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Interviews

The Return of Matt Shultz’s Beautiful Mind

After five years away, the Cage the Elephant singer rose from the band’s darkest period to create ‘Neon Pill,’ an album of deeply personal, sophisticated garage rock
Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant (Credit: Neil Krug)

Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant is ready to share the trauma he’s seen. On Neon Pill, the band’s first album in five years, the singer cryptically describes the disorienting effects of an unnamed drug on the jaunty, swirling title song:  “Like a loaded gun, my love/I lost control of the wheel/Double-crossed by a neon pill.”

On the surface, the sixth album from these Kentucky rockers sounds like another work of a band at the height of its powers. But Neon Pill emerged from a three-year period when the singer was derailed by the side effects of a prescribed medication that sent him into deep distress and psychosis, separating him from reality and the people closest to him. A new album was stalled, and his marriage ended in divorce.

“I was in psychosis,” Shultz says. “I was very terrified at all times. And from everything that I can gather, it was pretty sad to watch.”

Calling from his home in Nashville, Shultz, 40, sounds like a man catching his breath after a devastating, life-changing experience. While he’s talked openly in the past about grappling with depression, this was something very different. “That was, without question, the most difficult period in my life ever,” he says. 

The reality of his condition got much clearer in January 2023, while Shultz was staying at the Bowery Hotel in New York City, where police arrested the singer for criminal possession of loaded firearms. He avoided jail time by pleading guilty to three weapons charges, and checked into a hospital for two months of treatment, during which the brightly colored unnamed drug that caused his condition slowly withdrew from his system. That was followed by six more months of outpatient care and the psychosis was gone. He says the arrest saved his life.

“While I was in the hospital, one of the doctors said it is very much like having your life hijacked, and it really was,” says Shultz. “When I came back to myself, it almost felt like I was coming out of a coma – but I’d had someone going around and living in my body.”

His memories of that time are surprisingly clear. Shultz remembers “countless narratives” of being under siege from an unknown enemy that were swirling around in his head and make no sense to him now. 

From the beginning, he’s always been a barely contained wild man in the spotlight – stage-diving, crowd-surfing, at times wearing a dress and fishnets, or in a sleeveless shirt and tie, blowing up in nightclubs, theaters, arenas and on festival stages. Despite that onstage energy, Shultz says things are usually different at home. “I’m pretty quiet, honestly, away from stage,” he insists. “I’d say I’m pretty tame.”

All of that was suddenly at risk, as Shultz struggled with his condition. 

While the band’s career in rock has always been an adventure, Shultz says whatever problems they had before were manageable. “I mean, definitely not 100 percent smooth, but we have had some amazing moments,” from triumphant performances to Grammys and radio hits.

Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant (Credit: Neil Krug)

Shultz is grateful to have the band back in action as a live act, where they built a reputation as an unpredictable force. “It’s obviously a huge part of our lives,” he says. “In an odd way, having spent so many years on the road, sometimes the road feels more like home than being at home.”

Now a six-piece, the band includes Shultz’s older brother, guitarist Brad Shultz, bassist Daniel Tichenor, drummer Jared Champion, and guitarists Nick Bockrath and Matthan Minster. Together, Cage the Elephant built a large following first from their stage show, and a sound that was euphoric and bittersweet, muscular and soulful.

For Neon Pill, Cage the Elephant once again worked with producer John Hill, after their successful collaboration on 2019’s Grammy-winning Social Cues. With a wide palette of artists on his production resume (FKA Twigs, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sturgill Simpson, Eminem ), Hill’s straight-ahead approach to collaboration in the studio was just what Shultz needed.

“He was one of those special people that stuck by my side. He’s become like family,” says Shultz. “One of his superpowers is he doesn’t give unwarranted praise. He’s very unaffected unless something actually feels great or gets him excited.”

The title song “Neon Pill” appears on the album mostly as originally written, with a few additional lines added to the bridge. “It was very much like reading another person’s writings, reading someone else’s journal or something,” he says now, comparing the experience to writing in the third person. “A lot of this album ended up feeling like I was writing fictional stories because a lot of it was based in delusions.”

Of course, Cage the Elephant have gone dark before in both texture and content, dealing with romantic highs and lows, but this one cuts deeper. There is also “Out Loud,” a moving piano ballad written in memory of his father, who died during the pandemic. Like much of the album, it amounts to some of Shultz’s most personal songwriting. He sings: “Man, I really messed up now/Too afraid to say it out loud/I can barely breathe, who’m I tryin’ to be?”

As his life and career come back together, Shultz is hopeful about the future again. He and his wife, Eva Ross, have remarried. And reactions to the new album have been positive.

“From a really young age, I’d always imagined having a lifelong career. Dream big, right? And it’s been tenfold more fruitful and more special than I could have ever dreamed,” he says. “In an odd way, having gone through so much, it’s really energized us as a band moving forward. Yeah, 18 years in and to still be captivating people’s imaginations is pretty amazing, honestly.”