Cage the Elephant: Get Up & Get Lifted
photo by Neil Krug
On Cage The Elephant’s latest, Social Cues, frontman Matt Shultz navigates his own personal battlefield and comes through on the other side, recharged and ready for the sextet’s celebratory summer run with Beck.
It’s easy to pinpoint a breakup album. From Joni Mitchell’s Blue to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, the theme is all too familiar: Love is rife with fleeting moments of bliss, rooted in a foundation of mutual trust and understanding, but peppered with stretches of uncertainty, confusion, jealousy and pain. When it works, it’s a beautiful and unbreakable jewel but, when the bottom falls out, you can’t wade through the wreckage without confronting your demons. No redemption without brutal honesty, right?
Matt Shultz poured all this and a lot more into his songwriting for Cage The Elephant’s Social Cues, most of which happened during the dissolution of his marriage to actress/model/director Juliette Buchs—yet calling it a breakup album doesn’t really do it justice. For sure, some songs fit the profile; on the hypnotic lament “What I’m Becoming,” he tempers his normally throaty tenor to turn soulful crooner, wrapping his voice in a veil of apology and regret. And on “Goodbye,” the album’s wistful, string-soaked closer, he lingers bravely over the line “My pretty bird, my favorite lullaby, how’d I become the thorn in your side?” It’s charged with resignation and vulnerability, as though he’s lying down on the studio floor while singing it (which he did).
“Matt was going through a lot of really heavy things during the writing of this record,” confides his older brother Brad, Cage’s founding guitarist. “He suffered through a fair amount of depression, as anyone would when they’re going through the meltdown of a seven-year relationship. But he’s on the other side of it now, so that’s the good thing.”
The album’s leadoff single, “Ready to Let Go,” a moody riot of pathos and surrender, tells most of the story. With the ruins of Pompeii as the backdrop, the younger Shultz relives the moment when both he and his wife knew their relationship was over (“On holy ground, our vows were broken”), which, in essence, is his first step toward getting past it. And while the gritty, stripped- down, oddly buoyant music reflects that transformation—with keyboardist Matthan Minster, bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion laying into a thick, loungey groove while lead guitar-slinger Nick Bockrath hovers tastefully over the top—what’s even more compelling is how relaxed and nonchalant Matt sounds in his vocal performance. This is where the breakup ends, and the healing has clearly begun.
Of course, Matt had his own peculiar way of working it out. The video for “Ready to Let Go,” which he directed, plays like a blood-flecked Italian giallo film, as seen through the surreal lens of Alejandro Jodorowsky. As it turns out, Matt drew some inspiration from true-crime documentaries and horror flicks, and created a character for the song that he refers to as “a soft- spoken, shy-eyed murderer,” with the underlying notion to craft a narrative voice that was relatable, even personable, yet deadly. “I was really leaning into the symbolism,” he explains. In fact, “leaning in” is putting it mildly; the clip opens in a candle-lit grotto with Matt in character, stripped to the waist, his forearms drenched in red, as he sings to a similarly clad congregation seated in pews. The scene is striking, to say the least, but it’s also guided in part by Matt’s interest in iconoclastic art films by directors like Jodorowsky, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and more.
“I had just watched a film called The Color of Pomegranates [by director Sergei Parajanov],” he says, “which has this world of rich imagery. It was right around Christmas time too, so I just kept seeing nativity scenes, and that played out in these weird little vignettes. Blood is a pretty universal symbol. You think of things like guilt and redemption and love and passion and hate. It’s all there, so that came naturally. And then there’s the couple [in the video] that’s feasting on their love. To me, that’s a symbol of falling in love more with the idea of loving a person, and you feast on that until you cannibalize the relationship.”
If that seems light years removed from the Shultz brothers’ humble roots in Bowling Green, Ky., then it’s only because they’ve seen and done so much in the interim. (Indeed, their “fast and louche” rise recalls none other than the young Rolling Stones, who morphed from working-class suburbanites to fashion-forward, art-rock shamans seemingly in the blink of an eye.) Back in 2007, nurtured by a vibrant and supportive music scene, Cage The Elephant went from packing Tidball’s, a small downtown club just a holler from Western Kentucky University, to signing with Relentless Records, joining a Canadian tour with Queens of the Stone Age and moving to London—all in a span of about six months. Since then, they’ve released five albums, each more progressive and inventive than the last, culminating in a Grammy win (in the Best Rock Album category) for 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty.
