Painters Paint: The Definitive Career-Spanning Interview (to date) With The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan

Published on January 30th, 2011 in: All You Need Is Now, Current Faves, Interviews, Issues, Music |

Popshifter: Two years later (in 1992) came Santa Barbara. There’s a very earthy, provincial grit to this album, which I adore. It’s almost like a James Joyce novel—with various town-and-country characters! Before I get ahead of myself, what transpired between your solo record and this one?

Sean O’Hagan: Well, I almost gave up. There was no response whatsoever to the solo LP from the media; they did not get the Alex Chilton thing: too busy listening to Nirvana and Mudhoney.

high llamas santa barbara

But, in France there was an audience. A friend called Chris who was the bass player in the House of Love and lived around the corner started a label called Plastic on Creation Records. He wanted to see the High Llamas make a record, so we produced Apricots, a mini LP for the label,. This was received really well by the French media so we augmented the songs with four more songs, like “The Taximan’s Daughters,” “Market Traders,” and a few others. These were recorded with Charlie Francis. Most of Apricot was recorded with Marc Pringle in Steve Mac’s That Petrol Emotion studio in East London.

Additionally, I was spending a lot of time in Ireland and was enjoying the rural anarchy that sometimes creeps up on you over there. As I think of this, I realize it was a different time. The world has changed and we are always connected, and franchise, brand, and globalized living patterns are the norm. Back then in the early ’90s, Ireland was still the west, wild and full wonder . . . stories everywhere. It was almost like recreating conversation to relate some of the stories that ended up in those songs. Again, I was trying to rescue pop from the boredom of Sub Pop as it was then (I think Sub Pop went on to become very exploratory). I thought records sounded jaded and melody had been sacrificed in favor of attack. I almost wanted to link the Beach Boys up with Caruso and Cole Porter as well as Michael Brown. We were poor and only cared about getting a song recorded somehow.

Popshifter: Santa Barbara is notable for the strong presence of a female vocalist, which would be the last time we would hear female vocals until Cold and Bouncy (six years later). In the aftermath of this album, what became of the female vocalist on this disc? She added an interesting flavor to your work, similar to the way Doe and Cervenka sounded in X.

Sean O’Hagan: Yes, that was the wonderful Anita Visser; we talked about her earlier. She was the soul of our band, the personality, and the questioning yet encouraging presence. Anita arrived in London to try to forge a musical career and after stints in Edinburgh, she finally accepted my begging offers to move back to London and join the High Llamas. Yes, that voice and her guitar playing were so important to us. We were cynics and she was an optimist. So funny, a bit of America in the band. We tried to turn her into a cynic which nearly happened, but she returned to the US to study where she remains happy and very successful. We love Anita to this day.

Popshifter: With all warmth and humor, I have to say that “Market Traders” has the funny, dubious distinction of being the only song in the entire High Llamas catalog that I cannot play in front of my children—and they love the Llamas! (The line “Joke, joke, very funny/I want your fuckin’ money” is the zinger.) A couple questions regarding this song: This feels like a song written from experience; any truth to that? And also, looking back on it now, how do you feel about having an expletive smack dab in a Llamas song? If given the chance, would you do it again?

high llamas five

Sean O’Hagan: No, I would not do it again. No need. I enjoyed the moment but no need. This is about a small market town called Hitchin and also about working culture in the south of England. I spent my youth at work. I never studied. I worked on building sites (construction), car assembly, food manufacture, all sorts. I had no academic or arts training. I daydreamed through these eight years absorbing humor and abuse from other working chaps and chapesses. This is a slight reflection of the time. Music is full of college kids who have never confronted the jab of working rumble, the day-in and day-out mundane and coping strategy of mild abuse.

Popshifter: The most haunting song from this album, for me, has to be “Apricots.” At the time I heard this tune, I was transitioning from my 20s to my 30s, more or less, and felt the first chill of “getting old’ in this song, with lyrics like:

“Then all my friends quit smoking
Saying an ill wind had set in
None of us can win.”

