The High LlamasSummery Pop Elegance
Eclectic experimentalists combine uncommon influences.
Rock critics of the mid-1990s did The High Llamas a major disservice with non-stop comparisons of singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sean O'Hagan to circa-'66 Brian Wilson. While Wilson is certainly one of O'Hagan's influences (particularly notable on 1994's Gideon Gaye), he shares space with 1960s European soundtrack composers, Brazilian pop of the bossa nova and Tropicalia eras, Burt Bacharach, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Carla Bley and clinical German electronica, among others. The beauty of The High Llamas is in how they synthesize all of this and more into a singular, beguiling form of elegant pop. Following the split of Microdisney, the '80s popsters he co-led with singer Cathal Coughlan (later of the much rougher Fatima Mansions), O'Hagan released 1990's High Llamas, a charmingly McCartney-like solo record. Its summery, low-key vibe was followed by the similarly relaxed Santa Barbara, this time credited to The High Llamas, the group O'Hagan formed with Microdisney bassist Jon Fell, drummer Rob Allum and keyboardist/cellist Marcus Holdaway. The ambitious song cycles Gideon Gaye and Hawaii raised the High Llamas' critical profile (as did O'Hagan's sideline gig as a part-time member of Stereolab), although a stylistic left turn into a largely electronic sound with 1998's Cold and Bouncy puzzled those who had been led to believe they were a Beach Boys tribute band. In the 2000s, The High Llamas turned into a part-time project, releasing stylistically varied new albums every three or four years.
The Making of Talahomi Way: Today and Not Yesterday, and the Confidence of Relative Youth
by Sean O'Hagan
These are the thoughts of a writer thinking about the process for the first time.
I can remember maybe 10/15 years ago when a record was being written and the timetable of events was being prepared, there was an underlying confidence which fueled the whole process. This confidence came from an unmoveable conceptual awareness of what was happening to the music this time. The reflection of ideas, writers, sounds, and character would have been in place and clearly stated. An agenda, unavoidable and probably, now I think of it, a bit obvious.
Well, that all stopped when I hit 40. The choice of the unexplored began to escape me. I started to struggle to stay focused. I am now angry at the thought that the band, and especially myself, paid heed to the critical writing on the High Llamas' music. Heaven forbid that one note was changed in response, but certainly pause for thought was given.
It took a strange departure and a recasting of roles -- in my ideal world, that is -- to rectify what was definitely a chink in the armour. I began to think of the band not as explorers, but as a group of troubadours and a social club. For some reason, writing for the group suddenly became less stressful. The big vision for the next record still evaded me, but it seemed less important as I listened to the inner voice and followed the merest hint of a shape of sound or melody or indeed storyboard. As the stress levels dropped, the neighbourhood revealed itself and I started to write honestly about what was on the doorstep.
I remember listening to Basil Kirchin for the first time while making Talahomi Way and being so thrilled at the thought that in 1965, this chap from London's big band experimental scene was thinking the same way as I am now. No previous exposure to his ideas. I loved that.
I remember reading Jonathan Coe's latest novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim while in Wales as the details to some of the tunes on Talahomi Way were being finalised. I felt that there was an exchange of ideas happening as I journeyed with Maxwell through the UK.
The building of Wembley Stadium was also taking place during the writing of Talahomi Way. I remember reflecting how the construction industry was now international and that the poor stranded steel fixers, hundreds of meters in the air fixing the Wembley Arch, were not only removed from the ground, but they were miles from home. Thus "A Rock In May" is about dislocation, though it's a happy tune.
Joe Osborn, the great bass player from the '60s [one of the Los Angeles session musicians later dubbed "The Wrecking Crew"], loomed large in my thoughts while recording. And thinking of "A Rock in May," perhaps The Sons of the Pioneers' close-harmony cowboy tunes from the '40s got a shout in there as well.
Camping seems to be with me on this record. It's referred to more than once and a lot of the tunes got written outside tents overlooking the Atlantic in West Wales. July every year...see you there!
|The High Llamas: Critical Connections|