The first time I listen to the finished mix of Melophobia is also the first time in six months I’ve seen Cage The Elephant lead singer Matt Shultz without a beard.
It’s near the end of summer in (sometimes) sleepy little Bowling Green, Ky., where we both live. Shultz has lived here on and off throughout his life. I’m relatively new to town.
It’s not a bad place to call home.
Nashville is about 45 minutes south on the interstate, and it’s hard to beat the local entertainment. Aside from Cage the Elephant, a number of successful up-and-coming indie acts call Bowling Green home, including Sleeper Agent, Morning Teleportation and Mona.
I haven’t seen Shultz since the last time I visited the band in the studio, and his clean shave matches his refreshed outlook.
In fact, this may be the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him.
“It’s finally over, the struggle is done, and the only thing left is to release the record,” he says.
He professes to be mostly satisfied with Melophobia, although things that he would go back and change always remain.
“There’s a duality to making a record,” he says. “There’s a part of you that loves the material that you’re making, and then there’s the part of you that always ridicules yourself; it’s never good enough.”
A big step in completing the album was accepting that it was “done.” And in order to accept that, Shultz had to decide what he wanted to accomplish.
With each album, the band has grown steadily in popularity, and Melophobia could provide a needed boost for the band’s career. It’s not as if expectations weren’t on Shultz’s mind when he and the band wrote and recorded the album.
But ultimately Shultz had to surrender “expectations” and focus instead on creative accomplishments.
“I wanted to capture the ups and downs of life, the peaks and valleys,” he says.
Melophobia is by definition the fear of music. The title aptly describes the journey and the mindset of Shultz and the band—rounded out by his brother Brad Shultz on rhythm guitar, Daniel Tichenor on bass, Jared Champion on drums and Lincoln Parish on lead guitar.
Shultz has endured the fear of birthing an album in more ways than one.
“It was a dark winter this winter,” he says. “It seemed to stretch on forever. It was just cold enough and always drizzling. It felt like we were in limbo.”
LIFE IN LIMBO
It’s early February in “limbo,” and at 2 a.m. Matt Shultz is drunk on my living room floor, trying to make my roommate’s speakers work.
It’s freezing outside, but Shultz walked here from the bar tonight
“Got it,” he says as a low hiss signals life in the sound system. He pulls his iPod out of his pocket and grins.
“Wait till you check this out.”
He hits the play button, and within seconds I can tell these new songs differ from anything the band has done. Sure, all of the signature parts remain: growling bass, 1990s alt-rock inspired guitar tones, manic rhythmic energy. But there’s something more ambitious going on. They’re more straightforward in structure, but sonically more experimental, and Shultz’s voice is at its most adventurous.
More than that, they’re really personal.
“I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” he says five songs in. Even though we’re listening to unfinished, rough demos, I agree with him.
He flashes another half-smile, but with fading enthusiasm. Soon, he’s staring into his beer pensively.
“It’s missing something,” he says.
I listen carefully. I hear some of the most interesting and affecting songs I’ve ever heard from Cage the Elephant.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, it’s good, but is it like one of the best things you’ve ever heard?”
At first, I’m not sure how to answer.
So I take a long swig of beer before confessing: no, in a world with Abbey Road and Slanted & Enchanted, it is not one of the best records I’ve ever heard. Shultz finishes up his beer and unplugs his iPod.
“I don’t know man,” he says. “I’ve just been thinking lately that I want to make something that’s just so original and unique that it changes things.”
I look at the clock. It’s 4 a.m., and at this particular moment, I can’t tell if he’s being bold or delusional, but that’s a feeling Shultz can evoke.
He’s been living like a townie these past few months, enjoying a long-needed break from touring, though he still plays surprise acoustic gigs and open mic nights semi-regularly. He’s been drinking more than he likes to lately, but songs have been pouring out of him like blood from an open wound.
