I first came to The High Llamas through an interview with Pharrell Williams talking about his favorite fellatio song. It’s an odd and funny place to start, but I’d say about the journey that took me to be able to do this interview with Sean O’Hagan, the founder, bandleader and songwriter of the Llamas, a British band that has been making music since the early 1990s.
Pharrell said his favorite such song was “The Flower Called Nowhere” by Stereolab. I had not heard of this group before, but because I had been obsessed with The Neptunes, the production duo Pharrell is one half of, I was compelled to know what music enraptures one of my favorite musicians in the world. At first I didn’t know what to think, but I fell in love pretty quickly and gobbled up as much of their discography as I could.
Then, when I was listening to Stereolab on streaming service Rhapsody, I saw this band called The High Llamas listed as a related artist. I thought it was a funny name and had an interest in Buddhism and found the play on the High LAMAS funny and intriguing (I am a Buddhist now). So I clicked and began listening to the album Cold And Bouncy, released in 1997. As I read Sean had been an early member of the Lab, and as I would find out had worked with the band often, providing string and wind arrangements, and more, as well as frequently collaborating with members of the Lab like Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hanson.
Again I didn’t know what to think at first. Like Stereolab — or as many fans call them, the Lab – I was taken aback by how different this was, but also just taken by the chords, the places this went melodically, how light and joyous and ethereal it was. That started me down a similar path as the Lab of trying to get as much of their music as possible. Then it grew into a real love.
But it was also something more than what I had with different music. During that time in 2007 and for years after, I was struggling with deep depression, anxiety and addiction issues. The Llamas music was what I often listened to to escape, to bring levity into my life, and to make me hold onto life for longer.
I had daydreamed about someday being in London where the Llamas are based and stumbling into Sean in a coffee shop just so I could be able to thank him for making this music that had made such an impact in my life.
Fast forward to 2011. I saw on The Llamas official website, there was a place where you could e-mail the band, so I thought this would be some way I could reach out and thank them, and I did. To my surprise I got an e-mail back from Sean. He was very friendly and grateful, and I e-mailed him a few other times, asking him questions about his music, telling him how I was planning to write a sci-fi novel based on my misinterpretation of “Bach Ze,” which he was able to clarify, to which he was delighted. But I stopped mostly because I never want to be one of those annoying fans or seen as a sycophant and because I felt he had provided so much to me by making this music that had an impact on me.
That next year I was listening to Talahomi Way, which they released in 2011. I had been obsessing over this song “The Ring Of Gold” and I couldn’t understand why. Despite being a writer, I tend to mostly focus on the music in the songs and not the lyrics, sometimes for a very long time, and often because I am not very adept at hearing or interpreting lyrics properly. But I finally decided to really listen to the lyrics of this song and realized it was about a retired horse who was enjoying its newfound life of leisure. It is a happy song, the lyrics are happy, but the song made me sad. I could not figure out why.
Then one day, amidst some ongoing deep Reiki and therapeutic work, I kind of broke down, but also had a breakthrough that this song was about me. I was a reporter at The Denver Post at the time and had been doing journalism in some form since I was 13. I had got my bachelor’s degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver in 2009. I had thought this would be my path for life, but that was beginning to die in me. I didn’t want to do that forever. I didn’t feel fulfilled because I wasn’t truly touching people’s hearts in the way I wanted, as the Llamas’ music did. Then in a rush of epiphanies I realized something was growing, that while I was retiring from this way, I really wanted to get into mental health and become a counselor, to help others as I had. It is a path I am still pursuing, I plan to go back to school this year after taking a couple years to sort things out and leave my previous job.
Fast forward to last year, 2015. I had commented and posted some on the Llamas’ official site forum where Sean sometimes interacts, but not much. I spend most of my forum and social time on Facebook, for better and for worse. I looked up to see if there was a Llamas fan group on Facebook, and indeed there was, but it looked pretty much dead. So I decided I guess I’ll create one, so I created The High Llamas Fanbugs, having fun with the title of one of my favorite Llamas albums’ Snowbug. I didn’t expect to get many other members really, I didn’t know if it was needed or how many fans would be on Facebook since the other one looked dead. But I dropped the link in the forum on the Llamas website to attract others. Also living in Denver, I had yet to meet another person who even knew about the band but I thought since Facebook has a global audience it was worth a shot.
The next day I wake up to see a message and friend request from Sean on Facebook thanking me for creating the group. I knew it was him because of his unique writing voice and he included a YouTube clip of the bonus disc for their phenomenal 1996 album Hawaii that had given the band a lot of notoriety. I was shaking, it was surreal. I never thought I’d get to see them live, no less talk to this man who made this music who had such a big impact on my life. I also never expected this Facebook group to grow to more than 175 members, some of whom I have become friends with, and give a platform for us to all talk about and share this wonderful art that has graced our lives.
