This place was everything to me and Brad,” Matt Shultz says as heavy rain pounds the windshield of his SUV. Shultz, the singer in the modern-rock band Cage the Elephant, has parked in the lot of a garden-apartment complex in Bowling Green, Kentucky, next to a building where he and Cage guitarist Brad Shultz, his older brother, spent their childhoods in the late Eighties and the Nineties.
“I wonder what it looks like inside,” Matt, 32, says, looking up at his old home on the second floor. Wiry and talkative with light-brown hair framing still-boyish features, Matt laughs as he recalls the green shag carpet where he would find old bits of breakfast cereal, “like the marshmallows in Lucky Charms,” and eat them like secret treasure. He points to a patch of grass where the local kids, mostly from low-income families, played baseball and at a line of woods where Matt and Brad, now 33, created an imaginary clubhouse, nailing pages from old porno magazines to the trees.
The singer also remembers his father’s absences — Brad Sr. was a long-distance truck driver — and the hand-me-down clothes from older cousins that he and Brad wore to school, reminders of their parents’ constant financial struggles. “Kids in Brad’s grade would gather around him and chant, ‘Poor boy,'” Matt says, still seething. The brothers later responded to those taunts with songwriting. “People talkin’ shit, they can kiss the back of my hand,” Matt sang in “In One Ear,” on his band’s 2008 debut, Cage the Elephant. “I felt an extreme conviction on the first record,” Matt says, “to get out of this town.”
Founded in Bowling Green a decade ago, Cage the Elephant — Matt, Brad, bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion — are now based across the state line, in Nashville. They are all married; Brad and Champion are fathers, each with a young daughter. A fifth member, guitarist Lincoln Parish, quit in 2013. But the original four have been tight since adolescence, writing their songs together and crediting them, U2-style, to the group. “If the band broke up, you’re losing somebody you’ve known your whole life,” Brad contends, “not some guy you’ve known for five years.”
Cage are their hometown’s biggest rock & roll export. That first album went gold and included the platinum single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”; 2011’s Thank You, Happy Birthday and 2013’s Melophobia hit the Top 20. Cage’s new album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, is their best yet — melodically taut garage rock with psychedelic flourishes and a fighting edge.
In songs like “Cry Baby” and “Punchin’ Bag,” the spiky Pixies-style tension of Cage’s earlier records has been honed into a pop-smart charge that Brad calls “John Wayne on acid at an Iggy Pop show.” Tichenor, 35, puts it this way: “We’re playing in this style,” he says, pointing to a pile of LPs by the Smiths, T. Rex and the Beatles next to the stereo in his Nashville home, “but moving it forward.”
Yet a few weeks before the album’s release, Matt and Brad — who has a deep, drawling voice, a football player’s build and short, immaculately trimmed hair — are back in Bowling Green, conducting separate tours of their band’s genesis there. “This record — it was like we were those kids in Bowling Green again,” Brad says as he passes a two-story house on Park Street, in the downtown area, where he and Matt lived with their girlfriends and wrote songs. “I’d come running down the stairs: ‘Matt, check this out!'” The brothers still collaborate like that — on their phones. “We’ll write something,” Brad says, “then text it over quick.”
Brad stops at Spencer’s Coffee House on Bowling Green’s central square; the Shultzes’ early band Perfect Confusion played there, setting up in the front window. “We’d get out of school,” says Champion, 32, who was the drummer, “and just jam for three or four hours.” Brad then heads for Tidball’s, the city’s long-running equivalent to CBGB. The members of Cage performed there as underage ragamuffins and still do occasional shows. One photo on a wall plastered with Cage posters and clippings shows Matt in action, hanging by his ankles from a chain across the club’s ceiling. “He would do anything to impress somebody,” Brad says with bemused fondness. “Matt’s done tons of shit to himself — broke ribs, had stitches. He would push the limits every time.”
Matt’s spin around town includes Greenwood High School, the Cage boys’ alma mater, and the trailer park across the road where Matt, Brad and two younger brothers lived with grandparents after their mother and father divorced. “See how deformed that bush is,” Matt says, pausing at an old band house, also on Park Street. “People would get drunk and fall into that bush at every party we had.” He smiles. “We had tons of parties.”
Before he leaves that apartment complex, Matt gets out of his SUV and walks around his old building to a stretch of grass and trees where he, Brad and other kids happily played together until July 1996, when a neighbor, seven-year-old Morgan Violi, disappeared from the building’s parking lot. Her body was found that October in Tennessee; her kidnapping and murder remain unsolved.
