Dave Simpson meets Cage the Elephant

Cage the Elephant are the classic split personality band - God-fearing Kentucky boys given to leaving a trail of hedonistic destruction in their wake. Dave Simpson met them

Mayhem has erupted inside Leeds Cockpit. Cage the Elephant singer Matt Shultz is wearing a dress, standing on the speaker stacks and banging his head on the ceiling. His brother Brad, one of the band's guitarists, has broken off from playfully headbutting his sibling to blow spitballs into the air, one of which lands in the eye of an unfortunate member of the audience. Not to be outdone, Matt starts dancing on the venue's bar, and ends up being carried by his feet, upright like a statue, a hero to the crowd.

The Shultz brothers are a kind of Bible-belt version of the early, brawling Gallaghers - and their witty, Stooges-meets-Chili Peppers rap-punk is earning them a reputation as one of the most incendiary live bands on the circuit. Despite their near non-existent media profile, the power of word-of-mouth and a smattering of radio play spread took their single Ain't No Rest for the Wicked into the Top 40 in June. Their gigs have been generating hysterical crowd reactions.

"The craziest ones are the ones where we're angry about something," Brad Shultz says. "Like the audience not showing up, which happened to us a lot early on. That's when I'm smashing my amp into something or other or goading the audience." Injuries, it seems, are an occupational hazard. In the Cockpit dressing room post-gig, Brad is nursing a nasty bump on the head, the result of a bottle hitting him while on stage in Brixton.

"My scab is like green, dude," he says, in the kind of accent for which the word "dude" was made. "But the crowd were awesome."

Talking to his brother about their live mayhem isn't so easy, because within moments of the Leeds show finishing, Matt has got into an argument with a bouncer - which seems to be another occupational hazard. "I got chucked out of our own gig in Soho by some big bad-ass Russian dude," breezes Brad, explaining a very Spinal Tap-like incident where he was asked to produce his artist pass and instead pulled out a bag of weed. "He's like, 'Give me that fucking weed!'" he sniggers, beginning to describe how he was cornered, choked and reached for a bottle. Then Matt suddenly appears, complaining that after a similar incident the security man was accusing him of calling him an "asshole".

He seems utterly distraught, swearing - or rather, not swearing - "I didn't cuss."

This is just the tip of an iceberg of contradictions. Cage the Elephant have had emails branding them a "disgrace to music" and residents in their Kentucky hometown of refer to them as "the devil worshippers" and mutter, "Y'all strung out on drugs, I've heard," as they pass. They often brawl onstage. "It starts as play-fighting but can get out of hand," they smile. And yet, in person they are extremely friendly, almost disgustingly hospitable southern chaps who talk about the radical slant of Bob Dylan's lyrics and, well, God.

"You have to keep God in your morals and let it guide you," ponders Brad, who, unusually for a hellraising wannabe rock'n'roll star, is married, with his young bride accompanying him on tour. "Everyone contradicts themselves. There's the person you wanna be and the person you are."

This would appear to explain the apparent dichotomy between the song Free Love - which advocates group sex - and Ain't No Rest for the Wicked, which is an almost biblical parable pointing out the evils of mugging and prostitution.

Matt looks up. "I like the moral fibre of Dylan's lyrics," he offers, a man who recently cut off his Iggy mop and now sports sensible short hair. "But we all have bad in us. That's the struggle."

It seems what they admit has been a "weird double life" began early on.

Their parents, they say, were hippies who found God after dropping acid, although Brad suspects his father's lifestyle may have also been turned around after the drummer in a band he was in was killed in a car wreck. After that the brothers were banned from listening to rock music - "Dad said it was all sex and drugs" - and encouraged them to listen to Christian radio, which Matt describes as "like a Coca-Cola ad". Occasionally, when he was feeling more relaxed, their father would dig out one of his old Jimi Hendrix tapes, but when Matt got his first job at Wal-Mart and was able to buy rock CDs (White Stripes, Sex Pistols) he realised: "This is what music's like."

