Kentucky natives Cage The Elephant return to UK shores to promote their latest release, ‘Thank You Happy Birthday’. Not only spawning the U.S. number one single ‘Shake Me Down’, their latest project is the first since their 500,000 selling self-titled debut. With over 80 song ideas whittled down to just twelve, Matt, Brad, Daniel, Lincoln, and Jared have put together a collection of songs very different to those featured on their debut album.
Gigwise met up with Matt and Brad talk about their new album, children’s books, and Matt’s obsession with burying himself in piles of leaves...
So how’s the UK been treating you since you’ve been back in town?
Matt: It’s really exciting to be back in the UK after being in the States for two years, and finally playing shows back here again. This place really was a home away from home for us for two years. We lived here; we lived in Leyton.
Brad: We really didn’t know what to expect being that it’s been so long since we’ve been here, but the show’s have been selling out so that’s good.
Who’s supporting you on tour?
Brad: When we go back to The States we’re going to have Sleeper Agent and Biffy. They’ll be our support acts.
Brad: Yeah, it’s weird because they’re f*cking huge over here.
They’re actually like rock royalty...
Brad: Yeah we know. I mean we feel really fortunate to be able to get them on tour with us.
So what have you guys been up to since the release of your debut?
Matt: Touring and recording this new record. We actually recorded this album before we released the first record in the U.S. We tried to convince our label and management to release this record and just scrap the first one, but they weren’t having it.
It obviously paid off though because it’s gone on to sell over 500,000 units worldwide. With that said, what are your expectations for this record?
Brad: Sales-wise I don’t think we really go in to anything with any expectations. I think we’d think about setting ourselves up for failure if we went in there expecting to sell a certain amount. As long as we can tour, continue to write music and make records we’re happy.
So what’s the new album like?
Brad: It kind of has multiple personalities. It’s totally different from the first album.
Matt: It’s very manic; it’s all over the place. We were listening to a lot of punk and post-punk mixed with a lot of late fifties stuff whilst making this album. It’s just a mix of everything. I think when we started writing this record we were really trying to cater towards a sound and we were forcing a lot of the writing. We had like 80 song ideas but started writing some other material that was like nothing we had ever written before, and we kinda made jokes about how we would use it for a side project.
Then after a while most of the material we came up with seemed to be for the side project and so we started to move in that direction, scrapped all the other stuff we were working on and went in to some cabins and just wrote for two weeks, and then finally went in the studio. After we started moving in the direction that we thought was right things just started to flow very naturally, and the morale of the band was lifted. It was one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had.
Where did the album’s title come from?
Matt: I was in Portland, Oregon, in a thrift store and I found a vintage children’s book. It was kinda like an Alice In Wonderland type of scenario but wasn’t Alice In Wonderland. There were all these talking cupcakes and fruit, and there was a birthday party, and at one point it read Thank You Happy Birthday.
What was the creative process like? What did you do differently, if anything compared to your first release?
Brad: We did quite a lot the same...
Matt: (Laughing) Except this time we all recorded blindfolded.
Brad: I think we paid more attention to detail this time, but while we did that we also just let things happen in the studio spontaneously, whereas last time we only had 10 days to record the album and we had all the songs set in stone.
Matt: This time we had a good idea of what we wanted, but several songs changed in the studio, and like Brad said we paid a lot more attention to close detail. We made sure each part felt right.
Brad: A few of the songs we actually had time to live with. ‘Right Before My Eyes’ is a song that we changed three times. That’s why there’s actually two different versions of it on the album. We had two versions that we liked and one that we hated... well not all of us. We decided to put both versions on the album; they’ve both got totally different feels to them.
Matt: There’s also a couple of songs that we didn’t think were gonna make the record but did, like ‘Shake Me Down’, which is our first single. When we first wrote it the track was in pieces. We went in the studio and I honestly wasn’t feeling it for the record but Brad was pretty adamant about it. So we spent a day just working through it, pieced a couple of other songs together and structured the song. It was one of the days that we finished recording and left the studio down in the dumps, not really knowing what we had done. We came back in the morning and it sounded pretty cool.
As a band, a collective if you will, how do you come to these decisions? How much input do you all have as a band?
Matt: Everyone has a lot of input. If we have different opinions on things we normally come to some sort of agreement within 10 or 15 minutes. If there’s any kind of argument over what should or shouldn’t be on our record it doesn’t last long. We have a motto in the band that we try everything, as much as we can, and when we press play and do the playback that’s always the moment of truth. If it sounds like crap then it sounds like crap. We’re pretty good at accepting that.
Brad: We’re pretty honest with ourselves. If four people in the band are saying it’s crappy, and you’re the only one, and you wrote it, it’s pretty obvious that you just want to hold on to it because you wrote the song.
Matt: The songs we normally agree on, it’s parts within songs that hang us up.
