Cage The Elephant Processes Grief With 'Social Cues'

Apr 26, 2019
Originally published on April 26, 2019 6:15 pm

Two years after winning the Grammy for best rock album, Cage the Elephant is back with its fifth studio album, Social Cues, out now. But since the band's last album, 2015's Tell Me I'm Pretty, there hasn't been much celebration. The band's members have experienced plenty of loss — from friends dying from overdoses to divorce. Those changes made it into the music of this latest album.

"I mean we went through an extremely rough point where we lost my my wife's father, we lost our cousin. We've lost several friends," guitarist Brad Shultz says. "I think that subconsciously affects everything about you and, for some reason, led us down the road to even what kind of instrumentation that we put into the songs."

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The effects on instrumentation are apparent on songs like "Tokyo Smoke," which has an air of bizarre darkness. "It's not like a sadness, but it's more of almost like this frustrated angry," lead singer Matt Shultz explains.

Loss comes across in many different colors on Social Cues. The album's end track, "Goodbye," for example, expresses grief in an entirely different way from most other songs on the 13-track album. "One thing that stood out to me is that the presence of joy within sadness and grief," Matt says. "There's the many different shifts within the grieving process as well."

The message of this new music, the brothers say, is to reject feeling guilty about grief or obsessing over social cues.

"I think many people walk around with a sense of guilt just for existing," Matt says. "The reality of life is we're on a planet within a solar system that is traveling so many miles per hour around a massive ball of gas and here life is. So our mere existence is validation."

Brad and Matt spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about leaning on each other for support, releasing music while still grieving, creating characters to personify their grief and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO REST FOR THE WICKED")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) She said there ain't no rest for the wicked. Money don't grow on trees. I got bills to pay.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been 10 years since the band Cage the Elephant released their breakout self-titled album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO REST FOR THE WICKED")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) Oh, no, I can't slow down. I can't hold back though you know I wish I could.

SHAPIRO: That album launched Cage the Elephant into a career playing stadiums and eventually winning a Grammy a few years ago for Best Rock Album.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAGE THE ELEPHANT SONG, "BROKEN BOY")

SHAPIRO: At the center of the band are two brothers, Matt Shultz on vocals and his older brother Brad on guitar. Their new album is called "Social Cues." It uses rock to explore loss, from divorce to the death of friends and growing up poor in Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN BOY")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) I was born on the wrong side of the train tracks. I was raised with a strap across my back. Lay me on my side, or hold me up to the light.

MATT SHULTZ: I remember one of the first instruments we ever had. We found a drum kit in a dumpster. My mother was disgusted. My father was very pleased.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: You're how old at this point?

BRAD SHULTZ: We were probably 7 and 8.

SHAPIRO: That's Brad. Matt, the lead singer, is the more talkative one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN BOY")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) Broken boy, how does it feel? How does it feel?

SHAPIRO: I'm just imagining those, like, 7-, 8-year-olds playing a drum kit that they pulled out of a dumpster - if they had any way of knowing they would win a Grammy (laughter), you know?

B. SHULTZ: Not at all.

M. SHULTZ: Not at all.

B. SHULTZ: In fact, when we won the Grammy, we couldn't believe that we had won it, so...

M. SHULTZ: Yeah, the thing that's really wild for me, though, is I remember when I was younger even kind of having a pretty melancholy disposition. And I don't know if I ever would've thought of, like, life being so fruitful.

B. SHULTZ: We grew up with not much money, and we had four boys in our family, and we all stayed in the same room, so...

SHAPIRO: I know that at one point you lived with your grandparents after your parents were divorced. I mean, it sounds like there was a lot of hardship in your youth. Did you have to lean on each other? I mean, was there times that you really needed the support of one another?

M. SHULTZ: I think we definitely helped each other through a lot of hard times.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you talk about having a kind of melancholy, and there's been a lot of loss in your lives since your last album. How does that come out in the music?

B. SHULTZ: I think in a lot of different ways. I mean, we went through an extremely rough point where we lost my wife's father. We lost our cousin. We've lost several friends and...

