How Cage the Elephant's frontman nearly lost it all
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How Cage the Elephant's frontman nearly lost it all
Members of Cage the Elephant in Nashville, Tenn., June 10, 2024. Matt Shultz is a rock ’n’ roll ringmaster known for pushing himself to the brink. After a period of psychosis and an arrest, he had to put his reality back together again. (Kristine Potter/The New York Times)

by Hank Shteamer

NEW YORK, NY.- In the spring of 2020 as the pandemic cut a terrifying path across the globe, touring bands packed up and went home, unsure how they’d survive. At the same time, Matt Shultz, the frontman of Cage the Elephant — the rare arena-scale rock act to emerge within the past two decades — was facing a different crisis in his own head.

After releasing five hard-edged yet hook-filled albums with Cage the Elephant since 2008, Shultz, a frontman known for stripping down to underwear and fishnet tights and walking the length of venues atop audience members’ outstretched hands, was not himself.

Suffering an extreme reaction to medication he was prescribed to treat ADHD, he fell into psychosis. Consumed by paranoia and convinced he was being hounded by malicious actors who would routinely break into his home, the singer began carting around his belongings — photographs, journals, books and more — in bulky suitcases.

His brother, Brad Shultz, 42, who plays guitar in the band, recalled their mother describing Matt Shultz’s ever-present haul as “a physical representation of his emotional baggage.”

Shultz’s struggles came to a dramatic and very public head in January 2023, when he was arrested on weapons charges at the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan after police found two loaded handguns in his room. He has since regained his grip on reality through extensive treatment — and avoided jail time thanks to a plea deal — but his season in hell is immortalized on “Neon Pill,” the band’s sixth studio album, which it will support with a North American tour of arenas and amphitheaters starting this week.

“I lost control of the wheel,” Shultz, 40, sings on the deceptively breezy-sounding title track in his hoarse croon. “Double-crossed by a neon pill.”

“When I wrote the song, I was convinced that someone was tampering my medication and trying to poison me,” he said in early June, sitting in the backyard of a Japanese cafe in Brooklyn, wearing Celine sunglasses, an LA Dodgers cap and a patterned knit short-sleeved shirt. “My brother said the most heartbreaking thing was to hear that,” he added, referring to the lyric about treatment that turns toxic. “He’s like, ‘He’s so close to the truth but can’t quite grasp it.’”

Cage the Elephant’s knack for accessing authentic emotion has helped win the Bowling Green, Kentucky, band a loyal following, a pair of platinum albums and two Grammys during a time when rock’s mainstream market share has dwindled.

“There’s a lot of heart in what they do,” said Beck, who toured with Cage the Elephant in 2019, collaborated on the track “Night Running” and guested with the band onstage at a Los Angeles show in May. He praised the group’s gift for balancing accessibility with deeper resonance. “There’s something undeniably real about what’s happening,” he added, “and people feel it.”

That transparency pulses through “Neon Pill,” whether Shultz is exposing the dark side of the party on “Good Time” or praising the constancy of a companion who stays close “even when it’s painful” on “Rainbow,” an ode to his wife, Eva, whom he divorced at the height of his paranoia but later remarried. (“I thought that she was in danger from whoever was after me,” he explained.)

The singer believed that he was the victim of relentless online hackers, then became convinced that he had run afoul of an actual criminal syndicate. “It was just an endless stream of epiphanies,” he said, that “had no basis in reality.”

His memory of the arrest is vivid. He heard a knock on his door, looked out the peephole and saw “at least 20 police officers with guns drawn.” He recalled being scared but thinking he should “definitely easily surrender and just let it happen.”

In a statement posted to social media in February, he told fans that his arrest, which led to an immediate hospitalization, “undoubtedly saved my life.”

These days, his humility is palpable. Projecting not a trace of the peacocking energy he’s known for onstage — where his sweaty, cathartic performances have drawn comparisons to Iggy Pop (another collaborator) — he spoke softly and sincerely, recounting the depths of his ordeal with a mixture of self-deprecation and heartfelt contrition. He admitted that even before his mental health crisis, his investment in his role as a rock frontman had begun to overwhelm him.

“I became more and more convinced I was this persona,” he said. “And to go from a person who creates a fictional character to perform for entertainment purposes, and then to believe that character, it’s a leap — and it’s dangerous.”

Brad Shultz saw his brother’s extroverted tendencies taking shape from an early age. Inspired by their father, a devoted amateur musician, the two would attempt their own performances around the house. One time a young Matt picked up their father’s hot soldering iron, thinking it was a microphone. He “scalded and blistered his entire hand,” Brad Shultz remembered. “But, you know, it didn’t scare him away from a mic.”

The brothers moved on to various adolescent bands and formed Cage the Elephant in 2006 along with bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion (the band also includes guitarist Nick Bockrath and keyboardist Matthan Minster; guitarist Lincoln Parish left in 2013). Across their early albums, they honed their sound from a garage-y stomp to something more polished and pop-friendly.

As Cage the Elephant’s reach has grown, so has its creative ambition. John Hill, a seasoned producer who worked on both “Neon Pill” and its Grammy-winning 2019 predecessor, “Social Cues,” praised the band’s openness to new methods of writing, such as collaging together elements of various songs to create a more compelling whole.

“They’re not super rigid about ‘Well, it has to just sound like us all playing in the room together,’” he said, “which I think has enabled them to explore some different sonics and ideas outside of just being a rock ’n’ roll band.”

Brad Shultz confirmed Cage the Elephant’s desire to break free from categories and expected ways of working, borne out in the sleeker sound of its recent records. “We’ve been categorized as a rock band, or an alternative band, or whatever, but I really like the genre-less kind of mindset,” he said. “I feel like that’s kind of the way forward.”

The band’s steady rise has been rooted in its songwriting, as well as Matt Shultz’s powerful ability to connect. Beck recalled a time when, following one of the signature crowd walks, the frontman ended up sitting and talking with some kids in the audience.

“He would just be out there completely obliterating any kind of fourth wall,” Beck said.

Strolling out to a Brooklyn pier, where he watched the ferries come and go on a sun-dappled East River, Shultz giddily recalled the time Cage the Elephant opened for the Rolling Stones in Paris in 2017. Before one show, while clad in his revealing stage attire, he’d been summoned to meet Mick Jagger. “I walked into his room basically just wearing a thong,” he said, cracking up at the memory.

But the band’s recent concerts have felt even more special for the singer. During the handful of shows Cage the Elephant has performed since he has been able to finally lay down his literal and figurative baggage, he said, “I felt this overwhelming sense of having experienced something that helped me to see outside of what can be an illusion in and of itself: fame and success, and things like that.

“It’s nice to have experienced something that was so shattering,” he continued, “that maybe that illusion isn’t as powerful.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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