Your music seems to be labelled as so many things, but the main consensus is that you’re punk for the new generation, so to speak. Your recent performance on Letterman even showed similarities to Nirvana in their day. How do you guys describe your music?
Brad: I don’t know. I don’t think we have a certain style which is why I think we get compared to so many different acts. Our music is all over the place.
Matt: We try to make each song sound different. It’s almost as if a different band is doing each song. We don’t intentionally go out to make each song sound like it’s done by a different band but we want each song to have its own identity. We’re really hyper-paranoid to repeat ourselves. We’re a little sensitive in that area.
Brad: On a sub-conscious level too, we just write songs and try to work out every song that we write regardless of what the style is.
Matt: But then there are times that we start to work on a song that’s similar to something that we’ve done before, but move in a totally different direction with it, rework it, or just drop it all together.
So who do you listen to? Who inspires you to write the music that you do?
Brad: Everything! When we first started out we were just from Bowling Green, a little town in Kentucky. We’ve always wanted to make the purest music we could make. So some of our influences back then included the stuff we were exposed to, which was like Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. When we moved over to London we really started exploring. I remember when we lived in Kentucky I used to talk about how much I hated eighties music, but that’s because I wasn’t exposed to the good eighties music yet. It was crappy pop eighties...
Matt: ...Cyndi Lauper
Brad: Yeah, we hadn’t been exposed to Pavement, Mudhoney, Black Flag...
Matt: ... Gang Of Four, Herman’s Hermits, The Turtles, Dick Dale, Violent Femmes
Brad: We went back to the early sixties/late fifties too...
Matt: ... Like Doo Wop. Band’s like The Coasters.
Brad: Oh yeah, and The Ramones. We’ve always been in to The Ramones.
Matt: And some more recent bands that have been highly influential on our music are bands like Screaming Tea Party, they’re a London-based band but have recently broken up.
Brad: Let’s Wrestle was another band. The Foals too. Even though their certain style of music didn’t really rub off on us, it definitely inspired us to write, to search and to go deep and do something we hadn’t before. When we first heard them it definitely felt like it was time to continue to push forward.
Matt: With Screaming Tea Party it was sort of the same thing, except they’re more on our side of things. I remember we opened for them a couple of years ago at Barfly here in London, and really didn’t know what to do with myself after the show. I feel like I’ve been chasing them ever since.
Now there’s a story about Matt being found curled up underneath a bunch of leaves floating about. Care to elaborate?
Matt: I didn’t write any lyrics going in to the studio this time, so each day I would try and write the lyrics in the studio. That particular day I just didn’t think I was being honest with myself. Everything that I was writing just didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel real. So I just wanted to spur some kind of creativity by going back to different memories, and I just started thinking about being a kid buried in a pile of leaves. Sometimes smells or anything like that can trigger memories for me. So I went outside and buried myself in a pile of leaves in the back yard.
Brad: Our engineer then came in to us and asked, “Why is Matt buried in a pile of leaves and running around the woods beating trees with sticks?” It was funny.
Matt: See the thing is with me I have a terrible memory... like a really terrible memory. There are stories where Brad can testify. He always remembers the smallest of details, whereas I just have an awful memory. However if I have something tangible, or something I can smell, I can remember every single detail. I can even remember emotions and stuff like that. I don’t know what happened and how I got that way, but it probably has something to do with my parents burning me with loose cigarettes when I was a kid. (Laughing) But if I have something in my hand or something similar then I can remember particular thoughts and things like that. Sometimes I do some weird and stupid stuff.
Are there any other funny stories? Anything that’s happened recently that might be worth hearing?
Matt: Recently I jumped off a 25ft stack of speakers in Chicago, and may, or may not, have broken my ribs.
Brad: On Youtube it looks horrifying. It looks like something you’d see on Videos gone wrong.
Matt: I think my mom cried.
Brad: It looks ridiculous!
Matt: So yeah, I jumped off this speaker stack. The crowd caught me but I may or may not have broken my ribs. But I went to France right after I did it and went to the doctor and told him what I did and he told me I was pretty stupid. He basically told me that there was nothing he could do for me. He didn’t even do an x-ray. He was just like, “Yeah your rib could be piercing your lung right now but we don’t really care because you’re an idiot.
Brad: (Laughing) There was this other time we took some of our really good friends, Sleeper Agents, they’re a really great band, on tour with us. It was Tony’s birthday and I got the wise idea that I would take a piece of cake and smash it in his face at the end of their set. I couldn’t find any candles so I just put three matches in the cake. He blew them out, and I wasn’t thinking about how hot the matches would probably still be, and I smashed it in to his face, and it left him with match burns all over his face. It was horrible.
Matt: It looked like really gangrenous freckles.
So what’s next for Cage The Elephant?
Brad: Touring! I think we’re gonna try and get back in the studio in September.