“If this reaches people and affects their life, then it’s a success…” hmv.com talks to Cage the Elephant
It might be an overstatement to say that Kentucky-bred rockers Cage the Elephant had a crisis of confidence heading into what became their fourth album, Tell Me I’m Pretty (out now and availabe to preview on the right of the the page). But there’s no doubt the group desired a shake-up.
While 2013’s Grammy-nominated Melophobia opened many doors for singer Matt Shultz, his brother guitarist Brad Shultz, bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion both at radio and on the road, Matt Shultz says the band wanted to get back to the gritty, sound-wise.
That was in part inspired by a lengthy tour with Akron, Ohio brawlers The Black Keys. After the departure of founding guitarist Lincoln Parish in 2013 and the addition of two touring members, Cage the Elephant entered Nashville’s Easy Eye Sound earlier this year with Black Keys/The Arcs lynchpin Dan Auerbach producing.
The subsequent Tell Me I’m Pretty bears the kind of garage-y, vaguely psychedelic hallmarks you’d expect from a Cage the Elephant/Auerbach collaboration; it’s winning to say the least and propelled by two excellent singles, the spiky, guitar-goosed 'Mess Around' and atmospheric, serpentine corker 'Trouble'.
As the band prepares for a new album/tour cycle – Matt Schultz spoke to hmv.com about songs, videos and why you should always sleep with your iPhone in reach.
Do you pay attention to things like pre-sales before new albums?
“(Pauses and laughs). I pay attention to streaming numbers just to see what’s connecting and what isn’t. But other than that, I am usually just looking forward to whatever is next to be worked on.”
There’s a real diversity of sounds on this album: ‘Cold Cold Cold’ is kind of 60-ish/psychedelic versus ‘Mess Around’ which is garage-y versus ‘That’s Right’ which is very jangly… so were these songs amalgamations of ideas that had been kicking around awhile or was it the product of woodshedding?
“A little bit of both. This is the first record two of our touring members (keyboardist Matthan Minster and guitarist Nick Bockrath) have been involved with. When we were touring Melophobia (from 2013) we had been sharing ideas and there was a lot of talk about returning to a grittier, less planned-out sound. So it started on the road and once we got back home last January, we started to write and demo for about a month or two.”
Give me an example of a song that came together easily versus one that was hard to nail.
“Every song has moments that sound natural and moments that were a struggle to get. But overall ‘Sweetie Little Jean’ was pretty instantaneous and strange. I was just falling asleep one night and I started hearing the melody for it. I was hesitant at first because my phone was downstairs so I had to get out of bed to record it, but I did and the next day I wrote the lyrics. I know this sounds crazy but it felt like that song was enhanced by a fit of synaesthesia while sleeping. I get seeing this green lunging light with that synth sound. Trying to explain that to the guys in studio was pretty hilarious.
"‘Cold Cold Cold’ was pretty much written in one sitting. I was just thinking about struggling with this feeling of imminent doom and seasonal depression. I wanted to write a song that was a metaphor for that but that played into the idea of needing help. So it’s like throwing my hands up and saying ‘That’s it, take me to the hospital, someone help me.’”
So the songs were already written before Dan Auerbach entered the picture?
“We’d been toying around with all kinds of ideas and just getting closer and closer with both Dan and Pat (Black Keys members Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney) having toured with them for their album Turn Blue. I think both ourselves and Dan had it in mind to possibly work with each other. So on one of our day’s off, we got together at Dan’s hotel and sat around playing songs and talking about making a record. He was at the top of our wish-list of producers because he can create that raw, gritty sound. By the time we’d left the hotel I’d received a text message from Dan saying he was going to make our record (laughs). He was actually pretty insistent! It just came together very naturally in a very unofficial kind of way.”
The video for "Mess Around" is fantastic! Where did that come from?
“I had watched one of (French illusionist/filmmaker) Georges Méliès films, Trip to the Moon, on Netflix. It had been restored and I just loved it. Initially I was thinking of maybe just hand-tinting photographs of the band like that and then started gearing my thoughts towards a possible music video. At that point I didn’t know much about the movie or how it had been coloured, so I started doing research thinking we could shoot a video in high-contrast black and white and then tint it.
“What I found out was that all that hand-tinting was done at the turn of the 19th century at these tinting houses where 200 artists would be on the floor with each being assigned a different colour, so kind of like an assembly line. So I was blown away but also disappointed because it would be impossible to replicate that today. Shortly after, I chatted with some French friends who told me that Georges Méliès films were now public domain and all you had to do was reach out to the organization that was looking after his films. So we did and they were very happy about our interest and encouraged us to use as many of his films as possible. So that’s how it came together.”
So what will success look like for you on this album?
“Music is extremely edifying both for the individual as well as for the masses. So if we were able to get some kind of cathartic experience out of it and it reaches people in some way that affects their life, then that is success. Hopefully it gives us the ability to continue making records.”
Cage The Elephant's new album Tell Me I'm Pretty is out now.