Fresh from filming a spot for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Cage The Elephant guitarist Brad Shultz and keyboardist Matthan Minster arrive at As Is NYC craft beer bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. At the dimly-lit bar, a bartender steers Shultz towards Grimm and Other Half’s collaborative Jam Don’t Shake, a 17% ABV imperial milk stout inspired by peanut butter and jelly. Sensibly, Shultz pairs it with a Jack’s Abby’s Post Shift pilsner, in the interests of balance.
Cage The Elephant was formed in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but these days the band is based in Nashville. They’re in New York today to kick off their fifth studio album, Social Cues. It’s a project that veers in a darker direction compared to previous albums, due to the emotional tumult that surrounded the writing and recording process. The lyrics were penned by lead singer Matt Shultz after he went through a divorce and were also inspired by the band’s dear friend Tiger Merritt, from the group Morning Teleportation, who recently passed away. “I think making this music has been cathartic to everyone in the band,” says Shultz. “Everyone in the world goes through so much stuff and we’re all connected to music and a lot of that is therapeutic.”
As Shultz and Minster settle down to muse on life and nurse their beers, I spoke to them about their hometown bar Tidball’s, shoplifting sandwiches from British supermarkets, and their upcoming collaboration with Tennessee Brew Works.
You’ve just finished filming Colbert, you’re about to start a bunch of press, and then you’re off to tour with Beck. Does all the attention and interest in the band ever seem surreal?
Brad: It's kinda hard to get perspective when you're going through it day to day. But there are those eureka moments, where it’s like, ‘I can't believe I'm doing this, my 13-year-old self would be on cloud nine or whatever.’
Matthan: There are memorable milestones: Your first small club that's packed, my first time to play a medium-sized place like the Crystal Ballroom where there's a thousand people, or your first arena where I'm throwing up in a trash can at the side of the stage due to my nerves taking over.
Brad: It was funny, 'cause when Matthan joined the band, it was on our record Melophobia and he was just thrown to the fire all at once. I think the first show was an arena show.
Matthan: The first show was that big press release shit where there was cameras all in my face, which was terrifying for me. The second show, we went to Tidball’s and just played this tiny little club.
Brad: That's our hometown bar.
Matthan: Then the third show was an arena opening for Muse. That's where I puked. Ten seconds before walking on stage, that's when the nerves hit me the most. Once you get up there and get in front of the gear, the calmness sinks in and everything feels fine, but it's that moment right before you go out for me. Not so much any more… I’m riddled with anxiety.
Is the album title, Social Cues, a reference to feeling anxious?
Brad: We did deal with a lot of issues on this record that would spurn anxiety, like with Matt and everything he went through with his personal relationship, and we talked about Tiger, and we went through a lot of personal loss this year.
Matthan: You can definitely hear the darkness on this album and it came from a place of honesty.
Brad: After Tiger passed away, we decided to have band practice. We were all crying. [The music] took on a new life and the songs took on a new meaning. I think that's the power of music: If you write something that's honest and from your heart, people who are going through the same heartbreak connect to it, even though it might be a totally different situation.
Over the years, what songs by other artists have helped you get through hard times?
Matthan: “Do You Realize??” by the Flaming Lips, which is about how everyone you've ever met will pass away.
Brad: Morning Teleportation have a song called “People On My Floor” and so many times I've sobbed in the last couple of weeks to that song. A lot of Elliott Smith—I think you could put on any Elliott Smith and it's gonna get you through something.
Matthan: I've listened to 10,000 hours of Elliott Smith music in my life.
You mentioned a bar called Tidball’s in your hometown. What’s it like?
Brad: Tidball’s is where we started playing shows. It became like a mix of Cheers and CBGB. You can go in there and just have a beer some nights, and there were also times when they'd have shows four nights a week. They used to do crazy stuff to get people in the door. Like, on Tuesdays, it was $7 for all the well liquor and all the beer you can drink! On Thursdays they had a night called Penny Beer night and it was $5 for all the draft beer you can drink. You can imagine how those nights go! Tidball’s is also where Matt started crowd surfing. They had this little balcony—I don't know what the purpose of it was—but there was a chain that ran from one side of the building to the other and Matt would get on the crowd and hoist himself up onto that chain and turn himself upside down.
Matthan: The building has some sort of historic legal status so it can't be changed.
My first taste of beer was not when I was in diapers, but maybe when I was eight. I remember my grandfather would let me have a sip of beer off the rim of his can.”
If you had to represent the new album as a beer, what would it be like?
Brad: Funny you asked that, 'cause we're working with a company called Tennessee Brew Works to do a beer called The Social Cue. It's an IPA. I went and tasted the beer when we had the meeting—it's a hoppy, fruity IPA, which is what I usually drink, or pilsners. [Points to his beers] This one I did to test—that’s why I also got the pilsner.
How are you finding the stout?
Brad: My review on the 17% ABV peanut butter and jelly stout goes as follows. [Sips beer] Surprisingly, I taste the peanut butter first and it's salty, then the jelly follows soon after, and I can imagine it to be maybe a strawberry jelly. Let's see Matthan's take on it.
Matthan: Oh, wow, you're right. It smells like a peanut butter and jelly! I absolutely agree, I get the peanut butter first then concord grape Welch’s.
Brad: A specific brand of jelly!
Matthan: This is the only beer I've ever wanted to put a little splash of milk into.
Before craft beer took off, what sort of beers were you drinking?
Matthan: I have photographic evidence of my first taste of beer, but I don't remember it—I had a diaper on. My first beer that I got for myself, I stole out of my fridge. It was a Budweiser, like a Bud heavy, not a Bud Light. I loved it. I got tipsy and went back and stole another one. Then I got myself busted, 'cause they could tell some were missing.
Brad: My first taste of beer was not when I was in diapers, but maybe when I was eight. I remember my grandfather would let me have a sip of beer off the rim of his can.
Matthan: In retrospect that's disgusting.
Brad: It is! The first time I ever drank a full beer was a Colt 45 malt liquor, which we stole out of my friend's dad's stash. I was maybe 13 and didn't know how to drink beer, so we literally were taking shots of it out of a shot glass.
Matthan: You immediately invented a drinking game! Kids are creative.
The band lived in London for a bit before releasing the first album. What did you notice about the drinking culture there?
Brad: We lived in London for two years. We'd take a Strongbow [cider] and chug half of it and fill the other half with vodka. That would be our drink. It was disgusting. My palate was not that refined back then. We lived right behind [the supermarket] Asda in Leyton, before the Olympic stadium, and it was kinda run down and we had no money—we got seven pounds per diem per person per day. We'd go to Asda and eat sandwiches while we walked around the store, act like we were shopping, then put the sandwich back in the aisle. Then we’d go get a bottle of vodka and use our seven pounds to pay for the vodka.
Did you have a local bar in London?
Brad: In London, we always went to this bar—it was kinda like a cheesy dive bar, like it wasn't hip or trendy at all—and they had this bucket hung on the wall and if you could throw your tip in from a certain point in the room you'd get a free drink.
So people would be throwing coins at it?
Matthan: Like a Canadian strip club!
Brad: They had a dot on the floor where you had to stand and you'd try to throw it in. If you got it in, they'd ring a bell… You’d be surprised how many people missed.