With their first two albums, 2009's eponymous effort and 2011's Thank You Happy Birthday, Cage the Elephant managed to do what few contemporary rock bands have accomplished. They've straddled the line between public radio cool and commercial radio success, without pandering to either camp. Which means you're as likely to hear them sandwiched between Best Coast and Brett Dennan on public radio as you are alongside Linkin Park and Stone Temple Pilots on your big commercial rock station.
Which brings us to their new album, Melophobia, out on Oct. 8. The Bowling Green, Kentucky-spawned quintet is best-known for such hits as "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" and "Shake Me Down," but don't look for a rehash of those hits on Melophobia.
Singer and occasional guitarist Matthew Shultz explains that when he and his bandmates -- his rhythm guitarist brother Brad Shultz, lead guitarist Lincoln Parish, bassist Daniel Tichenor, and drummer Jared Champion -- decided on the title for the album, which is defined by various online dictionaries as "the fear of music," they weren't just pulling names from a hat.
"For us, it's not necessarily a fear of music," he says. "The more that we dive into this, with each record, it's almost like taking on a fear. It's always about defeating these preconceived notions of what we sound like. There's always this extreme pressure to cater to cool or to try to fit into a sound that maybe we perceive society deeming as artistic or intellectual, rather than it being what it should be, which is an outlet to express yourself and create and communicate. For us, it's just a fear of our intentions being pampered or not being to stay true to our convictions. Does that make any sense at all?"
Before you dismiss Shultz's explanation as a bunch of poseur-like hogwash, hear him out. It does really sound like he's making the extra effort to try to something new. We ask him if it's becoming more difficult for the band to make new music without repeating themselves. He agrees, sort of, before veering off on an explanation that makes him sound a bit like Bill Nye the Science Guy.
"It's almost like you look at an atom under a microscope, you look at them at a molecular level; every time you look, you see the smaller particles, and we develop stronger microscopes and it goes deeper," he explains. "For us, it's like shedding our protective selves, this image that you create as a protection, the more transparent you become. The more you try to be naked and honest, it's just never ending," he adds. "Someone, I can't remember who it was, said once, 'If you're not slightly embarrassed by the lyrics you're singing, you're not writing good songs.' That really struck a chord for me."
Perhaps that quest for intimacy and naked honesty explains why the first single from Melophobia is "Come a Little Closer," a top 10 hit on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart. Over a trippy groove, Schutz sings, "Things aren't always what they seem to be...Do you understand the things that you would see?"
We remind Shultz that it was Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse who he quoted about writing embarrassing lyrics. That sufficiently jogs his memory and he adds it was his friend, Tiger Merritt, who is signed to Brock's Glacial Pace label, who told him about Brock's tip, along with one of his own. "He said that I should stop trying to write lyrics to sound poetic and write lyrics the way I speak in conversation, because that's way more poetic."
At first, the tip took him aback, but then it became a "light bulb moment" for Shultz. "I had a revelation. Every single day I hear people say the most beautiful things that are very animated and colorful when they're not trying," he says.
To capture that, Shultz started to invite his friends over his home. He'd crack open a bottle of wine and listen as they spoke, while seated at his trusty Brother GX-6750 electric typewriter, which he purchased while making the album. "They'd start telling me about their lives and I would just pull random phrases from the stories they were telling," he says. "I might embellish them a little, or put some color into it, but it was really a fun experiment."
Of course Shultz could type on a laptop, but he says he prefers a typewriter. "It's just this aesthetic thing that makes you feel like you're doing something special," he says. "The whole sound and the rhythm of it and the whole experience as you hear the typewriter strike."
Musically, Cage the Elephant also tried to take a different approach. In the past, Shultz admits he'd listen to a bunch of different artists and tried to synthesize those influences into the band's sound. This time around, he tried to avoid music altogether. "Granted I was surround by bands and musician friends and we were playing music the entire time, and I may have seen another band play, but I tried not to listen to music recordings." The music ban gave the band a new challenge. "This time when we were writing it was more like trying to draw something from your childhood purely on memory," he says. "It was just incredible how my mind would create sonics based on emotions and they were sonics that didn't even exist on the original recording" that may have served as an inspiration.
Shultz cites David Bowie as an influence, noting how he's been able to take nostalgic '50s influences and make them modern with aid of technology. He also expresses desire to create music that not only the band's fans can enjoy, but also his parents would find appealing, adding that famous TV themes such as "Suicide is Painless" from "M.A.S.H." and the "The Love Boat" theme were also inspirations.
Melophobia features a guest spot from the Kills/Dead Weather singer Allison Mosshart, who duets with Shultz and co-wrote the surf-spy rocker "It's Just Forever." Shultz says, "She came in and sang on that track and she wrote some lyrics; she's so good. She came in and it was literally like 15 minutes of tracking and we were done and then we sat around and hung out. Great person, extraordinary voice, so naturally gifted it's ridiculous."
While Cage the Elephant continues to have an earthy natural sound through much of Melophobia, the band isn't afraid to utilize technology. "We wanted to create a guitar record that was able to sonically do some things that only electronic music is doing right now," he says. "There's a beauty in being a fundamentalist, but it has its downfalls as well. I don't want to cut my nose off to spite my face just to be able to say we made a record with guitars, bass, and drums."
- Cage the Elephant
- Matthew Shultz