The High Llamas
|The High Llamas|
The High Llamas performing in 2008.
From left: Murcott, Holdaway, Allum, O'Hagan, and Aves.
The High Llamas are an Anglo-Irish avant-pop band formed in London in 1992. The group was founded by singer-songwriter Sean O'Hagan, formerly one-half of Microdisney, with drummer Rob Allum, keyboardist Marcus Holdaway, vocalist Anita Visser and ex-Microdisney bassist Jon Fell. The core group is augmented by vibraphonist Dominic Murcott (since 1998) and guitarist Pete Aves (since 2002), both for live performances and on record. Visser left shortly after their debut album, while guitarist John Bennett was with the band from 1994 to 2000.
O'Hagan formed the High Llamas after the breakup of his group Microdisney. The band initially played in a more conventional acoustic pop style, but after joining Stereolab as a keyboardist, he was inspired to revamp the group's music closer to the electronic and orchestral sound he preferred. Other prominent influences were drawn from bossa nova and European film soundtracks. Their second album, Gideon Gaye (1994), anticipated the mid 1990s easy-listening revivalist movement, and its follow-up Hawaii (1996) nearly led to a collaboration with the Beach Boys, whose music the High Llamas are often compared to. Since then, the group's albums have been more electronic and stripped-down.
In 1988, the Irish band Microdisney, led by Sean O'Hagan and Cathal Coughlan, broke up. To support himself, O'Hagan briefly worked as a rock music journalist, and in 1990, released a solo album titled High Llamas. The name came from a picture of a Victorian era hot-air balloon that he saw in a magazine. In 1992, a band called the High Llamas was formed by Sean O'Hagan, Marcus Holdaway, Jon Fell and Rob Allum. They could not afford to record a full album, and instead released an EP, titled Apricots. Under a French label, the EP was reissued with two additional tracks, which became the LP Santa Barbera.
At this point, the band's style was conventional guitar pop, O'Hagan said, "I was quite happy with what we were doing, but to be quite honest, there wasn't really anything remarkable about it, and it wasn't really the kind of music that I enjoyed listening to ... [which was] the Beach Boys ... the Left Banke, Van Dyke Parks ... a lot of soundtrack music like John Barry, and electronic experimental music like Kraftwerk and Neu!." He also mentioned his frustration with the state of modern rock music, calling it "the most conformist, corporate thing out there," as well as "very simple dumb-guy rock." For "years", he said, he "was bored shitless by guitar rock ... From looking at the Beach Boys, I saw the Martin Denny thing [and] the early Yellow Magic Orchestra thing. These people were investigating harmonies in really interesting, nearly orchestral ways, but they were using subversive sounds to do it."
After attending a Stereolab concert in the early 1990s, O'Hagan met the band's founders Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier. He became their keyboardist and was initially a quick replacement, but O'Hagan was "allowed to make suggestions and the fun started." His first record appearance was on the EP Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993), and he remained a full-time member of the band until Mars Audiac Quintet (1994). Influenced by his time with the group, O'Hagan decided to revamp his creative aspirations for the High Llamas. Gane considered the Beach Boys to be his favourite band, and in a 1997 article, O'Hagan spoke of the Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds as "the beginning of the great pop experiment, [before] rock and roll got hold of the whole thing and stopped it." He continued to make guest appearances on later Stereolab releases.
In 1994, the High Llamas released Gideon Gaye, an album that reached 94 on the UK Albums Chart for a one-week stay. It was recorded with a £4000 budget in the span of a few months, and was notable for anticipating the mid 1990s easy-listening revivalism. The album received press coverage from magazines such as Q, Mojo and NME, but only received substantial sales and acclaim after being rereleased a year later. (It was first reissued on the band's Alpaca Parks imprint, then by Delmore Recordings in the United States, and once more by the major label Epic Records.) British music journalists praised Gideon Gaye, but critic Richie Unterberger stated that the album was released "almost as an afterthought [in the US], with virtually no fanfare." Also in 1994, the High Llamas accompanied Arthur Lee, co-founder of the 1960s band Love, as his backing band for a brief concert tour.
Gideon Gaye was well-received from within the record industry, O'Hagan said, and "A&R people around the UK started recommending it to each other." The band were soon tagged as part of the nascent "ork-pop" movement, described in a 1996 Billboard piece as "a new breed of popsmiths ... going back to such inspirations as Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Phil Spector in the quest for building the perfect orchestrated pop masterpiece." O'Hagan responded to the Beach Boys comparisons that the album had drawn: "[Wilson] has been the biggest influence in my career to date. I was always shy [about] how much I liked him, but this time I decided to be blatant about it." He was also hesitant to be associated with the ork-pop movement, saying that the group's "music is a hybrid of stuff from the last 50, 20 or 30 years ... It's definitely about making music for tomorrow."
