Talented 23-year-old wunderkind Max McElligott exudes the kind of cool on stage that it takes most people a few years or a team of stylists to cultivate. Not exactly what you’d expect from a former foreign affairs major at the London School of Economics, but then Max, better known by his stage-name Wolf Gang, probably wasn’t your average foreign affairs student and while most people were making five-year plans, he was so busy daydreaming about his music that he dropped out to pursue it full time.
Now Max is on a soaring trajectory into the stratosphere of fame. With a debut album set to release this year on Atlantic Records titled “Suego Faults,” his first international tour already completed, and four shows at this years SXSW, including Fader and NME shows, he doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down. And why would he, when the market seems so ready for his brand of music: a mix of indie-pop and new-wave revival, influenced by his parents’ retro record collection and a solid training in classical piano. He’s been recording with producer Dave Friddman, who worked with MGMT, The Flaming Lips, and OK Go. Both familiar and distinct, it’s a sound that packs music venues with sweaty writhing bodies and gets people singing along with its catchy lyrics.
The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has been slowly releasing singles that range from dramatic Brit-pop dance tunes with electric drums to stripped-back, heartfelt acoustic renditions and even a beautiful cover of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” which have garnered rave reviews. All of this he does with impeccable style and a graciousness that’s hard to come by, even in the non-rock and roll set. We snagged him for a minute to discuss getting into music, his excitement about the past year, and what he thinks about Virgine.
There has been a lot of focus on how you came into the music industry. You were studying at the London School of Economics. What happened from there?
I was in my third year at uni, but then I did a few acoustic gigs for friends who encouraged me to start thinking about doing it for real, so I think somewhere down the line I thought maybe it could happen, but had no idea how. So I spoke to my tutor, told him that I was thinking about pursuing a career in music and he encouraged me to do it, suggesting that I take a year off from school and could come back if things didn’t work out. So I had a bit of a safety net in the fact that I could always come back if I needed to, which made a big difference. So I did more gigs, and then my manager found me, and from then onward there was a strict plan of action.
Who are your influences?
I used to listen to my parents’ record collection a lot growing up — very melodic sort of artists. The Talking Heads. Jeff Buckley. Fleetwood Mac. Brian Ferry. David Bowie. They also listened to quite a bit of classical music, so I’m very influenced by the chord progressions and the layering of music.
You have a very distinct sense of style that fits really well with your sound, especially when you speak about your musical influences. Is that intentional?
Well, I hadn’t really thought about it. I didn’t intentionally try to dress to fit a certain time, but I guess it does kind of have an ’80s feeling to it. My sister is in fashion, and growing up she used to give me lots of tips about clothes, so I was lucky to grow up thinking more about fashion. I was always sort of aware of how I dressed and what I looked like.
How involved are you in the creative direction of your music videos?
It is all very important because, with the rise of YouTube culture, your videos are the first thing people see when they’re trying to find out more about the band. It’s become such an important part that I try to make sure I’m as involved as possible. I think the starting point has to be the music, but once there is enough identity wrapped up in that I don’t think it hurts to have a strong visual presence to go along with it.
You’ve been getting a lot of attention this year, Burberry Acoustic and Levi’s Ones to Watch, your first international tour, and now you’re headed to SXSW. How has that affected your music?
Well, as you said, it’s been sort of a big year and everything changed very quickly. I recorded my first record in the U.S. last year. Then we had a big tour in Australia, and it was great to go to New York and LA and have a chance to experience all those different places. But I had to learn fairly quickly, and there was a bit of a slow learning curve at first. When I started, I didn’t even have a band backing me. A year ago if I had been asked to go to South by Southwest I wouldn’t have been ready.
For a while you were a solo act; how has having the band helped the cohesiveness of your live act?
I’ve got about four permanent members in the band now, and they’re becoming a bit like family honestly. I still do all the singing and the songwriting myself, but its nice to be backed up by people that you’ve worked with so often. A lot of solo artists go out with session bands and it looks so obvious; with the band standing back in the shadows. It sounds really hollow and lacks intimacy. There’s no charm or magic on stage, and that’s what I want to try and create. When you’re performing and creating music, it’s such an intimate thing and to be able to play together, it has a big effect on your live act. People can feel the difference.
What bands are you listening to right now?
I’m really bad about listening to music, but the great thing about being on tour is that I actually have a lot more time to sit around and listen to music while we’re traveling. I’ve been listening to Grizzly Bear a lot lately. They really have a great sound.