Cage The Elephant's Matt Shultz on how depression influenced their gritty new album
Kentucky rockers Cage the Elephant returned with their fourth LP, Tell Me I’m Pretty, last week. Produced by Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach, the set sees the group heading toward late 1960s rock. The record’s 10 tracks reference the classic American acts that first influenced the group, while vocalist Matt Shultz weaves meditations on depression and darkness throughout.
EW recently caught up with Shultz about the group’s new sound, working with Auerbach, and a young man named True.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired the throwback rock sound on this album?
Matt Shultz: I had an incredible opportunity to play a Bonnaroo Superjam last year with [Doors guitarist] Robby Krieger. We did a Doors song, and I realized that classic sound was thing that I wanted to hear. It felt very modern.
During [our last record] Melophobia, we started trying things that we had held back from before [out of] feeling some sense of responsibility to stay true to genres. We really tried shedding that, to show a lot more of ourselves in the music. So that was something we were looking to take further.
How did Dan Auerbach get involved as producer?
We’d become pretty good friends over the years. During our last tour with [The Black Keys], we showed him a couple songs. We wanted a sound that was raw with a classic atmosphere, and he’s at the forefront of that sound. Right after [we showed him the songs], I got a text from him: “Dude, I’m making your next record!”
Where does a song usually start for you?
On this record it was more of an emotion or a desire to provoke an emotional response. That’s where they sort of started, but the writing happens many different ways. The direction, really — raw, gritty, and less thought-out — involved way more of an emotional approach. Sometimes it felt like journal entries and I had to pull back, it was too personal.
The main emotion seems to be one of dread and a very strong line of questioning of, “Why do I feel this way?”
I suffer from a little depression at different times and more often than not, I find myself in this place where I feel impending doom — it’s always lingering around the corner. Maybe I fixated on it and wrote a lot about it on this record.
What’s the story being “How Are You True?“
I was coming back from New York to Nashville and there was this young kid, super flustered, on the [airplane’s] jet bridge. The flight attendant asked him if he was going to Nashville to get a record deal and he was like, “No, my label is sending me to rehab.” He was kind of playing into the rock ‘n’ roll persona and I thought, “Oh no…” But I felt drawn to him; I had this feeling that I was supposed to talk to this kid. Low and behold, we get on the airplane and he’s sitting right beside me. We started talking and he just kind of tells me his story — it was pretty heavy. I was really moved. And then it turned out his name was True, which I couldn’t believe.
After, I wondered how he was doing and where he was. I felt like I should write a story about my own struggles. As a young man sometimes you feel like you’re isolated in your battle. I just wanted him to know that the struggle can be similar.
What made you choose the album’s title?
It’s about duality. It sounds like a lost New York Dolls title on the surface; very shiny and glossy. And then there’s also an underbelly, this idea [of] approval that comes from living in the selfie generation, like, “Tell me I’m the best.”
I was recently having a conversation with my family about whether or not we were more open with our lives than ever or more private. I kind of argue on the side that we’re more private because we’re constantly curating the way we want to be perceived. More often than not, little pieces of ourselves find their way into those projected images but not a lot that really speaks volumes about a person and their identity.