Never forget Cage the Elephant

Elisa Bray meets two brothers whose evangelical Christian roots inform their dirty rock'n'roll
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The Independent Culture

"All right brother, be careful," says Matt Schultz, singer and lyricist of Cage the Elephant, as his guitarist brother Brad tops up his pint of beer.

"We've got a show tonight." But it wouldn't make the faintest difference to the Kentucky band who have become renowned for their raucous and high energy live shows of dirty rock'n'roll. Their UK shows had to be cancelled last month after Matt injured his knee at their last UK tour, making their appearance at the sold- out Reading and Leeds Festivals this weekend even more hotly anticipated.

That high energy is infectious even when the pair are not onstage. The brothers, driving force of the quintet which formed in their hometown, are enthusiastically recalling the first time they heard fans singing along to their lyrics.

"The first time I thought 'how did you learn that?'" Brad exclaims. "The thing about it is you try not to smile onstage," Matt says, before adding: "I've always been an attention slut." Even when they were children they were entertainers, putting on plays for their family and local community on a Christian commune in the deep South. Growing up on the commune, Matt says, "definitely shaped our lives in some positive ways and negative ways."

The brothers are exceptionally close, with story after story to tell of their unusual upbringing. Growing up in a poor area with four siblings to one room had its plus points, including bringing the brothers so closely together. "We grew up really poor but it was great because when you're happy you're really truly and honestly happy. Like Christmases when we were kids were just amazing. I think poor kids have more fun."

Their upbringing also meant rock music came to them later in life. Perhaps it's the reason behind their old-school rock'n'roll, best shown in their single "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked". Today they listen to The Beatles, Black Sabbath, The Ramones, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to name just a few, but they were brought up on a strict diet of Christian music: Petra, Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline. Their dad, who turned to Christianity after being a "really big hippie" and was trying to make it as a Christian rock musician, would screen their reading matter and music for anything inappropriate.

"Every once in a while dad would blast off his old stuff, but he didn't want us to hear that – there were drugs in there," recalls Brad.

It meant Green Day was out of the question – Matt's fifth grade birthday present from a girlfriend was snapped into pieces in front of him, while a borrowed Pearl Jam CD was returned to its original owner when it was found to mention suicide in its lyrics.

"He was going through my comic books and found characters saying: 'I am all powerful, even more powerful than God.' He burned them."

At the age of 12 Brad bought a guitar from another child in the neighbourhood for $20. "I played it till it literally busted at the seams. The front of the guitar started cracking off the back."

It was a Jimi Hendrix cassette that Brad snuck into the family home that led to their discovery of rock'n'roll. "I listened to that for three years. My second musical love was Nirvana and I played along. I'd learn all their stuff."

A few years later, Brad and Matt, who had never listened to anything other than Christian music, went CD shopping for the first time. Matt's first purchases were Joe Cocker, The Who's 20th anniversary Best Of, and Led Zeppelin.

"It's really weird. Because we weren't allowed to listen to a lot of secular music growing up, I'm still finding records. About a year ago I found out about the Pixies. It's cool because it gives us a chance to really be excited about the music and to be influenced by it in a positive way, not trying to mimic or mock something, but to really enjoy it and when it becomes part of you then that becomes your music."

As the band's lyricist Matt's most treasured find was Bob Dylan. "I love the rebellious slant he had on the lyrics. It wasn't about the normal things you heard on the radio, it was more about real life and it was about groups of people and social situations."

What is integral to the band's stability is writing the songs as a five piece and splitting all their publishing rights equally. "It's not a band otherwise," Brad states. "Everyone writes their own thing. No one dominates, that's what a band is. There's a lot of bands that have been split up by 'me' and 'I' and 'I wrote this'." It's also a vibe that stems from their childhood days on the commune, Matt says: "There's a certain spiritual vibe that we give when we're on stage and making music." But Brad adds: "I feel more natural in the studio than I ever did in church."

Cage the Elephant play Reading and Leeds Festivals this weekend; their self-titled album is out now on Relentless