Let’s Not Forget About Cage the Elephant

After winning Best Rock Album at the Grammys twice in four years, the Kentucky six-piece became one of the biggest bands in America. After Matt and Brad Shultz lost their father in 2020 and Matt was arrested and placed in an inpatient treatment for a medically-induced psychosis in 2023, they’re back and as good as ever.

Music Features Cage The Elephant
Let’s Not Forget About Cage the Elephant

At 14, I wore out my copy of Cage the Elephant’s second LP, Thank You Happy Birthday. I was obsessed with “Aberdeen” and “Shake Me Down,” and I believed that Matt Shultz was my generation’s Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger—and if you ever caught a Cage set back then, you probably thought that once or twice, too. When my mom took me to the then-Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio to see the Black Keys play a homecoming show, we were both far more mystified by Cage the Elephant’s theatrics than the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it consistency of the Keys. Cage was the opening act, and they played like they had nothing to lose—ripping through a setlist heavy on cuts from their year-old album Melophobia, including “Take It or Leave It,” “Come a Little Closer” and, of course, “Cigarette Daydreams.” In the first half of the 2010s, it felt like they were primed to break out. By the decade’s latter half, they were one of rock music’s most lauded groups—slam-dunk festival acts, Billboard 200 regulars and, eventually, two-time Best Rock Album Grammy winners.

I think my mom and I both could sense that seeing Cage the Elephant in that forum and in that slot on the bill was going to be a fleeting luxury. And we were right—Shultz and the band quickly ballooned into critically-revered, decorated musicians who approached rock ‘n’ roll with a chameleon eye, fluttering through everything from post-hardcore to grunge to psych- and garage-rock to blues and dream pop. They’ve remained headliners ever since and, while “Cigarette Daydreams” certifiably transformed the band’s young legacy in 2013, they haven’t made a track that sounds like it since—refusing to remain stagnant in one mode for too long. Six albums in and Cage the Elephant have reformulated their own blueprint just as many times; their breakout hit, the “Loser” by Beck-progeny “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked,” sounds like it came from a planet far, far away from the underwater guitar distortion of “Ready to Let Go.” During a period when their peers, including the bands that once took them out on tour, have relished their own sonic consistencies, Cage the Elephant have shown no interest in treading the tires atop any previously mapped-out ground.

Such an ongoing exercise would explain why, musically, Cage the Elephant’s latest album, Neon Pill, sounds like a collage of everything the band (Matthew and Brad Shultz, Nick Bockrath, Jared Champion, Matthan Minster and Daniel Tichenor) has executed well over the last 15 years—and it all started five years ago, upon the release of their tour de force Social Cues. “From Melophobia on, I really felt like the band finally found its voice and we had an identity of our own,” Shultz tells me. “But Social Cues felt even more so, just solidifying a confidence and our own thumbprint. I felt like we found ourselves, musically. I also loved all the characters I used to tell the story within the album. It was fun to be those different characters on stage day in and day out.” On stage every night, Shultz would wear various costumes, ranging from masks to skin-tight spandex to gloves and illegible outfits caught somewhere between masquerade attire and business casual (though it’s never been confirmed whether or not he is the red spandex-clad cowboy on the Social Cues cover). He’d gone from putting exclamation points on the Jagger lineage to something far more original and unpredictable. And with songs like “Ready to Let Go” and “Black Madonna” in tow, Cage the Elephant had hit the stride they teased to that Cleveland crowd five years prior.

On the precipice of releasing Social Cues, Shultz told The Independent that it was “a miracle I’m alive.” He was living in New York and Los Angeles hotels for a year, spending money he didn’t have until making Cage the Elephant’s fifth record begged him to return home (not to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where the six-piece formed, but to something less tangible, likely the company of his bandmates). Social Cues wasn’t a break-up album, though Shultz did go through a divorce before and while it was being made; it was an album-length rumination on love and all of its strange, shocking and isolating pleasures and pitfalls. It was a real Jekyll and Hyde record, a document of the ways that the human condition flirts with monstrosity and elegance in equal measures and neighboring breaths.

