Cage the Elephant: Matt Shultz Interview
After the enormous critical and commercial success of previous effort Melophobia, Cage the Elephant are back and touring their follow-up, Tell Me I’m Pretty, produced by Dan Auerbach and seeing further exploration of their new, moodier sound. Ellipsis caught up with singer Matt Shultz in advance of their Liverpool show at the O2 Academy.
How did working with Jay Joyce, who produced your last three records, differ to working with Dan Auerbach on Tell Me I’m Pretty?
Shultz: With Jay, we spent far less time preparing to go into the studio than we spent in the studio putting each song under the microscope and recomposing it until we felt good about it. This was much more of a lucid experience; part of what Dan did was help us from self-sabotaging, partly by emphasising first takes.
A lot of the tracks on this new record sound particularly melancholy in comparison to most on Melophobia (apart from the likes of Telescope). Was this a natural progression or a deliberate move in songwriting style?
S: A bit of both, I think. When I was younger, I used to focus on creating a persona and creating some kind of character to live in, to use as some kind of safeguard and because I believed in persona in rock and roll. More recently I’ve thought that was a bit misguided and I’ve tried to shed personas, really out of hope that reality is more compelling than anything you could concoct out of a fictitious approach.
It’s interesting you mention character as I recently read of the inspiration you took from Bowie and his transformation from record to record, sonically and dramatically. How did you react to his passing as a musician?
S: David Bowie was a huge inspiration from the very beginning. With each record, he seemed to reimagine himself to his ideal starting point in that period, as though it were the first record he was ever making. To pull from so many different areas but still not be afraid to sing so powerfully with such beautiful melodies was really unique. Even if you examine his characters, if you look between them, there is a real honesty there that often isn’t touched on when people talk about his songwriting. My brother woke me up in the morning and gave the news and it just knocked the wind out of me. I heard this from someone – I can’t say it’s one-hundred percent true – but apparently Bowie had trouble finding himself and so decided to become someone else, but if you look at his career trajectory, by the end of it he had become as honest as it’s really possible to be as an artist.
Going back to your record, would you say all of the songs on Tell Me I’m Pretty are autobiographical, and which would you say you’re most proud of?
S: I think they all have pieces of first-person experience in them. There are some that have elements of other stories in, which I tried to use as vehicles to tell my own story. I wanted, for example, to write this song about reaping what you sow, the passing of destiny, altering it. I did some research and found the story of Bonnie Parker – how she wasn’t at all what the media portrayed her as, how those images of her with a machine gun were taken as a joke and she was this really sweet girl who fell in love with the wrong man. Clyde had been put in jail at an early age and was raped there at 16 or 17, and so had his vendetta against the police and wanted to get revenge. Bonnie, I guess, was a pyromaniac and fell in love with fire. That was one I was most proud of ( Too Late to Say Goodbye ). How Are You True, as well.
Yeah, How Are You True was my favourite on the record personally.
S: Yeah, I was coming back from New York and on the jet bridge I saw this young man that was just creating a commotion. I felt like he was really wanting to be noticed – not that I was judging him, more that I related to him and saw parts of my younger self in him. I was thinking I’d like to talk to this kid and lo-and-behold he’s sitting next to me on the plane. He starts gushing about his life, really interesting and I was going to try and stay in touch with him, but it was when we got started on the record I started wondering how he was doing – and his name was True. So it really worked out into a good song, and it’s funny because his father just reached out to me and thanked me.
Great story for a great song. I have to say, the name Portuguese Knife Fight is one of the best song titles I’ve heard in a while. I was wondering if you started with titles or something else completely when you sit down to write a song?
S: I generally just start with stream-of-consciousness until I find something compelling and then try to stay open to change when I zero in on what I want to say. It’s like starting to draw without knowing what you want to draw. Something might come up in conversation or a thought. For that title, we were in port in Portugal, a rough area, and I thought Portuguese people seemed like the sort you wouldn’t want to mess with and I had the idea of a knife fight in the street. I wrote it down and when the song became about a relationship, I thought it might be nice to explain it through the medium of a knife fight.
So you’ll be touring this album about now, and I was wondering what your best touring or gig experience was?
S: There’s a lot of really great ones, but when we moved to England early on were some of our fondest memories. You’re playing in little clubs, maybe five people, and they’re some of your best shows. Discovering other bands – one band, Screaming Tea Party they were called, became a big inspiration for us. Made loads of friends, people like Foals, that we’ve kept for years and years. Those times were great.
As a last question, though it might be a bit soon, are you still writing? Do you know where you want to take your sound next?
S: Yeah, of course. You have to just try and be a sponge to ideas and interpret music in the context of the world right now. Hopefully we’ll take what we’ve learned on the last two records and develop it further.
Featured Image credit:
Zimbio.com (singer Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant performs at iHeartRadio Theater on January 20, 2016 in Burbank, California.)
Above image taken from Facebook.