Kentucky quintet Cage the Elephant was either named after a Hindu symbol of strength and honesty or based on the exclamations of a frenzied drifter, depending on whom and when you ask. But listening to producer Jay Joyce describe the manic sessions for the band’s sophomore album, Thank You Happy Birthday, the group’s name acts just as appropriately to represent its lighting-in-a-bottle recording aesthetic.
“The biggest thing with Cage is you never know when it’s going to all come together, but then you turn the chaos into something amazing,” reflects Joyce, owner of West Nashville, TN, house-turnedstudio Tragedy/Tragedy, where he also manned his SSL Duality console for the band’s 2008 debut.
“The first album was more getting settings and going, with very subtle changes to the songs we’d written prior,” recalls singer Matt Schultz. “This time, it turned into more of the spontaneous recording we’d wanted.”
Reuniting in spurts with Joyce, Cage the Elephant took brackets of time between touring to capture intentionally “trashy,” loud-soft-loud dynamics studded with analog details. While living in London and amassing a European fan base, the band assembled dozens of songs, but then they scrapped these ideas upon returning to Kentucky and entered the studio with three new weeks of immersive songwriting inspired by the taut and scrappy interplay of Gang of Four and the Clash with the needly spasms of Mudhoney, the Butthole Surfers, and the Pixies. It was then a matter of digging in until it was banging out.
Tracking primarily to tape, switching to Pro Tools HD for certain vocals and overdubs, Cage and Joyce manually dialed modulation till things clicked. This live-take foundation trickled down to fingers on the reel and Varispeeding tape machines as pitch tools. “Some things were done in the mix, but mostly, if we wanted fuzz bass or a distorted drum kit, we’d commit to what we were hearing,” says Joyce.
Pedals were shuffled—including Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, Boomerang Looper, Z.Vex Effects Fuzz Factory, and Korg AX3000G tremolo—and these tones were cranked through many different amps, from Marshall stacks to eight-inch Magnatones. For drums, the crunch came from mixing vintage mics such as Altec 639As and Neumann U47s with converted Dictaphones, which contain their own limiters.
Even vocals were fed through pedals, with Joyce triggering live warble and feedback on certain phrases. Having varied, roomier vocal tones was a goal, so Schultz was placed in stairwells and woodlined living rooms, several feet from the mic. Spring reverbs such as AKG BX10 and a ’65 Fender added to natural ambiance (augmented by a Universal Audio EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator, the Cooper Time Cube Mk II Delay, SPL Transient Designer, and dbx 117 Dynamic Range Enhancer).
Jettisoning the pre-planning, Cage the Elephant indulged in its musical ADD and subsequently laid down the most honest representation of the band’s ability to translate energy into new forms. Tony Ware