The 2019 Grammys

Cage The Elephant Talk New Acoustic Album 'Unpeeled': 'We're Not Going to Be That Token Rock Band'

Neil Krug
Cage the Elephant

In the fall of 2016, Cage the Elephant had been tapped by Neil Young to perform at the 30th anniversary of his annual Bridge School Benefit concert in California. There was a catch, though: The high-energy, explosive alt-rockers would have to deliver an entirely acoustic performance.

At the same time as they were prepping for the benefit concert, Cage The Elephant -- Matt Shultz, vocals; Brad Shultz, guitar; Daniel Tichenor, bass; Jared Champion, drums; Nick Bockrath, guitar; Matthan Minster, keys -- were being considered by its label for a greatest hits record, though frontman Matt Schultz says that didn’t speak to where they are as a band. 

“It felt like an end,” he relates, while calling in from Nashville and shaking up a protein shake. “We feel like we’re just getting started.”

The vision for the band's greatest hits album quickly changed following Cage's acoustic performance -- which included a string quartet -- as both the band and its management then had a new thought: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do that again sometime?” So they did: It was decided the band would set out on a string of tour dates in more intimate venues across the country to deliver stripped-down versions of the group's best-loved songs spanning its near-decade long career. The band also decided to toss in three cover songs, Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” which Matt says could have been a “cataclysmic pop hit” had it been written at a different time, The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” and Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush."

To make the tour even more special, the band brought back the string quartet -- the arrangements were all done by Bockrath, who played cello as a kid -- and added a choir. The tour was then recorded for what has since become the live acoustic album Unpeeled, out Friday (July 28).

“When we were younger and writing these songs, we always wrote them acoustically,” Matt reveals. “On the first two records, I think maybe we didn’t know necessarily the importance of nuance and detail. So it was cool to then go back and revisit these songs and be like, ‘Oh wow, these can sound different and more rich and maybe even more restrained in a beautiful way.’” He then pauses, searching for a phrase but rather coming up with his own: “Sometimes when you whisper, your voice is much louder. Does that make sense?”

After listening to Unpeeled, It does. For a band whose reputation is largely built on its dynamic and exhilarating live performances, which almost always guarantee an epic stage dive from Matt, it’s refreshing to see and hear the band reel it in. By doing so, the lyrics are forced to the forefront, urging the listener to sit with topics of “adversity, or peaks and valleys of depression and difficult times in life,” that Matt says the group typically deals in.

“I was curious how [the stripped down versions] were going to translate [live]. "It was an exciting challenge to be still and emote and reflect, and also still be entertaining.” He likens performing to flirting with a girl in that way. “I want to have a good conversation. I want to be sweet, but not too sweet.”

By stepping up to the plate night after night and allowing himself to be more vulnerable in order to deliver the songs that now make up Unpeeled, Matt says he has become a much better performer. “Before this tour, my performance hinged a lot on nervous energy,” he admits. “Any time you start to feel uncomfortable in one spot you move quickly. [This tour] forced me to slow down and be still and learn the power of confidence.”

While on the road, the band found itself with plenty of time to write “a bunch of new material” that [Matt says will signify the next phase for the band. “I’d love to write a song like [Kanye West's] ‘Black Skinhead,'" he suggests. “Something that hard."

While he hopes the next album of new songs will surprise both the band and its audience, there is one thing he’s certain of: “We’re not going to just roll over and be that token rock band," he says, possibly hinting at the band's reputation as a festival staple. "That is not what we’re about,” he affirms. “We’re going to push ourselves in as many directions as we possibly can. At this stage in your life, [what you do] becomes a testimony to the greater picture."