Elephant in the room

Pay attention the next time you pick up a cereal box. It could prove more useful than you'd imagine. It did for Cage the Elephant's Matt Schultz anyway.

"I can't remember what cereal it was," he says. "It seems like it was like a Malt-O-Meal, you know, some off-brand cereal. An elephant had escaped from the zoo and you had to play dot-to-dot and cage the elephant."

Don't let the story fool you though; this stuff isn't for kids. The Kentucky-bred five-piece – singer/lyricist Shultz, his brother Brad, guitarist Lincoln Parish, bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion—specialize in high-energy, rhythmic rock n' roll with an attitude that owes as much to The Rolling Stones and The Stooges as it does to the garage rock resurgence of the late 90s that produced bands like The White Stripes and the Hives. It's the kind of rock n' roll you can dance to . . . or fight to. 

Cage the Elephant choose to dance, or something like it. Their onstage shaking, jerking, bouncing and stomping – which can resemble a seizure – has earned them a reputation as a must-see at music festivals. And while the attention and interest is welcome, Shultz says he doesn't let expectations get in the way of the show.

"I want to go out there and keep the performance pure, to keep it as far away from being a performance as possible," he says. "For us it's always been about trying to stay true to a spirit of spontaneity and to allow it to be dictated by the energy of the music, not by any expectation of the people."

But that's easier said than done. Since catching the attention of labels and critics at 2007's South By Southwest music festival, expectations have been running high. After a brief move to England, where they released a Top 40 UK single, the band returned home, signing to Jive Records and releasing their critically acclaimed debut, which earned them spots at last year's Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo music festivals along with an appearance on the Late Show. Surprisingly, Shultz is nonchalant about it all.

"It felt normal to me," he says. "It's one of those things you just have to go with when you're inside of it and not necessarily analyze. I don't know how to better explain it really. It definitely had its ups and downs. But when we weren't experiencing success with the band my life had a lot of ups and downs. I think there's difficulties and troubles no matter where you are in life. They just look different."

Those difficulties and troubles show up in Shultz lyrics, whether it be accidentally picking up a hitchhiking prostitute in "Ain't No Rest For the Wicked" or dealing with critics in "In One Ear." The singer admits that while he doesn't feel obligated to "actively seek out new material to write about," it's impossible to completely separate an artist from his work.
"I suppose a lit bit of my life is tied into every song I've ever written," he explains. "Even if it's not directly about me. Because my opinions are still there. But I just write about whatever comes to mind. The world's a big place, so it's pretty easy to find things to write about."

Especially when you can up and move to London to write. "A lot of stuff that happened there ended up in the songs that are going to be on this new record," he says, though Shultz is not eager to talk specifics. The time overseas also had an impact on the band's sound, exposing them to several UK acts that have had proved influential in the new recordings. One in particular excites Shultz.

"There's this band called Screaming Tea Party," he says with growing enthusiasm. "It's a band out of London, two Japanese guys and this girl who plays drums and sings or screams at the same time. The melodies are just amazing. It's like this Beach Boy-ish meets Sonic Youth, meets something really heavy. It kind of feels like a helium balloon."

And while you'll have to wait for the band's new album to be released this summer to hear exactly what Cage the Elephant meets a helium balloon sounds like, you can catch their spastic live show at the Orange Peel on Friday.

[Dane Smith can be reached at rocknrolldane@gmail.com.]

who: Cage the Elephant, with As Tall As Lions and Morning Teleportation
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Feb. 19 (9 p.m. $15 / $17. theorangepeel.net)

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