A shorter version of this interview was published in BigO Magazine sometime in 1999 (10 years ago!)
Sean O’Hagan is a bona fide musical pioneer. With his band The High Llamas, O’Hagan has brought back the pop artistry of the 50s and 60s and placed it in a modern context. In this telephone interview, I found O’Hagan to be warm and friendly, an artist with vision, imagination, insight and intelligence.
Kevin: Where are you calling from?
Sean: I’m in North Wales.
Kevin: What are you doing there?
Sean: We’re playing a show tonight with the Super Furry Animals.
Sean: Are you a fan of theirs?
Kevin: That’ll be quite some show…
Sean: We’ve been touring with them for a couple of weeks now…
Kevin: My mind is blown!
Sean: Yes, they’re amazing.
Kevin: What was it like hanging out with the Beach Boys?
Sean: Very odd, really. Carl was a very nice guy, Al was too. Mike was very odd, as you probably know – he’s odd. Bruce was very business-like. And the agenda was very strange because Bruce Johnston was keen to have some kind of involvement with the High Llamas on a new Beach Boys project. I was on tour with them for a few days in America and played a few songs with them. It was so pleasant – nice food, knocking around hotels, some interesting conversation. The record company wanted me to talk to them about what they should do on their next record, what they shouldn’t do – I found that to be a bit odd, a bit strange. I think it was a surreal experience when I think about it. I saw Brian Wilson separately; I didn’t see him with the Beach Boys.
Kevin: What was it like meeting him?
Sean: Very child-like, very enthusiastic, didn’t really understand what was going on around him. It was kind of a business proposition for him to make this record with the Beach Boys again. But he was a little confused about who was making the business proposition and why. Then he lost interest in the whole discussion and went off to play the piano by himself! Again, very pleasant guy obviously but quite disconnected seems to be the best way to describe him.
Kevin: Yeah, kind of sad.
Kevin: Why Snowbug?
Sean: I like the idea of names being unpredictable, incongruous. I like names with words that have nice shapes and colours. I like the idea of evocative prose. Snowbug as far as I know is an invention – it’s fictitious, slightly surreal and it’s a lovely shape. And it doesn’t reflect anything that’s going on in the music. Which I think is very important – it’s almost deceptive with information so that you don’t let on about what’s going to happen on the record.
Kevin: It’s off the last track isn’t it?
Kevin: Which has an even more surreal title – “Cut the Dummy Loose” (in unison with Sean) – and when you listen to it, it’s really melancholic and a bit nostalgic. I read a reviewer describe your music as ‘nostalgic’, do you see it that way at all?
Sean: I suppose it is. It’s just the way you use melody – it’s really down to the chords we use, the sort of arrangements we use have that kind of lamentable feelings, it’s almost like timeless. A lot of pop music doesn’t investigate that sort of sound – it’s about making an impact, you hear it in an instant. A very ordinary big noise in an instant whilst we like the idea of being less obvious in arrangement and subtle, working on the senses over a period of time, drawing the listener into the experience.
Kevin: If you had to describe the High Llamas’ music, how would you?
Sean: Avant garde instrumental pop I suppose.
Kevin: Impressionistic pop, yeah?
Sean: Impressionistic is good as well.
Kevin: Do you sometimes feel that maybe it’s too overwhelming for the casual pop listener?
Sean: We do music because it reflects the music we’re inspired by. I can’t see the point in making music that is consumer-based, cynical music that basically responds to market demands – that’s catered for massively. I think we’re offering an alternative. You make music because you’re compelled to, you almost got a human need to do it. You want to put together chord changes that make you feel –
Kevin: Chills down spine.
Sean: I would hope that’s what the record made you feel. And you want to put together interesting arrangements, take a few risks. It almost like a need. So that’s essentially why I do it. We were very lucky that a lot of people around the world who respond to this and even though I like the idea of pop music as an egalitarian shared experience, it’s not commerce. I hate to say it but it’s more art than commerce.
Kevin: Looking back at your music, from Gideon Gaye, the one songs that stands out a bit differently would be “Checking In Checking Out” and that did have some attention and radio play. But since then I don’t think you’ve done anything like that.
Sean: That song worked on Gideon Gaye because it sounded so peculiar. Gideon Gaye was this strange impressionistic cut-up. It’s almost like a film. The film always has a big song and the big song was “Checking In Checking Out”. And that was similar to the music we made in 1992 on an album called Santa Barbara which was very harmony based, bit like the Byrds, Alex Chilton with lots of acoustic guitars. But we didn’t want to make music like that anymore. That’s the kind of music that’s made today by ordinary people, ordinary bands that don’t have any imagination, Like Catatonia, people like that. They just do their run-of-the-mill pop and we want to make music that’s different –
Sean: Yeah, a challenging alternative. And it would be crazy for us to go out and do jangle, guitary sing-a-long vibe that is definitely present on “Checking In Checking Out”. It’ll be completely stupid for us to do that, because we’d be doing it for commercial reasons and not for artistic reasons. We’d be miserable people. We might be rich but –
Kevin (laughs): That’s a great answer. Gideon Gaye came out in 1994, it’s been 4 albums since then, how much has changed?
