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Mad Max Elliott’s warped rockabilly romance

The Madison musician’s debut album, “The Blue Moon Goon,” came out on August 20.

The Madison musician’s debut album, “The Blue Moon Goon,” came out on August 20.

Photo by Joseph Tucci.

Max Elliott has cultivated an unhinged, voice-cracking approach to rockabilly over the past decade, both in his acoustic solo performances under the name Mad Max Elliott and as vocalist/guitarist for Madison band The Lonesome Savages. By comparison, his debut album as Mad Max Elliott, The Blue Moon Goon, dials it back a bit. Released on August 20, the album expands on the intersection of romance and menace Elliott has been working all along, enriching his songs with crackly arrangements and balancing Elliott’s earlier tormented-wolfman persona with tenderness and humor.

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“I think of [Mad Max] as less a character than what I did in the Lonesome Savages—still a little bit of a character though,” Elliott says. “But for this it’s mainly just me. I’m weird and I like morbid/gross/absurd stuff, so that’s what’s in the songs, but I don’t play it up as much as with Lonesome Savages. For that I tried to be a sleazy werewolf or something…aggressive and scary, but I don’t feel comfortable doing the sleaze shtick anymore.”

On songs like “I Tell You Why,” “Pictures Of You,” and “The Creep,” Elliott busts his rockabilly influences down to a corroded chassis of guitar, vocals, kick drum, and hi-hat. Joseph Tucci and former Madison musician Dead Luke add a few embellishments—lap steel, baritone guitar, organ, snare drum—that manage to sound both warmly present and as if they’re leaking off of an old 45 that’s been slowly melting over the decades. 

But the most important dimension here is in Elliott’s voice. Even when his delivery is feverish and drenched in slapback echo, he’s using so much more of his range, from the crisp and catchy midrange performance on “Garage Of Love” to the almost comically maudlin baritone of “The Big Tragedy.” The depth of the vocals here recalls Elliott’s pre-rockabilly days, when he played in a more traditional folk vein.

“I’d like to say that was more of a conscious decision, but it was more due to an injury close to recording,” Elliott says of the album’s comparatively restrained singing. “I fell down some stairs which messed up my back, so I wasn’t able to practice for a bit. When I finally was able to, I practiced a lot in a short amount of time and messed up my throat. By the time we started recording my throat was better but I was still worried I’d shred it again, so I made sure not to go too hard. I did the chiller songs first and left the intense ones till the end—’Wild Wild Women’ vocals were done in one take second to last. I love how the vocals came out, so that was a huge relief, but it’s definitely different than what it’s like live. 

“A lot of times when I play live, I rely on the coarser shredded vocals to make up for not feeling comfortable about something,” he adds. “It sounds cool but it’s kind of a crutch at times. The vocals here came out closer to what they’re ‘supposed’ to be. I still like the coarse sound, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance.”

Throughout The Blue Moon Goon, it’s hard to miss Elliott’s nostalgia for the formative brew that rockabilly represented, but if he’s reaching back to its early days he’s also dragging those elements through a warped tunnel to the present.

“I also want to retain the feel of the old songs, since it’s that crazed energy that I love,” he says. “I think a lot of what I’m trying to change is actually more related to modern rockabilly and psychobilly trends. I feel like the old stuff is grittier (both in sound production and performance) which is what gives it that unhinged quality. A lot of modern stuff is clean and tight, without much room for weirdness. I still enjoy listening to it, but it can be a little too sterile at times. Old rockabilly is more influenced by early R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, but the new stuff seems to be just influenced by rockabilly. An imitation of an imitation, which makes it a little too detached from the main inspiration. Elvis and all those guys were ripping off the earlier Black artists, but now people are just ripping off the white artists who ripped off the Black artists.”

As with a lot of things in rock music, rockabilly has its share of elements that are best left behind, especially, Elliott says, “being gross about women, and young girls especially. It feels weird to do these days, and it’s just boring.” One track on the album that walks a fine line in that regard is “The Big Tragedy,” a cover song that starts as a baleful ballad and turns into an attempt at dark comedy. In the final verse, a woman gets run over by a steamroller, leading to this spoken conclusion: “I’m taking a shower now—you can just slide her under the door.”

“It’s crass, but thankfully it’s also cartoonish enough to keep it from being too brutal,” Elliott says. “That’s how a lot of those novelty songs were back then.”

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The album ends with another cover and another extreme. Elliott’s rendition of Charlie Feathers’ “A Man In Love” leaves behind the squiggly slapback and itchy rhythms entirely, paring it down to just voice and a bright acoustic guitar. The patience and lovesick fondness of this performance almost come as a shock after everything that leads up to it.

“Luke suggested I add a cover where I just play acoustic guitar, and that’s one that I used to play years ago, when I just started transitioning from folk to rock ‘n’ roll,” Elliott says. “I love the song, and I think it’s a great and interesting way to end the album. It’s genuine and sweet, which after the other 12 songs isn’t something you’d be expecting to hear. It also has the least effects on my vocals, so it was really satisfying to have an (almost) clean sound to it. It’s vulnerable and real, so a lot closer to the folk songs I used to play.”

The first time I saw Elliott play music, he was performing in an early iteration of Zola Jesus with his sister, Nika Roza Danilova. While Danilova has built the project into an outlet for elegantly dark pop, its early days were much more wild and raw. I remember a show at the Corral Room (this must have been around 2008 or 2009) where Elliott played a floor tom as Danilova wailed and writhed on the floor. 

“We’ve definitely bonded over music over the years, among other things,” Elliott says of Danilova. “I’ve shown her different artists that she now loves and she’s done the same for me. She was the one who gave me the Wooden Wand CD, Second Attention, that made me want to start playing folk music. I think I showed her a lot of older artists while she was more ‘in the know’ about all the stuff happening now. She also helped me get my single out on Sacred Bones, so I’m eternally grateful for what she’s done for me. And I think seeing her going for it and doing what she loves made me want to do the same.”

Elliott is already at work on a second EP to follow The Blue Moon Goon. “I’ve been playing a lot of these songs for a while now, so it’s exciting to finally have them recorded and be able to ‘move on’ and start making new stuff,” he says.

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