That has since led Sean to be so gracious to take his time to answer questions I had, but also to answer questions I had collected from members of the group, because I didn’t want it all to be questions from me, because others would have different perspectives and would have followed the group and Sean, and also I knew several were musicians themselves and would have deeper questions.
So below is the answers from Sean, first to my questions and then from the group members. I can’t thank Sean enough for doing this. He has been friendlier, warmer and more patient than I could have ever imagined, and not everyone is lucky enough to talk to their favorite musicians or them to be so kind to fans.
The High Llamas’ new album Here Come The Rattling Trees was released in January on the Drag City label. It centers on the gentrification and economic changes happening in Peckham Square, where Sean resides, through six interconnecting stories. It is based on a stage production the band has performed the past few years in Britain, featuring narratives from the characters between the main songs. It is a delightful and rich piece of music that many around the world will be able to relate to with the changing landscape of many cities and towns, and how those who are locals must deal with or embrace that. Trees is also a story with heart, with complex and enchanting melodies and harmonies, as is the case with most all their music.
Here Come The Rattling Trees can be purchased from the Drag City website, Amazon and outlets where music is sold. The Llamas will next perform Trees May 23 at the CFL Theatre in London and Sean will be doing a solo live set March 24 at La Maison des Musiques in Brussels, Belgium. To see where else he and the Llamas will be performing, click here.
Sean O’Hagan speaking in a YouTube video
Clayton: First I want to ask you: How did you come up with the idea for this stage show and new album? When did it occur to you that this needs to be more than just music on a record?
Sean: After Talahomi Way, I was pretty down about the whole business of making records. I knew that we as a band had been privileged to had so many opportunities, but the relentless underachieving and misunderstanding of our work was wearing. The truth is, unless you can demonstrate some kind of reach, it is assumed that the project has failed, regardless of content.
I knew there had to be a re-engagement with the new, but I did not want to acquiesce to those who know little and give up on a resolute vision. So I realised the new had to be the presentation and engagement, still none the wiser as to what this was.
It came to me while I was cycling around Peckham and I stumbled on a very domestic conversation which took on an epic stature as two elderly women entertained themselves with their stories.
I reflected on the times that I had relayed such stories and added, and exaggerated for effect, and in that moment I realised I needed to gather these experiences and give them a platform. I did not have the story of the Health Centre or Amy. I had a lot of the rest but no running narrative. That came as I set out to write this stuff down.
C: What exactly is the story you’re attempting to tell on Trees and why is it an important story to tell?
S: I am telling six stories. Each character has a unique story, Amy, Mona, the Runner, the Decorator, the Plumber and Jackie.
I set it in Peckham Square after I realised that all the stories were reflecting on urban change, I therefore wanted an urban setting. Peckham is experiencing an accelerated rate of change so the synchronicity of events is unavoidable. How to tell the stories was where the protaganist Amy came from . She is completely invented.
She is leafletting a new client base in the square on behalf of the leisure centre which is passing from public ownership to private ownership. It’s a point of engagement which shows the other five characters. Eventually the character tells their own unique story.
C: Obviously Van Dyke Parks is a big influence on you as a lyricist (Sean did a Skype interview with VDP you can see here). Who else influences you or what else motivates you with words?
S: Yes VDP’s playful and literary style was a revelation to me and delivered an Americanism that had not been witnessed in popular music to date.
I cannot draw on that as a UK resident, but I can stick to the rules that I have learned about being the observer as opposed to the sole subject. The difference between confessional and reportage. My friend Cathal Coughlan may be my biggest influence. We were writing partners in Microdisney. Not so much in style but more so as showing a defiance in the face of cliches. Almost a command: ”I won’t go there, this lyric will be unique.”
C: You seem very fascinated with acting, the film industry, etc. Where did that fascination start and why does it persist for you? How did you and Tim get connected to do the soundtracks for those two French films and would you like to do scores or soundtracks in the future?
S: I saw the film industry at close hand to a certain extent during the 80s and early 90s. I was struck at how filmmakers felt so resolute and. I’m trying not to say self important. You get people like that in music and fashion, monumental is the word. On location, a crew would almost demand that the world stop because “We’re shooting HERE!!!” I found that funny, so I used to dip into those situations.
Marc Fitoussi was a fan of Stereolab and the High Llamas, and when he was offered his first feature film, he courageously brought it to Tim and I to score. He stuck with us for five films. The High Llamas also scored a U.S. movie called Sunburn, written and directed by Nelson Hume, a New Yorker. We made the soundtrack in four mad days before starting Snowbug in London.
