When Cage the Elephant released their self-titled debut in 2009, they were heralded as saviors of slacker funk-punk thanks to their hit “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” The title turned out to be more prescient than they’d bargained for: the band has been battling adversity of many stripes. But the struggles never pushed singer Matt Shultz, guitarist Brad Shultz, bassist Daniel Tichenor, guitarist Lincoln Parish, and drummer Jared Champion off track â€” they only strengthened the group’s bond and fueled the revved-up roar of its new album, Thank You Happy Birthday, released January 11, 2011. Debuting at #2 on the Billboard 200 Chart, Cage The Elephant launched the new year with a ferocious kick of gut-grabbing rock & roll.
“This album brought me back to life,” says Matt Shultz. “We totally turned away from fear-based writing. We just wanted to make music that we loved.” Cage the Elephant were literally itching to get new music into fans’ hands after spending years promoting their debut, which has sold close to 400,000 copies and spawned three Top 5 singles. In the time since they laid down their first album, the band has done a lot of living â€” and a lot of growing â€” and the maturity of their fresh sound shines through on the new album.
The band sketched out 80 song ideas during a nearly two-year stint living in England, but wound up scrapping all the work once they returned to the U.S. and dove into a period of intense musical growth. They listened to the Pixies, Mudhoney and Butthole Surfers and explored ’50s surf rock for inspiration. After two weeks of total isolation in remote Kentucky cabins, they emerged with a fresh slate of songs and a renewed promise to be honest to themselves.
“On the first record I think I was really frustrated and angry at the world and writing about its problems and my frustrations with them,” Matt Shultz says, “but on this record I realized I was part of the hypocrisy. And I was like, wow, I’m a real piece of shit.” On opener “Always Something,” he sings ominously about how there’s “always something waiting for you” over creepy, slinky guitars. “There were a lot of things in my life I was trying to control and it all unraveled in a real bad way,” Matt says. “Because everything fell apart I had to face up to everything. Some songs are a direct attack on myself.”
“Shake Me Down” is packed with explosive loud-quiet-loud interludes that showcase Champion’s skills on a set of toy drums that were expertly recorded by Jay Joyce, who also produced Cage the Elephant’s debut. The guitar riff was actually borrowed from a song Tichenor’s dad had written years ago (“I ripped him off,” the bassist jokes), and the bass line was inspired by the Shins.
One of the band’s biggest goals for the disc â€” not to conform to a popular sound or look â€” became a bit of a crusade. “Sell Yourself” is a ferocious, thrashing ode to staying true to their identity despite the pressures of the industry. “Indy Kidz” skewers the pretentiousness of music scenes where everyone just wants to fit in before it stretches out into a trippy jam. And Matt Shultz breaks out his best Frank Black yell to let off steam on “Around My Head” one of several amped-up songs he’s looking forward to tearing apart live during the band’s mind-blowingly energetic shows. (Matt is known for his head-banging, stage-diving and crazy punk-rock antics.)
While Matt says he had plenty of material to draw on â€” everything from the end of his five-year relationship to watching a close friend self-destruct to feeling frustrated with how Americans are “slaves to advertisements” â€” at times his lyrics didn’t exactly flow. Brad Shultz cracks up recalling how he found Matt outside the Nashville studio, “Laying in the leaves, like, ‘I need to be inspired!’ “I was trying to generate some sort of inspiration, so I was grabbing leaves and smelling them and smelling dirt,” Matt explains. “I just wanted a sound or a texture or a feel or a smell to generate some sort of memory from childhood.”
Sometimes the studio’s struggles brought the band its greatest rewards. Super-catchy anthem “Aberdeen” required three days of agonizing work. When the band slowed down the chorus, the tune finally clicked and a worthwhile lesson emerged. “It was definitely realizing you don’t always have control of a situation,” Matt Shultz says. “If you want to make something you love it doesnâ€™t always happen the first time around.”
“We didn’t have all the answers on our first album,” Brad Shultz adds. “But we were just like, fuck this, we’re going to write the music we’re going to write. This album was like a breath of fresh air.”