Cage the Elephant's Matt Shultz On Why He No Longer Feels Defeated

Neil Krug
Cage the Elephant

Following his 2018 divorce after a four-year marriage, Cage the Elephant frontman Matt Shultz “pulled that classic move: run away from everything.” He lived in hotel rooms for the better part of a year before moving to New York’s East Village for six months to study a form of Japanese dance called butoh. His studies already have informed how he moves in the band’s music videos, and now, he’s excited to take his new knowledge to the stage when the group embarks on a co-headlining tour with Beck on July 11.

But first, today (April 19), Cage dropped its fifth studio album, Social Cues, on RCA, recorded in Los Angeles and Nashville, with Beck as a collaborator. Its lead single, the passionate rock-therapy track “Ready to Let Go,” earned the band its quickest climb to No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative chart. The act is tied with U2 for the most No. 1s on the list, with eight. Says Schultz: “This record is the last record, hopefully, that I will make living in the perspective of self defeat.”

“Ready to Let Go” chronicles when you knew your marriage was ending. How has the song’s meaning evolved?

I’ve been asked quite often if it’s a dark song, or was it a hard song to write, or was the record hard to write. I actually see a deep brightness within it. There’s a saying, “bright sadness,” and with hope or any kind of release there’s an undercurrent of grief, but that’s a part of joy.

The song reached No. 1 on the Alternative chart in six weeks. Are charts something that you pay attention to?

As the years pass, what happens is you realize how more and more unlikely it is that you will retain that kind of success on songs. So, to me, it’s more and more surprising. I feel like I’m watching a thriller where you’re on the edge of your seat, like, “Will it go all the way?”

Outside of genre-based charts, where does rock music fit in today?

There’s this pretty huge chasm in society with how we create, listen to and digest music. It’s very non-genre-based and very “What am I feeling now?” When we start talking about music, all of a sudden it gets segregated into all these lanes. We want to get back to the idea of a musical group, which, early on in music, even people that you might consider to be legendary rock bands like The Beatles referred to themselves as. When you get into the world of genre, you’re talking about a whole persona that has to be embodied and lived in and worn, and it’s too much legalism for me.

What recent trends in the industry have you been drawn to?

I look at not necessarily trends, but arriving cultures that could be lasting cultures. If you get caught up in just the trends, you’re in trouble. And if you’re oblivious to what’s happening in the world, that’s also bad. That’s why I love Kanye West and David Bowie: They’re very in tune with what’s happening with arriving culture, as well as things that have been here and present in humanity -- core concepts that will always be around.

This will be Cage’s fifth studio album, how do you avoid feeling like any part of making or promoting an album is auto-pilot?

I’ve been blessed to have the right kind of adversities hit me at the right times to keep it humble. And just continuously chasing after and searching for that thing that makes music utterly exciting again. That revives your obsessiveness with something, where you’re obsessed you're passionate. Fighting through the dry spell, when there are dry spells, I firmly believe in intentionality; even when something’s not happening at first, continue to go back. Can you imagine if you planted a crop, and you walk out the first day after you had planted the seeds and nothing had grown and you were like, “Ah, well fuck it.” You’ve got to nurture it. So, just to keep living a creative, studious life. And also, just being surrounded by people who really inspire me in the band.

In terms of your live show, at Lollapalooza Chicago in 2017 you wore an amazing dress. 

I still have that dress.

What other outfits or surprises do you have planned for this tour?

One of my discoveries recently was just connecting with these different manifestations of my personality, who have turned into very well developed people. They’re actually very present. I imagine that those guys are going to make an appearance for sure, and with them comes some pretty interesting looks. It’s pretty impulsive, they just show up whenever they want to.

Is there something that you still want for the band to do? What’s the next level?

I would like to take this as far as we possibly can. I enjoy when the band grows, for probably selfish reasons as much as I do also for enhancing the creativity. With continued and further success comes, more resources to pull from, and I love that. I like the work and I want to do the work as long as I’m able to, whatever that means.

A version of this article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of Billboard.