Interview: For Cage the Elephant, the war is finally over

Photo Credit: Neil Krug for RCA

If Cage the Elephant loathed their 2019 record Social Cues, no one would blame them. Actually, it’s a miracle that they still can even stomach revisiting it every night on their Night Running Tour avec Beck.

Bookended by numerous personal deaths amongst their friends and family and canceling a chunk of their European tour, the album cycle for the Kentucky group’s fifth studio album has been a lengthy sprint towards the light at the end of the tunnel, says guitarist Brad Shultz. It’s the perfect setup for a well-earned sob story (or 10), but circa summer 2019, Cage The Elephant don’t want that — they’d prefer to continue their communal recovery on the road. This Thursday (August 15), their on-the-road therapy session pulls up to Mansfield.

“That was tough, for a while, all of us felt like we were walking around in this half-dreamlike state, or half-nightmare-like state,” he tells Vanyaland. “But things feel really good right now. Even though Nick [Bockrath] just blew his knee out [laughs].”

Prior to their joint takeover of the Xfinity Center with Beck this week, Vanyaland hopped on the phone with Brad to rehash Cage the Elephant’s trying but ultimately “surprisingly refreshing” past few months. From their never-ending cycle of coping to the sporadic collab of “Night Running,” read on about the full circle of Social Cues below.

Victoria Wasylak: I know you went through an incredible amount of loss while putting Social Cues together. Does that affect your relationship with the record? I feel like it might leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Brad Shultz: No, it’s actually been really therapeutic, to be honest. Even after the record was done, this little dark cloud that was hanging over us continued to pour down rain, per se. A few days before we released “Goodbye,” one of our closest friends passed away, and that song took on a whole different meaning for us. I think that the more you talk about things, the easier it becomes, I guess. But as far as playing the record live, it’s a whole different thing, and we get more lost in the connection we’re having with the crowd. Also, it’s kind of refreshing to see some of these people that come out to the shows that are on social media and things like that, tell us how the record has helped them through some tough times. It’s been surprisingly refreshing and a bit therapeutic.

I can imagine it would also make you closer with the rest of the band to go through all of that together and process that together, over and over again onstage.

Yeah, we definitely bonded through a lot of different things in the time that we’ve been together, but this in particular has been trying at times. But through those trials, I think it definitely has grown us closer together. 

You were talking about when you were working on Social Cues, it kind of evolved as these hard times compounded, and you took one hit after another. Do you think the record would sound much different if none of these things had happened?

Yeah, I do. I mean, for us, we set out with a goal for our records to reflect the life that we’ve  lived previous to the making of the record, and we’ve always found it very important to have that reflection in each record, and to allow that and to tell an honest story. At the end of the day, for us, our art is supposed to be a reflection of life and that’s all you can do. I think if things had been different, the record by those guidelines would definitely sound different — I’m not sure what it would sound like [laughs]. The one thing that keeps coming around, to me at least, about all these hard times, is you are able to get a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, and that makes the different blessings around you that much more obvious. Not that these things that happened were a “blessing” in any way, but they did allow us to see the things that we were blessed with a little more easily.

Was there ever a moment when you where you had that feeling where you were finally at the end, were it seemed like “at least for now the worst of it is behind us”? 

Yeah, and then three of our friends died.

I’m so sorry. 

Yeah, it really was like a kick in the stomach. Right when things felt relaxed and everything was kind of back on track, and we were focused on the record release from January to March, we had three friends pass away in freak tragic accidents. Then that’s where we started to gain a lot of perspective from the record even being therapeutic to us, because then you see the record in a whole different light. A lot of lyrical content did have to do with Matt and his personal relationship, and also friends and family members that we’ve lost along the way, because even previous to us losing the three friends from February to March, me and Matt lost our cousin who was as close as a brother to us, my wife’s father passed away, we had a friend pass away who was literally at our show the night before.

We were hanging with him and he was just talking about getting his life on track, just different conversations about his journey through life, and then he passed away [the next day]. It’s just crazy. It makes you [in] very much of a reflective state. We’d like to have those people back with us, but we’re also very thankful and grateful for the time that we had with them, and even though it wasn’t as long as we envisioned it, it was a blessing.

And you said that all happened between January and March, and the album came out in April.

