Matt Shultz of Cage The Elephant Talks "Melophobia"
Mon, 23 Sep 2013 08:45:00
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"You learn a lot of things along the way, and you hope to apply everything you learn," says Cage the Elephant singer Matt Shultz. "You always keep it a learning experience so you never get to that place where it becomes a formula. Hopefully, your growth will be shown in the work you do."
Cage The Elephant's growth shines through on their brand new masterpiece Melophobia. The group's third full-length offering builds on the enigmatic energy of their first two offerings by breaking down the walls and expand the sound even further. As a result, it's a dark, dangerous, dynamic, and daring affair that's as vulnerable as it is vibrant. In essence, it's the quintessential Cage The Elephant record so far.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Matt Shultz of Cage The Elephant talks Melophobia and so much more.
Do you feel like every element of the band is amplified more on Melophobia?
To be honest, we've never been so far part in our vision of how the record was going to turn out, but it worked better than ever before. We've always come from various different places. The differences had probably been more minute than they are currently. It's worked. However, it's starting to become apparent that the farther apart where we are in terms of where we're coming from, the more personalized the record becomes as a unit. There are different elements we're all into. When we first started writing the record, speaking from my standpoint, I was writing a lot of songs and material that was very intimate and inter-directive. It was very close and subtle in musicality. Lyrically, it was maybe speaking louder than I was singing [Laughs].
How did it work when you got together?
When we got together as a band, you start to see what everyone's reacting towards and what the reactions as. There's definitely an element of playfulness and swagger that perhaps was less present in our last record. It started to re-emerge. That was really fun. On this record, on several of the songs, especially the playful ones, it was all about trying to find the personality and character of the song. In the past, I'd based that more maybe on external influences. I've always gone by that model literature writers subscribe to—"Read way more than you write". I applied that musically and tried to listen to as much diverse music as I possibly could and then interpret however I did or, as a unit, we'd pour that into our music. On this record, it was more or less about trying to find a character that wasn't necessarily defined by a readily available influence. Not that it was always that way in the past, but on this record, personally, I tried to stay away from listening to music as much as I possibly could.
What was the methodology then?
Well, I took this experimental stance comparable to trying to draw your childhood house from memory—or anything from memory for that matter. It was really interesting. A lot of the sonic blanks would be filled in by these emotional memories. Your mind would make up sonics that didn't even necessarily exist. It was a really cool experience. Also for some songs, when it came to a character or posture I'd take vocally, I tried to imagine a David Lynch movie and what kind of character would be singing this song [Laughs]. Would it be some creepy wizard? I could find that voice from my standpoint. Some of the other guys really dialed into the diversity of the music. It was very much an experimental record for all of us.
Do you feel like it's a visual record? You can see the music as much as you can hear it. Is that a fair assessment?
Totally! When it comes to music, I used to see colors. I know this sounds strange [Laughs]. However, I would envision colors for each song like, "Oh, that song is so blue-red!" These colors were definitely scenic, and I was always trying to find the visual story in the song. Sometimes, you do want to get theatrical with it. I definitely look for the story in the song or the imagery in that. We try to build that. I was actually telling a friend, and he was like, "Dude, that's called synesthesia! You have that!" I asked, "What the heck is synesthesia?" He explained it to me, and I thought it was funny there's a word for that. It's definitely a good assessment, I would say.
As a writer, is it easier to communicate what's inside of you three albums in?