Add to that, there’s the eerie, theatrical exchange between a mother and a child at the end of this song, the whole “get in the car!/no!” banter. At the risk of getting in over my head, this song has a lot going on inside of it. Could you speak to where you were coming from with “Apricots”? It really is unlike anything you’ve written before or since.

Sean O’Hagan: I recorded it with Marc Pringle on a 16 Revox. We loved the experimental opportunities that home recoding at a high fidelity level gave us, pre-hard disc. We were ambitious and kept switching the tape over to record backward signals. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Beach Boys rarities and The Millennium and such like, so I wanted to get that arty West Coast spaced vibe, again unexplored in years.

I was singing about the change that was happening in London, the way the financial sector had began to drive the economy and the loss of old industry, the emergence of the right wing yuppie the chill of money, the loss of innocence.

Click to read more about . . .

Santa Barbara
Gideon Gaye and Hawaii
Cold and Bouncy and Lollo Rosso
Snowbug and Buzzle Bee
Beet, Maize & Corn, Can Cladders, and the upcoming Talahomi Way

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8 Responses to “Painters Paint: The Definitive Career-Spanning Interview (to date) With The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan”

  1. Owen:
    January 31st, 2011 at 10:10 am

    An amazing interview.. thank you so much!

  2. Mark Flora:
    January 31st, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Wow! Awesome job! We’re kindred souls. Like you, I have loved the High Llamas since the release and discovery of “Hawaii.” Thoroughly enjoyed your interview; you asked many of the questions I’ve had for years…and does it ever have me stoked for April 11.

  3. jemiah:
    January 31st, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I’ve passionately loved the Llamas ages! It amazes me how much of their music I’ve still not heard; I got stuck on Cold and Bouncy and hardly budged. It’s one of my examples of a completely perfect record. Love this interview!

  4. Ben:
    February 2nd, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Big Llamas fan here, very happy to get such in-depth insight into Sean’s relationship with his work. I had the pleasure of seeing Sean and the band play a show around Christmas at a town hall north of Camden after the release of Hawaii, and I have fond memories of the show, which was spectacular. I hope to see them again!

  5. Lloyd:
    February 2nd, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Thank U Thank U Thank U for this! Fantastic interview…Bravo. The passionate few of the world are still here – living each day with an appreciation for the Llamas that grows and with continued hope for their successful return. The next couple of months will be sweet agony.
    BTW – I saw the HL show at the Black Cat in 2004, haven’t been back there since.

  6. Chris Evans:
    February 11th, 2011 at 7:11 am

    All Llamas fans will surely get a big kick out of the new Ocean Tango album, which is actually a collaboration between Louis Philippe and the excellent Swedish band Testbild! Sean is a big fan of both and even gets to play on the album, which can be found at Needless to say, the British media have so far given it a wide berth . . . sigh . . .

  7. Jose Jones:
    February 14th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Great interview. For a “non-college” guy, Sean is certainly articulate and thoughtful in his speech and music. I liked how he said “Snowbug” was his favorite Llamas album, because it is now my favorite, even though I have only it owned it for a month. The fade-out to “Go To Montecito” could go on all night and I would never stop grooving to it…never heard any of the post-Snowbug albums but I will get to them all, I know. Thanks Sean, for such sublime music. Hope you can get to America and tour again…saw you in Pontiac, MI at a club show in the late 90s….can’t remember what year exactly.

  8. The High Llamas Play “Checking In Checking Out” « The Delete Bin:
    September 19th, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    […] Again we were drunk on experimentation: wheeling in rank pianos, recording impossibly thin buzz guitars, and for the first time I was experimenting with string writing. As the ideas fell upon themselves, and it all worked, the architecture of the band just started to build itself before us. (read the whole interview with Sean O’Hagan by John Lane). […]

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