There ain’t no rest for lead singer Matt Shultz midweek in Milwaukee. He and the rest of the Cage the Elephant outfit have been touring like it’s about to be made illegal, wrapping up 2011 and gifting it to fans not only in the form of their sophomore album Thank You Happy Birthday (suitably named after a line in a trippy children’s book) but with gigs, promo, gigs, promo and maybe a few winks of shut-eye in between.

“We’ve just finished up the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas in LA, which was a lot of fun,” Shultz chimes. “And now we’re in Milwaukee, business as usual.”

The Kentucky slacker funk-punk quintet is also set for Australian shores as part of this year’s Big Day Out lineup, a bill that also welcomes the sounds of Kasabian, Soundgarden and Kayne West to name a mere, eclectic few.
“We’ve never been out to Australia, so this will be our first time. We basically begged our booking agent to get us this show. Everyone who’s been on the tour has told us that it’s really like the ‘Big Day Off’ because you can check out the city and see some great bands while you’re there.”

To think it was only a few years back that the bands self-titled debut album exploded onto the scene, impressing listeners with hit singles “Back Against the Wall” and “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” – but Shultz confesses that the whole process was a lot less cookie-cutter than it seems.

“Success as a band never really feels overwhelming from this end. I don’t think you ever recognise the gravity of the situation when you’re going through it… We’d had the record out for two years before we even came to the United States, so it was a much longer process than it seems. Of course, when we first started out we were the only band like ourselves who were getting play on the radio. Now there are a lot of bands that are more similar to ourselves, and we’ve just become very good friends with them. It’s been a pretty awesome past few years.”

Shultz seems completely calm about the fact that Thank You Happy Birthday debuted at #2 on the charts back home, that Rolling Stone has featured it at #15 on their ‘50 Best Albums of 2011’ list, and that Dave Grohl played drums in a live performance of their latest single “Aberdeen”. The truth is, the band seem to have carved out a spot for themselves on the fringes of mainstream rock, where both creative determination and small town ties have nurtured their unique sound.

“We grew up in a small town right outside of Nashville where lots of guys in the scene grew up together, played music together, went to house parties together,” Shultz explains. “I think that it’s just a combination of boredom and trying to get away from like, that old factory driven town mentality. We’ve all been in bands with lots of different kids and all jumped around and encouraged each other. Everyone was doing something different, there was always that competition of who could write that one good song that everyone else wanted to write something comparable to, but there was never any backstabbing. It was more about sharing ideas.”

Shultz mentions a few other up-and-coming acts from the area, such as thrasher duo JEFF the Brotherhood and a loud seven-piece outfit with an infamous moniker, Diarrhea Planet. “There are some really great bands coming out of Nashville at the moment for sure.”

After coming up in such a strong local scene and conquering SXSW in 2007, the band formerly known as Perfect Confusion decided it was time to take their musical aspirations across the Atlantic and into the arms of UK label Relentless Records. “Going to England was like a fairytale for us. It was great because our label offered us total creative control and that‘s all you really want as a band.”

Shultz’s eccentricities have lead Cage the Elephant on a lyrical roller coaster from album to album, but the lead singer will readily admit of a maturing in his creative process. One story involves brother and bassist Brad Shultz finding him outside the studio rolling around in a pile of leaves.

“You know, I’d have to leave the studio in search of inspiration. Before music for me was life, and then it kind of became my life. What’s more important, the chicken or the egg? You know, I don’t know. I think that when you’re going through life, you need to experience it to play better music. There’s no other way around it.”

When asked whether it was his own determination or the astros that guided him to rockstar status, Shultz only has this to say: “I don’t believe that kind of stuff… Like there’s some guy out there getting paid to write something vague that applies to everyone. Kinda like fortune cookies.”

He then remembers a time that still tickles at the back of his mind, despite his reservations about reading the stars.
“One time I got a fortune cookie that was blank. Like, what does that mean? Is that intentional, or did someone screw up? You could drive yourself crazy thinking of stuff like that for sure.”

Or you could write music about it. Hopefully, for the sake of fans across the globe, Shultz and the gang will continue to preoccupy themselves with the latter.

– Cayce Hill

Lucky punters in Melbourne and Sydney can catch Cage The Elephant at their Big Day Out sideshows. The rest of you better get your tickets to the festival proper.