I would absolutely love to carry on scoring films…anyone….can you hear me?…I’m available!!
C: What motivated the decision not to use strings on Trees?
S: Budget. It was written as a live performance and recorded later. Strings could not be part of the live show, practicality, money, that sort of thing. So the music’s identity was created without strings. Then we recorded the music, but we still did not imagine it would be a new release. I honestly thought I was documenting this only. But Drag City heard the music and absolutely wanted to put it out. I toyed with strings, but I was so happy to have got this far without strings I stuck unstrung and unbrassed. When you see the live show, I really want the audience to be singing the soundtrack and…wow “there are the characters and here are the stories, so that’s how that music works with the narrative.” The live show is the completion of the puzzle.
C: Why did Drag City not want to include the spoken narratives and how do you think that alters the experience for the user?
S: That was Drag City’s call. I think they may have felt that promo would be difficult as the record would appear to be from a different medium.
To be honest, that question has to be addressed to DC in the U.S. I can’t say any more than that. What I can say is when you see the show it will be all the more rewarding. I have to make that happen somehow…Here Comes the Rattling Trees has to tour, leave the UK, we need to bring it to you.
C: The Llamas music has evolved quite a bit since Santa Barbara. Can you describe that evolution? Was it intentional and how so?
S: Well if you were to read the critics…we have not changed at all…ever. Yes Santa Barbara was a pop record of its time. The early 90s was, for me so dull as there was an obsession with anger and impact, almost a generation trying to discover its rage.
I could never understand that. Santa Barbara was a reaction to that over rising state of slacker noise.
It made no impression. Following SB, I wanted to make a record that did not sound like a product of the 90s. I wanted it to be dry. I wanted to use vintage organs, and out of tune pianos.
I was discovering the joy of recording quickly with Charlie Francis, and quick decision making.
It was the early 90s and there seemed a need to make a record that celebrated not only the Beach Boys, but Ornette Coleman, Robert Wyatt, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, minimalists, John Adams.
It was an anti-industry LP, unfinished and scrappy. I was in Stereolab at the time and Tim and I spoke about these values a lot. Once this course of deconstructed pop was in place, I followed it through to Cold and Bouncy, then we really changed.
C: How does the writing process work for you, in that do you come up with the music first and then the lyrics, and how much a part are the other members of the band in that all coming together? Rob said you all put it together in the studio so how much do you have in your head and how much does everyone else help you put it together?
S: Musical ideas happen first at home. Fragmented and scribbled or recorded on cassettes and minidiscs and now iPads. I write the arrangements then, before drum or basic ideas are formed. In the studio, a very basic track goes down and brass and strings are recorded early, and drums and additional arrangements happens before vocals.
Snowbug was the record where we left the full arranging until we were all together in the studio.
C: When did you first meet Tim Gane and when did you know he would be not only a close creative partner but a good friend for years to come?
S: My friend Brian O’Neill introduced me to Stereolab at a show in Camberwell .
I loved the energy and fresh sounds that rolled off this little south London stage.
I was extremely excited as this band were answering questions that I had been asking, namely where do we go from here. I’d had enough of all guitars, no melody and no real variety. Stereolab were demonstrating a new set of tools. We are mates, because we both think that the behaviour of much of the industry is distant from us and we like humour and we both love football. We discuss a lot besides music. I love visiting him in Berlin.
C: I’ve seen you described as an early member of Stereolab. What made you want to have your own band, and considering how much work you have done on the Lab’s albums and vice versa do you consider yourself an unofficial member?
S: The High Llamas were already in existence when I joined Stereolab. I operated in both bands touring for a while. After I stopped touring with the Lab. I joined them in the studio…when they needed me to pop in. I like to think I am part of the extended Stereolab family.
I can’t remember how many Lab records I’m on. I think from Space Age to Sound Dust I’m there. Of course we then have Turn On. That’s Tim, Andy and me.
C: Are you classically trained or self taught? If the latter, how did you learn so much about music theory to really create this complex music, as well as cultivate the skills to become an arranger?
S: I am not classically trained, I never went to college. I left school at 16 and worked as a labourer on building sites for two years before working in a car factory.
I am unqualified and barely educated. For real, I’m not kidding. After the car factory I worked in food processing in shipping. Through all of that I had music in my head. I was almost speechless as I could not express myself.
I returned to Cork, met Cathal Coughlan, and the chap changed my life. He gave me the words and confidence. Since then I know instinctively how to express musical ideas.
Marcus in the Llamas taught me to score. I had the arrangement ideas in my head but could not score. Also a chap called Andy Robinson, a wonderful trombone player guided me through brass scoring. I learned from him.