Nevertheless, their religious upbringing is a big influence on their music. The notion of judgment - and particularly being judged by others - figures strongly in Matt's peculiarly narrated, semi-rapped delivery. It seems the family were "super-poor". After their parents divorced, the brothers and two other siblings ended up living with their grandparents in a small trailer - and realised very early on how this set them apart. "I had two pairs of jeans, so it was either wash them every night or go into school with grass stains," explains Brad. "People would go, 'Poor boy! Poor boy!'" The hypocrisy of people behaving like that whilst espousing the Bible's code of not judging others gradually drove the pair into mischief. Brad remembers spending one day singing about God in church, and then managing to burn down an entire cornfield after they'd been smoking corn husks, wearing loincloths and dressing as native Americans.

"When you're poor you find ways of entertaining yourself," explains Brad. "We'd make plays, like The Crucifixion of Jesus. A sheet over a bunk bed was 'the tomb'." They'd end up with cuts all over themselves, which may have been of interest to the local social services.

The brothers say their home is "as rough as a small town gets". There were fights - not just with one another - and some friends were held up at gunpoint. But that's not the reason Matt found himself "super depressed" to the point of self-hatred in his mid-teens. "I had this vile need for attention," he explains. "Things changed when I realised I could channel it through the group. There was stress at school. My mum was dating my football coach. But when I played music I didn't need to think about all this stuff. It was an escape."

Adding Jared Champion (drums), Daniel Tichenor (bass) and Lincoln Parish (guitar), they liberated their first drum kit from a skip and used "the long bits of coat hangers" for sticks. Though Matt was working long days in construction, after hours they'd hone their live show (and stage exploits) in the kind of Kentucky bars where people pay $5 and get free beer until midnight. It sounds brutal. At a show in Owensboro, where 16% of the population are below the poverty line, they somehow had to make 30 minutes' worth of songs last four hours. Brad remembers "groups of rednecks shouting 'Play some 70s music, do some covers!'" before Matt started spraying them with popcorn and kicking drinks off the bar.

"The place erupted, security came in to break up the situation and the people in the bar beat up the security," the frontman remembers. "The police came to spray everyone with pepper spray, but that's one of the nights I realised what we do could be very powerful." Others realised, too. Once the songs matched the antics, they were signed, having been spotted in a support slot.

They no longer live in the American south, though. These days they're based in Leyton, east London - they relocated to the UK in the hope that radio stations would be more receptive to their raucous rumble. "When we arrived, we thought, 'We're going to crush the UK!' Matt sniggers. In fact, they debuted at the Dublin Castle in Camden Town in front of five people. But word is getting around. Two days after the Leeds gig, their Sheffield Boardwalk show is similarly packed. But while Leeds was riotous, in Sheffield they just play their music, displaying a pleasing psychedelic side, until Matt runs through the crowd, scattering tables in his wake. As the set ends, a girl lies prostrate on the floor, having seemingly hyperventilated in the melee. The singer comforts her for an age until the ambulance arrives, and for an hour afterwards is virtually inconsolable, blaming himself. Perhaps this sense of responsibility and even morality makes them slightly different from other mayhem-spreading rock monsters, but it isn't theatre: their gigs have a genuine, untamed energy and a sense that anything can happen.

Soon after the Sheffield incident, an "accident" involving Matt in the US results in the cancellation of three British festival appearances, but it hasn't dented their touring plans - they're playing 19 UK gigs in 23 days during their November tour. By then, they could look different again, too. When they toured with Queens of the Stone Age, a tour manager suggested Brad "do something" with his hair. "So I took a whole wad of white putty and just made my head into a mass of shit," he laughs. "Josh Homme happened to be going past and he says, 'You boys from Kentucky really are fucked up.'"

· Cage the Elephant's album is out now on Relentless. The single In One Ear is released on October 1


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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