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: To hark back to my earlier phrase “Golden Age”—it seems around this juncture, you and the guys had a particular freedom. You were able to tour on Hawaii, able to play this work in clubs (which seems so unusual and fantastic), and able to commit different, decidedly non-commercial ideas to record (e.g., linking all the songs together with a thread of instrumental/electronic sounds). Were you guys feeling like you were on a roll at this point in history?

Sean O’Hagan: We were lucky because all these extreme ideas were supported by a major record company who knew not that this would ultimately be thrown to the fringes. Your questioning is really forcing me to evaluate this period and I now realize that we were pushing manifestos, finger-wagging, to anyone who would listen and the message was “It doesn’t have to be boring, predictable pop; pop can be like this, the drums can sit back, the percussion can be textile, the horns can grow and swell, the strings can be sweet as jasmine; in other words, don’t be embarrassed; enjoy the sense of wonder that chords can bring.” We just expected the record company folk to jolly along with us, which was a great policy because they felt part of something big and different.

high llamas cold and bouncy

Popshifter: Let’s look at 1998’s Cold and Bouncy—a very electronic/club-sounding record. It would be your most electronic-sounding disc to date, and from there you would explore other sounds. There was a certain synchronicity to the arrival of Cold and Bouncy—you were championing folks like Mouse on Mars and of course your pals, Stereolab. There seemed to be a sort of kinship or renaissance at this particular juncture. What made you go whole hog into the electronics route at this time?

Sean O’Hagan: The moves on Cold and Bouncy felt natural. Yes, there was a kinship and what a great moment it is when acts in different countries resonate and complement each other and share ideas and sounds; we literally gave each other sounds. That’s fantastic when you think about it. Andy Ramsay from the Lab literally joined the Llamas on that record and created so much sound and taught us a whole new discipline in experiment. In Germany, Japan, the US, and the UK—not forgetting France (Super Discount)—a fistful of great records were being released. I hope one day this period will receive some attention.

Popshifter: Again, I have to give massive props to the female vocalist on “Glide Time”—that’s Laetita (from Stereolab), if I’m not mistaken? Gorgeous tune, of course. Here you’re really getting into that mid-Sixties Bacharach/Barry cinematic sound—the wordless vocal stuff that me and others love. “Glide Time” is stubbornly anachronistic and yet you make it very modern sounding! Was there ever a point where the record label was wondering why you were bringing 30-year-old art forms up-to-date?

Sean O’Hagan: The singer on “Glide Time” was Kelsey Michael. The modern-ness was helped by the drums being vocoded with an organ playing the chords throughout the tune. It’s one of my faves in our whole career. Yes, Bacharach and [Hal] David and Italian influences again. I think the record company was happy for those influences to be showcased at this stage. They thought we were something odd that they did not understand, but were very happy to let us run with it.

Popshifter: “Over the River”—an instrumental—is (to my ears) the heart and soul of Cold and Bouncy. How does an instrumental like that take shape with the other fellows in the band?

Sean O’Hagan: We heard “Over the River” in its entirety very early. We knew the horns would rumble and grow towards the end and the B section would be sweet and Italian. The band had to sit on that lazy swing, the mix of Wurlitzer and 12-string, a riverboat’s slow movement, then the wobble organ and key change. It was all part of the world we had been creating for a few years and again felt natural. The menace at the end is a nod to Bernard Herrmann.

high llamas lollo rosso

Popshifter: And since I’ve mentioned the band as a whole, it’s only proper that we stop and give due credit to your pals: Jon Fell is, of course, your longest-standing comrade—a refugee from your Microdisney days. Could you speak a bit about him and the other fellows that have helped bring your visions to light these past 20 years? Obviously there’s great love and mutual respect between you guys—the music bears that out . . .

Sean O’Hagan: Jon Fell is the person I have known longest on this planet and it seems strange to think that we would not make music together. We have both discovered the music that makes the music (does that make sense?) together. Marcus [Holdaway] plays pianos and organs sings beautifully and taught me to arrange strings. He is a great cellist; we met building a wall (I was the laborer) 21 years ago. Rob has created a drumming sound and technique in this band that no other drummer can get near. He is a great musician, best singer in the band, so gets everything that’s chucked at him. Dom [Murcott] on vibes is a composer himself and provides some very cool MAX/msp moments on stage. Very versatile. Both Pete Aves and John Bennett are almost orchestral in their guitar delivery on stage that is so important to the sound.

Popshifter: In the same year, V2 issued Lollo Rosso, not really a straight Llamas record: six or seven artists (like Cornelius and Jim O’Rourke) tried their hand at remixing/re-flavoring Cold and Bouncy-era songs. The tunes get stretched and pulled like taffy until they’re practically ambient in nature. What did you think of this record and whose idea was this?

Sean O’Hagan: Lollo Rosso was very much what you did back then. Collaboration was always going on. We literally swapped tracks. We remixed each other, all very cool, a fraternity.

It was a nice recording experience that a lot of people wanted to see happen.

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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