C: In terms of string arranging, it always seemed to me your style was closest to Brian Wilson’s. Who else influenced how you see the use of strings on records because you use them in often sparse, minimalist ways not seen elsewhere?
S: The Brazilians: Villa Lobos and Rogerio Duprat. Also Wally Scott (Scott Walker) and Vanier (Gainsbourg). Yes, O like an empty space and then a flourish of strings. The strings can be heard and nothing is obscured. That way you remember the part, no layering.
I love the classic 50s pop arrangers as well, even the guys in country. I might be wrong, but do the Memphis Strings play on Ray Charles and Charlie Rich records? I think they do, some nice sweet unison strings are just the job.
C: What is your personal favorite Llamas album and song that speaks to your heart the most?
S: I think Snowbug is a fave. “Hoops Hooley” is a real fave. Talahomi as well. “Ring Of Gold” is my proudest lyric. “Berry Adams” makes me smile, as does “Woven and Rolled.” “Harpers Romo” is special to me.
C: You’ve said before that you don’t write lyrics that are personal because you just can’t? Why is that?
S: If something is so personal, I really just want to keep it to myself or discuss it with a close friend, not make it available to as many people as possible. I’m being totally truthful here. Real emotion that hurts or real personal anxiety, they are moments of suffering. I don’t think they are commodities. I have had troubles, and I will deal with them myself. My music is the way out of all of that. When I write and create, I feel complete and positive. It has to be a creative thing, not an over reflective thing.
C: Conversely, Llamas music, especially Beet Maize and Corn, has always felt very emotional to me. Do you feel you convey your emotions, or the emotions of the other band members, in the music and is that intentional or unintentional? Or are you looking for the emotions in the music that will best service the story you are trying to tell?
S: To be honest, the emotion is in the chords. I believe harmonic movement can invite serious emotional change. It can brighten or darken the hour, it can suggest optimism or bring on anxiety. When I get the words to somehow play along with that chemistry, it’s all working. I will not write a lyric that will be confessional or opportunist (exploiting someone else’s trouble to gain reflective credibility). I want the words to work artistically. I believe that our duty as community activists is actually doing stuff in the street or financing needy projects, not expressing it in music without following up with action.
But as for emotion, it’s in the music, and the words play along. By the way, there are those who can write political lyrics that do impact positively (Jerry Dammers, Elvis Costello, Shipbuilding, Nile Rogers, Nina Simone, Fela Kuti Robert Wyatt. I’m not even going to start in hip-hop as there are so many), but I have never won that battle. I would feel exposed and fraudulent.
C: Hawaii is the Llamas’ longest album by far. What was going on at the time that so many sounds and melodies were pouring from you that you felt they all need to be connected in what many have called the Llamas’ masterpiece?
S: It was probably the record I had been dreaming of making all my life. It was so sudden. After Gideon Gaye, we had everybody knocking the door down saying, “here take the money and make the record.” Also we had set a precedent on GG. It was OK to explore. I daydreamed about (Charles) Mingus’s Ah Um and Gene Clarke’s LA Sessions colliding and John Barry’s backing tracks falling into Alice Coltrane’s “Rama Rama.” The pop was to be right off the Sundance soundtrack, and there were of course the Italian B movie moments. I suppose what was happening was pretty much similar to what was happening in hip hop, but instead of curating as a DJ, we were doing as a songwriters and arrangers.
C: Why did you decide to go for this new, more stripped down sound on the Drag City label?
S: There was a mixture of…the time is right…and a need not to get bogged down in expensive recording. I could no longer afford to use commercial studios, I recorded in makeshift spaces as much as possible, which allowed the budget to go on strings and brass. But I also wanted to create more space on the records. I was tired of density.
C: What do you think of having a legacy of really reintroducing Brian Wilson as an alternative music hero and getting people back into Pet Sounds and SMiLE, both albums that were not popular at the time, well at least the time PS was released? Also how do you respond to those who say your music is too derivative?
S: Well it’s nice to think that we made a difference. A few of the touring American bands have told me that we did have such an impact, especially in LA.
I met Brian and also the band. They were very supportive and delighted that we were referencing their work so blatantly.
Yes our music is derivative, but of many forms. And it’s the many forms that now I hope forms a unique voice which I would hope is instantly recognizable. The continued Brian comparisons are quite funny as the music drifts ever further from LA. Jorge Ben, yes, Basil Kirchin, yes, Arnold Bax , maybe, Villa Lobos, I hope so. I don’t sit down and flick through the vinyl and say “today is Joe Meeks happy Llamas day.” I write and sometimes echoes of a style or periods occupy and influence the hour.
