For a band that makes such ambitious, dizzy music, the good old boys in Cage the Elephant really do seem like they just want to have a good time. Their sophomore full-length album, Thank You, Happy Birthday, is one of the young year's most surprisingly eclectic and original rock releases, mixing punk energy, Radiohead-levels of sonic detail, and a knack for simple, raw rock hooks—basically, a giant mess.
With their careful balancing act between experimentation and radio-friendly anthems (like the out-of-nowhere breakthrough single "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," from their self-titled debut), you might be surprised to find that the band is made up of five ordinary dudes from Bowling Green, Ky., who like writing rock songs and playing rock shows. Like a really awesome, adventurous garage band suddenly thrust into the limelight, they seem to be playing for the hell of it, unaware that other people happen to be listening. And being from Kentucky only makes their success more unlikely.
"We've always felt like, I don't know, maybe pre-judged because we're from Kentucky," says guitarist Brad Shultz, speaking between tour stops from his home in Nashville, where several band members recently relocated. "But we really just write music. We don't think Kentucky influenced us or anything like that—it's more like not having to be part of a music scene, not having to form ourselves into something." So while Shultz and company (including his brother, vocalist Matt) might be coming from a less obvious starting place, they don't look at themselves as rebels, and they certainly don't feel like victims.
"It's a good thing and a bad thing, like being from New York or L.A. or Austin," Shultz says. "It's a really good thing because there are a lot of cultured musicians there, but the bad part is that there's so many different scenes and niches that people find themselves trying to fit into. To us, the Bowling Green music scene just consisted of musicians who played music, and there wasn't a style that anyone catered to. I guess we were influenced that way. As far as the ‘outsiders' thing goes, I don't know—I think maybe we've had a little chip on our shoulder as far as people taking us seriously."
Funny thing is, people are taking them seriously. Thank You, Happy Birthday might not bear a single as emphatic as "Wicked," but it's a better, more exciting and well-rounded album that has earned a boatload of praise from critics and established the band as a force to be reckoned with.
"I think we made a deeper album," Shultz says. "I think I enjoy Happy Birthday more than I enjoyed the last album. As far as, ‘Is it better or not?', I don't think we really gauge it that way just because that's where we were at that point in time. We just look at it more as a growing thing than making a better album. There's just more to it. We went through a whole growing process as musicians, people, songwriters. I don't know, I think I appreciate this album more because it took a little more time and it took a little more out of us as a band."
Taking that extra time—the recording of Happy Birthday took a month and a half, all told, versus 10 days for the debut—and working again with producer Jay Joyce, the band members expanded their songwriting abilities by incorporating more ideas from all the band members and crafting the songs in the studio. They still cut the album originally as a live unit, but Shultz emphasizes the importance of tweaking things after the fact, particularly on the song "Always Something," in which Shultz and lead guitarist Lincoln Parish worked extensively on overdubs until they got the atmosphere just right.
While Shultz is excited to be playing the songs live, he's more thrilled by building on the momentum they've established as songwriters. "This sounds terrible, because the album hasn't been out long, but we've already started thinking about the third album and started writing," Shultz says. "We've got five or six songs written for it. We kind of have musical ADD; we get something done, and we appreciate it for where we were at that time, and we kind of, in our minds, move on a little bit."