Cage The Elephant Interview: From Bowling Green to Nashville via Leyton.
Cage The Elephant returned to London for an explosive show at The Forum, in support of their latest album Tell Me I’m Pretty. Having transplanted to London for a spell at the start of their career, playing to a packed venue in the city with songs from their fourth album, could be viewed as a rewardingly full circle. Before the show, the brothers Shultz – singer Matt and guitarist Brad – sat down with me (Imelda Michalczyk) and chatted about songwriting, where they find inspiration and the indelible impression England’s capital city made on them.
I understand you lived in London for a little while a few years ago?
Matt: For almost two years. We lived in the east. Leyton.
Is London a bit like a second home? Do you have good memories?
Matt: Oh yeah, totally.
Brad: We were all 22-24 when we moved over here. It was kind of the start of touring in general and the evolution of our band. It really opened our eyes to not only growing as people but experiencing music that we had never even heard of. A different approach to music.
Matt: In our hometown, where me and Brad grew up – Bowling Green, Kentucky – it’s a small, small town and there were really only two radio stations that you would listen to.
Brad: A college radio station and a classic rock station.
Matt: So our perception of music that had genuine conviction was very small. The things that we gravitated towards, that we felt were real, was great music, still is: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Rolling Stones. But we came over and all of a sudden we were exposed to so much more.
Did you get to see a lot of gigs when you lived here?
Matt: More the bands that we played with. Like Screaming Tea Party – they were the best band ever!
Brad: And Let’s Wrestle, a lot of those guys. But the first time we were blown away, we were opening for Foals. We were both putting our record out at the same time, our first record, and we did a little run with them. We got their record after the first show and we put it on in the van, on the way home, and literally no one said one word the whole time.
Matt: Oh gosh, we got to step up our game!
What are you listening to now, on this tour?
Brad: Foals’ new record. Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier. Chrome Pony. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Hinds. The Orwells.
Matt: Mild High Club. Clear Plastic Masks. Ranch Ghost. Fly Golden Eagle. Turbo Fruits. Twin Peaks, from Chicago. Kurt Vile’s new record is really great.
Brad: Nashville has an incredible music scene, where we live.
Matt: I’ve been obsessed with Devendra Banhart’s new record Mala. It’s freaking genius. Then, just by reading some articles about him, I found this guy named Rodrigo Amarante and he is really special. There’s some Brazilian jazz influence in there, but it’s not too heavy, it’s got a lot of folk influence. It’s not like folk like maybe in a modern understanding of what folk is, but it’s really great stuff and he’s super clever.
I last saw you almost five years ago to the day when you played The Garage. I remember how dynamic it was with a lot of crowd interaction. I think you lost a shoe during crowd-surfing.
Matt: [Laughs] OK, sounds right.
How do you prepare for a show? Do you have a sense of what’s going to happen or is every show very much of itself and you just see what happens?
Matt: We definitely try to live in the spirit of spontaneity and try not to plan it out. In fact, if there’s certain things I feel myself like catering towards in the set, over and over, I always try to throw it off somehow by putting myself somewhere different.
Are there particular bands whose live shows really inspired you before you started performing?
Brad: Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Gang of Four
Matt: Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Doors, Neil Young. I always thought it would be magical if you could somehow mix Iggy Pop and Neil Young [laughs]. David Bowie, obviously.
Brad: All the footage of The Beatles live too, they’re just something special. They were having the best time on stage.
Matt: And The Stones. The Beatles and The Stones seemed like they were foaming at the mouth when they were playing.
Do you write songs when you’re inspired or do you treat songwriting like a craft, something you develop and set aside time for?
Brad: I think it’s both.
Matt: I kind of see it like fishing. You’re not always going to catch that really big fish but you just continue to spend time with it and, when the inspiration comes, it’s that much more powerful.
Brad: We both have hundreds of little ideas, starts of songs. Some of them turn into songs, some of them don’t.
Do you go into the writing and recording process with an idea of how it’s going to be – a direction or a message?
Matt: Yeah. I think that each time we make a record we all build up our own ideas of where the sound is moving or the approach. When we get together, it takes it’s own shape. You leave enough room for elasticity. I always feel like if we’re not surprising ourselves, as we’re writing the album, then we’re probably not writing the right songs.
Brad: We do have a rough idea of what we want but it always morphs and changes.
Matt: This record, going into it, we all wanted to make a record that was very much in a classic sound, that had nuances that spanned across a large amount of time, rather than being inspired by one particular time period. We were also really trying to just simplify things, strip things down. I don’t think we realised how much we were going to go in that direction. Once we started doing that we all really enjoyed it.
Where do you find your inspiration for songs?
Matt: For me it’s just like observation or personal experience. I always try to find something that’s real to sing about because I think it would be hard to sing about something that you have no convictions over. Early on, I personally put a lot of stock in persona and really believed in that and it was real to me. But I think there was a lot of fallacy in it and I think that it weakened the material, because I was trying to play a character.
What would you like someone leaving the show tonight to be taking away with them, as they walk out into the London air…?
Brad: Just a real experience. Something they felt a connection to.
Matt: Something that was genuine. I like to create moments where people can forget about their worries and connect to them at the same time, if that makes any sense at all.
Is that how you experience live shows?
Matt: Absolutely. I’m constantly trying to remember that I’m singing about things and that it’s not just this routine. I try to look at performances almost like a living conversation that you’re really trying to express or connect with people or get something across, make people laugh or whatever it is.
The brothers politely say goodbye and head off to get ready for the show. From Kentucky to Nashville, via Leyton – Cage The Elephant channel myriad influences to create something quite their own.
Interview and Photography by Imelda Michalczyk