High Llamas

The High Llamas : Photocopy Music

I interviewed Sean O’Hagen twice in the Fall of 1997 — the first time, using mostly questions fed to me by Jason, and then again a few months later at a Vancouver venue, hours before a show.  I was going to write an article on the High Llamas, but reading over Sean O’Hagen’s quotes, he speaks with an uncommon awareness combined with a willingness to disclose everything, so in the end I thought I might as well let him speak for himself on his recent records and involvements.

For those not yet in the know, the High Llamas have made four records now.  Their earlier albums sound very much like tributes to different Beach Boys albums made from Pet Sounds in 1966 on through the late 1960s albums, like Sunflower, Friends, and 20/20.  Beach Boy, Bruce Johnstone, a late 60s addition to the group after Brian Wilson stopped touring, liked the Llamas’ Hawaii so much, that O’Hagen was even invited to play a few tracks with the Beach Boys at a concert.  Around this time, O’Hagen was also acting as a go-between for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.  If the High Llamas still sound like the Beach Boys, then they’re new experiments parallel more closely the bewildering innovation of the lost Smile tracks and more than anything else “Cabinessence,” with its wonky, oddly rhthmic orchestra.  More and more, it sounds filtered through the funky, playful, micro-electro-dub of Germany’s Mouse On Mars, who for their own part actually sampled a Smile track on their first album, a few years ago.

Outside of the High Llamas projects, O’Hagen’s well-known for his string arrangements on Stereolab’s last few records, and most evidently on Dots and Loops.  Stereolab’s Tim Gane and O’Hagen collaborate in Turn On, so far releasing the self-titled album that formed the groundwork for both Dots and Loops and Cold and Bouncy, by informally introducing themselves to the concept of “studio-as-instrument.”  With both Stereolab and High Llamas, the innovations have been so subtle that they almost go unnoticed, but it’s important to realize that it’s there.

This clash between recording methods old and new is most highly fulfilled and fascinating on this Fall’s High Llamas’ release, the Lollo Rosso remix EP.  O’Hagen selected six artists that he thought most typified the new direction the High Llamas have been going in, beginning appropriately with Mouse On Mars (the High Llamas were actually the first to ever remix a MOM track last year).  This is remixology at its best.  Everything I love about MOM is in such prominence in this track.  While Jim O’Rourke continues to sound better as a remixer than as a solo artist, following up last year’s stunning Microstoria remix with a great High Llamas mix.  Other remixes by Stock, Hausen & Walkman, Schneider TM, and Kid Loco make a compelling argument for the natural links between modern electronica and space age bachelor pad music.

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TURNING ON TO A WHOLE NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT THE STUDIO

“Cold and Bouncy was very much connected to the Turn-On record.  The Turn-On record really set this record and the Stereolab record up.  We were both in the studio with an open page, and basically — a bunch of samples, electronic hardware, and banjos.  We just wanted to make a sonic record that didn’t fall into any strict category.  That was very much an improvisational kind of experiment, which basically taught us how to make those sorts of records.  We never made those records before, because we didn’t know how to really use the studio as a vehicle.  But this time, Turn On was the learning process that goes into those records. Turn On was very much about electronica as opposed to harmony.  Basically, the way you probably come to the music that we do is because there’s a very traditional harmony — I hate to say traditional, I don’t want to sound boring — and fairly sort of absurd sounds.  We had to venture out and see if we could do that sort of thing successfully or not.  And some people think it is, and some people don’t.  It really was a learning process for us.”

THE FLOW FAVORED OVER THE MOMENT

“Yeah, I’ve been doing the song structure thing for years, and quite frankly I’m a little bit bored of it.  I mean there are people who have experiments that I’ll never get bored of, like if you listen to the best Brazilian music.  That’s very much based on song structure, but those guys keep it interesting.  I just wanted to find out if you could work within a harmonic structure and not adhere to the song in any strict way.  One of my problems isn’t so much the people who listened to it before, but the way there is this respect for the song.  Like in Brit Pop, there is the whole thing of  “Oh, the song is back, and there’s all these wonderful young pop groups.”  And I actually hate everything that Brit Pop represents.  I hate the pushiness, the arrogance, and I hate the personality-based music.  I just recently made a connection between personality based music and songs, because the idea of the songwriter, and you can see the face of the songwriter, and then you hear the song.  And I really wanted to get into this vibe where there is this anonymous protagonist, and the music is almost like a visual.  The other obvious thing about this is the segwaying of the music, the way the music metamorphoses, breaks down, and re-starts again.  And that’s the same thing I love.  I’ve loved it from the Soft Machine.  I’ve loved it from exotica music from the 50s.  I loved it when Robert Wyatt did it on Rock Bottom.  And I liked it on various experimental electronic records, whether Pierre Henri or Schaeffer, or even some of the academic Stockhausen records.  But I really do like that sort of metamorphoses, and not enough people do it in music as far as I’m concerned.  And within that, we are still working in fairly strict harmonies.  There are still chord progressions and chord structures that don’t seem to be squared off by lyrics and all the other stuff that are trying to engulf all the traditional sort of pop song as we know it.”

