It was perhaps inevitable that Max McElligott would one day make an ornate pop album of near-symphonic grandeur named after a utopian place that came to him in a dream. It might not have been written in the stars that he would make said album, Suego Faults, with one of America’s best producers, Dave Fridmann, nor that he would do it under the guise of Wolf Gang, but the rest now looks something like a certainty when you consider his background.
Still only 24, Max moved around a lot as a child… Show more because of his historian father’s work, from Hull to Ann Arbor near Detroit in the States to St Andrews in Scotland. It was there that he joined a local pipe band where, in his kilt, he would march down the cobbled streets. “It was,” he recalls, “very rousing.” Another factor that contributed to his love of the symphonic and grand was his violinist mother’s tendency to take her son to concerts as a child where he would watch her play with a full orchestra. “When you’ve seen a symphony orchestra banging out Mozart’s Requiem at full blast, created completely acoustically, that can be rousing, too,” he says, recalling the visceral power of the music. “The ridiculous levels of bass produced by the cellos and the choir- you can feel it hit your chest. To experience that when you’re young and small when everything is big anyway, to have it implanted in your brain - well, it definitely had an impact.”
Then there were the vast horizons and breathtaking scenes he witnessed as a kid with the Grampians as his default background near his home in Strathkinness. “It was a very wild place, but it was amazing - you could see for 30-40 miles,” he says. “It helped shape how my music sounds. It gave me a love of the wide soundscape - I’m not afraid of making a sound that is big and ambitious. Maybe it would have been different if I’d grown up in a bedsit in the city.”
Seeing those numerous musicians in the orchestra made him keen to learn to play their instruments himself - all of them. “It’s a cost-cutting exercise,” he jokes of his multi-instrumental abilities. His entry point was the piano, and then the drums: he was sticksman for six years in a band that he formed at school: “A typical sweaty bunch of boys playing covers of Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix tunes in our bedrooms.”
After the drums, le deluge: these days, he is proficient on guitar, bass, piano and keyboards, glockenspiel and assorted other instruments, which he has gathered at his flat in North London. Being able to play so many different ones has allowed Max to be as eclectic as he wants, and he is now able to express the many musical ideas that he’s had since childhood, growing up in a home with parents who would expose him to everything from David Bowie and Talking Heads to Senegalese folk, Irish rebel songs and jazz.
Music was an obvious career option for Max, but it was by no means the only one. He may have left the LSE before completing his finals, but his university dissertation was a consuming passion and pointed towards the romantic visions of Suego Faults.
“The title of the thesis was, ‘Is the Notion of Romanticism a Western Construct?’” explains Max, who grew up with two sisters and attended a girls’ school where he was one of only two boys. “It was an exploration of the concept of falling in love and finding a partner, and of such eternal questions as, ‘Is monogamy a social construct?’, and ‘Does love exist in a universal form, or are our ideas of love a luxury that only Western culture can afford?’ Does a Bendjele tribesman of the Congo, for example, have similar romantic thoughts to an Irish farmer?”
While he was pondering these thorny dilemmas, he was considering filling out application forms for an alternative career: being a spy for the Foreign Office in which he could live out his James Bond fantasies and 'live the fast life in exotic countries'.
In the end, Max left the LSE before completing his degree and, following a series of glamorous day jobs - including oat-picking in Scotland and scraping bacon fat off of trays in a London hotel kitchen - he began working on bedroom demos (one of which would go on to be released by the indie label Neon Gold) that would see him compared, by the Guardian’s influential New Band of the Day column, to David Bowie and David Byrne. Atlantic Records heard the demos and promptly signed him. Songs such as Lions In Cages provided signs of Max’s future as Wolf Gang. “I was definitely pushing in a more grandiose direction,” he says.
To help fully realise his grandiose dreams on his debut album Suego Faults, he enlisted the help of Dave Fridmann, producer of Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and MGMT and a man eminently capable of creating cosmic pop symphonies in his Tarbox Studios in upstate New York.
“It’s quite a large sound,” considers Max. “There’s a gloriousness to the production, and a certain ambition.”
Messrs McElligott and Fridmann arrived at that sound the hard way: Max recorded the songs in his bedroom in Kentish Town using a ripped copy of the 'cubase' software programme, singing and playing all the parts himself. He then took those prototype versions of the tunes to Tarbox, where he and Fridmann worked up the finished versions together, to the extent that they share a co-production credit on the album sleeve.
Max explains that the sound they achieved at Tarbox - Fridmann’s signature shimmering, enveloping psych-pop - came from using his “amazing equipment”, including “the finest compressors”, and by “recording bits of music and making them more 3D by at times utilising the spaces, and at others minimising the silence and pushing everything to the limit.”
He admits that discussions did take place as to how cosmic and grand Suego Faults should be. “Quite often Dave actually wanted to leave my stuff simple and not go completely mental. He didn’t want to do a crazy mix. There were discussions about not going overboard for the sake of it because that’s what people expect from him as the mad producer.”
Eventually, they got a sound they could both appreciate. “Dave’s not a gushing kind of person - just the fact that you’re in his studio means he likes what you do - but afterwards he did ring to say he was very excited about the album. He said some of it reminded him of the early Rev stuff. That was cool.”
Suego Faults is a magnificent collection of accessible, experimental pop. It opens with Lions In Cages, which merits contention alongside that other Fridmann-produced album opener, MGMT’s Time To Pretend, for double-tracked vocal exuberance and sheer Technicolor euphoria. “The weird delays and crunched-up drums, the wobbly pizzicato violin, the compressed synths, drums and programmed beats all went towards making that signature Dave Fridmann sound,” Max explains. “It’s an acoustic performance, with a modern feel; one played by humans that sounds a bit electronic. It’s a classic sound in a modern context.”
Next track Something Unusual features a snappy, staccato Elvis Costello-ish vocal delivery. That may not be coincidental: it was written on a piano given to him by Clive Langer, producer of Costello’s Punch The Clock album. Stay and Defend is infectious piano pop while next single, The King and All of His Men, is a charging, surging potential hit that just happens to concern terrorist cells "bringing their fight" to the UK. Midnight Dancers, Max’s favourite on the album, sounds like a classic 70s rock ballad, updated for 21st century consumption. A track about two former lovers who come together after years apart for “one final roll of the dice and a dance on the cobbled streets of Paris”, it could have come from the pen of Elton John or Paul McCartney.
And that’s Suego Faults all over: superb songcraft, dexterous musicianship, and florid but not over-fussy production, for a suite of songs about unrequited love and post-apocalyptic paranoia. The title of the album may have come to Max in his sleep, but this is a dream of an album that will linger long after it ends. Throughout, he sings in a mid-Atlantic accent, as per his heroes Elton and Bowie, because “when you sing with a slight American accent, it’s less angular and easier on the ear”. He loves Elton for his melodic sensibility and Bowie for the way he would restlessly change and become steeped, from one album to the next, in a completely different set of aesthetic criteria and referents. Mostly, though, he just digs the tunes. His love for older music is complimented by some more modern day influences he has such as Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire – all this combined makes for one very interesting man whose love for music clearly runs very deep and goes beyond just writing great jams.
“I didn’t want to make a record for highbrow musos, I wanted one that everyone could enjoy, with good melodies and lyrics,” he decides, finally. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. To make an upbeat summer album that is accessible, only in a credible way.”
And he’s done it. Welcome to Suego Faults, the dream of a lifetime.
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