Along the way, they’ve also nurtured a passionately dedicated fanbase on par with their jamband and punk-rock counterparts, making them a natural fit for the festival circuit. At Bonnaroo—an event Matt even attended as a fan—they’ve grown into something of an unofficial house band, playing regularly, collaborating with their friends and making a surprise appearance at a campground area curated by the band’s frontman.
Matt stresses the band’s openness to constant experimentation as the key to their creative growth. “We’ve all worked in this long enough that we’ve got a fairly developed process across the board, whether some of us put it into words, or just go instinctually based on experience,” he says. “For me, I feel like you have the obsessive hand and the decisive hand, so you go into it giving yourself lots of space for improvisational thought. And once that provokes something that’s honest and real, you start to make decisions based on that. Then, you can go back and disagree with yourself. That’s what’s so amazing about the editing process. You’re like, ‘Yeah, I still agree with this,’ or ‘That’s bullshit. That wasn’t real. I was being insincere there.’ I always try to stay in that space.”
In teaming up with LA-based producer John Hill, whose lush, hip-hop-flavored style has fueled hits by Jay-Z, Shakira, Kings of Leon, Portugal. The Man and many more, the members of Cage went for an edit-intensive approach—almost a complete 180 from how they tracked Tell Me I’m Pretty. On that record, producer Dan Auerbach relied on the tried-and-true method that’s been such a vivid and raw hallmark of his albums with The Black Keys; he encouraged the band to record live together, from the floor, often sticking with their first or second takes.
“We’ve generally cut most of our records that way,” Brad notes, “but this one was a little more introspective. We’re always trying to find a way to make ourselves slightly uncomfortable, so we’re forced to grow. This time, we really wanted to take a minimalistic approach to things, to take all the little things that are happening within the song and create a bigger picture. We had to be more intentional than we’ve ever been, with every part. So we might do the drums for two days straight. Maybe we’d do three songs that way, and then come and do the bass for the next three days, and then layer some guitars on there. By then, a two-week period had passed, and then we’d take five weeks off and live with the tracks.”
The members of Cage also felt a sense of newfound comfort as a unit: Social Cues is Bockrath’s second album since officially joining the band. (He started playing with Cage on tour in 2013, eventually replacing Lincoln Parish, who left to follow his own path as a producer.) “We worked at four different studios,” he says, citing Battle Tapes Recording in Nashville as home base for tracking demos. “Jeremy Ferguson from Battle Tapes engineered the record with us, and he’s just a badass. We’d demo at his place, and then we’d get with John.” Sessions with Hill would usually take place at The Village in LA, or at Sound Emporium and Blackbird Studios in Nashville.
“Sometimes we’d have multiple rooms going, especially toward the end,” Bockrath recalls. “Matt might be finishing lyrics with Matthan in one room, and me, Brad and Tich would be in the other room cutting strings over a song. And then we couldn’t wait to run our ideas by each other, like, ‘Dude, you gotta check this out!’ We really put everything we could into it, and the process with John was great.”
Bockrath feels a “wide emotional palette” coming from the songs on Social Cues, reflected in tense rockers like the title track, which stirs up spiky strains of Scary Monsters-era Bowie, or the opening cut, “Broken Boy,” a lively banger that’s fine-tuned to perfection for Matt’s hyped-up vocal. (“I was burned by the cold kiss of a vampire/ I was promised the keys to an empire.”) It’s a song that Iggy Pop could have easily made into a hit if he’d had his hands on it back in 1979.
“We were definitely inspired by the late-‘70s, early-‘80s period,” Brad warily reveals, “but not by any particular artists. We also wanted the songs to carry a hip-hop swagger, but I guess if I really start thinking about that era, I’m sure Gang of Four was probably a bigger influence, as a guitar player. For me, Andy Gill was always very angular [on guitar]. He’s not exactly playing where you’d expect him to play, and sometimes where you’d expect him to play, he’s laying out. I’ve always really admired that.”