C: One of the things I like so much about your music is that it is almost impossible to fit into any one genre because you borrow from so many genres. I know that has also made your music harder to market. I know as a creative how frustrating it is to not be able to get a large mass of people to accept and like your art, how have you dealt with that?
S: It’s caused frustrations, especially at home. When you bring up a family and the contribution you make as the earner diminishes as you get older (tell me a profession where that happens…doctors…lawyers…), I feel pressure to justify staying with music.
Yes the genres are varied and the music, though liked by many, is largely ignored and does not reach a market big enough to sustain a living. I suppose it’s a selfish artistic decision. But I am unemployable outside the world of Llamas land. The band does not make a living, but my arrangements and collaborations just about do. I’m too far down the road. This is what I do. We never get to the U.S. now because it’s too expensive.
A U.S. tour would lose £10,000 to 15,000. So an unmarketable band does have consequences. Tours have to be underwritten and those days are gone I’m afraid.
But, I am hoping to get some kind of sponsorship to get Here Come The Rattling Trees to the U.S.
I suppose there could be a four-piece band visit, so we actually play to you all again, but at this stage, I would hope that I could interest a sponsorship with an ethical company to bring the show over. I think that’s the only way.
A few years back, Tim Gane and I were supposed to go to San Fran to create a piece for the film festival. We were not granted visas because the (U.S.) State Department insisted that there were American artists who could make that piece instead. Even granted, visas for four people cost £4,000…that’s before an air ticket.
We would need to be playing to 400 people a night for two or three weeks to cover costs. I would love that to be possible. But I know it’s not.
C: What do your wife and especially your kids think of your music? How much do they influence you creatively?
S: I think Jo likes it alright, she says very little about it as it’s just the noise in the house. She is a highly respected medical journalist, so she is the real success story in the house. My son (16) sings the songs and smiles, my daughter loves it all and is writing better songs than me.
C: What was the first album/record your ever bought?
S: I think it was The Tain by Horslips or The Planxty record. I was into folk music as a 20 year old. I also remember buying My Sweet Lord/George Harrison Ball of Confusion/the Temptations.
C: You’ve obviously been very kind to me as a fan, and I hear it is the same for others. How do you and the rest of the band view your fans and what importance do you place on them?
S: It would not be untrue to say that the people who like our music and get in touch with us are friends, distant maybe, but friends still the same. I think there are shared values and we may occupy the same space on the planet. What we do is visible. However we are of course aware that each individual has a unique story, career, family history and contribute to the fabric of experience in the same way as we do. We admire each other for what we do, whether we are craftsmen or professionals, mums, dads, caterers or whatever. We add to the fabric and face down those who seek to exploit or divide us.
Here are the questions from members of The High Llamas Fanbugs and Sean’s replies:
Travis Stokl: 1. My question would be, does he intend on making any chord books of the material?
S: Travis, Hi. I never thought of that. But it could be a new development. Should I do this? I suppose I could create a small lexicon chart of chord for each song then a song chart. This is a new business idea, Travis. Thanks mate.
2. Does he know if the songs he started to write with Brian Wilson in the 90s will ever see the light of day in any way?
S: You know nothing was started, but a few songs that ended up on Cold And Bouncy were played to the Beach Boys one day back stage (Bruce, Al and I think Carl was there), and they really liked them and talked about them being new BB songs. So that’s as close as I got.
3. About how long would he imagine the next album coming out, is there already songs written for another?
S: There are songs. When, I have to get my head around what it will be. Stripped or arranged. Whether it will be a release or a project. There are songs that I’m very excited about.
Jonathan R Donaldson: I’d ask him where he has been musically for the last 10 years or so, and how that’s making its way into his work.
S: Hi Jonathan. We go way back. Are you in Boston?? If my memory serves me well.
I find the idea of pop music, every now again, almost hard to deal with. I’m in my mid 50s and I’m “writing in the pop idiom.” Then I hear something like the JAY Z/Pet Sounds cut ups and everything is put into perspective. Forget the form, good music/ideas prosper.
Right now I am listening to this amazing pairing of guitar and harpsichord. Manuel Maria Ponce 1882-1948. Sonata for guitar and harpsichord.
The music is almost modern. I am trying to forge music informed by British composer Edwin Astley, maybe Britten, Poulenc and some element of pop, so that we don’t end up with disconnected elitist nonsense. So I have listening to a lot of 20s and 30 modernist composers, but also Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane.
Sebastian Schmidt: My questions would be: 1. How do you go about writing these unprecedented lyrics?
S: Sebestian, it’s a trawl. I have not written lyrics for a while. I must start again. I try to create a story board and an imagined place, characters etc . I then believe in them and write about them as fact. I think that’s what goes. “The Ring of Gold” is the perfect example.
