Matt Shultz details the tumultuous journey leading up to latest album Social Cues
Anna Smith
12:01 19th April 2019

Looking worlds away from the effervescent human being he emulates on stage, Cage the Elephant’s Matt Shultz sits across the table in a baggy red jumper, his hands wrapped around a mug of black tea. He struggles to pull the teabag out of the cup, burning his finger in the process, deciding to leave it in there at the mercy of his skin. Matt’s calm composure in a time of such personal struggle is reminiscent of the meme of a dog drinking a cup of tea, telling himself “this is fine”, as his house burns to the ground around him. You know the one.

It’s easy to dismiss the frontman as impassive on the surface, but underneath his nonchalant exterior lies a complex individual, riddled with self-reflection and emotion. “When I was younger I think that I had to create some kind of value for myself,” he muses, before going on the explain that he thinks that all people are “inherently interesting”, demonstrating a philosophy that’s very apparent in the way he talks and carries himself, seemingly self-aware but humble all at once.

The band’s songs are also heavily influenced by his reflective nature, with tracks in their back catalogue about everything from honesty and adversity, to depression and acceptance of the breakdown of his marriage, which occurred in the interim between 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty and new album Social Cues.

‘Ready To Let Go’, the first single from the new album, addresses the divorce directly, opening on the line, “Sun went down over Pompeii”, a jarring reference to a trip between him and his wife where they realised that the metaphorical sun was setting on their relationship.

The video for the single was directed by Matt, featuring himself clad in a skin-tight red latex suit, among clips of a blood-covered couple with nails puncturing their hands. “I had seen the movie The Colour of Pomegranates, which is an incredible film,” he says of the inspiration behind the dark, twisted nature of the video. “I guess a lot of [Alejandro] Jodorowsky films inspire me too. I just love how he uses a lot of symbolism to confront graphic topics that are hard to breach otherwise.”

Matt is no stranger to topics that are hard to breach, having also lost his cousin and three other friends in the run-up to the latest album. So, what do you do when the world is making you question life, death and the validity of holy matrimony? Apparently you make arguably your best album to date, confronting the issues head-on.

Watching Cage The Elephant’s evolution from 2006 until now can only be described as akin to watching a rowdy, unkempt teenager blossom into a sophisticated, but still avant-garde family man with a dark side-hustle.

Once the charming poster boys for messy alt-rock, they bulldozed their way through early critique such as “mass-produced strain of bland modern rock”, releasing a sophomore album that bravely almost dares you not to like it, culminating in 45 minutes of brash, crunchy noise and unkempt vocals.

The explosive energy that began to warm the sceptics’ hearts is still apparent, but is now concealed under a new veil of sophisticated 60s-esque fuzz. “We always joked around saying that we wanted to make a record that sounded like a punk-rock fronted Kanye West type thing, or a Kanye West fronted punk band. But, I don’t know if that’s really what we settled for”, he laughs, referring to the sound they were trying to hone on Social Cues. “So, ‘Kanye-fronted punk, I think.”

He also reveals that recruiting Beck on new track ‘Night Running’ was a “pleasant surprise”, after they realised they had found a great direction for the chorus, but were completely stumped for the direction of the verses. “We were talking about how to finish the song and Brad [Shultz, guitarist] was like, ‘For some reason, I feel like Beck would know.’” But the collaboration between the two doesn’t end there; the uncannily similar looking pair are heading out on a 30-date U.S. tour from July, dubbed the same name as their new duet. 

The song marks the completion of a departure from the raw, aggressive earlier material and into a polished, pop-laden rock’n’roll outfit. “I wish that we had known that you can go in the studio and get more of what you want, instead of being left to your self”, explains Matt of the distinction between their first album and last. “For sure, I don’t think it was until our third record that we realised we had as much of a say as we did.” 

The band have worked with various producers over the years, from Jay Joyce (Zac Brown Band, Crowded House) on Thank You, Happy Birthday, to Dan Auerback (The Black Keys) and most recently John Hill (Portugal. The Man, MIA), growing and audibly learning from each producer as they go.

Despite the rolling sound journey, they left an apparently unplanned four-year interim between Social Cues and their last offering. “It just happened really,” tells Matt, “Tell Me I’m Pretty was our last studio album and last contract with that record label, and then they basically gave us the option for a greatest hits album at that point. So, we were like ‘No, no way, we can’t do a greatest hits, that feels like the end. We’re just getting started.’ So, we convinced them to let us do a record of all of our tracks up to date with a string arrangement, which turned out to be the live Unpeeled record. So, that’s what made it take longer.”

The new album was also “a much longer process” than usual to record. The Kentucky boys “started recording a little over a year ago in January last year, and we finished in October, but we had stints of down time in between sessions. John [Hill], who we worked with on this album, he works differently to any producer we’ve worked with before. He gives you a lot of space to kind of figure it out yourself, and then weighs in when he sees that it would be most impactful.”

The inception of the album began in January last year, as ideas were thrown around on tour, “We’re always sharing ideas amongst ourselves, so obviously when we were on tour we were sharing ideas amongst ourselves and sharing music that we were kind of obsessed with”.

Certain songs like ‘Night Running’ are comparable to the off-beat dub-reggae synth of The Clash’s ‘Sandinista’, presumably inspired by Shultz’s admiration of the band’s versatility. “If I had to choose one thing to listen to for the rest of my life, I probably couldn’t because it would be too hard”, he laughs “But, if I had to I would say anything by The Clash, because it’s so diverse.”

The album tells a tale as old as time, jaded by fame and washed up by shattered romance, left pondering the cruelty of existence. Despite the recycled, old-hat rhetoric, Social Cues manages to bring a fresh perspective to the table, driven by tender emotion and sharp-toothed cynicism.

Matt looks vacantly down into his untouched tea as he explains he’s still discovering what it means to “Stop to relax and get out of your own way,” stating that once you do, “you realise you’re actually pretty interesting already, and over the years you continue to peel back the layers of that onion.”

So, how does he maintain this seemingly perpetual state of tranquil? Perhaps it’s the uptake of a new art form, having recently been taking Butoh classes. “It’s a contemporary Japanese dance form created by a man named Hijikata Tatsumi, and the official day that it was born was back in 1959. It’s very much an impulsive art form, so it really, really puts emphasis on not trying to preconceive something that you want to communicate but allowing it to happen in the moment and responding to something rather than an action.”

The Butoh-learned spontaneity and his introspective nature are just a fraction of the magic that is Social Cues, an album that takes the listener on a tumultuous journey through mourning, lament and finally acceptance. In none other than his own words, Matt’s ready to let go.

Photo: Neil Krug/Press