by Lara Manbeck
In their fourth studio album, “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” Cage the Elephant carves through various decades of rock while maintaining a modern, psychedelic flair. Producer Dan Auerbach’s stylistic influence is clear as rambunctious, bluesy bass-lines in songs like “Cry Baby” and “That’s Right,” which are smoothly contrasted by steely ballads like “Trouble.” While frontman Matt Shultz’s boisterous, gritty voice is familiar in sound, his lyrics contain a new, dreary introspectivity, illustrating the band’s ongoing effort to achieve lyrical transparency and establish their unique sound. WSN recently spoke with front-man Matt Shultz about the creation of the band’s latest album, his thoughts on our generation and his definition of modern music.
WSN: “Melophobia,” your third album, was about finding the band’s own voice and maintaining a naked honesty in your music. Did you keep this commitment to honesty while writing “Tell Me I’m Pretty?”
Matt Schultz: Yeah, for sure. I think, at least for myself, when I was younger I put a lot of stock into persona. I used a lot of characters and styles as a sort of protection against being held overly responsible for whatever honesty was in the songs. I was hiding myself a lot. And you know, with each record, I feel like we’re continuously working towards more transparency and peeling away those stylistic safeties or those characters. Each record’s kind of been an effort working towards that. “Melophobia” was pretty on point, but I think there’s more of ourselves in this album.
WSN: What was it like to work with Dan as a producer?
MS: One of the benefits of Dan Auerbach as our producer was that he kept us from getting in our own way or over-analyzing things. I felt unnatural in this record when I was taking on characters; it didn’t feel genuine to me. There were many times, where, at the end of the song, it was just a difficult process. I’d feel very uncomfortable about the song or would dislike it because of some deep seated self-hatred. [Laughter.] He was really great at stopping us at over-working things.
WSN: Was there a difference in the recording process without Jay Joyce and Lincoln Parish?
MS: You know, prior to Lincoln’s leaving the band, and when we were working with Jay, we spent very little time preparing for records. We spent a lot of time in the studio, constructing and deconstructing songs. Without Lincoln in the group, and working with Dan, we spent a considerable amount of time preparing, and less in the studio. It was very different in that way. In other ways, everyone in the band has always been heavily involved in the writing, and so I think a time like this, where there was a lot of adversity. Not to downplay Jay’s contribution or anyone’s contribution to the album; they’re both really talented, great guys, and are missed. But I think there were very positive changes that came from the adversity.
WSN: Why did you name this album “Tell Me I’m Pretty?”
MS: We’re a generation concentrating on the curation of our lives, and we’re all guilty of this on various levels. It made perfect sense to use a name that on the surface level is very tongue and cheek but also has a dark underbelly.
WSN: What was the inspiration behind the song “How Are You True?”
MS: I was in New York and I was coming home, catching a flight back to Nashville. I was coming down on the jet bridge and I saw this young kid that was very flustered and creating a commotion. I don’t know, it was really strange for me — I just had this feeling I was supposed to talk to this kid. I instantly saw a bit of myself in him. I went and got on the plane, and sat down, and lo-and-behold, he sits right beside me. We started talking, and he told me some things about himself, and it was a really intimate conversation. His name ended up being True, which I thought was really symbolic. He was just pouring his heart out to me about some things that were going on about his life and he was headed to Nashville to take care of some of that stuff. So, we had planned to maybe meet up, but I emailed him and never heard back. So I was just curious as to how he was doing, and I thought, maybe if I were to write a song and put it on the record, he’d know that maybe I was thinking about him. And I thought, maybe instead of writing it about him, I thought I’d write it about myself and my own struggles and that, hopefully, he could relate to it and get some kind of encouragement.
WSN: Cage the Elephant is often categorized as a bluesy or psychedelic rock band. You’ve said that rock music can’t “be pinned down to a specific time or instrument,” but do you consider yourself a rock musician?
MS: Honestly, I don’t feel any responsibility to conform to a specific genre, and I don’t think any of the bands I really love feel that way either. I think we allow the song to kind of guide the stylistic approach, whatever ever it lends itself to. There’s a certain kind of sound, um, this raw, grittier sound that is more unprotected and vulnerable. And I don’t know, I was thinking a lot about this honestly. All these streaming services have been emerging, and they offer discovery modes, and based on algorithms based on your musical selection, they’ll send you artists that you might potentially be into. I just think that this idea of “current” is very much changing very rapidly. We’re all familiar with the term retro or throwback but all of a sudden, people like Nina Simone are just as relevant as Adele. It’s crazy how music has changed that way. Music today is more based on —and maybe I’m reaching here— a level of honesty in it that’s culturally informed and has this feeling of history in it.
“Tell Me I’m Pretty” was released on Dec. 18. You can buy it on iTunes or stream it on Spotify.
Lara Manbeck is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.