Well the friend that we had pass away, Tiger Merritt from a band called Morning Teleportation, and then a friend of ours, Billy Swayze, was killed in a car wreck, and he was just a friend that we had from the beginning of our band. Then he opened up this really cool studio, kind of like the “Field of Dreams” of studios, and he built it way out in the boonies of Kentucky. Literally, you had to follow this road that was called “spray paint road,” like the yellow brick road. It was crazy, all these kids come and spray paint the road at night. It was a very magical place. Then, another very talented young musician named Dylan Graves from Bowling Green [passed away]. Those were the ones from February to March. My cousin and family members and that sort of thing, that was actually before we started making the record. So in the past three years, we’ve literally probably lost 10 of our close friends and family. I mean, it’s just been brutal, as far as that goes. And now, hopefully we’re past all that [laughs]. Sorry — what was your question?

It’s okay, I wanted to ask you — when all those things were happening, especially you mentioned those last three folks that unfortunately passed away this year. You’re on track to put the album out in April, I’m sure there’s an ungodly amount of scheduling that goes into that, and you can’t really move the album release date. You’re trying to put all this together  – when do you have time to process any of this stuff while you have a label breathing down your neck to get all your ducks in a row to put out this record? 

We were honestly in a daze during the release. I mean, Tiger passed away the week, maybe two weeks before our release, and two days after he passed away we had to go down to Florida to play a show. I guess that’s one of the tougher things, is that even though these things happen, life doesn’t pause. Sometimes you just wish you had time to collect yourself, but that’s not the way things are all the time. That was tough, for a while, all of us felt like we were walking around in this half-dreamlike state, or half-nightmare-like state. But things feel really good right now. Even though Nick just blew his knee out [laughs]. That’s just the icing on the cake! You don’t want to sound too melodramatic or anything, you know. We are in a very good place. That happened to Nick, that was just something that just happened – he jumped off the stage and his leg bent backwards and created an ostrich leg, but sometimes that’s what happens when you jump a distance. But I wouldn’t group that into anything. Actually, we were almost done with that tour, we were halfway through that tour, and it’s good we got him back home, he got the surgery that he needed, and we’ll be ready for the Night Running tour. 

Well, I’m glad for that, at least. I didn’t really want to bring it up because I didn’t want to harp on all these unfortunate things that have happened. 

No, that’s life! That’s the thing we’ve been living through right now. But, like I said, the thing that has been very profound about all this is that there are so many things around us that are positive. Not that you totally take those things for granted, and that you absolutely have to need to have something bad happen to be able to see those, but in the state of reflection — for me at least – the thing that kept on coming to mind was just how many blessings I’ve had in life. Even the people that pass away, the time we had with them, like I said, was a blessing. Selfishly, you want to have those people back in your life, you just have to appreciate the time you had with them and hold the people that are here with you more near and dear.

I know you said that for this album, when you first started recording it, you didn’t really figure out the sound you wanted until a couple sessions in. Is it scary going in blind like that?

Every record is. Also, we kind of leave a certain amount of the record to discovery. And it’s hard to not totally manipulate the record selfishly, and have a certain envisionment of what you want the record to be, but we always try to at least gravitate towards letting the record speak for itself in a more overall perspective. Doing that takes time, and letting things unfold, and following your gut reaction on what excites you [and say] “okay, this is where we’ve hit something that we feel most excited about and that translates well to us.” Because any time we’ve ever been like “oh, we’re going in this direction,” it always feels contrived. And you go through some of that on the record. We’re human beings and each of us as members of this band have different likes and dislikes, and that plays a big part in the journey of the record. For us, when we all feel unified and we’re writing a group of two or three songs that we feel really are special, then we get a better grasp on what we feel like the record is going to be.

And it always changes from different phases within the whole recording process. I mean, even down to the mixing. Within the mixing of the record, there’s still some sort of discovery, and you have a general roundabout idea of that the record is going to be, because you have all the songs. When the dynamics change within the songs, and some songs that you don’t even consider to be a song that’s going to make the record, then you go to the mixing process and it creates a dynamic that you really didn’t see within that song, they can become one of your favorite songs on the record. We definitely found some of that within the mixing process too. It’s a pretty crazy up-and-down mindfuck that making a record is. [laughs] But I feel like if you’re uncomfortable, and you’re learning doing that, and you follow that journey, for us at least, that equals growth. That’s what we set out to do on every record – grow, and make an as honest interpretation of what we’ve been though and what we want to share with people.

