's had his hand in multiple genres. So that was another big factor. We really wanted to bring the hip-hop swag to our drums.

Q: I noticed that.
A: I think our bass player also really loved the tUnE-yArDs record that Hill made [2014’s Nikki Nack]. It was weird. Usually we disagree on everything, but on this, we found common ground [laughs].

Q: How did the studio process with Hill differ from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who oversaw your last studio effort Tell Me I’m Pretty?
A: There was more of a reflection period making this record…It wasn't just jamming in a room, which is primarily how we had made our previous records…This was more like building a beat with a live band.

Q: Did the acoustic Unpeeled album and tour have an impact on Social Cues since there are string arrangements on some of the new songs?
A: Definitely.

Q: There’s a more prominent backing vocal presence too.
A: Yeah. Really, it opened our eyes to the possibility that we could do that.

As far as the string arrangements, we did a lot of them ourselves on Unpeeled, but once we saw the possibilities, then we took a big, deep dive into [listening to] composers. That led us down a crazy path, which David Campbell was at the top of our list. There was only one other person that we reached out to before him, and that was Ennio Morricone.

Q: Really? That was an audacious request.
A: We were just shooting for the stars on this record, you know? We wanted to try the wildest things in our minds, so we reached out to him. He’s 90 years old. We actually kind of passed the first round, and then we didn't hear much back.

Q: Morrissey got Morricone to arrange a song for his 2006 album, but few rock acts have secured his talents since then.
A: We knew it was going to be kind of impossible.

photo: Citizen Kane Wayne
Q: Speaking of the sky being the limit, after the band had reached a stumbling block on finishing “Night Running,” you randomly suggested contacting Beck for assistance, right?
A: Yeah. The crazy thing is that song is five or more years in the making. I originally wrote that song around the time period right after we finished Melophobia. I wrote it and then I showed another artist the song. They wanted to do it. Then Matt got really dramatic and was like, ‘How could you do this to me!? I would never give a song away without showing you first’ [laughs]. All that sort of stuff.

So, I pulled the song from the artist. I took it to Dan’s when we were recording Tell Me I'm Pretty and it never amounted to anything. I was irritated out to prove a point [laughs]. I took the song and at one point, I was going to do it with John [Gourley] from Portugal. The Man. Then Matt, again, was like, ‘Oh dude, I want to do that song.’ You know, whatever. This was like the last-ditch effort song on the record. But I had always believed so much in the track that I'd tap it for every record.

Q: Was there a reggae vibe from the start?
A: Yeah. Before, it was still dub reggae with a psychedelic tinge, but it didn’t have the West African-style guitar and the drums weren’t as hip-hop. It was more of a demo. But anyway, it just turned out to be that the timing wasn’t right for that track.

Q: Had the band ever shared a stage with Beck at any radio station concerts over the years? Did you know him very well?
A: We ran into him at an iHeart [Radio] thing. It was the first time we’d ever met him and I put it out to him, ‘We should do something together sometime.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool’ or whatever, just in passing.

Flash forward two years later and Matt was having trouble with the verses. We had the choruses done lyrically and vocally, but the verses, for whatever reason, he just couldn’t find a groove that he felt was natural and not cheesy.

Matt didn't want to go ska on it and he didn’t want to do something super cheesy and do a [disservice] to the vibe of the track. He was limiting himself in that. On a whim, I was talking about Beck to my manager, and I said, ‘You know what? I wonder if Beck would want to do ‘Night Running?’” We sent him the song and didn't know if it was going to [amount to anything]. Within 24 hours, he sent us back two verses and I think he said he had four more verses all with a different cadence and stuff like that. It’s pretty crazy. I guess that speaks to how much of an artistic powerhouse that guy is. And here we are.

Q: That song and “House of Glass” are prime examples of how the band took more chances stylistically on the album.
A: I think we took a big swing overall for the whole record. ‘Ready to Let Go’ is one foot in Tell Me I'm Pretty, one foot in this new record. After we get out of the studio, there’s always a handful of songs that we have after this little writing spree. Usually, a couple of those end up on the next record. That was one of those songs. It’s an OK representation of what the record is. It does, with the feel of the drums and everything on that song, embody pieces of what this record is as a whole. This record is so much more dynamic.

Q: While making the album, you guys switched instruments and played ones that you weren't accustomed to. How did that work out?
A: Typically, we had stuck to the formula: I play guitar, Nick plays lead guitar, Matt sings, Daniel plays bass, Jared plays drums and Matthan plays keys. This one was more of a collaborative free-for-all. It was like whoever came up with the best part on any instrument, we didn't want to really limit ourselves…

Q: To a standard guitar/bass/drums format.
A: Exactly. And each member sticking to their specific instrument, per se.

Q: Between them, Nick and Matthan play a bunch of instruments – Mellotron, celeste, cello, clavinet, vibraphone, pedal steel – which add up to a richer Cage the Elephant sound this time around.
A: That’s another thing John is really good at. He’s very knowledgeable in cool, weird instruments that we wouldn’t normally have thought of to fill the void in the song. Where we would maybe put a guitar lead line, John would say, ‘We have guitar in this part,’ and we’d try to use something else to make the song more dynamic and to have a little bit more depth.

Q: Regarding the title track to the new album, is the synthesizer sound a subtle nod to David Bowie?
A: Yeah, I think there’s definitely nods to Bowie on this record as a whole, particularly his Berlin years; the stuff that he did with Brian Eno.

Also, on this record more than any, we wanted to continue to expand upon our sound and really define who we are as a band. We have continually tried to find what our voice is as a whole. I think it’s always a constant battle to find that. It always changes too. Art reflects your life.

Q: While writing the songs, were you listening to any other albums? Matt says he usually tries to block outside influences while writing the lyrics.
A: On this one, more than ever, I think we were not. In fact, we were listening more to horror movie soundtracks. You could probably hear a little tinge of that.

Q: Especially on “House of Glass” and its sinister vibe.
A: ‘Tokyo Smoke’ has horror movie vibes. Even just the record as a whole is a very dark. It has a lot of horror movie undertones.

Q: Finally, thinking back to 2017: How did it feel to win the Grammy Award for Tell Me I'm Pretty?
A: It was so unexpected that we did not write an acceptance speech. We probably go down as the worst acceptance speech of all time. Matt thanked his shoes. For some reason, I thanked Chance the Rapper. He had just won an award. We forgot to thank so many people that were involved and important to the project. It was a disaster, as far as the speech goes, but winning the award – that’s always a great honor.

A version of my interview originally appeared at

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