Interview with Cage the Elephant’s Brad Schultz
– by Ria Nevada
Southern rockers Cage the Elephant are sitting pretty these days. Their single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” catapulted them into the limelight in 2009, and their latest record Thank You Happy Birthday has been a sensation on American, Canadian and European music charts. To top it off, prolific bands the Black Keys and Foo Fighters have handpicked the boys as their opening act on their respective North American tours this summer.
Originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky, most of Cage the Elephant‘s members are now based in Nashville, America’s hot spot for country blues. A couple of weeks before the band’s June 27 show opening for the Black Keys at Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, B.C., guitarist Brad Schultz spoke to us by phone about the diverse and sometimes rebellious nature of these cities’ music scenes. We also discussed the difficulties in writing a sophomore record and their unlikely sources for inspiration.
Ria Nevada: Thanks for giving us a call all the way from Nashville! But you guys are originally from Bowling Green?
Brad Schultz: Yeah we um, well we’re all originally from Bowling Green. Three of us had moved to Nashville and two are still die-hard Bowling Greeners. We all love Bowling Green.
RN: It just so happens that one of my favourite films is Nashville, by Robert Altman. Have you seen it?
BS: Oh, no. But I’ll have to check it out now.
RN: Well the film shows a lot of eccentric personalities in Nashville’s music scene. What do you think makes that city such a great breeding ground for rock and roll?
BS: A lot of it is that Nashville has been seen as the “country school” for so long that there’s this little kind of revolt against it. [Laughs] I think bands were just so pissed that Nashville was considered just a country town. [Laughs]
RN: So Nashville’s a bunch of rebels?
BS: Oh I don’t know about that. To be honest, there’s a lot of bands that come out of Nashville, but Bowling Green, our home town, for the size of town that it is, it’s 35,000 people, there’s us, we’re recording and doing whatever we’re doing, then there’s a band called Morning Teleportation. They just played the David Letterman show. To me they’re the best new band in the South. They’re friggin’ amazing. They just recorded their album with Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. And uh, they’re just ridiculously good.
And then there’s a band called Sleeper Agent and I think they just got the top 5 most played on Alternative Nation. So Bowling Green’s always had this music scene that’s cool.
Watch – Sleeper Agent, Celebrasion teaser:
There’s another band called Government Cheese that came out in the ’90s. They had a song that was called “Tripping on Acid”. Oh no, I mean “Camping on Acid” [Laughs].
RN: I’ll have to check those out! So with your newest record, Thank you Happy Birthday, your brother Matt really took a turn with his writing. What led to this burst of optimism that we can hear on the record?
BS: We all went through a phase where um, we were all writing songs. We would compile probably 50 songs and they were all in the vein of what we though Cage the Elephant, or what everybody expected from Cage the Elephant. They were just really uninteresting to us, and artistically unchallenging.
Also, me and Matt, we’ve always written together. And Tichenor and Lincoln, you know, they write, and we kind of all write in cycles. And so, we’re constantly all writing. And I think that’s what gives it a different mix.
On the first album, me and Matt had written a lot of songs, and Tichenor and Lincoln came in and added some parts. And Jared’s always been the drummer with me and Matt since high school. On the new album, everyone kind of contributed more.
We all were writing separate individual songs. And with those separate individual songs we were poking around and considered them to be side project songs, or whatever. But those were all the songs that we were all excited about and the other batch of songs just irked us. Nothing felt natural, nothing felt right. And so, we just ended up scrapping all those songs.
RN: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering. I heard that there were 80 odd songs that you guys wrote in the UK and never put on the record?
BS: Yeah, it was more like 50 or 60 I think. [laughs] It all gets sort of blown out of proportion. But yeah, we’ve got thousands of songs! [Laughs] We recorded about 50 songs and we scrapped them all. It changed our outlook on the way that our band is going to continue to work for the rest of however long this band lasts.
We just got to a point where we can write whatever, like whatever these 5 people write together is Cage the Elephant. And I think that’s what people can expect from our album. And it will probably continue to change for every other album.
RN: So you won’t be contained by any genres or expectations, right?
BS: Exactly. I mean, that was one of the most depressing things that I ever heard Kurt Cobain say. It’s that he felt like he had – you know, he was writing amazing music – but artistically he was dying inside because he felt like he had pigeon-holed himself. And he even made jokes that he was gonna write a new wave album.
RN: Just to piss everyone off!
BS: Yeah, just to get out of, have something artistically, that was, you know, be something totally out of his element. I think our album is like, whatever song that we write, what comes natural is gonna be Cage the Elephant.
RN: And what’s the story behind you finding him lying down in the leaves while you guys were trying to write the record?
BS: Well, that’s partly due to um, to uh, Matt’s unwillingness to write lyrics before we entered the studio. [Laughs] And partly due to him trying to find creativity anywhere that he could find it. He was just trying to bring himself back to a point where he was a child again. Some smells, a sound, a crack, you know, something that was going to give him a memory that was going to inspire him.
And so, we were all inside, we were doing the song “Flow” and Matt wanted the lyrics to be, uh… what’s the word? Oh gosh, I wish I knew the word to say this. He thinks the purity, when something just comes out naturally, and you first say it, it means it the most, you know what I’m saying. If you overthink it and put too much icing on it to make it pretty…
RN: Then it comes out too contrived?
BS: Exactly. And so, so he wanted everything to flow at the studio. He’ll have vocal melodies and he might even have a verse or what he wants the song to be about, but he wants it to be totally, not contrived.
Anyway, we’re doing the song “Flow” and Matt was having a tough time, you know, just coming up with stuff.
RN: So he played in the leaves.
BS: It got to the point where Jay Joyce would come into the studio and say “What do you have for me, Matt? You got anything?” [Laughs] And Matt would be like, “Goddangit!” He would get so frustrated with himself. So he just goes outside. He’s outside for probably 30 or 45 minutes. We took a break and um, our engineer is like, “Why is Matt rolling in the leaves and beating trees with sticks?” And we all snuck out there and he was like rolling in the leaves. And we all started laughing, but it worked! He just laid down a whole verse!
RN: That’s awesome! So I do have to congratulate you guys for landing the opening spot for the Foo Fighters upcoming tour, and you’ll be coming to Vancouver soon supporting the Black Keys. Were you big fans of the bands even before signing up for the gigs?
BS: Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. Well, you know, Dave Grohl is a staple in music. And the Black Keys… I don’t think you can call them a young band because there have been so many albums, but as far as people look at them they’re one of the newer bands, and they’re one of the most exciting bands to come out in a long time.
We had the chance to meet Dave Grohl at the KROQ Weenie Roast in LA. He came and watched our last two songs of our set. And then afterwards, he was like, a super nice guy, he was like “Great set. We’ll have to do some stuff together some time”. And were like, that’s so awesome that Dave Grohl said that to us and one of our guys with our management was like, “You know, he’s only said that to bands like four of five times and he’s always taken them on tour.”
We were like, “Maybe he’ll take us!” And it was kind of like a pipedream. Then two weeks later, we get an email that says Dave Grohl sends you an invitation to join the tour. I was jumping, I was like a little kid! [Laughs]
RN: Then you started jumping in the leaves!
BS: Yeah exactly, we beat trees. That’s what everyone does!
RN: Well I know you have a busy schedule, so I’ll let you go, but thank you for taking the time to talk to us at Guttersnipe!
BS: Oh it was my pleasure. Thank you so much!