Interview: Cage The Elephant Singer Responds To Black Keys Comparisons On ‘Mess Around’

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Bowling Green, Kentucky’s Cage the Elephant are one of mainstream rock’s greatest success stories of the past decade. Unlike many contemporaries in the genre, Cage have consistently redefined themselves sonically while moving past “one hit wonder” status, building up a pantheon of classic radio singles from “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” off of their self-titled debut to “Cigarette Daydreams” off of their third record, Melophobia.

The recording and touring process for Melophobia was exceptionally grueling for the band, who lost lead guitarist Lincoln Parish in the process, now building his name as a Nashville-area producer. Still strident, the band reassessed their career path and recruited Dan Auberch of The Black Keys as producer for their upcoming fourth studio album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, due for release on December 18th.

I had the chance to briefly speak with frontman Matt Shultz over the phone. Matt really is one of the hardest working rock singers in the business nowadays, literally defying death on a nightly basis with his insane stage antics. We discussed the eclectic style of the upcoming record, fan accusations of “ripping off” Dan Auerbach’s main project on the first single, Cage’s “legacy”, and the album’s drop date coinciding with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

You guys just released the song “Mess Around” to great success. However, there is a vocal part of the fanbase that dismissed it as “sounding like the Black Keys.” Were you guys expecting this working with Auerbach?

Yeah. You know what, I think when you go into a situation like this, especially making a record with one of your peers, people will hear and try to point out similarities. I’m not familiar making music with him, then you really start making a record together and both of your hearts are invested. I’d hope they are! Things are going to bleed over. We originally chose Dan as the producer because we were leaning towards more of an organic and genuine sounding record as far as production was concerned.

A lot of hidden magic in the fact that he is a very “reactive” producer who will try to keep you second guessing yourself. A lot of songs on that record are first take, and there’s a lot of scratch vocals. I think that that accompanied with a classic sound with the Black Keys… they’re one of the biggest bands in recent times that have broken through with a classic sound. I can definitely see where the correlation comes from.

On the other hand, “Trouble” was just released, and the tune is a total one eighty from the first song aesthetically. Is “Trouble” the second single, or just a taste of what’s on the record?

I don’t know yet… but we put it out. People are really getting into “Mess Around”, but it makes sense to have a couple of other songs out there as well. For us, this record is honesty, and the songs have so much diversity in them that I don’t feel like any song is representative of the entire album, kind of like each sound has its own personality. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we release the entire album.

“Trouble” contains the line “You know what they say, yeah, the wicked get no rest.” It kind of reminded me of how David Bowie referenced his first hit “Space Oddity” in “Ashes to Ashes”. Do you look to him as sort of an inspiration for the aforementioned diversity of your music?

Definitely! I’ve always looked up to and been inspired by him. I don’t necessarily look to Bowie for his style or his sound, the sound that has become so iconic… it’s one of those things that you really can’t touch, you know!? But as an artist, as far as diversity is concerned and being able to re-imagine and approach each record, I don’t think there’s anyone better. He’s lived a creative life by constantly and consistently taking risks. I love that.

I was watching Live at the Vic last night and it got me thinking: this point in your career you’ve already had the full nine yards of the rock band output: four LPs under your belt, each with massive risks taken, a whole albums worth of b-sides, a really memorable live show along with the live CD/DVD release. You’ve already set a legacy for Cage the Elephant, which not many bands can say nowadays. Where do you see yourself going from here? 

I just want to continue to make records that feel inspired as we write them. I once said a number… like, seven albums. [laughs] With each record, it became a little more. I just know that I want to continue to make and insightful expressions, at least to myself, that I’ve gotten a carthatic experience out of, until it’s time to do something else. I think the whole idea of “legacy” is what kills the creative process. When you get down to it, it’s all scaleable. At the end of the day, it’s like filling a birdhouse, building a birdhouse, no matter how big the birdhouse is… that probably sounds pretty ridiculous! [laughs]

Thank You, Happy Birthday is approaching its fifth… birthday. That record came out as I was graduating high school and entering freshman year of college, so it will always held a special place for me. What are your thoughts on the record in retrospect? Would you have done anything differently?

I think there’s always a sense of “something you would have done differently” when you look back. I don’t consider it to be regret or anything like that, but I’d like to think that you are learning about the creative process. You reincorporate and elaborate on every album you make. There are definitely some times where I look back and wish I had let more of myself into the album. Earlier in my life, I had so much stock in the persona, and believed too much in “the character” in the realm of pop and rock music, whatever pedal you want to put on it. The modern… whatever. It’s part of the story, and it is what it was.

On my own end, I think back when I was in senior year of high school/freshman year of college and was so disillusioned with music at the time, I became enamored with the idea of you guys being the “modern Nirvana”. I just kept thinking, “I need my generation’s grunge revolution, dammit!” 

[laughs] Thank you, that does mean a lot to me.

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Matt Shultz with Cage the Elephant, live from the Vic in Chicago, 2011.

Ending a lighter and sillier note, but I still feel it’s relevant to the topic of your upcoming record: Tell Me I’m Pretty releases the same day as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. [Doug and Matt laugh] Will the band be taking some time off that day to see the movie?

[laughs] Yes, absolutely. I’m probably catching it the day that we are releasing the record!

Are you buying into rumors that Luke Skywalker has turned to the dark side? 

You know, I have heard that that is what happened. The corruption… it’s everywhere. Anyone who comes into power is susceptible to it. I think it will be a great next chapter for him. [laughs]