Wolf Gang - (Set time: 8:30 PM)
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 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.
ATLAS GENIUS - (Set time: 7:30 PM)
In November 2009, the members of Adelaide, Australia's Atlas Genius set about building a studio where they could write and record music for their newly formed band. For two years, brothers Keith, Steven, and Michael Jeffery devoted their days to constructing their dream studio and spent their nights performing songs by The Police, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at local pubs to pay the bills. "We really got down and dirty with drywalling and literally laying the floorboards, and at the same time we were taking a couple of days a week to focus on writing songs," recalls Keith, Atlas Genius's vocalist/guitarist. The studio was designed and outfitted by the brothers with the help of their father (who comes from a music and engineering background). Once the studio was complete, the first song that Atlas Genius finished was a song called "Trojans," which they wrote, recorded and produced in collaboration with their friend Darren Sell. After many weeks tweaking the song, Michael insisted that the song was ready to be heard outside of the studio walls. Within an hour, "Trojans" was on SoundCloud for sale via TuneCore on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify worldwide.
"We had begun to think that music was a pipedream and we had all gone back to university to pursue more realistic careers" says Keith. "We'd had such a long slog of playing late nights and working all day, and it felt like we didn't really have anything to show for it." But then, in the midst of cramming for their Fall 2011 semester final exams, Michael discovered a Neon Gold post praising "Trojans" as a song sure to "invade your head, all dressed up in a clever disguise of earnest vocals riding a hooky riff." Checking the band's email account for the first time in over a month, Atlas Genius found that dozens of record labels, publishers, lawyers, booking agents and management companies from all over the world had contacted them.
"We were trying to focus on school, but it was just impossible," recalls Keith. "So we said, 'There's something going on here. Let's get back to the music.'" The band added Manager, Jonny Kaps from +1, to their extended family to navigate all of the interest as the band focused on writing and recording more songs.
Quickly named an iTunes Single of the Week in Australia and New Zealand, "Trojans" reached #4 on Hype Machine by the end of May. In August, SiriusXM Satellite Radio's Alt-Nation discovered the song on a blog and decided to give it some spins. There was an immediate reaction from listeners, and in September, "Trojans" was placed into heavy rotation, where it maintained a top-five position on the listener-generated Alt-18 countdown and peaked at number one for 4 consecutive weeks in January 2012. "Trojans" began selling over a thousand tracks per week on U.S. iTunes and soon climbed to 40,000 sales -- all with zero promotional efforts from the still-unsigned Atlas Genius.
"Knowing we had this audience that was waiting on new songs, we had a much greater sense of purpose than we had before," says Keith. "It was really exciting to know that there were people who wanted to hear more of our music." Although labels were clamoring for the band to come to the U.S. and play a series of showcase gigs, Atlas Genius turned down those offers in favor of staying in Adelaide to keep writing and recording new songs. In February 2012, after months of communicating with numerous labels via Skype, the band chose to travel to the US in order to make their label decision.
"We'd never been to America before," says Keith. "We flew in at night and saw this sea of lights, and it really became apparent to us how massive this country is. It was pretty intimidating -- like 'How do we fit into all this?'" In April 2012, the band returned to the U.S. having made their decision to sign with Warner Bros. Records. "We felt a connection with them," notes Keith. "Everyone there feels very creative and dedicated to the music."
The band's first release from their new label home, the three-track "Through the Glass" (produced, engineered and mixed by the band) captures Atlas Genius's singular combination of sophisticated musicality and warm, wistful spirit. Infused with a classic sensibility, each of the songs would fit seamlessly if somehow slipped into a long-treasured mixtape. On the shimmering "Symptoms," for instance, taut keyboard riffs mesh with urgent acoustic strumming before the band bursts into a gently frenetic, guitar-drenched chorus. Meanwhile, "Back Seat" blends its pulsing bass throb with a sweetly infectious beat and tender vocals that alternately soar and sigh. And on "Trojans," Atlas Genius begins with a restrained guitar melody and vocal ("Take it off, take it in/Take off all the thoughts of what we've been") before giving way to the handclap-accented, harmony-soaked refrain and lush yet kinetic bridge.
With "Through the Glass" completed, Atlas Genius is now holed up in its studio and working on wrapping up its first full-length album. "It's still surreal," says Keith of all that's happened over the past year. "I think when we were very young, we had hopes that something like this might happen one day," he continues. (Thanks largely to encouragement from their Beatles fanatic parents, who encouraged the three brothers to begin playing music by age 14.) "But then you grow up a bit and it seems less and less likely. So when we put 'Trojans' out, we figured it would be a success if maybe a hundred people heard it." "So many bands focus on the promotion aspect of the process instead of the music," says Keith. "All of our efforts go into making the songs as good as they can be. We don't want to force our music onto anyone. Our goal is to write songs that we love and we hope they connect with other people too -- be it 100 or many more."