‘I feel like, in the past, I’d always constructed these characters to tell the stories of the songs. This was possibly to protect myself against any kind of negative blowback from what the song might be about – and to save myself from offending anyone who those songs might have been directed at – and it meant that I’d never really had the chance to perform as myself…’
Cage The Elephant have found a new lease of life. Their new album Tell Me I’m Pretty is their best yet, and they’ve got a new-found confidence in their own abilities. We caught up with frontman Matt Shultz to chat about his new-found confidence, recording with Dan from The Black Keys, and stripping back his songwriting:
You’ve just released your new album Tell Me I’m Pretty – was it an easy album to write and record?
‘I don’t know about easy. There were times where the songs from me pretty easily, and there were some parts of songs that definitely had their moments as far as how they came together. Saying that, there were also a few songs on the record that were, for me, extremely difficult. We set out to do a certain thing, and I’m not sure that I entirely knew what I was trying to convey while I was making the record.
‘We knew that we wanted to give the record a grainier and rockier sound, but we were also trying to continuously be more transparent in our writing. That’s where the difficulty lay.
‘Even while we were making the record with Dan (Auerbach, Black Keys frontman and producer), there were certain obstacles that we had to overcome. Dan was an incredible producer, though. He really helped us to make the record that we wanted to make. When we first started this album, we found out that our long-term friend and producer Lincoln Parrish wasn’t going to be able to work with us on this one. So we wrote a shortlist of producers we wanted to work with, and Dan was definitely at the top of that list. As far as that raw rock sound goes, there aren’t many producers that are making records at the level that Dan does. It just felt like a perfect fit, too – we love pop songs, and we love writing pop songs, and Dan had a lot of that in him too. It was a great case of meeting in the middle of our two styles, really.
Tell Me I’m Pretty is a very eclectic album, in the sense that it’s very hard to label it as being a ‘rock album’ or a ‘pop album’ – was this a deliberate decision, or…?
‘I guess that it fits in with our decision to become a lot more transparent and ‘real’ with our writing. When I was younger, I put a lot of stock in persona. As time has passed, I find myself drawn more towards stripping the band of style and persona, and just letting the music do the talking. We want more of ourselves to be in our songs, as opposed to us describing the lives of a load of different characters. It’s just nice for the songs to be able to take on their own forms and have their own personalities, for once.
‘I always used to take a very stylistic approach to the songs, and do it from the points of view of various different characters that I’d developed in my head.
‘Now, I choose to focus a lot less on the characters, and a lot more on the stories. I think that I’ve really grown to love storytelling in songwriting. By eliminating all the other variables in the songwriting, I was able to create a pretty strong platform for me as a songwriter to tell a good story. Some of my favourite songs – Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer, as an example – are storytelling songs, and I’ve always really enjoyed listening to them, so it’s exciting for me to now be able to focus purely on the stories in the songs.
Does the stripped-back and raw nature of the new songs mean that they’re easier for you to play live?
‘Possibly, yeah. I feel like, in the past, I’d always constructed these characters to tell the stories of the songs. This was possibly to protect myself against any kind of negative blowback from what the song might be about – and to save myself from offending anyone who those songs might have been directed at – and it meant that I’d never really had the chance to perform as myself. Honestly, it’s made the live shows feel a little more pure for me. These songs, they don’t ask you to stand up on stage and bang your head – they just ask you to be more honest with your audience, and I don’t see how that can be a bad thing.
Are you looking forward to heading back to the UK?
‘Yeah! We lived in London for two years, so it’s always great to be able to go back. We all come from a small town in Kentucky, but it was a fantastic experience for us. Not a lot happened for us as a band in that time – we moved there in the middle of the mudslide of angular guitar music, which meant that there wasn’t much space for the punk-rock band that we were back then – but it was definitely a shaping experience.
As a rule, do you prefer playing your own headline shows or performing to huge crowds at festivals?
‘I think that each one of them has their own charm. Winning over new fans at a festival can be a challenge, and at the same time there is something very special about playing to an audience who are specifically there to see you.
As you’ve mentioned, you’ve become associated with being a very outgoing and over-the-top frontman – did you ever worry about this alienating some members of the audience at festivals?
‘Not really, though. Like I said, I feel like I used to put too much stock in persona… The thing is, even when I look back at my past failings, I just think ‘well, at least I was committed to it’. It’s never been anything but real to me – it was more just a case of protecting myself.
‘We’ve always just tried to be real. When we first started out, we were signed to a label who were very pop-orientated, and they put us with people like Kanye West’s stylists…
‘We were young and impressionable, and we ended up looking like Marty McFly from Back To The Future. It was horrible! They also had us sit in on some board meeting, where they told us that it ‘wasn’t popular’ to move around on-stage, and that we had to just stand still and look at our shoes. That wasn’t fun, but you learn from those experiences and move on. That actually just added a little bit of fuel to the fire for us, and made us even more determined to be the band that we wanted to be.
Do you ever worry about being effectively written off as being ‘the band who wrote Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’?
‘I have had thoughts like that before, but I do think that facing our adversaries has been the primary driving force behind this band. I find more encouragement when people doubt us than when we have an endless line of supporters – it’s always nice when people like you, but at the same time you always need to have something to reach for.
Out of every song ever recorded, which do you wish you’d written?
‘Something by George Harrison. The chord progression is pretty freakin’ incredible. It sounds very simple, but it’s got a lot going on. Similarly, the lyrics are very simple, but they don’t lack meaning. I just love that song.
Could you pick a favourite song from your new album?
‘I’m not sure that I have a favourite song. One of the songs I’m really proud of, however, is How Are You True. I was coming back from New York, and as I got on the plane I saw a kid get on in front of me, and I just got this weird feeling that I was supposed to talk to him. I was actually sat beside him on the aeroplane, and his named turned out to be True. He told me a lot about his life and about a lot of personal things that were going on with him, and he’d been facing a lot of adversities. A little while after, I was curious as to how he was doing, so I wrote the song to him. I hope he hears it one day.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
‘Man, that’s hard… I’m not sure I can. Sorry!