2. Are you planning to tour Germany?
S: Do you know a promoter who could make it happen? Then yes. We tend not to be courted. Arnie Zeigler, the radio DJ in Bremen, is trying to interest promoters. Do you think the Rattling Trees would play well in Germany? I think it would.
Christophe Sion: To make a little interlude in the music interview, I would love to hear Sean talking about Jeremy Glogan who drew the cover design of many album since “Beet Maize and Corn” I suppose. What can he tell about him, about his process into the High Llamas music (I heard he already works on Brian Wilson’s music ?), what about this new creation for “Here Come the Rattling Trees” ? I want to know more about the graphic universe of the High Llamas ;-))
S: Christophe, Jeremy is a great painter with quite a career. He is a friend. The process starts with me doing rough sketches after a concept forms. Jeremy will then research it and sometimes find an image that first the idea (Talahomi, in a bike shed in Singapore) and paint the piece. We get together and fine tune it.
We both work on graphics. Again I rough a sketch. BMC we were trying to capture Warner Bros. graphics, Talahomi was homage to the Sound of Music.
The building on HCTRT is the leisure centre in Peckham. The sketches were a concept I had been thinking about all along.
Jonathan R Donaldson: Another thing to ask him might be to find out what’s going on with the scene in London (or wherever he is) and how that affects him. Who is doing interesting stuff that people should hear about? Does he notice anything going on in the political world, or social sphere that he think is particularly influencing the way people are experiencing new sounds in one way or another? What did it take for him to break the High Llamas, and what sort of advice would he give to people who want more people to hear their music?
S: Jonathan, when you say break the HLs, you mean commercially. I don’t think the classic thumper album would work. All the material is out there. There would have to be a re-appraisal, where the tastemakers, mags, online, radio, think that there is something here that they missed. Perhaps an influential popular voice would help. But no one’s expecting it .
Politically we are enduring the same changes as you. That of wealth becoming obscenely concentrated within a small elite. Basic housing becoming a luxury, not a state duty to provide. These are issues that we are dealing with, and from what I am learning, so are most American urban centres. Also erosion of democracy as global business instructs government. We operate musically on a self-help community. This is growing, home promotion, small cross-cultural clubs. Choirs, I sing in a choir in my community because it’s community music in action.
Alex White: How much does he charge for a string arrangement?
S: Alex, if it’s a major record company, then full union rates with players on union rates. If it’s an independent project, then it’s a discussion on what is affordable and my time. I have to make a living from this, so on major projects I’m on market rates.
Brian Chidester: 1. I think one of the most interesting areas of questioning one could go in with Sean is his sense of place, or personal identity. Both Jonathan and John touched on this in their interviews with him, having probed his Irishness versus his Englishness. And that speaks to the kind of displacement that I see throughout Sean’s work. He’s able to remix and arrange for a wide swath of artists, crossing many continents. His interest in recounting the year 1998, for instance, points to the cosmopolitan nature of what was happening with post-rock artists in Chicago, England, France, Germany, and the many collaborations taking place between them. And this at a time when much of Britain was obsessed with these rather provincial battles between Oasis and Blur, or whatever. It seems to me that Sean was above all that, gravitating instead to music that is sort of non-geographical because it is so specific at its roots. Delius being but one example. And in that way his work is not English, or Irish, or even European, per se, even if albums like “BMC” make an attempt to reconnect to some sort of roots. To me, he is international, and one of the first artists to be blatantly so.
S: Brian, that is an interesting observation. As a person, my humour and gregarious nature is very Irish. I tend to cherish the lack of reserve. It’s a social identity. Ireland produces people who like to tell stories. However that’s cultural and not political. As a creative individual, I’m very open and excited by the music that demands attention and understanding. It is an international experience. Right now, I’m drawn to African music, perhaps I’m dancing to Fela Kuti’s tunes. It’s very exciting and I have stumbled on some French stations which are vital listening right now. (Peckham is full of African sound). The English music I tend to like right now in 30s modernist composition, mostly amateur composers. Just discovered a Mexican chap called Manuel Ponce who wrote for guitar and harpsichord. It’s brilliant and I’m wondering about recording like that myself. Villa Lobos, inspirational, seven cellos, Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weil’s odd and sweet two step songs.
2. What living musician would you most like to collaborate with that you haven’t already?
S: Pharrell Williams, straight away. Robert Wyatt. Kate Bush, Stephen Sondheim, Judy Henske.
Neil Curtis: 1. The recording process. Are High Llamas albums now ‘home recorded’? If so, do all Llamas members still perform their own parts, or does time and convenience mean that Sean records other parts such as bass/keyboards?