O'Hagan recalled that, eventually, "we had everybody knocking the door down saying, 'here take the money and make the [next] record.'" The follow-up to Gideon Gaye, Hawaii (1996), was released on Alpaca Park, and reached number 62 in the UK, again for a one-week stay. He described the work as a fusion between the music of the "post mid-European Stockhausen era" and the "really screwed up West Coast American sort of music, of the Wrecking Crew variety". It incorporated more electronic sounds than Gideon Gaye, while its lyrics loosely address themes of nomadism, nostalgia, film and musical theatre, and the effects of colonialism. In the US, the album was issued with a 40-minute bonus CD containing material that was previously unreleased in that region. When Hawaii caught the attention of longtime Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, plans were made to coordinate a collaboration between O'Hagan and Brian Wilson. At the time, Wilson tried to organize a comeback album with the Beach Boys and collaborator Andy Paley. O'Hagan attended one meeting with Wilson and two with the Beach Boys, but the "two separate camps" couldn't be reconciled. Some tracks that were later placed on the High Llamas' next album were played for Johnston and Al Jardine, who voiced interest in recording them as new Beach Boys songs, but this never happened.
The High Llamas' American and British fanbase continued to grow. Cold and Bouncy (1998) pushed the band further into electronics. According to O'Hagan, it was named for electronica's "paradoxical" combination of "cold" or digital sounds and "bouncy" rhythms. It was accompanied by Lollo Rosso (1998), an album consisting of seven remixed Cold and Bouncy tracks created by Mouse on Mars, Cornelius, Schneider TM, Jim O'Rourke, Kid Loco, Stock, Hausen & Walkman, and the High Llamas. Snowbug (1999) featured Stereolab vocalists Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen. The album was met with poor sales, and was their last before departing V2 Records. A two-disc compilation, Retrospective, Rarities & Instrumentals (2003), collected tracks from their main discography up to this point. Additionally, it included rarities that had been released as B-sides or bonus tracks on Japanese and American editions of their albums, while one song, "Vampo Brazil", was a previously unreleased outtake from the Cold and Bouncy sessions.
The High Llamas started recording for the Duophonic and Drag City record labels. Buzzle Bee (2000) saw the band experimenting more with their sound, while Beet, Maize & Corn (2003) eschewed electric guitars and synthesizers in favor of string and brass arrangements. Unterberger referred to Beet, Maize & Corn as "a high achievement for the Llamas with both critics and fans." In The Rough Guide to Rock (2003), music critic Nig Hodgkins commented that despite "adventurous breakthroughs by previously obscure American bands such as Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips," the High Llamas failed to attract a comparative following and were seen as "a little too esoteric and experimental to threaten a mainstream that had once warmed to the strong melodies of Gideon Gaye."
Can Cladders (2007) received generally favourable reviews. Pitchfork reviewer Eric Harvey wrote that the album "emerge[d] as the most enjoyable High Llamas record in over a decade. ... with a bounce and sway nearly absent from its largely rhythmless predecessor." Another four years went by until their next release, Talahomi Way (2011), described by O'Hagan as a "spring album". In a podcast from the same year, he said that the band's slowed output was due to low finances, and that he could only sustain a career in music through arrangement commissions. This was also why the band began to pursue a minimal approach: O'Hagan could no longer afford to use commercial studios and 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." In 2013, the group contributed a song, "Living on a Farm", to an episode of the children's television programme Yo! Gabba Gabba.
In 2014, the High Llamas premiered a theatrical play, Here Come the Rattling Trees, at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London's Covent Garden. Pitchfork critic Robert Ham summarized the plot as "extended anecdotes [used] to comment on the rapid changes happening in London, particularly in Peckham, a region in the southeastern part of the city where O'Hagan has lived for over 20 years." The play originally featured a cast of actors and actresses, but when a studio album adaptation was released in 2016, the record only featured instrumental performances. O'Hagan answered that this was because the label felt that its promotion "would be difficult as the record would appear to be from a different medium. [The] question has to be addressed to [Drag City's American offices]."
