Interview: Cage the Elephant — "Sometimes, it's better to tell a story…"
Mon, 07 Jun 2010 07:15:47
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Cage the Elephant are as unpredictable as rock 'n' roll gets these days.
On their self-titled debut, the Kentucky quintet brilliantly bends raucous riffs and staggering rhythms to its creative whim. There's a classic rock urgency to cuts like "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," while "Lotus" conjures an ethereal pyschedelica that's impossible not be transfixed by. Somewhere between Led Zeppelin and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cage the Elephant rages. At the center of this sonic storm, singer Matt Shultz charismatically belts out hooks that are as heavy as they are hypnotic, perfectly matching the music's unpredictability. The only thing better than the record is seeing them live.
Sitting in a dressing room backstage at KROQ's 2010 Weenie Roast, Matt and Brad Shultz exude the same vibrant charm that their music does. Just before the band went out to decimate a sold-out crowd—alongside none other than Stone Temple Pilots, Deftones and Hole—Matt and Brad talked to ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino about everything from Of Mice and Men to their next offering in this exclusive interview.
If this album were a movie what would it be?
Matt: What was that one crazy movie? Spun [Laughs]. No, that's about a bunch of meth heads…I don't know! I'm tempted to choose a movie I really like even though it doesn't reflect our music—The Royal Tenenbaums. That's an amazing movie!
Is storytelling one of your goals within the songs?
Matt: I don't know if it was really a goal. I've always been a huge Bob Dylan fan, and he was a great storyteller and songwriter. Sometimes, it's better to tell a story and have that be the underlying message of the song instead of simply coming out and saying your standpoint on any certain issue.
The story gets the theme across without overtly saying it.
Matt: Yeah, it makes everything more interesting, especially if the stories are true.
Do you typically wait until music is done to write lyrics or are constantly writing?
Matt: It happens differently with every song, but lately we've been waiting to get into the studio. There isn't any certain formula to the way I write lyrics.
Brad: Basically, everybody in our band is our songwriter, and we all write. The difference between the first and the second CD is we actually learned to write better together. The songs go in different directions because everybody writes from a different angle.
Matt: Brad may come up with a guitar part or Daniel might have an idea. We just come together, and everybody adds to it. We all have similar tastes in music but the thing that Brad may be crazy-obsessed over at one particular time might not be what I'm into. We merge together, and it gives the songs diversity.
Do you tend to read a lot when you're writing lyrics?
Matt: Actually, I read a lot when I'm not writing lyrics. I think the end result is writing lyrics. It's like storing up creative energy. If there's no good information coming in, there's nothing good coming out. I build up ideas, thoughts, stories to be inspired by and different idioms to explore.
What are some of your favorite books?
Matt: Recently, I read Of Mice and Men, which is a really good book. I like The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. I read a lot of Leonard Cohen's poetry. Of Mice and Men has always been one of my favorite books. It's so sad, but it's so beautiful at the same time.
Brad: I remember reading that—in sixth grade [Laughs].
Matt: Shut up! [Laughs] I do read a lot of children's books though, or at least books that come from that kind of place like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and all of The Chronicles of Narnia. You don't find the imagination that's there in a lot of modern literature, at least in the stuff that's trying to imitate life today.
The album cover art has the vibe of a children's book.
Brad: Yeah, the artist, Clinton, is really amazing.
Matt: I like the freedom of the anything-goes mentality. It's like the first thing that comes into the author's mind is what ends up on paper. It's beautiful when it's not contrived and manufactured.
You capture that energy in the music.
Matt: We've always enjoyed that spirit of spontaneity. We try to allow what happens to happen.
Brad: We started playing parties. We'd go to people's house and write songs just to play at parties for our friends. Basically, we got the band together and we'd gig at local bars.
Matt: We'd write four or five songs and play them at our friends' house parties until we were tired of playing them. Then we'd write five more. After awhile, we were like, "We could make an album!" [Laughs]
What's the story behind "Lotus"?
Matt: I think it was really looking at a lot of traditions of men that are played off as religion and wars that are fought unjustly. It's a lot of striving for goodness when there seems to be no goodness within the objective or the agenda. People are trying to walk a path but it seems like they're walking backwards down the path. They may think their intensions are good but they've diluted their perspective.
Where's the new material going?
Brad: It's more like circus music [Laughs].
Matt: I'm so tempted to talk about circus music. We got into a lot of underground post '80s punk which kind of became the mainstream of the early '90s like The Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Toadies, Pavement, The Butthole Surfers, Gang of Four, Violent Femmes, Black Flag and Daniel Johnston.
Brad: It's the stuff we didn't discover enough of when we were kids.
The Toadies rule!
Brad: Dude, The Toadies are so awesome! We've been loading up on Daniel Johnston like crazy too. We were playing Austin, Texas and I wanted Daniel Johnston to come to our show. So I went on MySpace and sent his page a message. I was like, "Daniel Johnston please come to our show. I'll put you on the guest list." He never checked it. I was crushed [Laughs].
Matt: Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, our perspective of pure music was a bit narrow. It just wasn't really available. The purest music we knew was Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix,Chuck Berry and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. That stuff's great, and it is pure, but I think now we don't feel any responsibility to remain loyal to any certain genre of music. It's more or less the intent behind the music. We were writing songs and asking, "Is that a Cage the Elephant song?" Then we had one of those moments where we were like, "Well, if we're writing it, why isn't it a Cage the Elephant song?"
Brad: It was like trying to write for "who we thought we were." We trashed so many songs. So we started from scratch. We went up to a lake and rented a cabin. We stayed there for two weeks, got snowed in and just wrote.
Matt: It was a really good experience for us to be comfortable with who we are and whatever it is we're writing and listening to. We were able to break down that barrier.
For more Cage the Elephant read our review of them at KROQ's Weenie Roast here!
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