Cage the Elephant have come a long way since their humble beginnings back in 2007. The Kentucky four-piece released their latest studio album Tell Me I’m Pretty to critical acclaim last December, having employed Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach as producer. We sat down with guitarist Brad Shultz last month in Amsterdam to talk about the new record, working with Dan Auerbach and where the band could go from here.
Hey man. How are you?
Brad: Yeah, good man!
You just released latest record Tell Me I’m Pretty. Can you just tell me a little bit more about the recording process and how the record came to be what it is today?
B: On this record we did a lot of, um…well, the difference between this one and Melophobia is the writing process. We were writing straight off the back of Melophobia, and we were pretty inspired by what we got through in that time during Melophobia. We did a lot of demoing this time, more than we had ever done before. The biggest difference was that we had a different producer, and that was Dan. We just wanted a lot more separation and we also wanted the intricacies of the music to be intentional, with certain instruments coming in and out. If you look at bands like The Beatles, they were great at that kind of stuff. They were always the best bands in doing that sort of thing.
Dan Auerbach produced the record, but how did the collaboration with him come about?
B: We just became friends through touring together, to be honest. We’d been on several tours with him over the past four or five years and we just became homies through just talking about music and just discussing different writing styles. We’d become inspired by him so it became evident that we would be a good match. When Matt (Shultz, vocals) and I were talking about the songs we were writing, Dan was like, “come up to my hotel room and play me some songs sometime”. Matt and I went up there, played him all the songs we had and when he left the hotel he texted back, “I have to produce this record!” [Shultz laughs infectiously]
So did you approach in a different way to any of your previous records? Or did Dan adapt to your way of working?
B: I think a little bit of both. Dan really likes to get a vibe going, which is very important to him. I actually think it’s more important to him than the technical aspect. On previous records, we’d been a band who liked to do multiple takes for the same part just to make it perfect. We’d take a track in every way, and sometimes to a point where you do something so many times that you lose the spirit of a song. We would do so much overdubbing that you’d ‘crowd’ the song with a bunch of unnecessary things that actually mask the song itself. Dan was really great at peeling back those layers and just allowing the bare bones of the song to speak.
Would you go back and change anything if you could?
B: I’m a bit on this kick of saying no to that, because I think every experience leads you to where you are in the present. I used to tell people that I hated my first record, but I think I more hated the fact of how people viewed that record. I really don’t want to change anything now and I really appreciate everything for where we were in that period of time because it really is a snapshot of where we were in that moment. So no, I don’t think I would change anything. I learnt from what happened, and in the long run it will change the perspective that I have.
And what would you say is the most important thing you learnt from when that first record came out to sitting here right now?
B: Ah shit, that’s hard to say. There’s so many things!
Something which sticks out in particular?
B: I learnt that you don’t have to just pile on stuff to make a song better. If it’s a great song then it’s a great song, and you just want to accentuate certain parts to evoke an emotion. I’ve also learnt not to force stuff. Before I would try to mould something stylistically and that takes away from actually having your voice speak. Now I just approach songwriting as playing. I play. I play guitar, I play whatever instrument is around. Sometimes you won’t find stuff, but sometimes something catches your ear and that’s when I immediately get my phone out and record whatever that is. Sometimes I’ll just move on from it, but if I come back to it because it’s constantly on my mind then I’ll build on that. Sometimes I come across something which I’m so obsessed with that I build on it straight away. There’s no, “I’m gonna sit down and write a song” vibe though. No, “it’s got to be a whimsical, psychedelic track”, y’know? I don’t fucking approach things like that anymore.
Earlier you said that Tell Me I’m Pretty was written right on the back of Melophobia. Would you call it a touring record, or an on-the-road album?
B: Not really influenced by the road, no. Melophobia was a really hard record for us to make.
B: There were several different reasons. There was some inter-band turmoil shit going on, and we were really pushing ourselves to be more honest and to have a voice of our own. In that, we realized that you can’t force that [cue another bout of laughter from Shultz]. And so when we finally got over the hump, Melophobia was the product of that. The end results were great, I’m really happy about that. It was just living hell getting up to that point, haha. Once you get past that, the grass is greener again which is quite inspiring! That’s kind of where the inspiration for this record also came from.
And would you ever work with Dan again in the future? Or is there a long list of other people you want to work with?
B: I’d definitely do another record with Dan. I’m not a fortune teller, though, so you never know. I really enjoyed the experience of working with Dan, though. If that was the path that’s meant to be, then I’ll walk down that path again.
Why did you decide to hold a Pledge campaign for the record? Because the album itself I take it wasn’t funded by fans in any way, right?
B: It wasn’t, no. The Pledge thing was something that was brought up to us so that we could do some things for people, like special items and stuff. We already had the record done when we did that, so it wasn’t a source of funding for it. It was more a way of enjoying aspects away from the music, like the visual aspect and shit like that. That was a chance for us to do things like the adult colouring book, which I think is super fun and cool. Everybody wants to be a kid again, so we threw a little more thought into it.
Away from Cage the Elephant, there are lots of artists who use crowdfunding as a genuine source of funding. Do you ever see crowdfunding as something which could become more commonly used for making money instead of needing money?
B: I don’t know, I’ve never really done any kind of crowdfunding thing before to be honest. I’m not really in tune with that whole side of the Internet I guess. I get the gist of it, though. I do think that it’s good for people to put themselves in a spot and get a whole group together to help somebody. However I also think it’s bullshit when someone is like, “Oh my dog has a vet bill and I can’t pay it” and they start a crowdfunding campaign, haha. Like, fuck you man! [continuous laughter from Shultz] I’m sure it helps people in certain ways, though. I don’t think it should be used for that kind of stuff, but who the fuck am I to judge?
You just mentioned that the visual aspect is also very important. For this record, did you work on most of the visual stuff yourselves or did you work with a whole team of people who came up with ideas for you?
B: We generally worked with Clint Colburn, who has done all of our artwork since the beginning. For this record, we all had different ideas of how everything should look. With the title of the record, Tell Me I’m Pretty, Matt had this idea of the girl; someone that was pretty, but who also looked like they had lived life and been through things. Matt did the whole record cover.
So what can we expect from Cage the Elephant for the rest of 2016?
B: Who knows, I don’t! I mean there’s obviously gonna be a lot of shows; we’re doing a tour in the States with us, Silversun Pickups, Foals and Bear Hands. We’re also about to announce a headlining tour which is gonna span from May till the end of July. We’re also gonna come back over to Europe in August and September to do some festivals.
Stuff like Reading & Leeds or Lowlands?
B: Hahahaha no man I can’t say! I will say that they’re European festivals in August though!
See you in August then!
Tell Me I’m Pretty is out now. Watch the video for Mess Around below.