Interview: Cage the Elephant

CageTheElephant

With every album a band produces there is an underlying sense of dread because each record challenges both the band and the audience’s expectations of their capabilities. Not every album is a winner on both ends, but the key is to make it the best damn album you think you can make in that moment. It’s a fear that sits at the heart of every up and coming as well as established act in modern music. Kentucky rockers Cage the Elephant share the same fears as most of their peers but what ultimately amounts to a common worry in the writing and recording process is an opportunity to push themselves as individuals. With their third album Melophobia, which literally translates to “fear of music,” it was an opportunity to go all out resulting in their most diverse album to date.

As of writing this introduction principal songwriters and brothers Matt and Brad Shultz have confirmed they have already begun early production on a follow up which is a pretty progressive step for such a laid back and hardworking band. Nothing feels manic about the process at which Cage the Elephant operates considering each album has taken at least three years between each record to materialize. Guitarist Brad doesn’t see the rush at all (although he is all for it now) and when I spoke to him last month he was laid back enough to talk about the then current weather patterns. Taking a breather right before their current round of touring, which is about to come to New York’s Terminal 5 for two back to back nights, Shultz spoke to Pop-Break about the pressures that come with recording a new record, being distinct in music in the 21st century, and the joy of touring with their friends and current touring mates UK rockers, Foals.

Photo Credit: Colin Lane/Courtesy RCA Records
Photo Credit: Colin Lane/Courtesy RCA Records

PB: Hi Brad how are you?

BS: I’m good, man. How are you?

PB: Can’t complain. How’s the day going?

BS: It’s going great. Just enjoying the spring. I’m in Nashville now and we are getting a couple days in the 60s and then a couple in the 40s and then back to the 60s. I’m like “c’mon!” (Laughs)

PB: Yeah, I’m in New Jersey and we are basically dealing with the same thing. We had a couple nice days and then it plunged back down to like the 40s and 30s. I just want stability out here.

BS: Oh God, especially with the weather you guys have been experiencing up there for sure!

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PB: I have been re-listening to the records and just comparing Melaphobia to the other two. I know you guys have been saying in interviews that there were some fears going into making the record. Now that it’s been out for six months how do you look back at those fears going in? Do they make sense now or do you feel differently about them?

BS: There is always a level of uncertainty when you go into a record, because you feel you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. For us, I think every record has had a bit of uncertainty; with the first record we were recording songs that we had been playing at house parties that we would just show up and play with acoustic guitars. We have always wanted to push ourselves each time. It’s like we have musical ADD we get very bored with stuff, so we have a fear of repeating ourselves. If that happens it becomes stagnant. The changes in our music reflect the life we want to live as far as evolving and changing. Miles Davis had a one word answer in an interview that hit home with me. It was right before he made Bitches Brew and the interviewer asked “Where are you going on this record?” and he answered “Forward.” It just made so much sense to me. So I think uncertainty comes from that. Matt lyrically wanted to cover things that didn’t come off too poetic and to be more straight forward. Musically we wanted to convey what we were hearing in our minds and not let time restraints alter that at all. The first record took like two days to record and the second took two weeks. The process for this record was over the span of a year and a half in some form or another. We really wanted to take our time and not force a record out that would make us go back and say “oh I wish we could change that!” I hope that wasn’t too long winded of an answer (laughs)

PB: Not at all! I would rather someone give me an answer like that then a one word answer; although, that Miles Davis quote is perfect.

BS: Yeah you look at that like “Man! I wish that was my answer!”

PB: You were saying about wanting to evolve and one of the things you see with a lot of bands is they come out with that big first record and automatically people and critics talk of the sophomore slump. It seems like its unstoppable but every record seems like a challenge. It doesn’t matter if it’s two records or four or five.

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BS: Yeah, and if you are pushing yourself, that uncertainty will definitely occur. Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse produced our record and he said if you aren’t feeling a bit uncomfortable with what you are doing than you are probably not a true artist. Which I thought was weird but it makes sense because you are exposing yourself in a certain way. We embrace that and the challenge here was picking our mind apart subconsciously. You find yourself being a bit hard on yourself in doing that. Trying to find a reason for every thought you have and whether or not you are being open enough. So we didn’t want to hold back anything this time.

The album title kind of comes from our belief of how a lot of bands are worried about being the cool band that all the blogs are going to talk about or be super successful and have a lot of radio hits. I think that sometimes hinders the art and what music is meant to be in the bare bones sense. It’s a form of communication that brings people together and sometimes that gets lost with some bands; not all cause there are so many honest ones out there. We have never written songs to fit that role but as humans we subconsciously all want to be accepted and part of something.

PB: Some bands like you said think they are expected to be a certain way and it’s great to see bands that are free to do what they want. Listening to Melophobia, it felt very organic, like this is something you guys should have doing all along. It was so different and felt natural which says a lot since most bands by a third record you feel like they are repeating the process or going in a direction that completely removes them from what they are.

