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 |

By John Lane

For the uninitiated, The High Llamas are an enduring band that emerged in the early ’90s. Sidestepping the twists and turns of the teenage-angst/grunge bandwagon propagated by the media because of Nirvana, the Llamas hoed their own row and followed the credo that sometimes a small sound can make its own huge explosion. They were armed with banjos, vibraphones, strings, and a savvy musical sensibility that embraced everything from Bacharach to Bizet.

I first came across the High Llamas circa 1997 when a friend of mine (knowing of my love of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) asked me if I had heard of them. I didn’t, so he made me a tape copy of their album Hawaii, which I proceeded to play ad nauseum on a small General Electric radio/tape-player the night before a wedding. I was the groom’s best man, and after about ten listens of the epic album, he politely asked if I could spin something else. I grudgingly obliged, but can’t remember what the substitute was.

I was thrilled to get the chance to prod the brain of High Llama guitarist and songwriter Sean O’Hagan.

sean o'hagan

Popshifter: Perhaps the most obvious question asked of musicians the world over: what inspired you to first pick up an instrument and begin learning? How old were you when your affinity with music and creating music suddenly “clicked”?

Sean O’Hagan: I first picked up a guitar at the age of 11. I was a quiet, underachieving kid and the ease with which I was able to teach myself guitar gave me a voice in this weird world for the first time as an 11-year-old. So what inspired me was the confidence music gave me, and the radio. I loved radio and the magic of pop.

I think the idea of writing was always there. I wrote stupid little aping pop songs as a kid and then stopped completely until the age of 21 when I started to play again. Again, I wrote straight off. I was never interested in learning other people’s tunes.

Popshifter: In your estimation, how much did your roots (being from Cork, Ireland) shape your identity?

Sean O’Hagan: I grew up in Cork, but before that [lived] in a small town near London. This town was Irish and there is a humor and slight love of folk music that affected the young writer, but my real roots were ’60s suburban boredom and off-white kitchens where I focused on a radiogram and then a transistor radio. This was my companion.

Popshifter: As High Llamas history goes, there are diehards who staunchly point back to your formative ’80s band, Microdisney. With grown-up perspective now, how do you view your time with Microdisney? What do you make of some of the cultish allegiance to that band?

Sean O’Hagan: Microdisney was the sound of two late teenagers who realized they could make people listen. Cathal [Coughlan]and I knew that our contemporaries only got it half right and we thought that sublime and rage could coexist. The band evolved in a dislocation in Cork in the early ’80s, pre-computer savvy, unconnected. When we arrived in England this ability to stand apart stayed with us and threw us into a cult rather than a career.

Microdisney, photo from Microdisney Fansite

Popshifter: Upon the demise of Microdisney (circa 1988), there seems to have been an intermediate “lost” period in the Llamas history before you released your first solo record. What were you doing during the interim phase? Playing pubs and the like, busking?

Sean O’Hagan: I was driving a van, recycling paper, surviving, and twiddling with an idea of a band which eventually became the High Llamas. Mainly surviving and trying to find the voice that was Sean and not “Sean in Microdisney.” Jon Fell was always there and Rob Allum was around. We also had the wonderful Anita Visser [from Santa Barbara] now back in the US, who played with early Llamas in formation. She was a fantastic influence on us in desolate London.

Popshifter: In 1990, there was the release of your one-and-only solo record titled, eerily enough, The High Llamas. First of all, a question that fans would love an answer to: What is the origin of that title/name, “The High Llamas”? We would finally like to hear it from the llama’s mouth, so to speak!

Sean O’Hagan: The solo record had an awful sleeve, which featured a horse/llama in a hot air balloon. I simply looked at this and said, “Ah . . a high llama.” It stayed with me; had to be the name of the record. From then I know I was not a singer; I was in a band with my friend and we needed a name and what better name than the High Llamas? It was gifted.

Popshifter: There’s a rather “live” sound to these songs on your solo record—and I’m referring directly to “Hoping You Would Change your Mind” and “Have You Heard the Latest News.” There’s a sort of pub-stomp, clap-along feel to those tunes. How many of these songs did you play live?

Sean O’Hagan: It was a very live feel, cut in a few days. I could see no reason to do it any other way. I was absolutely trying to pull off everything that Alex Chilton had done since he disbanded Big Star. Alex was the perfect troubadour musician. There was a frailty, sadness, and joy in his music that drove me. I wanted to be Alex, plain and simple. I listened to those ’80s records he made and never looked beyond them. That’s the sound.

Popshifter: To my mind, some of these songs express a feeling of weariness. There’s a bit of a punch-drunk (or just drunk or hung-over) air about them: “Perry Como,” “Pretty Boy.” Maybe I’m reading too much into the flavor of these tunes, but they seem to convey a young man’s weariness. Your thoughts?

Sean O’Hagan: I could not write a lyric. I was rubbish. I had just been in a band with the finest pop lyricist ever, Cathal Coughlan (and he still is), but my attempts were poor, though I knew one thing: write a story, don’t write about yourself.

I was sad and weary; I was lost, though “happy sad”. The world was simple and a struggling band could hobble from one gig to the next on subsistence living . . . no sense of responsibility to anything but a song. The UK was a scruffy place back then but you could survive on nothing.

An old friend, Noel Rooney, wrote a few lyrics on that record.

“Edge of the Sun” was a sad song; as you can hear I was leaving the Alex Chilton influence behind at that point. I was working with Marc Pringle in his little studio in east London and delighted in small recording and multitracking vocals on a Revox 16-track. Happy days.

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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