Cage the Elephant is a band in flux. Led by brothers and Bowling Green, Kentucky natives Brad and Matt Shultz (on guitar and vocals, respectively), the six-piece outfit seemed to reach its commercial and creative zenith after years of feverish touring behind music that revels in the otherwise culturally receding genre of guitar-driven Rock & Roll. The group’s fourth full-length, 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, even won a Grammy for Best Rock Album, a surreal turn of events for guys who could barely scrape together rent less than a decade earlier.
But the four years since Tell Me I’m Pretty have been tumultuous, and not just because the band — which also currently includes drummer Jared Champion, keyboardist Matthan Minster, bassist Daniel Tichenor and guitarist Nick Bockrath — is learning to grapple with the typical ups and downs of fame and fortune. Several of the brothers’ close friends and family passed away over that period. Then there was the demise of Matt’s marriage to French singer/actress/model Juliette Buchs, which left the singer in a hardcore funk for months. To cope, he immersed himself in horror movie soundtracks and documentaries about serial killers and other nefarious characters.
“I hate things coming across as melodrama, but there are times I think it’s a miracle I’m alive,” Matt said about that period in a recent interview with The Independent.
That personal turmoil is the lyrical lifeblood of Cage the Elephant’s latest effort, Social Cues, which is as dynamic and sonically diverse as anything they’ve done. The album opens with some ominous ambient noise before kicking into the drum-and-bass banger “Broken Boy,” which finds Matt delivering the following with his Bowie/Jagger panache: “I was born on the wrong side of the train tracks/I was raised with the strap across my back/Lay me on my side or hold me up to the light, yeah!”
On the other end of the spectrum is album-closer “Goodbye,” a somber, piano-based ode to Matt’s ex-wife, the people the band members lost in recent years or maybe both. Perhaps most curious of all is “Night Running,” a jaunty, Dub-driven collaboration with Beck that sounds like something Jimmy Cliff might conjure after a night of especially potent intoxicants. (Side note: Beck’s dad, esteemed composer David Campbell, also contributed string arrangements to multiple songs.)
The band enlisted producer John Hill, who’s worked with everyone from M.I.A and Tune-Yards to Charli XCX and Imagine Dragons, to add a sleek sonic veneer to the Post-Post Punk vibe that permeates Social Cues’ 13 songs.
“It just felt right,” Brad Shultz says by phone when asked about the band’s current sonic direction. “It supported the lyrical content musically. It was what we were into as well. We try to let the things that happen in life previous to making a record guide us a bit. I know that sounds a little cliché or whatever, but it is very much true. There were a lot of dark things going on in our lives, so I think that shaped what we were feeling musically.”
Cage the Elephant’s approach to writing and recording has evolved significantly since 2008’s self-titled debut, which now sounds downright primitive compared to the band’s recent efforts.
“For the last few records we’ve been kind of on this kick where we want to write songs in a free spirit and let the song do the writing, per se,” Brad says. “On this record we really wanted to, after the song was written, put the song underneath the microscope and for the parts that we put into those songs to be very intentional. So we go the exact opposite of the way we first started writing the song and begin to manipulate the different parts to very much invoke a certain emotion or feeling to support a very specific lyric in each song.”
The band used the studio as an instrument to a much larger extent than ever before, recording Social Cues in multiple locations over a longer period of time than was typical in the past.
“It was a tactic to be a bit more thoughtful,” Brad says. “We were pushing on every record since (2013’s) Melophobia to work this way and dig deeper into this kind of area. With taking a long period of time, you can go down this deep hole and run the risk of losing the initial spirit of the track, but we knew that going into it. It was a challenge, and I think when you challenge yourself, you are forced to grow. Whatever that growth is, it’s going to be heard within the record.
“It’s all just experimentation. We got the results that we wanted, but that’s not to say that it’s the way that we will make the next record.”
But first things first: There will be extended touring behind Social Cues before a new Cage the Elephant record is even discussed. That includes the band’s current co-headlining tour with Beck, which is dubbed the “Night Running Tour” in reference to the aforementioned song collaboration.
“For whatever reason, Beck’s name popped into my mind,” Brad says about approaching him when they hit a creative wall in the process of writing “Night Running.” “We sent him the track on a whim. We had no idea whether he was going to respond. Literally our second interaction ever with Beck was sending him this track. Within a couple days he sent the two verses that he has on the track. He said he had four more verses that we didn’t even listen to because we were so excited about the first two verses. It just seems like it was one of those meant-to-be things.”
The co-headlining tour — the bill also includes Indie stalwarts Spoon and, on the Cincy date, Wild Belle — was a natural extension of their burgeoning friendship with Beck. Brad says audiences should expect an out-of-the-ordinary live experience.
“We revamped our entire production and started working with a new company called Trask House, who has done Kanye West’s productions for the last 10 or 12 years,” he says.
It’s all a bit surreal for hardscrabble guys who grew up listening to Beck’s classic ’90s records as teenagers in Bowling Green.
“It’s been a pretty special thing for us to see this actually come to fruition.” Brad says of the 30-date tour, which kicked off in early July. “I’m super excited.”
Cage the Elephant plays Riverbend Music Center Friday, Aug. 2 in a co-headlining show with Beck. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.