Music critics who have witnessed the eye-popping spectacle that is a Cage the Elephant live performance have likened the band’s singer to many things, among them “a demented Bible Belt preacher,” “a Tasmanian devil in eye-wateringly tight jeans,” and “a preening, prancing, pirouetting narcissist with a penchant for pouting and whooping and jumping up and down like a frenzied gibbon.” And that’s just frontman Matt Shultz. One critic noted that the rest of the band members tend to strike the kind of stadium-rock poses more suitable to a massive arena than the sweaty dive they are playing. The verdict? “Exhilarating, 100 mph stuff,” raved British indie music bible NME about one of the group’s U.K. gigs last fall.
Cage the Elephant’s raucous live show — which made this red-hot Kentucky-bred quintet’s the talk of this year’s South-by-Southwest music festival, and led USA Today to single them out as a band not to miss at April’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — is the perfect showcase for their buzzed-about self-titled debut album for Jive Records. Recorded over 10 days with Grammy-Award winning producer Jay Joyce, and a Top 40 hit when it was released on British indie label Relentless in the U.K. last June, the album is a genre-defying blend of classic rock and roll swagger, youthful punk energy, and dirty, swampy blues, all propelled by Matt’s taunting, half-rapped vocal delivery, Brad Shultz and Lincoln Parish’s furious twin guitar assault, and bassist Daniel Titchenor and drummer Jared Champion’s rock-steady funk grooves.
“The music comes from a pure place,” Matt says. “There’s nothing I hate more than hearing music that obviously comes from a bullshit place. We really like the energy of music that feels passionate. Not emo passionate as in ‘My daddy touched me when I was a little boy and I can’t get over it and I hate the world,’ but raw, unplanned emotion. That authenticity was the feeling we were going for.”
And although the grooves are designed to make you move, there’s more going on in these shambolic party anthems than may first meet the ear. Lyricist Matt tells stories about his life, like his experience dealing with shady shit-talkers on the instantly addictive lead-off track “In One Ear” (sample lyric: “They say I’m just a stupid kid / another crazy radical / rock n’ roll is dead / I probably should have stayed in school / Another generation X / who somehow slipped up through the cracks / Oh they’d love to see me fall / But I’m already on my back”), then tackles corruption and hypocrisy on “James Brown” and religion and war on “Lotus.” Then there’s the first single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” in which Matt describes being mugged by a drug dealer and picking up a young female hitch-hiker he soon finds out is a prostitute. “That song is about realizing that everyone’s got a back-story and that essentially we’re all the same,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a priest, a coke dealer, or a prostitute, we all struggle with the same things, so how can we sit in judgment of others when each of us has something in our closet that we’d never tell anyone.”
Throughout the album’s 11-song cycle, Matt’s frustration with society is readily apparent. “But mostly you can hear the frustration I have in myself,” he says. “Like why did I buy into certain things the world has sold me? That’s where I was coming from when I wrote the songs — just looking at the world and realizing it’s full of hypocrites and I’m one too.”
Given Matt’s background, it’s not surprising that such searching subject matter would find its way into Cage the Elephant’s songs. The band members hail from Bowling Green, Kentucky — a town where working in the nearby Chevrolet assembly plant or Fruit of the Loom headquarters were the main employment games in town. “It was the kind of place where if you didn’t play football, or you were a little bit different, people thought you were gay,” Matt says. “My brother Brad played football and was really popular. I didn’t want to be part of that jock world. I liked music and thought playing in a band was cool. Forming Cage the Elephant was a rebellious thing — a way for us to carve out our own path instead of following the path created by the community that surrounded us.”
Matt and Brad were raised in a strict Christian household where secular music was not allowed. The Shultz brothers grew up poor, sharing a tiny room in the family’s two-bedroom trailer with two other siblings. “Our dad drove a supply truck and he was gone a lot,” Matt recalls. “There wasn’t any money or anything to do so we would make up goofy songs to pass the time.” At age 12, Brad bought a beat-up guitar from a neighborhood kid for $20 that he played until it literally fell apart. Not long after, Brad snuck home a cassette of Jimi Hendrix’s Live at Woodstock, which the brothers listened to obsessively for three years, cementing their love for rock and roll. A few years later, Matt bought Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’. “That was a huge, life-changing album for me.” he says. “Just the honesty in Dylan’s music and how he looked at society, it really opened my eyes to how blind we really are.” After the brothers’ parents divorced, the secular music floodgates opened and they began to devour everything they could find from the Beatles, The Ramones, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, and the Pixies, to name but a few.
“A lot of like bands put themselves in a box and say, ‘We’re not going to be influenced by anything,’ Matt says. “We don’t mind that our album shows our influences because you’re a product of your environment. If you love something it becomes part of you, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t become part of your music. Everything we love about music we wanted to put in our own music. We wanted to be our own favorite band.”