At the heart of Oscar and the Wolf lies a dichotomy. Max Colombie chose this evocative stage name because it captures the two sides of his personality and of his music. “I wanted a name that offered the perfect contrast between darkness and light,” he explains. “Oscar sounds kind of poetic – it represents the side of me that’s a daydreamer. But the wolf is an animal that howls at the moon, so it symbolises the loneliness that’s inside me.”
This rich contrast permeates every single Oscar and the Wolf song. “I never want to make songs that are only sad or only happy,” he says. “I want each song to feel to like it’s 50% dark and 50% light; that’s the melancholy I’m going for in everything I write.” Initially, the Smiths were a significant influence, but now his R&B-flecked electro-pop noir can be inspired by anything from a Calvin Harris banger to a a Connan Mockasin psych jam. “I think of my songs as almost like Disney music for adults. They have lots of sexual and over-the-top elements that maybe aren’t suited to children! But I want to break through the social construction of this idea that there’s music you’re ‘supposed’ to make. I don’t believe in this line between alternative and commercial music – even classical pieces are like pop music to me. And I think there’s a real beauty in the EDM sound.”
At home in Belgium, Oscar and the Wolf is already a superstar who sells out 20,000 capacity venues and headlined last year’s Pukkelpop festival ahead of Rihanna and LCD Soundsystem. He’s also broken Turkey and the Netherlands, where he went on stage right before Muse at 2016’s Lowlands festival, and smashed it. Surrounded by a crowd and lashings of pyrotechnics, Oscar and the Wolf always rises to the occasion. And the fashion world adores him, too. In 2015, renowned designer Dries Van Noten even used his music to soundtrack a Paris Fashion Week show.
But Oscar and the Wolf’s success has always grown organically, much to Max’s surprise and delight. “I never thought of myself becoming a singer because I thought it was too far to reach,” he admits today. Though he started writing songs at the age of 11 after teaching himself to play the basic piano chords, Oscar and the Wolf didn’t really take shape until he went to art school. Max began hanging out with a group of musicians, wrote some very promising songs, and started showcasing them at “lots of crappy little live shows around town”. Within a year, he’d landed a record deal. “It was a shot in the dark, but I guess I hit the right target,” he says humbly. “My first thought was, ‘This is great, because now I can actually pay my own rent!’ And then everything kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And becoming more and more intense.”
Now he’s preparing to expand his fanbase with superb new album, which he wrote after a year of intense self-exploration. “I’ve never made such an eclectic collection of songs, and it’s turned out that way because I’ve had kind of a dramatic year,” he says with a knowing hint of understatement. “But actually, I think drama can be a good thing. I don’t try to win over the fact that I’m feeling dark or blue – I try to dive into it as deep as I can, until I find something interesting in there. That’s where the music comes from.”
He wrote the album at home, close to the banks of the river Senne in Brussels. Max explains: “I always seek out water, because whenever I’m near water, I feel relaxed and I can start brainstorming. But cinema and TV series are the biggest inspirations to me now. When I watch a movie, I cut my favourite scenes and then I put them on repeat and write, like, a ‘post-soundtrack’ to them. I guess in a away, I’m replacing the soundtrack with my own music.” For 2016’s standalone track,The Game, scenes from various Harmony Korine movies, cult sci-fi film Under the Skin, and HBO horror show True Blood all fuelled Max’s songwriting muse, with sublime results.
The pulsating So Real is about falling in love with a vampire – there’s the True Blood influence – while Fever’s irresistible electro-disco captures “an intense chemistry between two people that’s not love, but lust”. Honey’s seductive shuffle houses a plea for emotional openness: “It’s about asking a person for more information so you can understand them better, and show them more love.” But though some of these songs come from an introspective place, this is an album that looks outwards. “Because I’ve been playing so many festivals for the last few years, I wanted to make music that I could play for people and turn the situation into a party. I want people to dance to these songs,” he says. “And you know, I do like bangers.”
The purpose of Oscar and the Wolf, Max says, is to foster a sense of confidence and self-acceptance. “Whether people are listening to my music at home or at one of my concerts, I always want them to act as if no one is watching. I want them to feel as if they don’t have to be scared, that they can loosen up and dance, and really absorb the music.”