It’s been a busy year for Kentucky rockers Cage the Elephant. Aside from playing every music festival known to man, in 2017 they finally snagged their first Grammy, rubbing elbows with rock royalty along the way. Their newest record “Unpeeled” see’s the band take a fresh approach to old songs and flaunt some new tricks. Guitarist Brad Shultz sat down with American Songwriter to dish out details on how the record came about, stripping down their sound, and what the future holds.
How did the idea to do a “stripped down” live record come about?
We got invited to the Neil Young Bridge School Benefit and the stipulations to do that show are that all of the instruments have to be acoustic. Even the organ we used there was a pump organ, Neil’s pump organ. We had a string section to substitute for different keyboard and synth stuff, more organic sounding stuff. When we were practicing for this stuff, building the tracks, it was a lot of fun for us to do. So then we decided to do a little tour like that. That evolved into making the record. It was never supposed to really be a live record, just more of an unplugged, stripped back thing. Really we were just gonna do the tour at first, but then we were like “man, we might as well record these shows as we’re doing them. Who knows, maybe come out with some kind of record.” It all unfolded that way, and we were pretty happy with the way everything went.
How did you choose the cover songs for the record?
We just kinda threw a bunch of ideas into a hat and started working them out, and kept the ones that came out the best.
Was it liberating to record outside of a studio?
Well a lot of the record was recorded live, all of the drums and bass were, but we did a lot of studio work on this record as well, so it’s a mixture. Like I said, we never set out for it to be a “live” record. It’s live in that we recorded some of it at shows, but we added some things here and there.
That sounds a bit like how they recorded “The Last Waltz.”
Yeah, it was kinda like that. I think our focus was just to strip it back. The string sections were obviously a big part of this record. We didn’t add a whole lot of stuff, some organ, some piano.
Did you guys write the string arrangements?
We did. Nick (Bockrath) did the majority of the string arrangements. A lot of them were substitutes for stuff that we took out, so around the same melodically. And then me and Matt would come in and reorder some parts or add something in. But for the most part Nick wrote a lot of the string arrangements.
I know some of the takes were recorded at the Ryman in Nashville. Growing up less than an hour away in Bowling Green, Kentucky, what was it like to finally play such a historic venue?
It was amazing! It’s an idea you always have in the back of your mind. For our band things get so crazy, we were worried that it would be a little bit too crazy to play there. It was a good chance for us to have a more “Ryman-vibe,” I guess you could say.
For a band that is known for being so high energy was it weird to chill out and sit down on stage?
No, it was refreshing! We’ve toured on “Tell Me I’m Pretty” for almost two years now so it was a good change of pace. Instead of losing yourself in the moment and exchanging energy with the crowd, you get to lose yourself within the intricacies of the arrangements. It was also a bit nostalgic to go back to playing these songs acoustic, and kind of remembering the whole process of writing the songs, and to relive some things that maybe you’ve forgotten.
What’s next for Cage the Elephant?
We’ll put this record out, and then finish out this summer of festivals. Then we are going to take some time off and start working on the next record!