In theory, it should be easier, but I think we make it a lot harder than it should be. I know at least I do [Laughs]. I think there's always that desire to want to take on larger "beasts", we'll call them. With each record, it's like your striving to shed any false pretense or this desire to want to create an image that's rooted in fear, but is built around things we know that are socially deemed "artistic", "intellectual", or "poetic". A lot of times, you find yourself imitating these things rather than being a conduit of honesty and speaking from your heart. The whole purpose of making music is to shed that desire to mask oneself or create an image that is socially acceptable, we'll say. It was an interesting record. I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends. It was the first time I was able to spend a lot of time at home. Lyrically, it was very experimental as well. I was in that whole mode of trying to write. I caught myself trying to be "poetic" in the beginning stages, and I actually got called out by one of my friends, which I'm very thankful for! One time we were hanging out, and he said, "Matt, you should stop trying to write lyrics and just write lyrics how you speak because it's much more poetic that way!" At first, I was like, "Hey dude, that's kind of offensive!" [Laughs] It was so honest though, and he cut me right in half. It was followed by a revelation that there are so many things that come out of people's mouths every day that are just poetry in motion. It's beautiful. You don't even have to use the word "poetry". It's just honesty.
It's so true.
There are beautiful pictures painted through whatever language you're using. You're just trying to communicate the images in your heart. I started to think about this. I thought about how many gorgeous things people say all day every day that slip past our ears. I started having friends come over. I'd sit them down. I'd get behind a typewriter. We'd have a glass of wine or whatever, and I'd ask them to start talking about what was going on in their lives. We'd start off on the very surface level, but you'd be surprised at how deep it got and how fast it got there. All of a sudden, I was a psychiatrist, giving people therapy, and I wasn't saying a word! It was just the rhythm of the typewriter. I don't know what it was, but I guess it was hypnotic. People would be pouring their hearts out to me and crying. They were super deep emotional things. Like a thief, I'd just pull words from what they were saying [Laughs]. I might embellish them a little bit and do a little animating and color. For the most part, I was trying to pull the honesty from the stories or perspectives they were giving me. It turned out really wonderfully. It was really cool. When the discovery was made, it did become easier. There are so many different and wonderful approaches to writing. It was different for me.
Where were you coming from on "Cigarette Daydreams"? What did you want to evoke on that song?
Really, it's just personal experiences. That came from a personal experience I had. I think we censor ourselves not just in the sense of being careful of the words we use—like if something's a curse word or whatever. I also think we censor how honest we are because we're afraid to hurt people or perhaps give too much or ourselves away. With "Cigarette Dreams" and the whole record, I really struggled to be transparent and speak from naked honesty. Out of all of the songs, "Cigarette Daydreams" happened the fastest. I was sitting there on the floor of my living room. I was strumming a guitar, and I started coming up with that melody. Then, the words started to flow out. If the right experiences are happening in your life, it doesn't hurt. It definitely helps. I called our producer, and I was like, "I don't know. What do you think?" He just said, "Matt, finish the song right now! Just do it." I hung up the phone and tried to let it flow through. A lot of things happen in life grow in experiences. They can cause heartache, jubilee, or whatever. To be able to directly put those in a song is a pretty amazing thing.
It's a stark culmination to an album that's sonically rich and deep. The words and melodies shine through the most on "Cigarette Daydreams".
Wow, thank you! I appreciate that. That goes for the guys. They're amazing writers. They have incredible ideas they pour into these songs. It really is a true collaboration with our band. Sometimes, it's a complete collision of personalities. Other times, it's a much easier process. I feel like they make me look good in most situations.
What were you reading while making the album?
This winter, I was definitely reading Dylan Thomas and Charles Bukowski. Bukowski's very honest and cynical [Laughs]. He's certainly one-sided in his perspective and strongly rooted in that, which is interesting. That's really cool about his art. Then, there's Dylan Thomas. The thing about him is there's a lot of color and animation there, but it's not just fluff. There are a lot of writers who will throw a lot of colorful words and phrases in that are just confusing because it sounds pretty or smart. With Dylan Thomas, you can still understand what the poem's about and that he was speaking from his heart. He had an incredible grasp on the English language. I read a lot of his work. That's just about it.
If you were to compare Melophobia to a movie or a combination of movies, what would you compare it to?
