As a student of Social Anthropology attending the prestigious London School of Economics, organizing lavish house parties and applying for jobs in the glamourous-sounding British Foreign Service, Max McElligott was seemingly headed toward a diplomatic life. And then, quite suddenly, a few months before graduation, everything changed. A couple of tracks that he and a friend had put up on YouTube became an online sensation, and that impetus led to the first Wolf Gang live shows and Max’s revelation that (like a certain Mr. Jagger before him) the right move for him was to drop out of LSE and become a musician. After a couple of years of growing fame, first in Europe and then around the world, Max headed to the US to play a series of shows at SXSW, and Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby met up with him in Austin, TX to talk about his big decision, his big plans, and the big sister who named his band…
Stefan Goldby: I understand that you are something of a college dropout in the name of art?
Max McElligott: I was studying in England… I was doing a degree in Social Anthropology – quite strangely, and I was three years into my degree, and in my last year, I decided I wanted to do music instead… I didn’t actually drop out; I deferred, so I had the safety net. I went to my tutor, I asked his advice, and he said, “Look, see how it goes, and if you don’t make it, come back in a year and we’ll do your last year then.” So I had the option of going back, but I sort of dropped out before my finals, and then spent the whole summer kind of writing songs. And met Angus [Murray], who’s my manager and went from there really. He spoke to labels, got a deal and started recording an album, and then here I am now.
SG: Just as easy as that…
MM: It’s been all straightforward. I’ve been waiting for something terrible to happen because it’s all been quite straightforward, yeah. It’s been good!
SG: Is it a logical assumption, based on your fairly international upbringing, and reading that you thought you might have been destined to go into the foreign service, that one of your parents was something of a diplomat?
MM: My father is a historian, but I was thinking about that very briefly – toying with the idea of being a James Bond-like character, going into nice drinks parties at embassies around the world: I think it was more of a boyish fantasy rather than anything realistic. I mean, I did actually go down the route of applying and stuff, but then that’s at the same time I thought about doing music, and the latter took my interest more… with being a musician, you can be whatever you want…
SG: From your earliest days as a musician, YouTube has been rather nice tool for you to get things going career-wise. How has it specifically helped you as an artist?
MM: YouTube is great for any musician now. I think that’s the number one site that people digest music: They go straight to YouTube. That’s where they hear music. So video is terribly important. And I think trying to do something interesting for a music video is good. You have this opportunity to show people a bit about your character, your personality – a bit of flair, so I find it quite fun to have interesting things going on – dancers, people with makeup or whatever. But also I did a little video in my bedroom of a song, and that was an honest little thing of myself in a very private…and put that up on YouTube, and that got a really good response. It’s nice being able to share something like that too, and not just a big produced music video, but something which is very personal, and sharing that with 100,000 people is an amazing thing. From all around the world – South America or wherever – people seeing this thing from my little messy flat in Kentish town – it’s a weird thought. I still can’t quite get my head around it, but it’s great for that on YouTube.
SG: You’ve released multiple EPs over the past couple of years, and soon follows that all-important debut album (no pressure!) still not quite an album yet. Part of the answer may be the social nature of the way you work, but why has it taken so long to finish the album?
MM: It took me actually perhaps longer than usual, because I started recording the album in London with a friend, who is a producer, and I spent a long time on that – more than I should have done, because he was a friend – and it was a slightly messy situation where, at the end of it, I thought, “I’m not so sure that I like this,” and we had to revisit the whole situation, and I ended up going to New York to record it with Dave Fridmann in the end and that took a year in itself – just getting to that point.
But I do think it’s important, as well, to have sort of a slow build where you’re slowly introducing yourself, because you can’t just appear out of nowhere with an album and say, “Look, here I am.” You have to get people into it before, at earlier stages. So I think releasing little singles with indie labels or EPs here and there is really good just to get people on board and excited about the album, rather than just releasing it with no one really knowing who you are.
SG: We talked to Tinie Tempah recently and his career was very much focused on British success first and then on to America as a Stage 2 or Stage 3 kind of thing, but you’ve been getting stuff out globally from the very beginning… In today’s interconnected world, is the idea of a ‘home market’ irrelevant? Is it more that you’re just making music, and you go where it connects?
MM: I don’t think any of us really planned it that meticulously. I think people are still going through these old-fashioned channels, in my opinion, of solidifying themselves where they are in their home country, and then moving forward and going to America afterwards… But because of the Internet, your music is available to everyone at the same time, pretty much, so we quite prematurely did a little tour around in Australia in October because one song had been played a lot on the radio there—more than it had been in London at the time, so we were going down to Australia before we’d even done a tour around Scotland – somewhere on our doorstep.
So I think these days it’s just quite sporadic. You’ll just get people wanting you to come from some random place all over the world, and you just have to try to get to as many places you can, but it’s not always easy. I guess people like Tinie Tempah – it’s all the same. I think people still find it important to have a level of success at home before you can move abroad, but I don’t know. I don’t see the point. I think you should just go wherever you can, while you can – while there’s the interest [laughs].
SG: This must be quite a weird point in time for you right now - the album is complete and exists for you but not for anybody else, we’ve just gotten to see glimpses of it here and there. What should we expect from the Suego Faults album?
MM: I’m so excited for people to hear the album, because there are one or two songs in there – my favorites, which no one has heard yet – and they’re pretty different from what people’s expectations might be, having heard the last single or the one which is just about to come out. I think it’s quite a diverse-sounding album. I really wanted to do something which was not monotonous with every song sounding the same. I think every song pushes in a different direction. Some are quite upbeat, synth-driven songs, and some very stripped-back ones. Like this piano ballad, which is my favorite, called “Midnight Dances.” I’m pretty excited for people to hear it. But it’s quite diverse.
