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How an Arrest and a Bout of Psychosis Paved the Way for Cage the Elephant’s First Album in Five Years

“I’ve been calling it a miracle.”

It’s just over a week before the release of Cage the Elephant’s first album in five years, and Matt Shultz is sitting at a corner table in the courtyard restaurant at Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis Hotel, iced coffee in hand, sunglasses covering his eyes. The frontman isn’t dwelling on expectations; he’s happy just to see the album come out at all. And he’s not using the m-word lightly.

“It’s a miracle to be performing again,” he adds. “It’s a miracle I’m alive.” 

Back in 2019, Cage the Elephant won their second Grammy for Social Cues, the band’s fifth album. The years since have been difficult in ways no one could have predicted. Shultz went into a prolonged psychosis that lasted about three years, a condition that, he says, stemmed from a set of medications he’d been taking. (Shultz didn’t specify which.)

He would recover. But amid the psychosis, the singer suffered from extreme paranoia, fear, and delusions that steadily separated him from reality. He was convinced that people were after him, and lost his trust in most of the people closest to him. Along the way, Shultz, 40, separated from his wife in 2021. At the time, he thought that leaving her would protect her from him and the delusions, he says. “It was like being in an action film 24-7, but it’s always at the most dangerous and terrible part,” Shultz says. “Or like a horror film, it was a nonstop horror film.” (Happily, the pair remarried last year.)

Matt Shultz and his wife, Eva, backstage at the Echoplex

Daniel Topete for Rolling Stone

Shultz’s breakdown hit a very public crescendo at the beginning of 2023, when he was arrested on gun charges for bringing loaded firearms to his hotel in New York. The singer says he had no plans to use the weapons and simply forgot about New York’s gun laws. Soon after the arrest, he was placed in a hospital for two months, and underwent another six months of outpatient therapy before he was able to start working on the new album again. 

He’s referred to that 2023 arrest as a blessing. In fact, he tells me, it saved his life. “Sometimes in life you need a powerful attention-grabber, and that definitely grabbed my attention,” Shultz says. “As soon as I was arrested, I was immediately checked into the hospital. Those two months were a time period of starting to have good reality testing again, where I was starting to understand what the real world actually was.”

Shultz wrote much of the music for Neon Pill during these tumultuous three years, and the complex, painful, and sometimes disparate thoughts he dealt with are “inseparable” from the record. Making the album meant deciphering the musings of a version of himself he left behind. “Anyone who knows what psychosis is like knows how all-encompassing of an experience it is,” Shultz says. “Once I was getting on the other side of recovery, there was a good portion of time that had to be spent recrafting the lyrics and trying to understand the sentiment behind them. After I’d gotten well again, things that meant something profound to me were no longer profound. It’s profoundly interesting. A lot of the lyrics had a very powerful meaning to me, but that meaning wasn’t based in reality.”

Matt Shultz and Beck onstage in Los Angeles

Daniel Topete for Rolling Stone

In our conversation over coffee in West Hollywood, Shultz is casually candid describing his struggles. The night before, Cage played a small warm-up gig at the Echoplex in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood, one of their first shows since wrapping their Night Running Tour toward the end of 2022. They’d brought out friend and one-time collaborator Beck to play their hit “Trouble,” and debuted Neon Pill material like “HiFi (True Light)” and “Rainbow.” The latter, an almost Black Keys-esque groove about how a lover lifts him back up at his lowest, is Shultz’s favorite song on the record. 

Shultz remains a high-octane frontman, one of the most exciting in rock, leaping high off the platform while he grasps his mic stand and shouting to the crowd as he struts onstage. He doesn’t banter too much with his audience at the Echoplex beyond expressing his gratitude and feigning the band’s admiration for Beck after they wrap up “Trouble,” but even without chitchat, he’s got a knack for engaging the crowd. 

“It’s a good way to kind of get your bearings again, not feel overwhelmed, try out the new music for fans,” he says. “There’s always moments before going out on tour or releasing a record, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s doubts, but you’re not knowing if it’s gonna connect. [I’m curious] if I can still engage with the audience and have that performance conversation with them. You do a show like last night and it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve done this for our whole lives.’” 

