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Grammy-Nominated Cage the Elephant

The band’s lead singer talks about their album Tell Me I’m Pretty and the importance of being vulnerable

Founded in Bowling Green, Kentucky nearly a decade ago, Cage the Elephant is comprised of four best friends including a set of brothers.

Their fourth studio album Tell Me I’m Pretty brought the guys of Cage closer to their Kentucky roots than ever before. Emotionally charged songs like “Sweetie Little Jean” and “Cold Cold Cold” allow the album to pay tribute to the rocker’s hometown.

“Bowling Green has really sweet people. It’s a double-edged sword though because it also has people who can be very narrow minded. My brother and I grew up in government housing so that was a little rough. It was incredible for character building though,” lead vocalist Matthew Shultz says of the small town.

The band has been celebrated for their electric performances and intense interactions with audiences at live shows. This can be attributed to lead singer Matt Shultz who has the energy of a child coupled with the emotional stamina to deliver some truly poetic stories to the crowd.

Tell Me I’m Pretty has garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album this year, while the two singles, “Mess Around” and “Trouble” have both topped the alternative charts for a historic total of seven number one alternative songs. We caught up with Shultz to discuss the new album, his pre-show rituals and who he’s listening to right now.

Congrats on the Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album. Was that a shock or did you see it coming?

We expected to get more, actually. Just kidding. It’s always flattering. I get excited when we sell out a bigger stage than we ever have.  Everything matters. We don’t take things for granted.

Your last album was nominated for Best Alternative Album. Do you feel you went in a more rock direction purposely with Tell Me I’m Pretty?

Honestly, I really don’t look at music in terms of genre. There are probably some rock and roll qualities in both Melophobia and Tell Me I’m Pretty. For us, we look at songs and try to find the best representation of that song. I heard a quote from John Lennon and of course it was brilliant but he said that he wanted every song that the Beatles wrote to sound like it was from a different band. We have such a wide array of different styles that we are attracted to so it never made sense to get locked into one style. 

How did the creative process differ for this album compared to your last?

On Melophobia it was all about constructing songs and deconstructing them. Really finding out how much we could tweak them before going too far. With Tell Me I’m Pretty it was finding the little nuances in the songwriting and stripping it back. We had to learn how to have restraint and intensity behind the eyes instead of pouring out of the mouth.

Cage the Elephant
Credit: Ira Chernova

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I try to focus on what the songs are about. I try to get into the mindset of being transparent and vulnerable. Performing is kind of like watching a race; everyone likes to see a great car crash. When you’re on stage though, you’re trying to prevent that from happening but sometimes it’s the most beautiful thing that could happen. You have to really be in the right mind space. You’re not going to be hiding yourself too much.

What is the most memorable performance you can think of?

Lollapalooza 2011. We were playing a mid-afternoon slot. It was the most torrential downpour ever. Our whole crew was scared we were going to be electrocuted but we just kept playing. All the other stages, people for whatever reason didn’t keep playing through the rain so everyone came running to our stage, it felt like the whole festival.

Tell me a little bit about the track, “Sweetie Little Jean.” What was it like writing those lyrics and what made you decide to get to that headspace?

Sometimes I’m prone to suffering from pretty heavy depression. This song is about the kind where you are just a shadow of the person you felt you were before. I was thinking of that analogy of being abducted by depression. It can steal the person from that life. When my brother Brad and I were young kids in Bowling Green, one of our really good friends was kidnapped and murdered. I used that memory as a way to tell the story of depression. 

Was it challenging getting into that frame of mind?

Making records can be a super pleasurable experience but it can also be grueling. If you want to make something that is cathartic for yourself and will move other people in a similar way, you have to touch on some pretty heavy experiences. It can be strange. It’s extremely rewarding though. We’re not brain surgeons or anything that important but it’s pretty special when you search the crowd and find someone who you can just tell needs the performance. I always feel like the audience comes first. When you start thinking about yourself or your performance, it comes off as fake and predictable and all these things that I really don’t like.

What is a band or artist that fans would be surprised to hear you listen to?

I listen to everyone from the Carpenters to Leonard Cohen, to Butthole Surfers to LCD Soundsystem and David Bowie; I’m all over the place. Right now I’m really into a band called La Femme. They’re probably like the coolest band. Also the Growlers just released an album produced by Julian Casablanca. It is just ingenious.


Main image credit: Ira Chernova