SG: Is there a moment in the recording of the album that stands out in your mind as being particularly memorable?
MM: It was all memorable. Every day was very intense recording with Dave, because there was no one else. It was just me and him, and he’s a very well-known producer; very well-respected, but he just works by himself. He has no engineers; he has no one else helping him. He’s very down-to-earth, literally on all fours setting up the mic feeds and everything. It was just me and him in this studio in the middle of a forest, so every day was memorable and intense, and incredible. A really steep learning curve for me, to be seeing how a man like that works. It was great: It was intense and beautiful.
SG: If you’re out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no distraction, is that a good thing?
MM: For me, yes, because I get easily distracted! If it had been anywhere else, I’d still be making the album. It needed to be in solitary confinement for me to get it done, which is really good though, because I was concentrating totally on the music, and there was nothing else around. It was quite… spiritual.
SG: What about the finished album are you proudest of?
MM: I guess I’m proud that I played everything on it – I did everything, so everything you hear on the album all comes from me. I wrote everything and play everything; I guess that’s quite nice. When I have that album in my hand, I think, “Okay, no one else - except for Dave, I guess, who produced it – this all comes from me,” and it’s nice. I’m so glad that I was able to do that for my debut album.
SG: Starting from that point of the music being created by just the two of you the process of getting it out into the world, is then an ever-more collaborative process, maybe nowhere more than in the making of music videos. Can you tell us about the experience of making your first few clips?
MM: I haven’t done that many; I guess there’s three probably. “The King and All of His Men,” which was the first one, and that production of that song was from the old version of the album, which never really happened, so it’s kind of a dinosaur now. But that idea came about from wanting it to be sort of like a chess board, and the idea got slightly watered down, but then it was quite mad, and all of these people…a lot of my friends, actually, in the video because the budget wasn’t huge, so I had all my friend dressing up with painted faces and stuff, looking really bored in the background: “God… doing a favor for Max.” My friend Ben, actually, is looking particularly bored – you can see him falling half-asleep in the background.
And then we did “Lions in Cages” with Dave Ma – that was great. Guys in animal costumes. And there seems to be a theme of milk cropping up now, because I noticed that… Milk seems to be featured in the last two video, in various forms: a glass of milk and a bag of milk. [Laughs] I don’t know what that means, but there it is.
SG: The next part of getting your music out into the world comes in collaboration with the musicians in your band… do you develop a kind of onstage shorthand form of communication? Are there signs you can see that tell you that it’s a good show?
MM: Last night we played a show at the NME gig, and sometimes it just clicks and it’s really fun, and I look over to my band-mates and they’re all smiling back at me, and we’re like, “Yeah, we’re doing this: this is fun.” And the crowd – it’s always about the reception you get. And I think the busier the venue, obviously that’s a great start, and there’s a crowd and an expectation in the air and stuff, and you come on and smash it. But I’ve had terrible gigs and I’ve had really good gigs. But you always know when you come off; you always have a good feeling.
It’s all about how it’s received by the crowd, I think. Although sometimes you can play a gig, and the crowd won’t be moving much – they’ll just be standing there tapping their feet, and you’re like, “Oh my God, they’re really bored. This is terrible.” And then you come off stage and they all come up to you and they’re like, “That was really good, I really enjoyed that,” or whatever. People digest music differently, at different times of the day as well. So the later you get, the more drunk and loud it is. But I love gigging...
SG: What do you hope somebody walks away thinking after seeing you play for the first time?
MM: I think anyone would want someone to come to their gig and think, “Wow, that was great. Who is this band?” I’d love people to go back and want to look it up and come again, tell their friends. I think, if you come to a Wolf Gang gig, we really enjoy ourselves on stage. A lot of bands sometimes are cut off from the audience and are in their own world, doing their own thing, but we’re up there smiling along with the people, having a laugh too. I think, if you come to our gig, it’s like a feel-good moment.
SG: The feel-good moments can’t all be in the audience: You’re a couple of years into this adventure, what’s been the best pinch-yourself, rock-star moment thus far for you?
MM: Every time, actually, we escape Britain is always nice. Escape the toilet-gig circuit and go to nice warm climates like Texas, or we went to Australia and New Zealand, and you just find yourself on the other side of the world in front of people who perhaps recognize the music, and you’ve never seen them before. That’s a weird moment when you’re thinking, “This is great. This is crazy. Best job in the world...”
SG: Definitely one of the best… Isn’t your sister is a fairly well-known designer in her own right?
MM: She was for a bit, yeah. She stopped now, though.
SG: As you grow up and out into wildly divergent worlds, does any form of sibling rivalry still play out?
MM: It’s funny -- I’ve got two older sisters, and my eldest was always the high-achiever, and she’s a brilliant violinist in her own right; and then my middle sister was in fashion and now works for GQ magazine, so it’s slightly different. I guess my sisters are doing pretty well, so I don’t think there’s a rivalry. I do think they had a rivalry because they’re more similar in age, and you know what girls are like between each other – sisters fighting, pulling hair and stuff. I was always the younger one that was like, “Oh that’s Max. He just does his own thing,” But I think we’re all just really happy for each other, that we’re all doing well. We get on really well, so there’s not too much weird child politics going on…
Wolf Gang’s debut album, ‘Suego Faults,' was released in the UK on July 25, 2011. It is available in the US as an import.
The Wolf Gang US EP is out now on Atlantic Records.