Over the past year, Shultz has spent time reconnecting with people close to him, ones he’d cut off as he was in isolation. “I think there was a deep loneliness that was happening,” he says. “Even though I was surrounded by people who loved me and wanted to help me, I was the only one experiencing it, and I very much felt like I was in an echo chamber. I’d say there was a deep loneliness in this record. And this kind of unspoken shame and remorse. I wasn’t really in control of what happened. I wasn’t able to control the things that were happening or how that medication affected me, but I’m deeply remorseful for what happened, regardless.”

Brad Shultz crowd-surfs at the Echoplex.

Daniel Topete for Rolling Stone

The phrase “neon pill” is a reference to the brightly colored medication that kicked off his psychosis. On the title track, Shultz says the pill “double-crossed” him, a bit ironic given that he wrote that lyric in 2022, before he’d ever been told the pills he was taking hindered his mental state. At the time, Shultz thought someone was tampering with his medication. “It’s strange looking back now, having written that song almost an entire year before my arrest,” he says. “I think it was one of those moments where I wasn’t ready to confront it consciously. When my brother [Cage guitarist Brad Shultz] first heard ‘Neon Pill,’ he said it was heartbreaking, because while I knew something was wrong, I couldn’t get what it was. It was heartbreaking for him because he could obviously see it quite clearly.”

Like much of Cage’s discography, Neon Pill mixes deeply personal vignettes with more abstract lyrics. When asked about particular lyrics that he feels reflect his experience, Shultz points to one line: “Trying to put the pieces together like a silent film we’ve watched a thousand times before,” from standout track “Silent Picture.” He describes his train of thought at the time as “so many epiphanies that were essentially breadcrumbs leading to nowhere.”

But Shultz says his paranoia manifested in peculiar ways. He’d also habitually carry notepads with him to jot down his thoughts, in case he found a “clue” on something he perceived someone had done to him. Then there were the polaroids of his bedroom. “I’d clean my room immaculately and put everything in a perfect place,” Shultz explains. “And then I’d take a Polaroid of it and store it away to see if I came back and noticed that somebody moved something. It’s really odd to look at those now because they’re just a bunch of Polaroids of a perfectly clean room, but at the time, that was my security.”

About two weeks into his stay at the hospital, he finally felt he could stop carrying the journals, a step Shultz said represented a significant turning point in getting control of his thoughts back. “I was there for some time before they could completely titrate me from the medication — it was about two days after the medication was out of my system,” Shultz says. “It’s pretty sad that it had that much of a grip on me, and it’s something that could be broken just by stopping.”

Daniel Topete for Rolling Stone

Shultz felt stable enough to re-engage with the music again, about six or seven months after he began his treatment. The band recorded for just over a month in Texas, at Sonic Ranch Studios. The complex, which includes five studios, a pool and basketball court across a sprawling property in the border town of Tornillo, allowed the band to live together and reconnect, he says. For all the personal turmoil of the past few years, actually recording the music felt comparatively seamless. “Over the course of four years, we’d gotten about 50 percent of the album done,” Shultz says. “But during that month and a half, the other 50 percent got done.”

“On all the previous records, I would try to find this character that was kind of our hero or whatever, and the character was mostly was based in reality, but somewhat fictitious,” he says. “But what happened while I was in psychosis, I kind of became the character. I didn’t feel like I needed to emulate or imitate it. If anything I think I was too focused on trying to understand it the best that I could.”

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Sonically, the album isn’t a major departure from the band’s most recent couple records; it sounds like a rich and matured version of Cage the Elephant. “I think in spite of the turbulent time this album came away musically rich,” he says. “Because I had to spend so much time re-acknowledging my reality, I didn’t have a ton of time to think of influence. Influence is undeniable and always present, but with this record I didn’t have a lot of time to put towards that, and I found us relaxing in our own musical style and voice. It was not only freeing but it was encouraging.”

With the album set, a fast-selling arena tour, and Grammy threepeat aspirations on the horizon, this would normally be where the pressure starts to rear its head. But Shultz is taking it all in stride. “Like I said before, I don’t have many expectations. The way life has gone, it’s all a tremendous blessing,” he says. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it through that. Last night we were onstage, and I was singing ‘Trouble.’ There’s that line, ‘God, don’t let me lose my mind.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh, wow. But I did.’”

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