Mostly though, he’s been racking his brain for ideas on how to make the “perfect” album. For months, he’s has been avoiding listening to music outside of local live shows, and when he has, it’s been all Christmas music all the time. This self-imposed exile operates as an experiment to see how a lack of influence affects his songwriting.
“I want it to be comparable to drawing a childhood friend from memory,” he says.
He’s tried a lot of different songwriting approaches these past months, including inviting friends over and interviewing them in the dark to try to compose lyrics out of their stream of consciousness.
“People were opening up to me and telling me incredibly intimate details,“ he says. “A few times I had people literally crying in my living room.”
Some of these new techniques will make their way onto Melophobia, in some form or the other.
But the best advice Shultz says he got all winter came from Morning Teleportation frontman Tiger Merritt.
“He said ‘You should stop writing lyrics to sound poetic and just write lyrics how you speak, because that’s poetic,’” Shultz recalls. “That really resonated with me.”
BACK TO THE STUDIO
Since recording its last record, Thank You, Happy Birthday, Cage the Elephant’s longtime producer Jay Joyce has moved his studio to a church in Nashville, placing his mixing board right where the altar would stand.
Joyce rarely sits there though. Mostly he paces back and forth in his Air Jordans and chain-smokes cigarettes, the ashes falling to the floor—a hellish analogy for sometimes hellish work.
It’s mid-April and in this session, horns are being tracked for the song “Teeth.” Saxophonist Jeff Coffin of Flecktones and Dave Matthews Band fame is leading the section, though neither of the Shultz brothers recognizes him. Aside from Matt and Brad Shultz, Joyce, and a few engineers, the studio is empty. Both brothers are in good spirits, dancing along with the tracks and occasionally offering some input.
At one point, Joyce and Matt have a disagreement over a horn part, and without missing a beat, Joyce tells the section to play it Matt’s way.
“The thing about Jay is you don’t ever see him work his magic,” Matt tells me.
Later Matt gives me a tour of the place and talks to me about the recent recording sessions. He’s happy with the progress they‘re making, but he admits it hasn’t been easy. Tempers have flared a few times, with the Shultz brothers even getting physical with each other at one point.
“We’ve really pushed each other to our limits this record—everyone in the band,” Matt says.
We head back to the break room to get some coffee and play with Matt’s new dog, Zeppelin. Matt tries to play me a piece he’s working on for the guitar, but he gets frustrated when he can’t play it to his satisfaction.
“I hear parts that are more complex than I can play,” Matt says. “I always have to sit down with someone and show them my broken ideas.”
Joyce and Brad come in, and the three start reminiscing and telling funny stories while the horn section clears out. Joyce is as funny as he is knowledgeable, and it’s easy to see why the band has had one producer for the majority of its career.
“He’s kind of like a family member to us,” Brad tells me later. “We can have serious arguments, or we can have a big family dinner with Jay. He just gets our band. He gets us as people. He gets us as musicians.”
Brad and I grab some lunch a few blocks away while Matt finishes his vocals. At lunch, Brad gets a call from his wife, Lindsay, which ends up lasting most of the meal. Lindsay is more than just Brad’s wife. She often handles touring responsibilities and helps him stay organized from day-to-day. The two have been together for more than 10 years, and Lindsay will give birth to their daughter in September.
But today Brad and I just talk about the production work he’s been doing on the side for local bands such as Bad Cop and Plastic Visions. Since achieving some commercial success, Cage has made a habit out of helping smaller bands, especially locally. “When we hear a band that we really love, and we’re able to help that band in any form, I feel obligated to try to do that,” Brad says.
Doing these favors has lit a fire under the local music scene, due to the subsequent success of bands such as Sleeper Agent. It has also been a burden at times for the Shultz brothers, who have been criticized locally for giving “preferential treatment” to bands.
But that hasn’t hardened their hearts to the importance of local music.
“I don’t take it to heart—people are going to say what they’re going to say,” Brad says.