BS: I think that’s what we were trying to achieve. On the first record I think it’s a great representation of where we were at that time. We were very young; Matt was one year separated from high school, I was just 2 years away and so on in this small town of Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s a town of 50,000 people and beyond the mainstream, any music outside of what our college radio played or classic rock stations, we weren’t exposed to. There was, and is, this wealth of great music we weren’t expose to at the time. When we moved to London we were exposed to so much. Like we really got into that era of bands like Talking Heads and Gang of Four that from there took us into late eighties early nineties post punk stuff. Our second record came out almost manic because we were so inspired by all this music we were absorbing. We would be like “Man, we are getting really into this new band The Smiths?” (laughs) and people would be like “Dude, I’ve known about them since I was 14 years old.” It was in that moment you realized how sheltered we were in where we lived musically.

PB: In a way that lack of initial exposure is almost good because it forces you to create your own identity. The trouble with music today is with the wealth of great music we have had over the last 50 – 60 years is you are constantly being compared to someone else or wearing your influences on your sleeve to the point that you are sounding too much like something you listen to on the radio while searching for that identity.

BS: Yeah on our second record I feel with certain songs we were sort of doing just that: wearing our influences on our sleeve. But with this record, we weren’t really listening to music at all and that was what we were aiming for. I was listening to things on the up and coming circuit. The Nashville music scene is brilliant with acts like Jeff the Brotherhood, and I’m not sure if you know about a band called Diarrhea Planet?

PB: Yes. They are really awesome.

BS: Yeah so bands like that are great, and I was less influenced by these bands but more inspired by them as bands that are pushing themselves to do their own things. We really wanted to get back to that after listening to so many great bands which we realized you are internally influenced by even if you aren’t directly. We wanted a sound that defined who we are.

PB: Was the writing process a little different this time since you had a little more down time than usual to make the record?

Photo Credit: Colin Lane/Courtesy RCA Records
Photo Credit: Colin Lane/Courtesy RCA Records

BS: This record was a little harder because it used to be we were all living in close proximity to each other in Bowling Green. Matt and I shared an apartment so it was easy for all of us to be around each other when we had an idea. The second record we all lived in the same place but in five years of touring we maybe got three weeks tops a year to have down time, but never back to back. This time we all wrote separately, so with so many ideas coming in at once it got a bit messy, but I think the challenge is that we found a way to marry all these ideas together.

PB: When someone says this album is going in a different direction, I have this idea that that means “Well we did a rock record, now it’s going to be contemporary jazz.” What does something like that mean to you like the difference from say the second record to this one?

BS: I think it’s just natural for us. We never really set out to say “Let’s make a jazz record or a psychedelic record.” I don’t think I can pinpoint something specifically other than maybe achieving sonically something more organic because I feel like the first record may have been produced a little too slick and the lyrics weren’t as open and a bit cryptic. Then the second one we had stuff that was more demanding to work with after hearing so much that was out there then we could have imagined. With this record it was a different direction in that we were moving forward. You just continue to emulate the process of just moving forward in life in your own creativity.

PB: I see you guys are like booked for the foreseeable future, I mean, you are doing some headlining shows around here with Foals. How do those opportunities come about? Is that something you guys decide on or does management come to you with these opportunities and say “Hey, would you want to do these certain dates with these artists?”

Photo Credit: Giuliano Messina/Pop-Break.com
Photo Credit: Giuliano Messina/Pop-Break.com

BS: Foals actually are already good friends of ours and when we lived in London back in 2007 they were one of the first bands to take us on tour with them. They were putting out their first record Antidotes and we were releasing our first record at the same time. We share the same booking agent who came to us and said “I think you will like these guys” and we did have a great time on the road with them. We kept in contact through festivals or just being in the same city. The co-headlining gigs came about because we had already sold out a night at Terminal 5 and they did as well so it was two nights back to back. We decided we would switch each night and they close one night and then we would the next. We are doing several dates on this tour in the same vein.

PB: That’s awesome. You guys are both coming off a solid year of releases. I don’t know if you have gotten to listen to Holy Fire at all. It’s fantastic!

BS: Oh yeah I listened to it every night for a month! (laughs) It’s a super solid record. The statement that I love that speaks for the quality of a band, is when the live version of a song is better than on the record.

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PB: Now you are just building this up for me since I will be seeing you guys in early May in Philly which I’m looking forward to.

BS: Oh man, get ready because they are an amazing live band. I had that song “My Numbers” stuck in my head the whole tour. I was like “What the hell is going on I can’t get this friggin’ song out of my head!”

PB: It’s so original! So I assume the touring commitments are pretty stable for the rest of the year. Do you see any down time on the horizon?

BS: We are pretty much booked solid for a while. We have this upcoming tour then in June we play Bonnaroo and Firefly, then in August we having the Reading and Leeds festivals. It’s just a lot of festival touring this summer. That being said I don’t know if we are going keep touring or maybe take time to record; I mean we have been writing ever since we did this record and I would love to go in and record again if possible. Like maybe within a year we can get into the studio.

Cage the Elephant performs at Terminal 5 in New York City with Foals and J. Roddy Walston & The Business Wednesday May 7. Click here for tickets.

Cage the Elephant returns to New Jersey on Wednesday July 30 at The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ. Tickets are on sale May 9.

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