Sean: We were listening to bits of electronic music around Gideon Gaye but there wasn’t anything around that we could grab and involve ourselves with. That definitely happened in 95 – 96 when the whole electronic scene exploded. A lot of people like Air, Mouse on Mars and obviously O’Rourke in America. A lot of people working with new contemporary music. I think we, totally by accident, were taken aboard by those people and we took their music on board. There was a global response to the music that was happening that we were involved in – a globalisation of left field music. That’s the biggest change. Snowbug doesn’t reflect that as much as Cold and Bouncy did. The reason for that is because since Cold and Bouncy, it’s all gone a bit tame and the major companies are coming in with dull extractions of electronica. It’s getting less interesting now so I think we ought to be working in an odder area – back to 2 inch tape analog real time recording with odder sounds was the best move to make. It’s really important for us to be original.
Kevin: That’s quite obvious from your albums. I was looking at your bio and you seem to be very prolific. If you’re not doing something with the High Llamas, you’re doing something with Stereolab or somebody else. What’s the secret behind that?
Sean: It’s a pleasure to work on other people’s music – you learn things you work on different tunes, you meet people, you get ideas, you get inspiration. It’s not a big deal really – there’s 12 working hours in a day. There’s a lot of time. A lot of the time, we’re not doing that much really. When you’re asked to work on something that is challenging and rewarding, you do it because you might not get that opportunity again.
Kevin: That has changed a lot. In the 60s, top bands had to do an album every six months and tour as well, you cram everything in. Nowadays, you see people releasing albums after 7 years! It’s a refreshing change –
Sean: Like Radiohead taking three years to make a new album. They travel around the world, do a bit of rehearsing in Switzerland, in America and essentially they going over the same songs over and over again. They’re not inspired and they’ve got money and they’re lazy and they can’t be bothered. That’s what happens- money brings complacency. Gets pretty boring in the way they produce music.
Kevin: Yeah! I agree. I remember reading an article once about U2 recording one of their recent albums – they spent about three months recording, realized they didn’t like it, scrap the whole thing and started again!
Sean: Maybe they did that because on the first time they did it they didn’t feel committed to it – they weren’t hungry enough to make the music.
Kevin: There’s one thing I’ve never understood about you and your music. It’s so cinematic in its approach and scope, how come no one has ever approached you to score a film?
Sean: Two things. We have just done a small soundtrack for a film called Sunburn made by Nelson Hume for Woody Allen’s film company. It was actually done in 4 days and should be out next year-
Sean: Second thing is, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but most film soundtracks don’t have great scores anymore. What they have is a whole list of hits – what happens is the producer will say, “How much money is this film going to earn?” then they say, “Well, you know, this kind of film if we do well at the box office, $40 million.” Then they say, “Listen, if we get a great soundtrack record together, we could sell maybe 20,000 copies and that’s another form of income ok?” What they do is they get all the hit songs of the last six months and they whack them in the film. The idea of writing great scores like Morricone or John Barry doesn’t seem to be important anymore. There are some people doing good things – for us, writing a score which has an experimental or impressionistic vibe like some of the Italian B-movie soundtracks, that’s a nightmare for a Hollywood producer.
Kevin: Yeah, what really pisses me off is watching a movie and finding out it’s an extended music video.
Sean: Exactly. It’s so boring. There’s so many opportunities. Film is so important as a 20th century artform – the idea of putting together great music with great visuals is the ultimate experience and it’s wasted because little men make films without any big ideas. It’s such a pity.
Kevin: Is there such a thing as an average High Llamas fan?
Sean: A lot of High Llamas fans are slightly overweight males in their 30s. But I’m glad to say that over the years, the age range has been getting lower. We get people in their early 20s but we also get people in their late 40s. And there are those people who come because of the West Coast connections and others due to the electronic associations. We do cross the board quite a bit.
Sean: How do you feel about this Beach Boys association?
Kevin: It only gets annoying when journalists get lazy. When there’s an intelligent question about the association, when they ask you about arrangements and how it relates to the Beach Boys, you can explain that but when you get the lazy kind of critic that says that we’re not trying, that it’s retro – but that’s becoming rarer…
Kevin: I think that’s the whole problem for artists and bands influenced by the 60s, they always have these accusations thrown at you.