S: Neil, drums and some piano, strings and brass are recorded in the studio. Most of the rest is at home. The band play, though I play some keys and bass. Marcus and I handle the voices.
2. The acoustic 12-string is very much part of the High Llamas ‘sound’, and has been since the early days, where it often doubles melodic instrumental lines. I’d be interested to learn about the inspiration for this and why you’ve stuck with the 12-string throughout?
S: The 12-string is recognizable and carries counterpoint really well. It doubles well and answers well. The Brazilian musicians from Bahia use very similar sounds, so that is one point of reference, the second would be Italian soundtracks.
3. The strings are often the only parts which use vibrato in the High Llamas. Vocals, guitars and most keyboard sounds don’t employ the ‘vibrato’ texture. I was wondering why this is the chosen musical technique for the majority of instrumentation and what the inspiration/thought process is behind this, and why the strings are ‘allowed’? Especially in vocal delivery, Stereolab had a similar aversion to vibrato. Any link?
S: OK. I never like vibrato in vocals as I think it distorts the melody. The way I use guitars does not require vibrato. I would quite like vibrato on a loose horn section.
With strings, I do like the sound of a woody dry quartet using heavy vibrato, because weirdly on strings, it brings out the harmony rather than distorts it. Also it gives the impression of weight. We need that weight as we are only using a quartet, not a chamber of strings.
4. Your songs undergo a myriad of key changes that many songwriters fear (or are unable) to tread. I guess that they fear that listeners will ‘struggle’ with that level of complexity, and with an eye on the ‘market’ and commerciality, they worry about sales. I love your fearlessness in this realm Sean. When I hear a new High Llamas album, the key shifts, melodically and chordally are unsettling, and I never get them first time around. Three or four listens, I’m getting there…six listens I’m hooked…three weeks and I don’t even notice that they were unusual. Is this element of your songwriting something that gives your music longevity to those who persevere? Also, when writing, how many potential chord changes and melodic shifts does it take for you to think ‘ahhhh, yes…that’s the one. Is it borne from music theory, influence or experimentation? Thankyou!
S: Good question. Moving around the keys gives the music a much longer life cycle. As you say, it takes a few listens to settle, to find the harmonic centre. When I hit that moment…the next chord, and if it’s say an Am7, I will play it and wonder is it exciting enough . If not, we have to go somewhere and that usually requires a key change. What really works is if the melody follows the natural progression but the chords pull the key away. You are resetting the melody. My fear would be not doing it as there would be no sense of surprise or strength of content. It’s borne out of listening, then understanding theory through practice, not study.
5. I am as intrigued by what you don’t tend to do as much as what you do tend to do! One aspect that I think about is that High Llamas music tends to occupy a beautiful space between melancholy and happiness. Great for summer holidays. Is there a High Llamas album waiting to happen that straddles melancholy, intrigue, darkness and minor keys? One that make us cry Sean?
S: One that make us cry. I’m not sure, intrigue yes. I do want to make another big record, one with big colours and frighteningly odd sonics. I cannot make a hip-hop record, it’s something I admire from a distance, but I would love to provide the beginnings of a great hip-hop record made by others.
Then on the other hand I would love to make a record as raw Baden Powell’s 1966 record Afro Brasil.
Can I make you cry? I’m not sure I want to. We all have sadness in our lives and that happy sad, the area you refer to is precious. But my role is to bring hope to hopeless. I pray that this does not sound pretentious. I really love providing harmonic therapy. I know about anxiety. It’s horrible, and not something to be utilized in style. I can emerge from anxiety through music. That’s so important to me.
Samuel David Litt: What are your favorite groups/musicians to work with?
S: Samuel, I love working with Tim Gane, because it’s a great social situation, we are very different musicians, and there is no sense of competition, rather a combined ambition. It’s really wonderful. When Andy Ramsay joins, it gets even better.
Greg Smith: Although both Sean and Cathal appear (quite rightly) to be adverse to “the whole reunion thing,” if Microdisney were, as a project, to reform, where might they go musically? Almost 30 years later the pair have gone off in such different directions I’d be fascinated to hear Sean’s thoughts on the possible result. As a song-writing duo they were one of the greats.
S: Greg, Cathal and I see each other regularly. We have common musical interests, particularly in 20th Century music outside pop. Though we make very different records, there is a common compositional interest. We often discuss music at this level.
Max Florian: 1. So many good questions here (esp. wrt. the creative process!). No particular further ones from me, but I would like to tell him that, when I first discovered his music with Cold and Bouncy (my first, and still fav, HL album) I immediately thought I was listening to the rightful heirs of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and so, wonder what he thinks about Simon Jeffes?
