"It was an experiment for him to knock us out of what was comfortable for us," says Matthew Shultz of Auerbach's 'Tell Me I'm Pretty' production
By David Browne
Cage the Elephant guitarist Brad Shultz still sounds embarrassed about the night he approached Dan Auerbach about working with his band, who were opening select shows on the Black Keys' last U.S. tour. "I was probably a little too drunk in the dressing room and I was like, 'Man, let me show you some songs, dude! We gotta do some tracks together!'" Shultz recalls. "Typical stuff — I was really wasted."
Shultz had reason to be trashed, since the Kentucky band, who made their mark with their 2008 eponymous debut, endured a traumatic period during and after the recording of 2013's Grammy-nominated Melophobia. "The last record was a living hell," Shultz says. "We were going through so much inner-band turmoil." The friction resulted in the departure of lead guitarist Lincoln Parish, but the tension continued to linger on the Melophobia tour, where the musicians spent less time than ever hanging out with each other. "You're stuck on a tour bus for five years together, and you need a break," Shultz says. "I had some fears of everything falling apart."
In need of a fresh start, Cage found it with Auerbach, who agreed to produce their next album in Nashville. To pull the band out of its Stooges-influenced raunch, Auerbach would call the band into the control room after a take, play them obscure Afrobeat or garage-rock records, then have the band take another stab at their own song. "It was an experiment for him to knock us out of what was comfortable for us," says lead singer Matthew Shultz, Brad's younger brother. To his surprise, Auerbach, who pitched in with guitar and keyboards on the album, also emphasized first-take vocals. "We didn't touch up," he recalls with a laugh. "I'd say, 'But wait, hold on one second, guys! I think that's a bad note there!' But it stayed."
Reflecting those approaches — as well as Brad's deep dive into Sixties artists like Tommy James and the Zombies — the band's fourth album, Tell Me I'm Pretty (out December 18th), recalls everything from psychedelic bubblegum pop ("How Are You True") to, not coincidentally, the spare tautness of the Black Keys ("Mess Around"). The sessions took three weeks, not the three-plus months of Melophobia. The songs are also lyrically ambitious, emphasizing Matthew's fascination with storytelling. "Sweet Little Jean" was spurred on by a tragic story of a childhood friend who was abducted and murdered but also, the singer says, "about how when someone is going through a severe depression, it can feel like that person is abducted." He adds, "A lot of times, we all have those feelings of evident doom. Or maybe it's just me and I just project that on everyone else."
Meanwhile, the saga of Bonnie and Clyde inspired the ill-fated love story of "Too Late to Say Goodbye," and "Cold Cold Cold" took its cue both from Tom Hanks' character's meltdown in The Burbs and what Matthew calls his own unspecified "dark period." As he recalls, "Just trying to stay sane and move in a straight path and put out three records — it was pretty crazy, looking back on it."
For all the band's difficulties, Brad feels that Cage emerged sane and unified after wrapping up the album. "We had a chip on our shoulder after the first record," says Brad. "We felt we had to prove people wrong that we weren't just a commercial rock band, to the point where I used to tell people, 'I hate that record — don't listen to it!' It took away from enjoying writing music. Sometimes you have to take an immense amount of stress to bring things to a head. This record brought us back to being those kids in Bowling Green."