In that sense, going in blind is the beauty of the process then, isn’t it?

Yeah, I mean, it really is. In the middle of it, you’re going through so much, so many different emotions — days where you’re like “yeah, we’ve conquered the world!” and days where you’re like “I don’t know where we are! We’re completely lost, maybe we have to scrap everything!” You know? But that’s how life is as well. Some days you feel on top of the world, some days you feel like you’re in hell.

The band has talked about not wanting to be tied to any one genre, and in 2019 genre is kind of a weird thing anyways, because you have so many cross-pollinations of genres and subgenres. How do you actively work on not getting pigeonholed?

One thing we did on this record was we didn’t even want to stay specific to the certain instruments that were our go-to’s per band members. You wrote a part on the guitar — does it translate best on guitar? What is going to help actually texture the song in the right way to translate the lyrical content for us? After you’ve written a song, then you can start to manipulate a bit and be a bit more intentional with the things you put into the song to create a dynamic to set the mood for the lyrical content. For us, that’s kind of how we’ve been doing things. And also, just naturally gravitating to what you’re excited about.

In the beginning of our career, or the beginning of this band – I hate saying “the beginning of our career” — we very much looked at ourselves as as rock and roll band, but we wrote other songs. It was like cutting our nose off to spite our face because we were like “oh, that doesn’t fit where our band is.” What is your band? Your band is you. If you’re writing  those songs, then that’s what your band is. We were getting rid of all these really good songs because they didn’t “fit” what we were. I think with [Thank You] Happy Birthday, our second record, we were trying to find exactly the dynamic of what it is, of what we are. Instead of just saying “hey, we’re a rock and roll band,” that record is all over the place.

There are songs that are just hardcore scream, music that could be representative of Black Flag or something, and then there’s songs that are very dainty and beautiful and psychedelic. I think we were very much finding who we were as a band and starting the journey on this mindset that we were discovering at the time. Then, Melophobia is where the light really came on for us. We found a way to write songs and put a vast difference of styles of music into one record but make them feel cohesive at the same time. Does that answer your question?

Yeah, you just have to honor what comes out of your brain and what comes out of your fingers.

And sometime things are going to come out that are garbage. But you have to suss everything out. Just because you write it doesn’t mean it’s God’s gift to the world. Maybe sometimes things are a bit too contrived. It’s really trying to follow your first, initial gut reaction and what you gravitate towards immediately. I make hundreds of phone memos, and at the time I’m like “okay, yeah that’s kind of cool,” but then there’s always this group that I go back to, and then I’ll find where I’ve recorded that particular riff or that kind of chord progression over and over and over different ways. It’s strange to see how I’m gravitating towards that song, but I don’t realize it in the moment. So you go back and listen and you’re like “oh wait, that one – there it is again, there it is again.” It’s a strange process.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Beck. You guys had said you had only met him once before you reached out for him to work on “Night Running.” What possessed you to do that?

Who knows? Spur of the moment, just popped into my mind, honestly! Matt had been trying to come up with a verse, he was having a bit of writer’s block on the verses for whatever reason, he got into his own mind. We had the choruses done, we had the track musically completely finished. I was pressing hard too, so I was probably giving into to Matt’s mind as well, because I wasn’t aware that he was in a place where he was worried he didn’t have it on that song. The more I pressed, I think I created more of a blockage. When I finally just let go and was like “okay, this song is gonna be what it is, we love the track, we know that. Let’s be creative, let’s problem solve.”

For some reason, I started thinking about doing maybe a feature that would spur on some kind of creativity. I guess the fact that we had just met Beck a few months previous, he was the first one who popped into my mind. On a whim, we sent him the track, and it’s one of those I guess “meant to be” things. Within a couple days, he sent back the two verses he has on the track, and then said he had four more verses. I was like “woah! This is crazy! A childhood heroes of ours is interested in doing a track!” As cliche as it sounds, it seemed like one of those things that clicked into place, everything lined up to be “meant to be.”

CAGE THE ELEPHANT + BECK + SPOON + SUNFLOWER BEAN :: Thursday, August 15 at The Xfinity Center, 885 S Main St. in Mansfield, MA :: 6 p.m., tickets start at $40.50 :: Advance tickets