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: Snowbug arrived in 1999, and the electronics got toned down in favor of a more Brazilian-flavored texture. I remember that this record was such a sharp right turn, and yet it wasn’t jarring—the change in direction felt natural and joyously different. For the sake of other fans that enjoy your picks, what was influencing you most (music-wise) during the creation of Snowbug? I seem to recall Milton Nascimento was one whom you were championing around this time.

high llamas snowbug

Sean O’Hagan: Milton, Gal Costa, Jorge Ben, but Pierro Piccioni was big for me about this time, and even some odd, folk influences; some strange English early music was popping around my head. There is even The Association in there. I had totally left the Beach Boys behind, but the griping reviews still said this was sub-Brian, failed wanna-be pop. Again the critics in the UK were so wide of the mark that it was embarrassing.

Popshifter: “Harpers Romo” is my favorite song of this album. (You graciously dedicated it to me at the Black Cat show in D.C., January 2004.) I’ve studied this song six ways from Sunday, and while I love the hell out of it, I’m not always entirely sure what’s going on here—I think it could be about agoraphobia or about being pleasantly snowed inside the house, but then there’s “cowboys in pain.” Do tell!

Sean O’Hagan: No, it’s “cowboys and paint.” That’s a reference to Jackson Pollock. Yes, some of it’s about refugees and maybe agoraphobia. One verse is about Pepper’s Ghost. Pepper was a Victorian theatrical illusionist. So the picture here is a story in each verse. No wonder you were lost. Would you be surprised if I told you that Snowbug is my favorite record that we have made?

Popshifter: I can see that. That disc definitely has stand-alone warmth. Now, if memory serves me correctly, Snowbug sort of arrived around the same time as Stereolab’s Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. To people who were around then, these two albums almost felt like Part 1 and Part 2, like they were companion albums in spirit. You obviously have lent your skills to Stereolab over time. How did that friendship come about?

Sean O’Hagan: I was introduced to Tim [Gane] and Laetitia [Sadier] in the early ’90s at a show and we got on very well. Their keyboard player left and they needed a quick replacement for a tour. I filled in but then was invited in on the Bachelor Pad record. I was allowed to make suggestions and the fun started. The Llamas’ change from Santa Barbara to Gideon Gaye was largely down to Tim’s influence on me and the way I worked. I wanted to loosen up. Tim and I still work together and will probably always collaborate. Tim mixed the new High Llamas record.

Popshifter: About a year later, you guys released Buzzle Bee. This was the first album of the new era, 2000. It’s got a very “wet” sound to it, steeped in echo/reverb/delay in parts. I fell in love with it, from the moment I first heard the melancholy opening of “The Passing Bell.” Funnily enough, I remember reading an interview with you, a few years on, where you seemed to sort of shake your head and ruefully say that Buzzle Bee was “the outing that need not have happened” (that’s a close paraphrase from my memory). I was really shocked to read your assessment of Buzzle Bee in that light. Why did you feel that way?

Sean O’Hagan: Well, John, I have no idea why I said that. I love the record. It was a perfect departure from the wide soundscape. We were already heading to Buzzle Bee from Snowbug.

high llamas buzzle bee

Popshifter: I should add, too, Buzzle Bee marked a new era—not just because of its placement in 2000, but because it was released by Drag City. The band’s relationship with V2 ended around this point. Was it acrimonious?

Sean O’Hagan: The record was produced in 14 days and we had a very limited budget. We had to work within tight constraints. We went from a position where V2 let us record to beyond our expectations to a position where we asked ourselves to express the music economically. It was a huge opportunity for us to rethink and edit.

Popshifter: Additionally, was it worrisome to you, this split between V2 and the Llamas? There seems to have been similar seismic shifts that happened to similar groups, e.g., XTC, Prefab Sprout, Squeeze. Was it a case of “We’ve been abandoned; now what the hell are we going to do?” The period leading up to and including Buzzle Bee is an interesting one.

Sean O’Hagan: Central to this was my desire to remain experimental. That may suggest a tonality and full on cut up, but I believed we were the only artists who could remain within tonality and still create an otherness which was indeed both fresh and slightly referential. I had and idea of a spacey liaison with baroque folk, and an excursion into Charles Mingus’s world replacing horns with weird organs and oscillators (“Pat Mingus”).

Then “Sleeping Spray” was also cut up—we literally cut the two-inch tape. There seemed no reason not to be outrageous in what we did. No, I love the record. It’s The Coral’s favorite High Llamas record.

I may even be traveling back to Buzzle Bee in my music now.

The thing is—this is me speaking now, not the band—I have a huge inferiority complex and feel hurt when the music is unfairly judged. Some critics don’t understand the melodic path and just hear dullness, because the same critics only respond to simplicity or clarity. In that former comment I think I was apologizing for an experiment which was derided and written off.

I no longer give a damn. Instinct and singularity of mind is all. So basically I had previously been allowing myself to be bullied by college kids who saw me as an easy target.

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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