“A lot of innocence was lost,” says Brad, 12 at the time. He and Matt started carrying pocketknives for protection and digging booby traps for predators. Matt is blunt about the change in him. “I was done,” the singer says. “I didn’t think about this part of my life anymore.” He ended up in a disciplinary high school; did drugs (“mostly pills”); worked as a plumber; and relentlessly pursued music, inspired by records like the Strokes’ Is This It and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Matt finally looks back at Violi’s death on Cage’s new album, in the spare folk rock of “Sweetie Little Jean.” It is a song about losing someone to emotional distress; the lyrics also mention candlelight vigils and missing-person posters. “Severe depression — it can seem like that person has been abducted,” Matt says. “It made me revisit Morgan’s story. It was so hardcore.” Tell Me I’m Pretty is, he adds, “very rooted in the past,” about “coming to terms with the way things have played out.”
Matt “can be very neurotic,” says Auerbach, who got to know the singer when Cage opened shows for the Black Keys in 2011. “He doubts himself. He also knows that he’s very good. He has a childlike amazement about music. He is a factory worker and starry-eyed dreamer at the same time.”
One stop on Matt’s tour of Bowling Green is a building where he was a plumber on a construction crew. “My boss caught me writing lyrics — he said I couldn’t write on the job,” Matt recalls. So the singer jotted notes on walls and pipes as he worked. “When everyone else left at night, I’d go back and write it all down.” Matt left his notes intact; they are still in that building. “I loved the idea,” he says, beaming, “of leaving my mark.”
Brad cites a grim statistic as he presses through the evening traffic out of Nashville to Bowling Green: The guitarist personally knew 15 people in his hometown who died from drug-related causes — “pain pills, stuff like that,” he adds later. As the Shultz brothers came of age in that city, there was “nothing else,” Brad claims. “You play music, and you party. Or you go to church, and you work nine-to-five.”
Matt got the title for “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” from a construction worker who sold drugs on the side. “He complained about the police, looking over his shoulder,” Matt recalls. “I said, ‘Why don’t you stop?’ He said, ‘Ain’t no rest for the wicked, man.'” Matt ran to a truck where he had eaten lunch and wrote the line on the back of a paper plate.
“Going on tour was a saving grace” for Cage the Elephant, says Champion, whose mother is an addiction counselor. “None of us were like, ‘We don’t want to go on tour so we can stay home and do drugs.’ We wanted the music.” Still, he, Tichenor and the Shultzes all weathered periods of alcohol and substance abuse. Matt says he stopped taking pills after Cage’s second album: “I went out to my dad’s and did it Ray Charles–style” — cold turkey.
The Cage members all came from musical homes. Champion’s father and grandfather were drummers. As a boy, Tichenor lived on a Christian commune outside Bowling Green and attended bluegrass festivals with his dad, Steve, a singer-songwriter who released albums on his own and performed in prisons. Steve Tichenor sometimes played at coffeehouses with the Shultzes’ father — also a singer-songwriter. “He had some meetings with Word Records,” a Christian-music label, Brad says of his dad. “He was always that guy who was one step away from actually doing it.”
Matt and Brad were serious about music from a tender age. When Matt was three, he grabbed a soldering iron that his father was using to fix some music gear — by the hot end, pretending it was a microphone and turning his hand into, as Brad puts it, “a giant blister.”
Cage the Elephant were together for only a short time when they recorded their first album and, through an early manager, got it released in Britain. They moved to London for two years, where they lived on Chicken McNuggets and struggled to build an audience amid “all this angular dance pop,” Matt says. It wasn’t any easier at home. Champion laughs as he describes a late-2007 show in Toronto, opening for Queens of the Stone Age. “Nobody had heard of us,” he says. “Matt is dancing, and nobody is getting into it. He jumps into the crowd” — which stepped back in unison. “He hit the floor so hard his shoes came off. But he got up, still dancing.”
The next five years of roadwork and close quarters boiled over during the sessions for Melophobia. One day, during a heated argument with Matt, Brad pushed his younger brother over a glass table and stormed out of the studio. The guitarist, who didn’t have his car, started walking home. “Matt drove up next to me,” Brad remembers, “and was like, ‘Dude, get into the car.’ We drove around and cried it out. We’re poor babies like that.”
“That’s Matt’s thing,” Tichenor notes. “He can be more forgiving, whereas it takes Brad a little longer. Sometimes he feels he has the upper hand as the older brother.”
“We were raised by the same people, so we’re similar in our values and morals,” Brad contends. “We are very demanding of each other.” Brad describes Matt as “more mellow. I’m more high-strung.” But together, “we just won’t settle.”
“I don’t want to paint too dark a picture,” Matt says as he hits the gas in his SUV, pulling out of Bowling Green onto the highway back to Nashville. “The lessons I learned here about people, experiences, music, even the mistakes I made — it’s all the same concepts you find in a bigger city, just on a different scale.
“Bowling Green,” he says over the rain still hammering his windshield, “was a crash course in life.”