And, as if out of some fucked up, twisted rock ‘n’ roll fable, Shultz, now 39, lived a Jekyll and Hyde life after Social Cues came out. After he and his brother Brad lost their father in 2020, he had been writing music for Cage the Elephant’s impending sixth album, and the band had been away from the road since November 2022. Though Shultz is candid that making every album helps him make sense of “life’s unpredictable twists and turns,” Neon Pill is grounded in a far more unexpected and life-saving revelation. In January 2023, he was arrested after cops found guns in his Bowery Hotel room in Manhattan. He pled guilty to weapons possession charges and took a no-jail plea deal. At the time, the consensus online was that Shultz had been strung out on drugs or intoxicated otherwise. Some considered his arrest as the first tumble in some “fall from grace” archetype that rock musicians have experienced over the 70-year history of the genre, as if the incident at the Bowery was something to romanticize—a reduction of his traumatic experiences to a disease he doesn’t have but has been surrounded by at various parts of his life (and wishes was discussed with more gestures of grace and empathy).

The truth of the matter was far darker than it just being a case of a singer partying too hard. Shultz had been, unknowingly, in the throes of a three-year, medically-induced psychosis. “It was a psychotropic medication that was prescribed to help, and that was one of the most painful parts of it,” he says. “It was something that I thought was not only helping, but saving my life. The flip-side of it was that it was poisoning my mind, destroying it. It really is one of those things that’s hard to understand unless you’ve actually experienced it. But I don’t recommend it.” That’s not to say Shultz didn’t hit rock bottom in some way or another. He just doesn’t know how to conceive it as such. “When you lose touch with reality in the way that I did, you really don’t think or rationalize the same way as a healthy person would,” he admits. “I felt like I was constantly being chased and that someone was trying to poison me and kill me.”

Upon his arrest, Shultz went into inpatient treatment for his psychosis and, two weeks into his hospitalization, he started to “come back and have good reality testing.” As he puts it, “a miracle pulled him out of it.” “One of the fascinating things about medication-induced psychosis is that it really is medication-induced psychosis,” he continues. “And, when you stop taking the medication for a decent amount of time, the psychosis subsides. It goes away. So, it really was this strange thing that was like someone had hijacked my life, my mind and I went into a coma and had a doppelganger out there living this alternate life. And then, to wake up and come back to it was a very strange experience. But it happened pretty abruptly, pretty quickly.”

Whenever a member of a band—especially a focal one like Shultz—goes through such a moment, the chatter always extends to the longterm. When Shultz pled guilty, talks reached a not-so-surprising conclusion: Is this the end of Cage the Elephant? But for him, that question was never on the table. “I was in such a bad place—as far as the psychosis—that I didn’t even think about whether or not the band would continue or not,” Shultz says. “But, in the same breath, I will say that I did always have the support of my bandmates and my family, my community. That’s probably why it never crossed my mind. It never really felt like an end to the band for me—although it was a terrifying experience and, in some sense, it felt like life was about to change very dramatically and, possibly, the rest of my life.”

Six months later, Shultz and Cage the Elephant began re-engaging with the material he’d written prior to the arrest in an effort to put the gears of Neon Pill back into motion. “A big part of the album was going back and trying to make sense of lyrics where, when I wrote them at that time, they felt very profound and had a super poignant meaning and were very specific,” he says. “But going back to the songs after I’d gotten off the medication and came out of psychosis, I had to go back and make sense of it all. The songs had no basis in reality, so I had to look more at what the sentiment was, what I was trying to express emotionally. The whole experience, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” From there, the band decamped to Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas to record the album.

Some of the tracks that made the final cut of Neon Pill, now released with the context of what happened in Manhattan last year, sound like they were written by somebody going through a metamorphosis, by someone remorseful for the consequences from a past life no longer being lived. “I really messed up now, too afraid to say it out loud,” Shultz sings on “Out Loud.” “I can barely breathe, who am I tryna be?” Retrospect gets measured on “Float Into the Sky”; “I can’t escape the clouds and I can’t escape the hounds,” he sings. “I think one of the biggest things that was initially difficult was the fact that you come to believe some of the things that are not based in reality at all,” he says. “We believe it so passionately and then that melts away and you’ve already told a number of people about these things that have happened to you and you’re so passionate about it and believe it so much—but then you realize that none of that is true.”

But Neon Pill was, in Shultz’s words, “relaxing” to make—at least stylistically. “In the past, we’ve definitely, at times, emulated and, sometimes, even imitated our heroes and the artists we aspire to be like,” he says. “But with this record, there was far less referencing. We were just comfortable and that’s a really fun place to be—where you’re not thinking about all the different dials you want to snag for a song, but where it really becomes more about the color that you want to add in the studio. I feel like that’s less based on the things we’ve heard before and more based on sonics and synchronicity. In that way, it was like a reset.”