During the making of this record, I was watching tons of David Lynch, and I was really inspired by him. It's just the weirdness of his films. At first, the style of acting is so dry and very stylized. It's almost like it's a B-movie. Then, the depth of the characters and the stories are incredible. He really creates a world of his own. I was watching Blue Velvet on repeat and Mulholland Dr. Also, I watched Twin Peaks several times. I got into Stanley Kubrick during the writing. I don't know if that showed up really. Definitely Lars von Trier's Dogville, The Element of Crime, and Europia, and I love Melancholia. Honestly, that feeling of imminent doom played major role. I think that follows so many people around. It's like I'm always looking for that thing that's going to attack me next. It doesn't matter how good things are. It's like, "Oh, well, this is just setting me up for even greater disappointment. I really need to protect myself here because things are going really well!" [Laughs] That keeps you from really being able to experience some of the great things and joys in life that can be experienced. That was definitely a big part of this record—battling depression and the feeling of imminent doom. Part of this winter during the writing experience felt like this big cloak of dust, cobwebs, and this heavy smoke. I think a lot of the material deals with that as well.
What song resonates with you the most right now?
Probably "Telescope"…"Telescope" is also a song that happened relatively quickly. Again, I was sitting in my living room. A lot of times, I find myself sitting in my living room staring at a blank TV screen for hours on end—especially this winter. It's not so much like that anymore. You ask yourself, "What am I doing? What the heck?" I wanted to write about my situation, but I didn't want to write about it by saying, "Here, this is my story!" If we could watch ourselves in our houses and our behaviors, that's what I was thinking. It was the first time I'd ever been home in an extended period of time. We'd been on the road for five years. There were so many times where I was like, "Okay, I'm standing in the living room. Now, I'm going to stand in the kitchen!" I'd obsess over dusting the countertops or making sure everything is in its right place. For what reason when there's a world of people out there to be conversed with? "Telescope" is a great reflection on this winter and a portrait into it coming from my standpoint. It has strong roots in that feeling of imminent doom. You think, "My tooth hurts. Do I have a cavity that's impacted? Is it going to cause an infection in my jaw and go to my brain and kill me?" [Laughs] That was very detailed so you know I'm being honest!
What have you been listening to lately?
I've been listening to a lot of Neil Young. This winter, I was really into Christmas tunes. Even in August, way out in the beginning of writing, I was really getting into Christmas music because the melodies are so gorgeous and also the way they recorded with Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and all of the guys from that era. There's such a warm, round, and soft feeling to the vocals. The melodies are incredible. As far as new bands go, in Nashville there's an incredible thing happening. There's just so much good music. It keeps escalating and escalating. I'm hoping it will be discovered on a much bigger platform than where it is now because it deserves to be heard. There are bands like Clear Plastic Masks, Visions, Bad Cop, Fly Gold Eagle, Ranch Ghost, and those are just a few. Then are bands not just in Nashville that are doing great like The Orwells. I really love them and Foxygen. They're terrific. There's a lot of really good music bubbling under the surface. It's super exciting. For a long time, there was a feeling that everything had been done and there was nothing new to bring to the model of a guitar band with guitars, bass, drums, and a lead singer. We're in a time where technology is growing at an exponential rate. Literally every single day, you could do something you couldn't do the day before. The possibilities are endless sonically with what can be done, which is super exciting. It's a great time for music. There's awesome stuff out there that's not on my radar.
Speaking of rock 'n' roll today, have you heard any of the new music from Queens of the Stone Age and Pearl Jam?
I haven't gotten a chance to listen to those new records, but I've heard nothing but rave reviews from friends and people who are diehard fans saying these are some of the best records they've ever made. It's funny you should say that. It touches on something that was another revelation for me this winter. This concept that your creative peak happens early in life is a relatively new one in the grand scheme of things. Historically speaking, if you look at great artists throughout history, as they matured and grew, their art only became more mature and had more depth as well. It's something that coincides with pop culture and the idea of youth and beauty and popular appeal and things like that. That doesn't surprise me at all. If you look at guys like Leonardo Da Vinci, Bach, or some of these great artists throughout history, wine gets better with age.
What's your favorite Cage The Elephant song?