Cage the Elephant moved to England to make it big in the States
Cage the Elephant formed in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 2006. And while the group's 2008 self-titled, debut full-length was met with a great deal of acclaim in this country, it wasn't until after the band lived in England for a spell that it gained notice. Influenced by alt-rock, the outfit explored the space previously occupied by acts like the Pixies, heard most distinctly in the vocals of Matt Shultz, a singer clearly influenced by the unvarnished and highly emotive singing style of Pixies frontman Frank Black.
In 2007, Cage the Elephant moved to London, where its label was located, to try out its fortunes there. After making a name for itself across the pond, the band returned stateside for the release of it's second album, 2011's Thank You, Happy Birthday, which contained the hit "Shake Me Down." The group returns to Denver in support of its latest album, Melophobia, released last month. In advance of tonight's show, we spoke with the thoughtful and poetic Shultz about the influence of the Pixies, his early attempts to be a drummer and more.
Westword: What about the vocals in Pixies songs did you -- or do you -- find inspirational?
Matt Shultz: Just that Frank Black has really found -- I don't know where he was pulling from or if he was pulling from anything -- an amazing delivery that's unique to himself. At the same time, he pulls this monotone, almost screaming delivery that is also incredibly melodic and complex. He's able to take on many different characters but hold the same tone. It's not just his vocal delivery, but the instrumentation, the dynamics, the songwriting. It's all very tastefully and very beautifully stylized.
On your website bio, there was an interesting quote from you regarding the writing of Thank You, Happy Birthday about "fear based writing." To what were you referring?
I think that there are so many things in life that fear hinders and destroys, and it's a plague to every single human being and that bleeds over into our creative works as well. There's this overwhelming [temptation] to write toward the way that you might want to be perceived socially. Like if you want to sound artistic, or intellectual, or cool, or poetic, there's all these postures that you may creatively take on that we know are tried, true and trusted that people have already accepted.
And, so, the struggle is to not write or cater to those sounds, but to write as a communicator -- that naked honesty. And not to stay away from those things for the sake of staying away from those things, but just to be uncensored. When I say "uncensored," I'm not talking about censors, as in vulgarity. I'm saying "censored" by a desire to create an image that you would like to project. You know, not censoring yourself and speaking honestly. That's the real struggle, I believe.
There's a great interview you did with Consequence of Sound earlier this year, and you spoke very well about a subject most musicians don't talk about, about how there are dual realities within the human psyche -- absolute truth, perceived truth and normative truth. What is it about that spectrum of the human experience do you find the most interesting?
It's like the search or the struggle to get down to universal truths. Like gravity would be a universal truth. Even if there was a mechanism to counter gravity and it was an anti-gravity machine or whatever, you'd still be countering a universal truth. For me, when I'm telling a story, I want to get down to the barest, most raw honesty that I possibly can. There's different levels of that. So you have the honest place where you were in your heart emotionally, whether that was based on fact or fiction, the emotion was real.
Then there is a perceived truth that ties into that. Then there's the projected truth, which is what we try to project to be perceived in a certain light. Then there's the truth. It's really interesting and fun to try to write all of those into a song -- to capture that or communicate that with music and lyrics. The struggle of the human being is that those lines become blurred and obscured. I would like to be able to act however I want and not be held accountable. Isn't that like the dream?
In that same interview, you mentioned that you interviewed people. How did those help you as an artist, or as a creative person, or as a human being, in general?
They were great. I had a lot of revelations that came about through that experiment. Just being able to come to the realization that beauty isn't necessarily just in the way that something is delivered. It's also in the subtleties, the whispers. I think that you can say a lot of untrue, beautiful things. If you can say something, and it's beautiful because of that, I find that it's way more impactful, rather than something that might catch someone's attention for the moment and be the flavor of the week.
You can find a way to live in someone's heart forever by exposing certain truths about yourself, and really communicate and connect with people, as well. I thought about that, too, intentional speaking, to have intent in your conversation. I'm one of those people, that out of just habit or impulse, I'll talk to entertain, and I've had this revelation: "Wow, there's nothing that says you're obligated to talk to or entertain people." It is to talk with intent and speak with purpose and to try to do that with lyrics as well. Not to be just another voice in this mass of white noise.
It seems that childhood memories and experiences play a significant part in your creative output. Why do you feel that time in life has been so significant to you, personally, and in your artistic work?
Honestly, I don't remember a lot of my childhood. I can't tell you why that is. I think what you're referring to is that I said I didn't listen to a lot of musical recordings this time around. In the past, I held to that slogan, that a lot of literature writers hold to, which is: read way more than you write. So I would listen to as much music as I possibly could, and I would interpret or find a hole or find a place in music that I didn't hear but was somehow connected to things I was hearing.
On this record, it was the total opposite. What I did was stop listening to musical recordings almost entirely. It was kind of like drawing your childhood house from memory because your mind will create all these things that never even existed but which are based upon emotions, which was really interesting.
So there were all these sonics that I wanted to incorporate into our songs that I had my memories built around that were attached to emotions. But when I asked to listen back to the recordings it was nothing like what I thought. It was pretty crazy.
That ties into the title of the album Melophobia, which is also, translated, the title of a Talking Heads album. You said you had refrained from listening to a lot of music in its recording. What is the significance of the title?
The reason we named it Melophobia, and why it's fitting, is that it's not so much a fear of music in itself but a fear of painted intentions, or catering to cool, or a social standard or our perception of a social standard, false pretenses or preconceived ideas of what something might sound like -- the fear of creating music without holding true to your convictions, to compromise that.
The video for "Around My Head," who had the idea for the video? It's very unusual and interesting.
Sadly, it was me. I just thought it would be funny because the song is a love song about someone that can't get the person they're smitten with out of their head. I thought it would be funny if it was a cadaver. It's kind of symbolic of carrying around a dead relationship that wasn't good for you.
The end part is kind of like the punch line. Is that the kind of thing that happens when you get together to practice?
Yeah, we like to have fun. We don't go giving up dead bodies. But no, we joke around.
You lived for a while in London. What prompted you to move there and then to come back the U.S.A.?
I think that we had this grandiose rock and roll fairy tale that we'd written inside our hearts and minds before we went to London. We had romanticized going overseas and making it big in England first. So many of the bands we had loved, that's how they did it. So we were kind of trying to follow in the footsteps of the guys we really looked up to.
That was one of the big reasons we moved to England. Another reason was that at the time it was the only record label that offered us one hundred percent creative control, so we took that opportunity and moved over there. We lived there for a year and eight months and came back to the States and signed a record deal here.
Obviously The Ramones, Mudhoney and Pixies had done that. Was there anyone else you knew about having done that?
Jimi Hendrix -- a lot of bands from the '60s or '70s would go to Europe or England first, and eventually the United States would catch on, a lot of great bands. England being such a small place, and also being an international music hub, is the perfect place to go and do that because word of mouth still actually works there, so things spread extremely fast. The excitement felt around something is incredible. It's so many people in such a small amount of space that everyone talks about hot topics.
What attracted you to being the lead singer of the band? Presumably you had played instruments before.
I started out trying to be a drummer, and my dad's always had this thing for us having our own unique approach or style, and he always stressed originality. So when I started learning the drums, I totally learned how to play with no technique, and it was horrible. It was way, way unconventional. I played in front of some friends, and they weren't impressed. I just loved writing songs, and I always loved being in front of people. I like to entertain and stuff, so it just felt really natural.