And Shultz is right about that. Songs like “Rainbow,” “Silent Picture” and “HiFi (True Light)” are some of Cage the Elephant’s most polished and exciting songs yet. “It’s pretty fun when a lot of your inspirations have now become your friends,” he continues. “You think about music differently. You definitely feel inspired and still moved by music, but maybe you don’t idolize your heroes as much. You’re more inspired by the decision-making that they did and less by stylistic approaches in songwriting, in the studio. You really get into a place where you’re pushing yourself through your own imagination.” And that imagination led Shultz straight to “Rainbow,” an especially “undeniable song” for him right out of the gate, one that he puts it on par with “Cigarette Daydreams”—and it was one of the first tracks written after his hospitalization, existing as a marker of newfound clarity.

“As soon as that song was written, I was very excited about it,” he explains. “It felt like a really well-crafted song. It’s very difficult to write a love song without being cheesy, and this is an unashamed love song. My wife, who’s stood by me through everything—this overwhelming sense of gratitude [for her’ just poured out of me.” A couplet like “You lift me up, all in, tight-knit, second skin, won’t quit / Satellite faithful, floating like a rainbow” is quintessential Matt Shultz scattershot romance, packed with a guitar-and-drum momentum from Brad and Champion.

Neon Pill marks the second album Cage the Elephant have made with John Hill, and it’s only the second time that they’ve worked with the same producer on two consecutive projects (Jay Joyce was on-board for the band’s first three records). Having Hill return for Neon Pill was a sensical, no-questions-asked choice for Shultz and the guys, as his natural, honest love for music and his frill-less approach to feedback has heightened the standard Cage the Elephant now hold themselves to while they’re in the studio. “I love his ability to not respond unless he loves something. That’s powerful,” Shultz says. “When you’re working on songs and you’re looking for affirmation—because everyone looks for affirmation—we ask ‘What do you think about this?’ and John won’t tell you that he loves something if he doesn’t love it. But when he does love something, it’s such a natural response. He’s not the type of person that will tell you something’s terrible, but he most certainly won’t tell you something’s great unless it is.” Hill has, as Shultz explains, a “wide knowledge of sonic styles without it being too heavily reliant on referencing.” That intuition was just what the recipe for Neon Pill required—as it’s a pretty deft culmination of what voice has emerged for Cage the Elephant has emerged after more than a decade of wearing more hats than you, Shultz or I could count.

Now, Cage the Elephant have found a voice that fits and are as in-gear as they ever have been. After winning Best Rock Album at the Grammys twice in four years, the band is likely staring another nomination head-on. But, according to Shultz, they are “pretty blessed to be oblivious to that whenever we write.” “We’re so hyper-focused on creating something that we can love, because it’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life,” he continues. While those Grammy wins opened up a lot of doors for Cage the Elephant, career-wise, they are still as musically indebted to their own personal intuitions and motivations as they were when Melophobia dropped the band into the mainstream like an atom bomb. “If there’s any pressure to prove something, it’s within ourselves—trying to continue to find new things to be interested in and to obsess over so that it stays exciting,” Shultz adds. “In some ways, [Neon Pill] was one of the easiest records to make. In some ways, it was one of the most difficult records to make.”

A show at the Echoplex in Los Angeles in May marked the band’s first performance in 18 months. While Shultz jokes that he’s not “at the same peak performance as I was in my 20s,” that gig was a crucial stepping stone towards a new chapter in his and the band’s life. “It was amazing because, in some ways, it feels like it’s the first time I’ve been back at the helm, even within myself, in three to four years. It almost feels like a completely new experience,” he says. With a massive tour beginning this week, fans will finally be able to get reacquainted with the venerated live act Cage the Elephant became more than 10 years ago and never once let up on. “We’ve always tried to write the best songs that we possibly can when we’re in the studio, and then try to make them sound as interesting as we possibly can,” Shultz says. “I think that the reason why our live show is shaped up to be what it is is because of the music and that sentiment, that energy is something we naturally love.”

How songs like “HiFi,” “Rainbow,” “Neon Pill” and “Float Into the Sky” are going to translate onstage remains to be seen, but Shultz is feeling optimistic about them. He’s feeling optimistic about life, too, now no longer in outpatient care or talk therapy. If push comes to shove, those Cage the Elephant classics will still rain down like a mirage of rock goodness just as they have since the band first broke ground with “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” “In One Ear” and “Back Against the Wall” in 2008. They’ve been doing this dance for so long, and it’s the kind of music that can capture the hearts of anyone—be it a Cleveland kid at the turn of the 2010s, or someone whose algorithm recently pointed them in the direction of Neon Pill. Great bands find their way through all seasons, and Cage the Elephant are perennial. For a band that’s made two life-saving records in a row, a line like “I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun” has never felt so believable.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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