M. SHULTZ: Like, best friends.

B. SHULTZ: I think that subconsciously affects everything about you and for some reason led us down the road to even what kind of instrumentation that we put into the songs.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of the instrumentation being a little different on one of these songs than then maybe it might have been had things gone differently in the last few years?

M. SHULTZ: "Tokyo Smoke" would be a really good one to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOKYO SMOKE")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) Hey, man. Hand me down with the crooked back. What's your father's name? Boy, you don't know where you're at.

M. SHULTZ: In this track, there's definitely a big presence of that kind of, like, horror film influence as well as this kind of bizarre darkness. It's not, like, a sad darkness, but it's more of almost, like, this - frustrated, angry.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, this is not, like, a lay-on-your-bed-and-cry. This is, like, a punch-the-wall-and-cry.

(LAUGHTER)

M. SHULTZ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOKYO SMOKE")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) I played the fool again. My old unfaithful friend, stick and move. Sharpen up the knife. Don't be surprised if you can't stay between the lines.

SHAPIRO: But on this album, the loss comes across in a lot of different colors. Like, the final track, "Goodbye," is so heartbreaking. It may express grief, but it expresses grief in an entirely different way from most of the other songs on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) A pretty bird, my favorite lullaby, how'd I become the thorn in your side? All your laughter turned into a cry. It's all right. Goodbye.

M. SHULTZ: Yeah. I don't know why this keeps standing out to me. Well, perhaps I do. But one thing that has stood out to me is the presence of joy within sadness and grief. And there's the many different shifts within the grieving process as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) It's all right. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

SHAPIRO: When you hear or perform this song now, does it take you back to that emotional place, or are you able to sort of be like, OK, clocking in for work, going to perform this song?

B. SHULTZ: It's actually kind of odd. We recently lost one of our best friends, Tiger Merritt from a band called Morning Teleportation.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry.

B. SHULTZ: And we had planned this song to be released months...

M. SHULTZ: Months before now, yes, yeah.

B. SHULTZ: ...Before, and it happened to be released the day after his funeral.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

M. SHULTZ: But...

B. SHULTZ: And the song just took on a whole different meaning for me.

SHAPIRO: There are real moments of hope on this album, though, like the song The War Is Over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAR IS OVER")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) The war is over. Love's already won. The war is over. The war is over. The war is over. Love's already won. The war is over.

SHAPIRO: So when you sing the war is over; love's already won, what's it a war against?

M. SHULTZ: Imperfection, I think. I think many people walk around with a sense of guilt just for existing. And the reality of life is we're on a planet within a solar system that is traveling so many miles per hour around a massive ball of gas, and here life is. So our mere existence is validation. I think the war is already over. Love is a universal truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAR IS OVER")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) You can build your walls. Love will tear it down. You can hide your heart inside a man-made house. You can build your walls, build them to the sky. One day you will find love was on both sides.

SHAPIRO: You two have come so far from the kids who dug a drum kit out of a dumpster in Kentucky. But when I think about the amount of pain and loss and grief that you've suffered in the last few years, I wonder whether you find yourselves as brothers still leaning on each other in a way similar to what you had to do to get through your difficult childhood.

B. SHULTZ: Yeah. In retrospect, I think so. Especially this last few months, I feel like we've really been leaning on each other.

M. SHULTZ: I think more now than ever...

B. SHULTZ: Yeah. I do, too.

M. SHULTZ: ...In the past couple years.

B. SHULTZ: Yeah. And I think we kind of rediscover that on every record that we make.

M. SHULTZ: To a greater depth.

B. SHULTZ: I actually just teared up.

(LAUGHTER)

M. SHULTZ: Me as well.

SHAPIRO: I am sorry that you've had to go through all that loss, and I am glad that you have each other to help you both get through it. Matt and Brad Shultz, thank you so much for talking with us today.

M. SHULTZ: Thank you.

B. SHULTZ: Oh, thank you.

M. SHULTZ: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: The band is called Cage the Elephant, and the new album is "Social Cues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOCIAL CUES")

CAGE THE ELEPHANT: (Singing) Hide me in the back room. Tell me when it's over - don't know if I can play this part much longer. I'll be in the back room. Tell me when it's over. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.