Tangible excitement runs through the air alongside aggressive feedback and reverberating drum beats as Cage the Elephant prepare for their gig at the Bierkeller on February 12th. After releasing their fourth studio album Tell Me I’m Pretty last December, the band returns to Bristol for the first time since their second album, kicking off their new tour.
Cage the Elephant has built up a reputation for electrifying live performances and a sound heavily influenced by traditional punk rock, but is still in perpetual evolution and working towards a musical ideal with their latest offering.
Behind the somewhat intimidating poster image of explosive rock and roll, frontman Matt Shultz is a grounded, passionate and thoughtful man. Remembering ‘ye olde’ Thekla and gushing about the UK and the tour ahead, he appears truly beaming during Tell Me I’m Pretty’s honeymoon period: “Things feel good so far. No one’s asked us to disband anyway so…” As the queues slalom way past the Bierkeller and the Lanes, it’s clear to see that no one wants Cage to disappear anytime soon.
“We all have something to hide, it’s about how well you hide it”
On the motivations behind the new album and the evolution of their sound, Matt reflects on the truth in Cage the Elephant’s music: “we’ve always been honest and tried to stick with our convictions, but I think that we’re working on becoming more and more transparent, so that there’s more of the honesty that’s seen”.
“When I was younger I put a lot of stock in persona. I feel like those characters maybe absorbed some of the energy from whatever it was that was trying to be expressed- When you’re catering to a character there’s only so much you can do, I feel like it hinders your ability to be creative.” Flashback to early cult tracks such as ‘In One Ear’, we wonder? “Yeah, a lot of stereotypes that for whatever reason in my life I felt that were important that I realize are not important. I feel like now it’s a thing of peeling back the layers and losing style.”
The people they chose to make the album with also harmonizes with the honest approach Matt speaks about. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced Tell Me I’m Pretty following a blossoming friendship between the bands on a personal and professional level.
On the beginning of their collaboration, Matt recalls: “we opened for them during Brothers when they blew up and became friends on that tour just by playing football on days off. We did another tour with them and supported them during Turn Blue and Melophobia. ”On a day off we went to Dan’s hotel room and were just talking about musical ideas and I think we were both thinking about it, about the possibility. We showed him some tunes and as soon as we left he sent me an aggressive text message saying ‘I’m making your next record’! There were no options.”
From thereon, the band’s sound evolved with Dan. Tell Me I’m Pretty was born from a desire to make a more classic sounding record, that “could span across different times” says Matt – “Dan is at the pinnacle of that sound, it felt like a no-brainer”, he admits. This focus on a broad stylistic approach ties in with Cage’s acknowledgment of the way we experience music today. “With all of these new streaming services, a lot of them offer ‘discovery modes’. On Spotify it streamlines all of these new bands based on algorithms of your listening, it’s like word of mouth on steroids”.
“As listeners, we’re all so much more informed, so it kind of brings into question the idea of things that are archaic and things that are contemporary. We’re really into that idea, we’re in the beginning of a renaissance in terms of technological advancements in music and all the arts, so you want to figure out how to cohesively cross-pollinate those things”.
With this wider recognition of the social tapestry upon which Cage are drawing their future, the conversation returns to the aesthetic decisions of the new album. On its name, Matt reiterates the band’s awareness and strong convictions about our society, which inevitably explain Tell Me I’m Pretty:
“We live in this generation of selfies and with all the social media that’s available to us, everyone has the choice as to how they use it.
It’s a pretty strong testimony to human nature that we’re constantly curating a presentation of our lives and more often than not it’s only a reel of the highlights. It creates these unrealistic expectations on life and so it also speaks to the fact that we’re all constantly wanting to be accepted”
On top of the idea of societal integration, we see the frontman’s personal life enter into the equation with a desire for recognition and love as a person – something we can all definitely relate to: “I’m definitely drawn in by the lure of people loving me and so we thought it was a nice title because on the surface it’s very tongue and cheek, but it has a pretty dark underbelly”.
The album sees a striking redhead on the cover almost begging the listener to acknowledge and love her. Matt explains how a team was devoted to finding ‘the girl’: “they were trying to get us to use a model, but we thought that actually, we wanted someone who was trying to hide something, and you can’t teach someone how to do that. We wanted someone who had actually experienced some life in a very relatable way and that you could see that in them”. The power in the girl’s gaze comes from the authenticity Matt refers to when he reminds us of the resounding truth: “we all have something to hide, it’s about how well you hide it”.
Cage the Elephant has always been compared to other bands since their beginnings. The Strokes, Pixies and Nirvana are etched in their sound, but there is also a heavy influence from Ziggy Stardust himself. On Bowie’s passing, Matt shares how impactful the artist was on the band but also on him as a person: he was able to reimagine himself throughout his entire life. He always found a way to get excited about the creative arts, to make it fresh for himself”.
Bowie’s search for identity is one that resounds with Matt. He tells us that David Bowie had said early on in his career that he just had a lot of trouble being himself, so he thought he would just be someone else. This distance allowed him to tell his story in a safe way that felt comfortable. “I thought it was beautiful that at the end of his life, his final statement was about himself in his own mortality – and that just gives me goosebumps. It’s insane that he starts out having to create these characters to become comfortable with being so naked, and then to incorporate his mortality into the final piece of work is crazy”.
Only an hour before the band’s show, the question of the live energy arises; during gigs, nights out and more. No more than a knowing smile lets on about Cage the Elephant’s time off: “very many nights out, all of which I won’t tell. We lived in the UK for almost two years so spent a lot of time here. We had our fair share of nights out, all staying secret for now”.
Reflecting on the delivery of this energy on stage, Matt reveals that with Tell Me I’m Pretty in mind, Cage’s set is undergoing some changes. “Over time we’ve reinterpreted those [older] songs in new ways, we’ve worked to build the set towards a very nice flow. I think that all the other material carried a lot of the same spirit but we just hadn’t figured out how to reproduce what we do live in the studio. I feel like now everything lives next to each other a lot more comfortably”.
As Chrome Pony’s soundcheck fades out and the tour manager comes in, Matt leaves us with a lasting piece of advice on success for aspiring musicians and humans alike: “I very much believe in destiny. I can’t say that there’s any particular approach that works better than the other but I just think that consistency and a continuous ‘last man standing’ approach are key. Be in love with music – if it happens for you then, it will be way better”. This coming from the man who began as a plumber now selling out venues across the world to devoted fans; you can’t help but trust him.