From the second I slip through the foam-white door into Cafe Cotton Bean and reach to shake Max Schieble’s hand, it’s clear that I’m interrupting something. Draped in a purple corduroy shirt adorned with a golden trumpet pin, he slides the cap over his pen and guides it back into his pocket. There’s the slight but familiar full-body sigh of an artist yanked out of the moment. “I actually haven’t gotten much time to just sit and draw lately,” he says, gingerly placing his notebook onto the table in front him, “I was really getting into it.”
But an innocent, almost bashful smile spreads over his face—no harm, no foul. We grab a pair of cappuccinos, sit down, and lean in. He guides me through his last few pages, filled with tessellated grids of anthropomorphic everyday objects—clouds, cars, hills, leaves—floating through negative space. Under his pen, they balloon into being with a goofy, animated warmth. It’s almost as if they’ve sprung to life unexpectedly, gate-crashing our reality from a Mickey Mouse dimension in the far reaches of his memory.
Max’s music as Elbows hits you in a similar way. From samples snipped out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on the Corduroy EP to the wavy psychedelia of his latest effort, Sycamore, rose-tinted nostalgia cuts through his work like a knife. “The Rain,” the opening track on Sycamore, spins into frame like a time-warp, reversing violently until a thunderclap brings Max in, beckoning you into his memories: “Through the cobblestones / Fish are swimming / Up, down, smothered in their coats / Bound homeward.” This kind of visual storytelling is a trick nicked from Philly rockers Dr. Dog, a band whose soft psychedelic touch is definitely part of his musical lineage. “You can definitely hear it in the harmonies I use,” he says, “But I love the way that their stories are so hard to piece together, despite the strong imagery.”
"The album is this journey back home,
and seeing all the changes that have taken place."
Born in San Francisco, but moving to New York for undergraduate studies at NYU, those opening lines from “The Rain” mirror his own musical journey over the past few years. It’s a journey that forms the central narrative of the album he’s been building towards, and that’s still coming together as we sip our coffee.
“The concept of the album is this journey back home, and seeing all the changes that have taken place,” he explains. “So Corduroy and those singles are kind of like short stories leading up to it. Sycamore was this street in the town that I went to school in, but I always lived far away and it was a huge pain to get there, so it became this kind of mythically significant place for me. This record is about trying to get back to that place.”
It’s been a long road indeed: Max has been working on some of these tracks, in some form or another, since 2010. “With ‘Windowpane,’ the main keys section is the oldest thing on this record. I had the chorus since 2010, but the verses I wrote last year,” he tells me. “I knew the lyrics would take more time, because those are the most revealing part of the music for me. The chords for ‘The Rain’ were done in early 2011.” But even as he started to collect band members and perform live, he felt that he needed more time before they were ready to put it down to tape. “It’s a story I’ve been trying to tell for a while, but it’s been a process of becoming a better musician—particularly with vocals. It took awhile for me to feel like my abilities were there to do these songs justice.”
“I wanted it to have a sound
like a blimp walking through the forest”
The grind pays off on Sycamore, whose songs are his strongest yet vocally, particularly due to Max embracing the odd, half-rapped vocal cadence that he began developing on Corduroy. Inspiration-wise, he’s eager to praise Frank Ocean, whose string of singles last year featuring a more prominent sing-rap swing struck a chord that goes back to his earliest musical memories. “The first song I remember writing was a rap about my Aunt Joyce and how she loves to shop. I showed it to my Mom and she said ‘I’m not too sure about that one,’” he laughs, “At the time I didn’t even realize it was a rap. I was just spitting out these monotonous, heavily rhythmic melodies. Basically scatting.” The technique’s stayed with him ever since. “I always have more lyrics than I know what to do with, and it’s easier getting around that with rap” Max says, grinning.
When I ask if there’s potential synesthesia linking his music and bubbly visual style, Max tells me that the connection isn’t so concrete for him. You wouldn’t get far, as a friend of his learned, “putting on a Mötley Crüe song and asking me what color it is.” Though he’s fine with the term, he thinks that a few too many artists have turned it into a played-out concept. Still, a rare instance of it occured for him on the song “Blimp,” and sent him searching for an impossible tone to match the image in his head. “I had this idea that I wanted it to have a sound like a blimp walking through the forest,” he explains. “I didn’t know what that sound was going to be for a really long time. It didn’t sound right for months, until I found these 808s that hit the spot.”
Those electronic touches are part of what makes Elbows’ music so wonderfully disorienting, even when they’re cloaked in catchy, immediate arrangements. “Psychedelic” is a bit of a loaded term, generally pushing listeners to expect something in the vein of ‘60s and ‘70s progressive pop like The Beatles or Pink Floyd. Oozing with slippery textures and teeming with effects, Max’s music aims to confuse and disorient in a similar way, but by looking at the spirit of those recordings rather than the tones themselves. “The sounds we consider ‘psychedelic’ came initially from electronic effects and experimenting,” he explains. It’s a lineage best carried on by electronic producers, he believes, naming Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and Thundercat as artists he considers instrumental in forging a path ahead. To further break from the past, most of his processing ends up in the vocals or synthesizers, rather than guitars—a choice he credits to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.
"But that concept, imagining that one person was literally
singing all of those things, stuck with me."
Even as the sonics for the record were starting to come together, it took a literal journey home to get a real spark going—an album about growing up just didn’t feel right without being surrounded by the places into which Max was trying to pull his listeners. And it meant bringing the band, some of whom also play in Space Captain and Alto Palo, along for the ride. “We went out to San Francisco in January of 2015,” he says, squinting into his memories for clarity, “and the first thing I did was take the band on a tour of all the spots on the album: ‘You know how in this song I mention the 2AM Club? This is that. Sycamore street? Here it is.”’
And when it came time to press record, it even involved discovering that a few places had been hiding secrets all along. “We were looking for a spot to record and it dawned on me that my next-door neighbor had a full studio in his basement. As a kid learning to play, he’d always let me borrow an amp, or some cables, but it was crazy to go down there and find this entire setup just waiting for us.” Stepping into the past often dredges up secrets, but few of us are lucky enough to find them intact and ready to be put to good use.
Before we part ways, Max returns to the question of psychedelia as you’d expect someone so perpetually steeped in nostalgia to: by spinning more childhood tales. “I have one memory of playing The College Dropout for my Dad, and he thought that Kanye was singing all of the samples,” he laughs. “He didn’t understand sampling at all, so he was going off about how this guy was insane. On the one hand it’s like, ‘Dad, that’s clearly Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.”’ But that concept, imagining that one person was literally singing all of those things, stuck with me. For me, that’s truly psychedelic.” With an album on the way, and an accompanying visual EP that’ll serve as a trailer, we can’t wait to see the ways that Elbows throws his expanding vision at the wall.