Sean: To be quite honest, it depends on how you do it. There are some people who work with those influences and they don’t do anything with those influences. They borrow everything – the look, the idea wholesale – they don’t try to change anything, they don’t try to re-contextualize anything and I think those people are open to fair criticism. Like Ocean Colour Scene-
Kevin: (laughs) I was just talking to them that day…
Sean: Well, I actually think they’re lazy – they want to buy into the culture wholesale whereas we recognize that we’re in the 90s. We take our influences from the 50s and 60s and mix them up with contemporary influences and re-contextualize things. I don’t like to be rude about people.
Kevin: Well, you’re being honest…I noticed that there doesn’t seem to be much banjo on Snowbug…
Sean: There’s a little bit on “Bach Ze” and some on the middle eight of “Cut the Dummy Loose”. That’s about it – well, it’s done to the song, if the song required it. We had loads of African percussion on this record.
Kevin: I really like the nylon strings-
Sean: The gutstrings. Yeah, that’s another thing, it’s very nice for a record to have an identity.
Kevin: And are those wah-wahs I keep hearing?
Sean: Straight organs wah-wahs – we put organs, Rhodes and Wurlitzers through them.
Kevin: Great old school keyboard sound.
Kevin: I’ve always been curious about your recording process, do you do it ‘live’ in the studio?
Sean: This record was done a lot of it was done ‘live’ with a rudimentary drum kit, gutstring acoustic guitar but we tend to spend a lot of time in the studio tinkering with sound – trying to get a vibe going like the right keyboard sound. We experiment with the filtering and the processing a bit and we finally find the sound – I’m sure a lot of people work like this. The songs are written and the arrangements are pretty much there, it’s the tinkering of sound that takes a lot of time. Things like gutstring acoustic – they get done pretty quickly. Strings and brass, they happened in an afternoon.
Kevin: That’s amazing. Were the songs written in the studio?
Sean: The songs were written before we went into the studio but the arrangements were improvised in parallel in collaboration in the studio.
Kevin: So how long did the whole thing take?
Sean: We started writing over a year ago, the recording process took about 2 months and 3 weeks to mix.
Kevin: And John McIntire (Tortoise) was involved?
Sean: He was the mixer in America at Steve Albini’s studio.
Kevin: It’s funny cos obviously there’s an association with Stereolab and Tortoise but these bands have a more atonal approach…
Sean: Yeah, they work with more dissonance whilst we are fans of more harmonic development, whereas Stereolab and Tortoise will work with more layers of sound. We start with chords – I think Stereolab are getting closer to that, working with chords – that’s our starting point and then we investigate sounds and layers. We interpret music slightly differently but we do share an awful lot beyond that.
Kevin: I think the great touch on this album is having Mary and Laetitia on vocals.
Sean: I’m glad you liked that because much as I like singing, I really like the idea of contrasting voices. I also like the idea of a record with an element of surprise – you don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s not about one singer and one voice and the band backing that voice and that’s really boring. I love the idea of – you know even when I’m using my voice, I’ll get Marcus (Holdaway – LLamas keyboard player) and sometimes we’ll sing together in harmony and then we’ll take a verse and the chorus will be taken by Mary or Mary and Laetitia will take a song together. It’s a real celebration. It’s really like some Brazilian record that we listen to – real kind of mix of vocals on the record.
Kevin: Will you ever use a vocoder?
Sean: Vocoder? We don’t use it with voices, we use it in different ways. On Cold and Bouncy, we put an organ through it and a drum machine. Like Glide Time, the drums are triggering the vocoder and organ. So the drums have this organ edge.
Kevin: I have this idea about where pop is going, more or less…
Sean: Where do you think it’s going?
Kevin: Textures and density. Obviously High Llamas comes into that and I know you have strong opinions about your music and what works and what doesn’t work, so my question is – who are your peers?
Sean: Nakamura in Japan; obviously Stereolab and Jim O’Rourke; Lampchop; Broadcast maybe-
Kevin: What about Mercury Rev?
Sean: More on the last album than the new one, I think See You On The Other Side is a great record – one of the best of the 90s. I’m not that big a fan of Deserter Songs.
Kevin: The Flaming Lips?
Sean: Absolutely. Tortoise and Air.
Kevin: Have you heard of this American band called Wondermints?
Sean: Apparently, they’re touring with Brian Wilson, aren’t they? I met them actually – we played in LA and they came to see us. I’ve never heard their music…
Kevin: The album’s pretty good.
Sean: Is it? Right. Labradford, that’s another important American band.
Kevin: What’s next?
Sean: Touring I hope, beginning next year. Japan definitely on the cards, we’ll get to America some stage-
Sean: Singapore? If we had a promoter who would be prepared to lose a lot of money – I think we only sell about 400 records in Singapore.
Kevin: Sean, it’s a crime.
Sean: But that’s the reality of it, isn’t it?