And then there are the strings. For all the emotion and vulnerability that Matt brings to a ballad like “Love’s the Only Way,” his focus and intensity are magnified by composer David Campbell’s beautiful arrangements. A true session legend whose credits extend over dozens of albums (from Adele’s 21 back to Carole King’s classic Tapestry), Campbell has developed an uncanny instinct for knowing how to enhance a great song with the subtlest of melodies. Light, airy and devastatingly expressive, the violins and violas on “Love’s the Only Way” seem to wrap themselves around Matt’s voice—an effect that isn’t just a mixing trick, but a testament to a veteran’s ear.
“That song was coming together right around the time when things really started to unravel for me,” Matt says. “I was in that stereotypical mode of running away from things, living in hotels for about a year, bouncing around mostly between New York and LA. Then I had an episode of extreme exposure. I was in this place of isolation, and that’s when that song came out. That’s why there’s a lyric about ‘my fancy hotel suite.’ I was actually living in one! I love what David did with the string arrangement.”
Ironically, Campbell was already on a short list of potential collaborators when the band decided to reach out to his son Beck—yet another story that speaks to the wide-ranging scope of Social Cues. When they were ready to take a stab at the brooding, dancehall reggae- flavored “Night Running,” Matt hit a brick wall with the verses as he tried to find a path into the song.
“Matt had actually gone out to LA to write with Natalie [Bergman] from Wild Belle,” Brad explains, “because that song has that dub feel. She actually helped write the melody on the end of the verse.”
Matt was still feeling stuck, so Brad started brainstorming with their manager. “I’m getting antsy, so I’m like, ‘What if we just sent the song to Beck? I met him a few months ago,’” Brad continues. “It was on a whim, so she sent the track to his manager, and within maybe 24 hours, he sent two verses over and told us he had four more that were stylistically different. And I think he was touring in Asia at the time! We were so stoked; we never even asked him to hear the rest. We were like, ‘These are perfect. We love ‘em!’”
With “Night Running” earmarked as a single, it only made sense to adopt it as the name of a co- headlining tour with Beck, which kicks off this summer with Spoon in the support slot and will bring them to 30 open-air venues, including New York’s famed Forest Hills Stadium. “That tour is just gonna be amazing,” says Bockrath, barely able to contain his excitement. “We’re getting the new show together, and I know Matt has something heavy planned. Not to be cheesy, but I’m in awe of him at every show. He just gives it, and it comes from a very sincere place. He’s been saying lately that he’s going to take this next cycle to a whole new level, and I’m like, ‘Brother, I cannot wait to see what you mean by that!’”
Bockrath’s own talents as a restless and inquisitive player are sure to add to the mix. To some extent, he can draw on past experiences with his former band, Disco Biscuits associates Nicos Gun, as well as gigs he’s taken on with Dan Auerbach, American Babies, Rayland Baxter and Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick. But with Nashville as home base, he and the other members of Cage are surrounded by a wealth of stellar talent, giving them an instant window into new sounds they can explore.
“I feel like one thing always informs another,” Bockrath says. “All those years of having my own band and developing a style set me up to be the right guy for Cage. We’re all listening to totally different music—and the same music too. Every time I get to play shows with Dan, I’m definitely learning and picking things up just as much as I would playing my own songs with my own band. I really feed off it. I mean, last year at Jazz Fest, after we played, I got to jam with Mike Dillon at the Wolf Den until 5 a.m., and I sat in with JRAD [a project that features an old bandmate, American Babies frontman Tom Hamilton]. I’m always trying to play and stay inspired, and trying to learn something new every day.”
For Matt, the tenacity he’s found within himself is paying dividends. It certainly wasn’t easy but, for all the pain he’s processed, there’s a distinct brightness to the mood on Social Cues that’s unmistakable. Quite simply, it’s edgy, angular, rambunctious rock at its finest. “I’m glad that comes across,” he says, “because that was a big part of it for me, and something that I keep revisiting. It’s a shame to have to say, ‘Without getting too cheesy about it’ but, to be honest, it’s really just like going through different stages of mourning. And one of those stages is hope. It’s joy, you know? So yeah, I’m pumped. I cannot wait to get out there.”
This article originally appears in the June 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.