At CalJam, Cage the Elephant Frontman Remembers Tom Petty, Reflects on Las Vegas

The band opened its set with "Mary Jane's Last Dance."

Matt Shultz of Cage The ElephantCal
Adela Loconte/REX/Shutterstock

Against the billowing backdrop of California’s San Bernardino mountains, Cage the Elephant trumped any lingering sense of fear that could have consumed the CalJam 2017 crowd in the wake of the Oct. 1 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.

A week before that tragic night outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Cage the Elephant played Life is Beautiful, the Vegas festival which killer Stephen Paddock reportedly might have initially targeted. CalJam is the second festival that Cage the Elephant has played since the Vegas massacre, but the band has refused to let terror win. “We continue to put out music and to perform in the spirit of love,” singer Matt Shultz told Variety following his band’s 6 p.m. set. “Music is the vehicle to convey the message.”

For Cage’s Shultz, along with his brother and guitarist Brad Shultz, bassist Daniel  Tichenor, guitarist Nick Bockrath, drummer Jared Champion, and keyboardist Matthan Minster, that message of love had a name: Tom Petty. The Kentucky-bred band opened their CalJam set with the late rocker’s classic “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” The band met the late music legend at the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year gala, which honored Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in February.

“He was just a lovely person,” said Shultz, citing Petty’s consistency in songwriting as hugely influential. “You don’t just stumble onto 30 amazing songs; you do it on purpose. He encouraged me to seek out being skillful, to be a great communicator intentionally.”

One could say the same of Shultz’s stage presence. For years, the 33-year-old has applied his “nervous energy” to great physical ability. He explained that, over years of touring, he “learned how to channel that into moments of cathartic emotional climaxes and releases.” Now, he added, “it’s intentional, but a lot of it is improv — it’s intentional improv.”

It’s a bit burlesque, too, on the face of it. On this latest live outing, Schultz seems to have permanently traded Jagger-esque leather pants for Hedwig-like Spanx and stockings. While the uniform is simply comfortable, he said, he also sees a deeper gratification of “getting naked in front of the audience and losing my identity. I’m still fine-tuning it. We’re doing it as we go live, so I haven’t practiced any of this stuff. It’s always in the moment.”

Cage the Elephant’s inclusion on the CalJam bill was rooted in the band first opening for the Foo Fighters in 2011 during the tour to promote “Wasting Light.” During that trek, drummer Jared Champion’s appendix burst, and Grohl temporarily filled in on drums for Cage. Shultz has kept in touch with the Foos since then.

As for newer artists he admires, Shultz named Twin Peaks, White Reaper, Anderson .Paak, Childish Gambino, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. He expressed his fondness for Starcrawler, who also played CalJam earlier in the day. “I was bummed that I didn’t get to catch their set,” he said.

When prompted to encapsulate Cage the Elephant’s sound, he insisted, “We just try to create compelling songs.” While Shultz “loves a good earworm,” he also expressed admiration for art that is “multi-layered and allegorical.” But Shultz is not keen on dividing music into categories by genre. “We allow the songs to dictate our sound,” he said. “We never felt any obligation or allegiance to any particular genre title. It’s whatever the song asks. If it’s gonna be on the xylophone,” he laughed with a twinkly motion of his hands. “It’s not all playing rock ‘n’ roll straightforward.”