I’m sat backstage at the 02 Ritz in Manchester whilst various roadies pass by up and down the stairs. I’m waiting to interview Matt Shultz, lead singer of Kentucky based Cage the Elephant whose fourth album Tell Me I’m Pretty was released at the end of last year. They have been touring around the UK (last night Wakefield) and then onto Europe and back to America. I’m called upstairs. Matt is in a dressing room, I take a seat on a very retro orange settee. He turns the kettle off as he thinks the noise might disturb us and then we begin.
Did you know the Beatles have played here in the Ritz?
MS: The Beatles have played in the Ritz? No I didn’t know that. That makes it even better.
How have the shows been going?
MS: I’ve been super pleased. It’s been incredible.
Has it been good?
MS: Yes it’s been good to come back and finally do a tour again, a headline tour and sell out the gigs was a bonus.
Great. How did the title come about for Tell Me I’m Pretty?
MS: I went to write it because it kind of has a tongue in cheek surface. You could imagine maybe like a long lost New York Dolls title or something like that. But at the same time it has a pretty dark undercurrent. This is kind of like the generation of the selfie where we are constantly curating the presentation of our lives, possibly more legalistic in certain senses than ever so, reaching for love and not the right kind.
It’s gone mad in the last few years, crazy.
MS: Yes but I can’t really blame social media. I think they provide a place for many things to happen it’s just some environments bring out good things and some environments bring out both good and bad.
I reviewed the album last year for xsnoize. I know you’ve talked about it before but that song Sweetie Little Jean is lovely but obviously very sad, tragic circumstances.
MS: Thank you. Well that song is actually about depression.
Oh sorry I thought...
MS: No it connects. So it’s about depression and I was just thinking about how depression basically can rob you of the presence of someone. Even if they are sitting beside you it’s as if they are a ghost, as if they have been stolen from you. At the same time on this record my brother’s always talking to me about how my memory tends to fail me more often than not and how that’s connected to possibly just like a lot of really intense adversity when we were younger and things that happened. So at the same time I was trying to face a lot of things from the past and one of the things that was so traumatic in kind of like a passing from innocence into like, what do you call it, just kind of like a realisation that the world isn’t all good. But there was a girl that was abducted from our neighbourhood so I used that story to cut through our story about like manic depression or whatever.
How did get Dan Auerbach get involved in making the record?
MS: We became friends over the years just touring together and they were the type of guys that we instantly felt natural with almost like they were buddies that we went to school with, high school, growing up, that kind of thing.
So you connected with them?
MS: Yes and during the tour when they were supporting Turn Blue and we were supporting Melaphobia we toured together supporting them and on a day off we just went over to Dan’s hotel room and we were all hanging out sharing ideas and stuff. I think that both of us had it possibly in our minds that we were curious to work with each other and it just became very apparent that he would produce this album.
Did you go into the recording studio with any idea of how it would sound the record? Did you have a specific idea before you went in?
MS: I think we all had different ideas and I think that they were all different in the way it turned out as well and usually that’s how it goes. You have to leave yourself enough room to still surprise yourself I think.
Do you all work well together? Do you bounce ideas off each other, you and your brother?
MS: Yes I think there are times that we work really well together, there are times that we don’t but it works and I think the one thing that did work out the way that we had hoped is that we were reaching for a more timeless sound and we wanted to really learn some things like how to use restraint in a powerful way without losing the intensity, how to strip things back and how to simplify things.
How did you actually get into music? Was it in your childhood, was it like a specific record or did your parents play music?
MS: My dad played music. As long as I can remember he was in bands. In fact there are pictures of me and Brad when we were babies behind drum kits and stuff. Yes just grew up and then my parents got divorced and you know, got away from it for a little while and then our parents got divorced and then naturally, it’s funny, gravitated towards it to rebel against my parents who actually loved music. So it’s kind of funny how you end up retracing the footsteps.
What music does influence you?
MS: A lot. I think you always have your core influence that resurface over time.
Is there a particular band or decade? It’s a bit of a broad question.
MS: The sixties and fifties have always really heavily influenced us. All that rat pack stuff, Motown Stax records and then obviously like the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Tommy James and the Shondells, Donovan, the Zombies. The Zombies were huge for us, The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits, a lot of like 60s, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix…
All the good stuff.
MS: Yes. Other stuff too like obviously David Bowie, things like, one of our favourites: Talking Heads, The Germs, The Dead Kennedys, the Ramones, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Pixies.
I saw the Pixies here in Manchester.
MS: Oh did you?
Yes a few times.
MS: I saw them in LA, it was awesome. Neil Young is one of my favourite artists of all time. He’s just incredible.
Have you seen him live?
MS: Yes. He’s so good, such an amazing…I always thought that if I could somehow combine Iggy Pop with Neil Young on stage I would have made the perfect persona for the stage.
Crazy punk guy and folk rock guy.
MS: Well it’s like the pure honesty and then the pure character. If you are somehow able to like blend the two.
The Zombies I reviewed their album recently and they actually liked my review on Twitter. I was so chuffed.
MS: They tweeted us recently.
MS: We love the Zombies so much. I just think if they’d stayed together they probably would be one of the most influential bands to ever exist, the song-writing was that good.
Time of the Season.
MS: Yes. Tell Her No.
Yes. His voice is like velvet.
MS: And the songs, I mean, I think the song-writing is every bit as good as a Beatles record.
Yes and the Beatles did play here.
MS: That’s incredible.
I thought you might be interested in that. Have you got any favourite records this year or currently any favourite band now?
MS: This year? I really like that band Hinds. I really like, this wasn’t this year, a couple of years ago but Devendra Banhart’s record Mala. I just recently got into that and it’s pretty incredible, it’s perfectly informed, doesn’t compromise the playfulness of the record. It’s just really good. You can tell he did his homework and it also feels very free at the same time so that it doesn’t feel forced. There’s a band called Clear Plastic Masks and they are making a record now that’s going to be really great. The guys that we are touring with Chrome Pony, they’re great. Broncho, they are a great band.
So will you be crowd-surfing in Manchester tonight?
MS: You never know. Just keep it in the spirit of spontaneity.
Does your song-writing process flow, do you find it easy? Do you jam a lot together or do you have to go away and write on your own, you’ve got to be on your own to write?
MS: A bit of both really. I think all of us formulate ideas on our own and then we come together and try to find a way to marry those ideas cohesively or at least as cohesive as possible. I don’t know if it gets easier because when we were younger I think that, I’m only speaking for myself I put a lot of stock in persona, like clichés of the lionised heroes of rock and roll past. I think that when those are too heavily in the mix of the creative process it can damage the potency of the songs, so more and more trying to strip those ideas and characters away and lose styles. I used to try and absorb styles, now I try to lose it.
Was this an easier record to record than Melophobia?
MS: We all have different views on that. For the past two records it just hasn’t felt very easy for me. I think it’s because we’re, for me at least as far as an honest place in the heart I think we’re striking closer to the mark than we were when we were younger.
Is that because you feel like you’ve developed as a person?
MS: I think just allowing yourself to be naked, the transparency of it which can be pretty painful and it’s very easy to get too close to it.
Yes you’ve got to keep yourself protected haven’t you?
MS: Yes. You have to constantly like, every time you try to protect it’s harder to tear away the layers.
Yes. You’ve got to keep a bit of yourself for yourself haven’t you?
MS: Well I try not to. It’s easier to keep yourself for yourself.
That’s true. Well I think that’s it actually. Thank you very much.
MS: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
(And he did crowd-surf!)