Before he chucked it all, Max McElligott was a student at the London School of Economics (like Mick Jagger before him), studying social anthropology and writing a thesis titled, “Is the Notion of Romanticism a Western Construct?”
“Capital-R Romanticism and the different ways of seeing it,” McElligott explains. “It’s a very 19th-century construct, and in anthropology there are so many good examples of a similar notion experienced across cultures — but it’s romantic love, the lowercase ‘r,’ ideas of love and what love is. You go back to the 13th century poets going around the courts of France mysticizing this thing called love. But I was curious as to whether, say, a tribe in the Congo had similar poetry for their relations, the same of romantic Romanticism we take for granted.”
McElligott, 24, took a year off from school and hasn’t gone back, but he’s entered a new field well-versed in exploring the meanings of love: pop music.
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Wolf Gang is the band that grew up around McElligott’s musical ambitions. A bit of a prodigy, son of a history professor father and a violinist mother, the British-born McElligott taught himself piano, bass, guitar, drums, glockenspiel, you name it. He then recorded a series of demos in his bedroom in Strathkinness. One good newspaper review led to a contract with Atlantic Records. Stepping beyond the bedroom, McElligott gathered some mates to make a live band — now including drummer Lasse Petersen (the Rakes) and guitarist Gavin Slater (Ghosts) — and christened them Wolf Gang (inspired by his adoration of classical music, but a name not easily Googled with the existence of violent L.A. rap group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All).
I first encountered Wolf Gang at last year’s South by Southwest music conference in Texas. I simply followed the crowd. Wolf Gang was playing its showcase in a bar whose front doors and windows opened wide to the street. A motley crew had gathered along the curb, most of whom began dancing unabashedly to “Lions in Cages,” what is now the first single off of Wolf Gang’s debut album, “Suego Faults.”
The swirling, symphonic alt-rock of “Suego Faults” is complex under the surface — McElligott arranged it all and plays every instrument — but it rings through the speakers like timeless Britpop. Baroque, bouncy, occasionally ambitious, the Davids (Bowie, Byrne) are thrown around a lot in comparison, and fans who’ve tuned in recently to fun., Passion Pit or Coldplay won’t be left wanting.
If it sounds dreamy, it’s only fitting. “Suego Faults” came to McElligott in a dream.
“I’ve always had vivid dreams and a prolific imagination,” he says. “I woke up once with that name ringing in my head, after a dream with this epic story to it, and there was a two-and-a-half-minute song like this in the dream. I realized later that the song I’d pulled out of it would be a nice breathing space on the album, and it seemed like the right title for it, and for the album, since it didn’t really exist anywhere yet except in my head. All of this was an imaginary place.”
McElligott had been working on most of these songs for several years before the notion of realizing them in the marketplace took hold. The old industry saw is, you have your whole life to write the first album and then about nine months to write the second. McElligott says he’s already at work and hoping to unleash a sophomore effort next year.
“Suego Faults” was recorded with producer Dave Fridmann, an acclaimed sonic architect known for enhancing the weirdness and majesty of bands like the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and MGMT. For Wolf Gang, however, McElligott says Fridmann exercised unusual restraint.
“I had these demos all recorded up in my bedroom, with the parts done, the instrumentation done. They just didn’t have that shimmering gleam [Fridmann] puts on everything,” McElligott says. “The quality of his mixes as much as the production is so pristine. But he was always debating about whether to go more experimental. We’d have chats about crunching up the drums in this one or hard panning things in that one, but he actually came to the idea that this shouldn’t sound too mental. It should sound more classic. So we didn’t go overboard. There are a few touches here and there, but he wanted the songs to speak for themselves.”
Classic, classical, romantic — Wolf Gang may not be big-R Romantic but deftly explores the lowercase subjects in song. But he’s been so busy on this project he’s neglected his own life a bit: “I’m not exploring romance on a personal level right now, which is a bit of a shame.”