S: Max, funny enough, back in the early 80s PCO, were an exotic choice of listening. No one had rediscovered Eden Ahbez or Martin Denny. We were not listening to Tony Conrad or La Mont Young. Penguin Cafe Orchestra were total novelty. Geoffrey Richardson actually played on a Microdisney record.
So Simon Jeffes has to be acknowledged as being out there quietly blazing a trail with Eno. Brian Wilson was in California trying to rebuild his life. Very different times.
2. I’d be interested in some minutiae on his home recording habits/setup: what does he actually have at home and uses to record (instrs, software etc), how was the switch to home recording for him…and the like. Would also appreciate some further minutiae about the way he composes — chords, progressions, charts…and the like.
S: Max, well short answer. At home, I work on Logic 8/9. RME converter. Neve pre amp. Really cheap mics. AT4033, AKG 300 pair, Rhode Valve, Wurlitzer, Vox Dual Man, drum machines, TR808, 606, CR68. Juno 6. But then I work in Andy Ramsay’s studio, drums, my Muesser Vibes. Strings recorded there.
Composition on nylon guitar or piano. I sit and I play and play and play until I hit a change or two. Then I note them on a quick record. I forget them and return weeks later.
Ross Strommen: I’d be curious to know if he’s interested in including any particular female vocalists in future albums or projects.
S: Ross, yes. Deffo. There are friends here in the UK and in Belgium/France who I would love to record with or write for. I would love to work with a Portuguese speaking woman, or even a group of three singers perhaps. Female.
Jason BleepBloop MacIsaac: Any chance Hawaii will be re-issued on vinyl or at least be available digitally on iTunes. Moreover, wouldn’t a live concert of Hawaii in its entirety be an amazing thing!
S: Hi Jason. Universal owns Hawaii and they don’t even answer my enquiries. So unless they speak to me, I can do nothing. Drag City could license and re-issue, that would be great. Maybe a concert then. I have been trying to make this happen for five years.
Nick Rushton: You recorded a version of “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” on The Smiths Is Dead album. Did you try any other tracks, or were you just offered that one? Also, any reason you didn’t include the “pain in the arse” verse?
S: Nick, I think we were offered “Frankly.” I worked on it for a day, wrote the arrangements and recorded it. I cannot remember why I did not include that verse. It was so long ago. I do remember some people being amused and some being upset because I had tinkered with something of great cultural value. All I wanted to do was have some fun with melody
Mark Flora: I hope the answer to this question is yes! “Do you and The High Llamas plan on making records for many more years?” I’d love it if I could look forward to a new record the rest of my life! (I’m 52).
S: Mark, records will be made. Composition will continue. It might be as film or as collaboration, but the harmonic ideas will remain active and recorded.
John Winer: I love how Sean’s lyrics are occasionally infused with subtle references to color patterns, architectural details and urban design. What is his optimal living environment and to what extent does he try to define the human experience by his descriptions of the mundane?
S: John, OK. I would love to live in a modernist house, large, big windows, 60s inspired, but recent build, open plan on three floors. Maybe in North Cornwall.
I also like the city environs, but the village within a city. It’s a great urban set up. That’s what is happening Peckham and East Dulwich, the mundane. Well even in the mundane there is a story. If you look at things in a literary way you can create stories from what is around you. We don’t have to talk about the great impact moments. Plenty of people do that already.
Thanks to all who have taken the trouble to write down their thoughts. It’s a two-way process and for me it’s amazing how close you all are to my way of approaching music and writing. Something right must have happened.
7 thoughts on “The Goat Looks In: Interview with Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas”
7.00am in bed on a Sunday in March. BBC Radio 3 playing in the background and I’ve really enjoyed reading all the interview and Q&A’s.
I feel so lucky to have found the High Llamas so many years ago and so grateful to Sean for his music. Music that I will never ever tire of. Music that dove tails with my life so perfectly. Music that complements all the other genres l love. Music,Cinema,theatre,literature,Art, Dance, Sport etc are most integral parts to our lives and the people who create these for us. Bring us joy, help heal us, help us to come together. Just make the world a better place and life worth living.
Sean is up there with all of them.
Thank you for what has come and what is next. Warren
I shared your comment with Sean and he was very grateful, I think it made his day. Thank you for reading.
What a great interview. Very smart questions brilliant – and expansively – answered. Thanks for this!
Whats up are using WordPress for your site platform?
I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and set up my own. Do you require any html coding knowledge to make your own blog?
Any help would be greatly appreciated!
No, you don’t need any HTML coding knowledge to maintain a blog on WordPress. If you want to make adjustments past what the basics allow, it can help, but just to write and make posts doesn’t require coding knowledge
The High Llamas are one of the all time best. I hope they tour one day.