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THE GRAMMY CLASS SPEAKS: CAGE THE ELEPHANT

With Tell Me I'm Pretty, which is in the running for Best Rock Album, the members RCA's Cage the Elephant were able to reach the seventh radio #1 of their career together—something only U2, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Linkin Park and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have reached or surpassed. We called up frontman Matt Shultz to find out how the magic happens.


INTERVIEW BY SAMANTHA HISSONG

What do the Grammys mean to you?
When you’re making a record, I think it’s really important not to think about accolades and awards and that kind of stuff, but it is a huge confirmation that what you’re making is reaching people. And you obviously want it to be cathartic for yourself—that’s one of the main purposes. But beyond that, music is very much like a communal experience. It’s just a great confirmation that maybe you’re in the place that you need to be. 

Best Rock Album is a big deal. Talk to me about Tell Me I’m Pretty. What picture were you trying to paint? And how did the creation process differ from that of Melophobia?
On Melophobia I think we were trying to learn how to paint with as many colors at the same time as possible without going overboard.

A musical acid trip if you will?
[Laughter] Yeah, and then, on Tell Me I’m Pretty, I think it was more about restraint. It was about trying to still embody the same intensity, but maybe without speaking as many words. 

The word "Melophobia" literally means fear of music. So why would you name an album that? Were you fearful at the time? 
No, it was more about the concept of pop culture and a fear of catering to “cool” or being more concerned with trends rather than making music for the cathartic experience or communication. I think a lot of people use their creative works to show that they’re creative types, which defeats the purpose. 

Because you’re trying to prove something. 
Yeah, so I think it’s just about communication. That’s when art is most powerful and effective and moving—when someone is trying to say something that means a lot to them. 

Sure, so more like fear of the direction that music could go in, in a sense. 
Totally. 

As for Tell Me I’m Pretty, you have to talk about working with Dan Aurbach. The man’s a legend and a Grammy-winning producer. How was that experience?
Dan was great. We chose to work with Dan because he has that kind of restrained...not restrained, but…reserved approach. And he’s very much a “don’t get in your own way” type of person, allow things to breath. He wants you to believe in the song and the initial feeling that you got when you first wrote it, instead of having a need to cover it with all kinds of bell and whistles in an attempt to make it more interesting. He’s a real songwriter’s producer. 

You had worked with Jay Joyce, who’s another amazing producer, on every album up until Tell Me I’m Pretty. What prompted that change? Were you actively trying to explore a different sonic direction?
One of the deciding factors was honestly just scheduling. One of the downsides to being really good is that you’re busy all the time. He was really busy, and we wanted to make a record a little faster than I think he was able to, which was cool; it gave us the chance to grow. It was scary to venture out, but it was also exciting and all those things you might expect it to be. 

Sure, it was probably refreshing to test the waters with someone new. 
Totally, and with yourself.

You’ve earned seven #1s at Alternative radio. The only other acts with more are U2, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Linkin Park and the Red Hot Chili Peppers—good company to be in. You guys obviously know how to craft a catchy, hooky song. Can you walk me through your songwriting process? How does the magic happen, so to speak?
We just kind of have this “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality. We try to take it however it comes our way. If it feels right and feels good in the initial moment, then we go with it. It might be a more developed idea, where one of us brings something that’s almost finished to the table and we all kind of add our two cents. And then we can also find ourselves in a situation where someone just has a compelling instrumental part, guitar, a vocal melody or whatever, and we roll through that way. 

And there’s certainly nothing cliché about your lyrical content. You seem to be able to tackle a lot of difficult subjects with finesse and a sort of twinkle in the metaphorical eye. Where do you draw inspiration from when it comes to writing lyrics?
I just try to go with transparency. All the things that you think you would never say to other people—that’s what I try to write about. 

It’s your diary?
[Laughs] Well, I got some great advice from Isaac Brock one time, which was that if you’re not writing songs that make you feel slightly uncomfortable—and embarrassed to a certain degree—then you’re probably not writing the right kind of songs.

And what’s going on with Cage the 
Elephant right now? And what’s in store?
We are actually working on a new record. We’re starting to write and about to start the demoing process. It’s different. It’s so, so different…

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