Brad Shultz doesn't want to call them mistakes, per se. But, hindsight being 20/20, the Cage The Elephant guitarist can see what a serpentine path his band took to arrive at its latest album, Tell Me I'm Pretty, and newfound arena headliner status.
"As you grow, you learn certain things that are part of the journey," says Shultz, whose brother Matt is the band's lead singer. "And sometimes, to grow and come out on the other side, you have to take the bumps and bruises along the way. So I hate to say that they're things that you did wrong."
The Shultz brothers' growing pains were rooted in their formative years in Bowling Green, Kentucky. On the surface, it's a great little town, 60,000 strong.
"I've always told people it's one of the best places to raise your kids, and one of the worst at the same time," says the musician. "Until maybe your sophomore year in high school, there's this innocence about Bowling Green that's very appealing. But then a lot of kids get into drugs, and some people let that consume their lives. I mean, within my high school class, I saw between 15 to 20 people die from opiates. So you can stick around that town in the same circles of people and really fall into a black hole."
The Shultzes were already in their mid-20s by the time Cage The Elephant — which started as a fun excuse to play house parties and the two bars that would book them — released its eponymous 2008 debut. Sensing a new realm of possibility, the brothers decided to relocate to London.
Once there, they began soaking up new influences — in Brad's case, Iggy Pop, Television, The Ramones, Mudhoney, Pavement and The Pixies — that only served to muddy their songwriting process. In the wake of 2011's derivative Thank You, Happy Birthday, the brothers were determined to cut themselves off from any outside sonic distractions.
It didn't work.
"We were trying so hard to not be influenced that it was affecting our songwriting," Shultz says of 2013's Melophobia. "But we realized that you can take away from what you do by trying to shape it too much. You have to let things flow and realize that that's who you are, musically."
Last December's Tell Me I'm Pretty, produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, conveys a newfound maturity and sonic diversity that runs from the chiming glam-rock "Mess Around" and blues-garage hybrid "Cry Baby," to the neo-psychedelic "Cold Cold Cold" and the proto-punk-fueled "Punchin' Bag." The lyrics, meanwhile, are more precise and personal.
"Matt had always built up these characters and personas to mask the things that he was talking about," says Brad, "but he was brutally honest with himself this time."
With all that sorted out, the 33-year-old guitarist is eager to impart his slowly acquired wisdom to his young daughter.
"If you really listen to your heart and trust yourself — and you're honest with yourself, most importantly — I really think that works," he says. "And I tell my daughter that same thing. Because I don't want her to go down the same path as I did."