“The only thing we can do is surround ourselves with people we trust and look at it as true friends.”
LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY
So it comes as no surprise four months later when Cage the Elephant announces it will debut the new material from Melophobia at Tidball’s. The 150-person capacity bar located in downtown Bowling Green has been a staple venue for the band since when it was called Perfect Confusion. The band plays a surprise show there every year, charging only $5 a ticket.
Today a line a block long forms three hours before Tidball’s opens.
Inside, Cage runs through its soundcheck before checking on logistics. True to its reputation, it’s a local affair complete with a local crew and local music cooperative and media firm, Yellowberri Music, taping the entire show.
In a few weeks, the band opens for Muse at Nashville’s 20,000-capacity Bridgestone Arena, but tonight’s show will equal that spectacle.
Matt is dressed normally when I last see him, but when it comes time for the show, he arrives on stage dressed in nothing but tight white pants and makeup.
“Anytime I get to wear women’s attire and makeup, it’s a fun time for me,” he tells me later.
During the show, he hangs from the rafters, crowd surfs and even dances on the wall. This is typical for a Cage show. Even when he’s not wearing costumes or pulling stunts, Matt is an exhilarating performer.
The band practices long hours during weekdays in Nashville, where most of the band members live. Matt drives down at noon and doesn’t get back to town until it’s dark, which he says is necessary for the band both dexterously and creatively.
“When you read about the great classical composers, between theory lessons and composing, they were working on music 15 to 18 hours a day,” Matt says.
After finishing up the new tracks, the band closes out the show with some older songs, before announcing a house party nearby—also typical for a Cage show. Even when they’re not playing, the Shultz brothers maintain a social presence in town.
“The great thing about Bowling Green is there’s nothing to do here but hang out with your friends and be creative,” Matt says.
Instead of sticking around, Brad drives home early with a very pregnant Lindsay, which is understandable, but uncharacteristic behavior for the soon-to-be-father.
The last time he played Tidball’s was the band’s Perfect Confusion reunion gig, where the members got so drunk that Brad ran from the stage to throw up outside.
“Having a daughter changes the way you look at things,” Brad says.
FEAR BUT NO LOATHING
“It’s not so much a fear of music as it is a fear of creating music to project premeditated image, like to cater toward cool, or commercial, or to try to appear intelligent or intellectual or poetic, rather than just being an honest communicator,” Matt says when I ask about the record’s name. “A fear of creating music under the cloak of fear.”
It’s a week before Melophobia debuts, and he is chatting with me between the plane rides and radio spots which have come to fill his days.
He hands the phone off to Brad for a minute, and I ask him what the album’s title means to him.
“For me, there are a lot of moments of fear,” Brad says. “Getting over that fear was one of the biggest parts of writing this record. It brought us together as a band. A lot of time when we first start writing a record, I’m sitting at my kitchen table fucking beating myself in the face metaphorically, just coming to a realization that I don’t have anything left in the tank, and then slowly but surely coming back.”
Tomorrow Brad’s daughter, Etta Grace Shultz, will be one month old.
He hands the phone back off to Matt, who explains to me where their new philosophy comes into the music.
“I wanted to take on the creative posture of an artist like David Bowie, where he used everything available to him, the furthest reaches of technology,” Matt says. “He pushed it to its limit, rather than relying on what had already been deemed cool by society.”
Rolling Stone is streaming the album online and reviews are already starting to pop up. But Matt says he hasn’t even thought about that yet.
“It’s hard to trust,” he says.
Instead, he tells me he’s focusing on being an honest communicator—in life and in music.
“If you really want to touch people’s hearts, you have to shed that fear and give some of yourself,“ he says. “More of ourselves were poured into this record than any record prior. I hope to continue forward with that and try to make music courageously rather than strategically.”
I ask him if it’s nice to be on the other side of the fear—even just for the moment—to have the weight off of his mind.
He just laughs.
“I don’t know if that weight will ever be off my mind.”