Photo: Neil Krug
Since the success of their first hit “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked,” Kentucky’s alt rock band Cage The Elephant has been on a fairly steady trajectory. They’ve been a constant radio presence on alternative and mainstream stations, with seven of their tracks living at the number one spot on the Billboard chart and 11 more landing on it’s Top 10.
Their fifth album Social Cues dropped in April, a follow up to their Grammy award-winning Tell Me I’m Pretty. It tackles the emotional whirlwind that snatched up Cage the Elephant in the years leading up to the albums release, including lead singer Matt Schultz’s raw, recent divorce and the loss of several of the band’s friends and family members.
Guitarist Brad Schultz spoke with The Collaborative about working through their hardships, learning to embrace imperfections in the recording process and the band’s collaboration with Beck ahead of their co-headlining tour with the alt-rock giant, Spoon and Sunflower Bean that brought them to Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Aug. 12.
The Collaborative: Social Cues feels considerably darker than the last four albums. Maybe it’s easier to pick up on, realizing the band had spent so much of the recording process in various levels of personal turmoil. Given this turn, how do you think Cage The Elephant’s sound has changed over the course of these five records?
Brad Shultz: I think we’ve always tried to have our music mirror our lives and what we’re going through. With that, we’ve changed a little bit every record. Every record has its own thing, at least in my opinion. The process was a lot different. We were still very much going through it, with Matt and his personal relationship. Different things had happened in the two years previous to the record.
There was this dark cloud hanging over us. It’s very prominent on the record, the reflection of all of those things are embedded onto the record. I think that’s where the darker undertone comes from. But we also wanted to try to do some different things, production wise, and even songwriting wise. We wanted the tracks to feel like one thing flowed into another more seamlessly than our other records. We also wanted to be more intentional with the parts we were writing. The song itself, we would let embody whatever it was and try to trust our gut as far as the overall big picture. We wanted to leave space and not overplay, or feel obligated to stick to our instrument of choice, just play for the song and invoke the emotion that the lyrics carried.
That was a big challenge, honestly.
CO: What were some of the most important elements for you on this record, in terms of your creative goals going into recording?
BS: I think with the record as a whole, we did what we wanted to do. There are spots, like in every record where you’re like, “Oh god, I would’ve done this or that.”
I was really pleased with a lot of it, there are definitely parts where I think we missed the mark. That’s with every record or any piece of art, really. Perfection I don’t think is actually a reflection of art. Life isn’t perfect and art is supposed to reflect life, so it’s never gonna end up exactly how you envisioned it. Sometimes you fall short of what your goal is but that’s kind of the beauty of what a record is. You figure out what you’re doing as you’re doing it.
CO: You mentioned not sticking to an instrument for this project and I read that guitarist Nick Bodrath did some switching up. Was that something you and other members did as well or was he mainly the guinea pig?
BS: We all did, honestly. Other than Jared [Champion], he stayed on the drums. We did a lot of weird things with the drums that weren’t very conventional to him. I played keyboard on a couple tracks, and synth. Nick was on the Melatron and we ran it through his pedal board. He played a little guitar, synth, piano. Matthan [Minister] played guitar and a lot of keys and he sang most of the backup vocals, even doubling the lead vocal with a higher octave.
CO: Were these all things you were each familiar with before or were you trying things out on the fly?
BS: We were just playing for the songs. Matt said once, “We wanted to play our studio more than our instruments.” We wanted to try whatever we felt the song needed. Sometimes you might come up with a part on the guitar but it’s just not the exact emotion or didn’t evoke what we were trying to play, so we’d test it out on different instruments. We were playing the same part on several different things. Sometimes it was a lengthy process.
CO: You were the one to bring Beck in for parts on the “Night Running” track. What brought that up?
BS: Yeah, it was on a whim. We were struggling with the track. We had it musically done and vocally we had the chorus done. The verses just weren’t coming along as we thought they would. It created this brief moment of frustration within the group. Once we took a step back and got a breath of fresh air, the creativity started to flow in, just thinking about how to get the track done. I threw Beck’s name in there.
We had met him a few months prior. He was super cool and we’ve always respected what he does musically. When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I mean, “Loser” came out and he became my hero.
I grew up with his music and his name just popped into my mind. I sent him the track and didn’t know if we’d ever really hear from him at all. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, it’s a shot in the dark. Within a couple days he sent two verses that are on the track. He also said he had four more verses. We were like giddy children. We were so happy we never asked to hear the other four verses. It was like, “Ding, ding ding! This is it.” Maybe we’ll come up with some alternate version in some alternate universe one day.
CO: On top of dealing with heartbreak and grief, this album also seems to bring up a lot of frustration and fatigue. The title track in particular, and its line, “at least you’re on the radio” seems to have grabbed a lot of people’s attention. Are you all feeling burnt out from this trajectory you’ve been on?
BS: If anybody as an artist is successful, in people’s eyes—that’s commercially successful, I guess, or maybe not commercially successful but really well respected in their art—they almost have this picture that life is perfect for you. That’s not the case. There’s been a lot recently about music and touring and how it really affects mental health. You get on stage and do what you love every day, which is a blessing. It doesn’t mean you aren’t going through the same hardships everyone else is going through on a day-to-day basis. It’s just normal life.
Sometimes it actually magnifies the pain to have to go on stage and we’re really trying to lose ourselves in the music but you kind of have to put on the “nothing’s wrong” face. You’re doing that for people to help take them out of their own struggles for the moment, let them forget about the different pains they go through in life so they can work through it but you’re doing the same thing. You’re experiencing the same struggles. It’s sometimes a very hard and weird thing to endure for a long period of time.
Matt got to a point where he actually was getting off stage and then would go to a different room than anyone else backstage. I think he just felt very confined and very trapped. It was a hard thing to go through but I think music as a whole for all of us is a very therapeutic thing and making this record—there’s a dark undertone and it talks about a lot of things but still—it was a very therapeutic thing for us to do.
CO: Having worked through that, or being that you all currently are, what would you suggest to other artists who are feeling that kind of artistic responsibility? How do you take care of yourself?
BS: Write about it. Writing for us has always been therapeutic. Also, talk to people. That’s what “House of Glass” is about. Sometimes you create this illusion in your mind where you isolate yourself because you feel like you don’t have anybody to run to, when actually most people do. There are people who don’t and may be in a horrible situation and feel trapped. I think finding someone to confide in, who you trust, always helps.