- Sean O'Hagan – lead vocals, keyboards, guitar (1992–present)
- Marcus Holdaway – keyboards, cello, vibraphone (1992–present)
- John Fell – bass (1992–present)
- Rob Allum – drums, percussion (1992–present)
- Dominic Murcott – vibraphone, marimba (1998–present)
- Pete Aves – guitar, banjo (2002–present)
- Anita Visser – lead vocals, guitar, mandolin (1992–93)
- John Bennett – guitar (1994–2000)
|The High Llamas discography|
|Cold and Bouncy||
|Beet, Maize & Corn||
|Here Come the Rattling Trees||
|Retrospective, Rarities and Instrumentals||
- Murray, Noel (6 December 2011). "A year in song (40 great tracks in 40 sentences)". The A.V. Club.
- Carlin, Peter Ames (2006). Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Rodale. p. 284. ISBN 978-1-59486-320-2.
- Caldwell, Rob (19 January 2016). "The High Llamas: Here Come the Rattling Trees". PopMatters.
- Rosen, Craig (25 May 1996). "Building A Perfect Ork-Pop Masterpiece". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. pp. 1, 92. ISSN 0006-2510.
- The High Llamas. "About Us". highllamas.com.
- Page, Tim (10 January 1999). "The High Llamas: A Different Breed". The Washington Post.
- "The Year in Music - Subculture of the Year". Spin. Vol. 14 no. 1. January 1998.
- Popshifter (30 January 2011). "Painters Paint: The Definitive Career-Spanning Interview (to date) With The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan (Snowbug and Buzzle Bee)". Popshifter.
- Taylor, Steve (2006). The A to X of Alternative Music. A&C Black. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-8264-8217-4.
- McClintock, J. Scott. "Sean O'Hagan". AllMusic.
- Morris, Chris (25 June 1994). "Elektra's Stereolab Gets a Fresh Start on Lollapalooza 2nd Stage". Billboard.
- Smith, Ethan (10 November 1997). "Do It Again". New York Magazine. Vol. 30 no. 43. New York Media, LLC. ISSN 0028-7369.
- "High Llamas". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
- Kamp, David; Daly, Steven (2005). The Rock Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon Of Rockological Knowledge. Broadway Books. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-7679-1873-2.
- Sexton, Paul (September 23, 1995). "High Llamas Hope to Scale U.S. Market". Billboard. p. 22.
- Hodgkins, Nig (2003). "The High Llamas". In Buckley, Peter. The Rough Guide to Rock. pp. 493–494. ISBN 978-1-85828-457-6.
- Unterberger, Richie. "The High Llamas". AllMusic.
- Mason, Stewart. "Checking in, Checking Out". AllMusic.
- Broome, Eric (March 1998). "The High Llamas". Mean Street.
- Woullard, Clayton (4 March 2016). "The Goat Looks In: Interview with Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas". Clay the Scribe. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016.
- Hagerty, Dan (2016). Buried Treasure Volume 2: Overlooked, Forgetten and Uncrowned Albums. Liberties Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-1-910742-74-7.
- Lien, James (October 1997). "Sean O'Hagan: The Highest Llama". CMJ New Music Monthly. 50. ISSN 1074-6978.
- "Signal to Noise". Signal to Noise. 2007.
- Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Hawaii". AllMusic.
- Lester, Paul (June 1998). "The High Llamas: Hump Up the Volume". Uncut.
- Carlin, Peter Ames (2006). Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Rodale. pp. 280–291. ISBN 978-1-59486-320-2.
- Westlund, Joshua (April 1998). "The High Llamas - Cold and Bounccy". Spin. 14 (4).
- Sendra, Tim. "Lollo Rosso". AllMusic.
- Mirov, Nick (26 October 1999). "Snowbug". Pitchfork.
- Sendra, Tim. "Retrospective, Rarities & Instrumentals". AllMusic.
- "The High Llamas". Domino Publishing Company. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
- Hoard, Christian. "Buzzle Bee". AllMusic.
- Sendra, Tim. "Beet, Maize & Corn". AllMusic.
- "Can Cladders". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
- Harvey, Eric (21 February 2007). "Can Cladders". Pitchfork.
- Neyland, Nick (4 May 2011). "Talahomi Way". Pitchfork.
- "Josh Holloway Visits 'Yo Gabba Gabba!' As A Guitar-Playing Farmer (PHOTO, VIDEO)". The Huffington Post. 24 July 2013.
- Ham, Robert (20 January 2016). "Here Come the Rattling Trees". Pitchfork.