Kettering musician Max Sullivan realises his vision for musical exploration with Foreign Age. As debut album ‘Understanding Animals’ sees daylight New Boots goes in search of the story.
New Boots: How did you get this project off the ground?
Max Sullivan: I started Foreign Age in 2020, as a ‘fresh start’ project just after the first lockdown. The idea behind it was to have a pseudonym band name, like Tame Impala, where I could write and record all the parts and the songs and then go out and gig it with a proper band later on. I wanted to use a pseudonym so that the focus would be on the music rather than a spotlighted solo artist with a backing band.
I’d been completely obsessed with the idea of releasing an album of my songs since I was 16, and I’ve written a ridiculous amount of songs over the years. But for some reason I could never quite finish off the recordings to a level I was happy with. After the pandemic hit and we had the first lockdown it was basically an awakening moment for me. I suddenly realised if the worst were to happen, all these songs may never see the light of day, so that was my drive to get it done. I spent a few months manically recording everything, and pretty much knocking out a song every few days – and then spent around six months afterwards pulling my hair out mixing it!. The original idea was to do a mammoth multi-genre piece; basically my version of the White Album [The Beatles], and put the best of everything I had into the album, like 30 tracks, with loads of sub one-minute interlude songs, etc. But I came to my senses, realizing that I couldn’t expect an audience to sit down and commit to listening to 2 hours of some unknown geezer losing the plot in his bedroom. So instead I settled for a 14 track, infinitely-looping concept album!
How would you describe your sound? Who are the main influences for Foreign Age, do you feel?
I have difficulty answering this one, because while individual songs could fit into a genre model, the album as a whole is a big smorgasbord of genres. For me, Foreign Age is a pop band – but a pop band in my warped sense of what I would like pop music to actually sound like, rather than what we seem to have at the minute. In the current climate Foreign Age is probably ‘alternative rock’ in that it’s a rock-based approach, but with experimental and hip-hop influences.
There’s some obvious lo-fi influences in there as well, and although it’s become very hipsterised now, you could probably also call it ‘bedroom pop’ because it’s effectively a DIY approach to pop music. It’s a non-professional, instinctual-based approach to recording, and it’s more about the spirit of the song than the squeaky clean radio-friendliness of the production. I heard a really funny quote about how lo-fi is the final frontier of punk because it’s not just people who don’t know how to play their instruments – its people who don’t how to record themselves, not being able to play their instruments. I think there’s a nice truth in there though, about what music is in its purest form, which is discovery and expression. The current model of popular music looks to me to be in direct opposition to that: it’s primary aim is to monetize, and rather than exploring what a pop song could be, they’d rather boil it down into a winning formula, i.e. an algorithm pop song, so that they can churn out more, with less effort, time and cost, and make more profit. So naturally I think I’m attracted to anything in opposition to that, whether it’s changing song structures, production values etc – because algorithm-based music is a dreadful idea.
In terms of main musical influences, I would say I’m mostly a sucker for artists with strong melodies, lyrics and experimental tendencies, and I seek out artists who sound unmistakably like themselves: The Beatles, Radiohead, Elliott Smith, David Bowie, Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Wilco, Nirvana, Guided By Voices, J Dilla, Nas and Madvillian [to name a few].
The album is a fantastic melting pot of always-melodic sounds. But at its heart Understanding Animals feels like a concept album on the modern condition.
Yeah that’s basically it. The album is thematically conceptual, rather than a traditional start to finish narrative. The remit for the album was for it to be a satirical, hyper-real reflection of humanity in the 2020s: the 9-5 life, the rise of technology, entertainment addiction, consumerism culture, information overload, cognitive dissonance, post-truth politics, political apathy, and environmental degradation. Lots of fun, happy stuff like that! Each song is a building block in the building up of that universe of the album. The title Understanding Animals is a double play in meaning. In one way it’s about humans being domesticated animals who are trying to understand and negotiate a world that’s too complex for them. And in another way it’s about how we’re animals who need to try and understand each other in order to co-exist efficiently.
The album is designed to play as an ‘infinite loop’ whereby the last song segues into the first: because the album lives in it’s own musical universe, and represents the cycle of life. Thematically I was trying to get at is that there seems to be this general malaise in the populace [at least in the UK] that we’re not quite living out our full potential, or meeting our childhood expectation of what adulthood was supposed to be like. I think that somewhere along the line we’ve confused comfort with fulfilment and the value of instant pleasure versus earned pleasure. I think we’re seeing the serious negative effects of overstimulation and instant gratification, and this album is a cautionary tale in response to that.
Could you have achieved this album without the pandemic? Or was it the perfect moment in space and time to turn ideas into actions?
I hope I could have, but maybe not! In retrospect it turned out to be exactly the impetus needed to make the album happen, so for all the bad the pandemic has caused that is the one positive I could pull out of it. There were some very strange coincidences with the lyrics and content of the album and the pandemic as well actually. I wrote most of the songs in 2018, and by pure coincidence the first song on the album ‘Existential Crybaby’ is a satirical song about government sponsored euthanasia to combat overpopulation, and ‘Understanding Animals’ contains the lyric “to be the new normal”, so it was very strange to hear that being used throughout the first lockdown!
Will live shows follow? Do you have a band brewing?
The plan is to get a band ready before the end of the year. I’m currently shortlisting players – if anyone is interested get in contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
How’s the Kettering scene in 2021? You seem well supported by fellow musicians and fans…
Yeah we have some great musicians and bands locally, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and playing with quite a lot of them – The Abrahams, Kenneth J Nash, Oddity Island, Midnight Honey Club, The Fevers, Aiden Pryor Band. I’m hoping now things are opening back up we’ll have a big spring of new music, and a really strong live scene again.
What was the last album you bought/streamed?
Paul McCartney’s McCartney III Imagined. I usually hate remix albums but I was very impressed. Strongly recommend!
What is your burning desire for to do in and out of Foreign Age in the near future? What plans do you have that you can share with us?
I’ve already started work on album #2; the plan is to try and get it out before the end of the year! Outside of Foreign Age I’ve completed an album with Kenneth J Nash called The Explorer which should be coming out at some point this year. It’s got a strong 60s soul/ spaghetti western soundtrack vibe, with a real old-school flavour to it. I’m looking forward to hearing what people think to it!
Understanding Animals by Foreign Age is out now on the usual digital platforms