VAN DYKE PARKS AND BRIAN WILSON’S ORANGE CRATE ART

“I thought the actual track was wonderful.  I’m a huge Van Dyke Parks fan.  I’ve got everything from Song Cycle on.  My favorite album by Van Dyke Parks is Discover America, which is really out there as far as I’m concerned.  Song Cycle was just too fragmented for me — you know, really interesting ideas.  But Discover America, the harmony really came together on that.  The Brian Wilson record — I thought the title track worked well, but I thought it was a little too well recorded.  It was quite cleanly recorded, just a little too pristeen for me.  Van Dyke Parks never made that mistake before.  On Tokyo Rose and Jump, he didn’t make those mistakes.  But he really was trying to address the classic style of his songwriting on that record.”

FOR THE LOVE OF AMERICA

“Oh yeah, Hawaii was a big gothic American trip, which was a lovely thing to do, because no one else does it.  I’ll throw a few names at you, who did that too — Taj Mahal in his non-blues days, and Dr. John on the Gritty Gritty Day.  These are both very similar.  They’re all on this gothic American trip — really interesting.  America is just fascinating.  Because it’s the richest, most powerful continent, and most of the people on the continent just haven’t got a clue that there is this heritage that is so rich and varied.  There’s this whole thing about look at Europe, cause it’s got all this history.  But the recent history of America is actually quite amazing, I think.”

WHAT ABOUT AFTER REPETITION

“Well, one of the interesting things that has happenned recently is that harmony has come back in.  The fact that people are interested in the music of Morricone, Michel Legrand, Frances Lai, Pierre Piccioni … that very much suggests to me that there is an interest in harmony though it may not be overly complex harmony.  What we’re trying to do is mix the two — the idea of repetition that you get from Krautrock, the experimental, jazz side of Impulse, people like Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders — the harmonal thing — with the incredible writing of people like Morricone.  I’m going to cop out here, and say there is this tradition in Brazil to have incredibly beautiful, harmonic elements that loop over and over again, over 16 bars or 8 bars, and that’s where my head is at the moment.  And that’s also what Stereolab is doing at the moment.  They are still doing the looping thing, but there is much more harmony now than there was before.  So possibly that’s where it is.  I think it might really get a lot more avant-garde.  I think the whole sort of electronica thing is really going to seep in, in a really user friendly sort of way.  I really think we succeeded in using the electronica thing quite intelligently while balancing it with harmony.”

COLD AND BOUNCY BUT MAYBE IT’S WARM AND HEAVY

“The reason it’s called Cold and Bouncy is because I like to tell lies.  There is nothing better than to start off an album with a big lie.  It is a very warm record, you’re quite right.”

AN AFFINITY WITH BACHARACH

“Oh yeah, I love him to death.  I love the pants off of him.  He’s absolutely amazing.  You know, obviously, Brian Wilson totally acknowledged that he was totally trying to get to where Bacharach was a long with a lot of other things. He totally influenced Brian Wilson in 1966.  And consequently, he influenced Jimmy Webb.  Bacharach was totally amazing — like half bar key changes within a pop context — that’s amazing.”

ON THE PET SOUNDS BOXSET

“Yeah, I’ve got that.  I had to do some writing on it for a European magazine.  What do I think of it?  I think the studio sessions are amazing.  I love the studio sessions.  I’m not really interested in the acapella, or the stereo, but because the studio tracks are actually something genuinely new, and you can hear the arrangements coming together.  And also the saleability of Brian Wilson put into some sort of context.  I find it really fascinating listening to the musicians saying, “How about this Brian?,” and Brian going, “It’s cool.”  I love it.”

ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PROCESS OF RECORDING COLD AND BOUNCEY AND STEREOLAB’s DOTS AND LOOPS

“Well, they record on hard disc, and we didn’t.  I would have liked to, but we couldn’t really afford to do it.  We didn’t have the set up.  It’s not that expensive, but we were locked into a two inch set-up, which we couldn’t get out of for financial reasons.  Obviously, we interpret music very differently, but we have very similar working backgrounds.  And it’s probably as well that we interpret differently, because it would be fairly fucked otherwise.  There wouldn’t be any point.  But I think when we made the Turn On record last year, that was a real eye opener for us both — how to finally shake off the shake off the fears of traditionalism of previous recording experiences.  And that was almost like we had to have this unprepared vibe.  Even though, obviously, I was very prepared for the record, I had to be unprepared to allow what might happen to happen.  If you’re not even open, there’s going to changes that have to be made, chances are they won’t be made.  So I think they were much more radical as far as the recording.  They had vague ideas of the song structures, but they were quite prepared to cut them up, undermine them, and trout them around.  And we did that to a certain extent but to a lesser extent, because we were on two inch tape.  But I definitely learned the Dots and Loops process.”

THE NOVEL IDEA OF CUTTING UP AN ORCHESTRA

“It was a real surprise, because we did it, and then I came back and heard the mixes, and stuff was not where it was supposed to be, and it was such a blast listening to it, just going, “hang on a minute.  What’s going on here?  That wasn’t supposed to be there.  That was a verse part.  And shit, they’ve used a CODA for the chorus.”  That was totally throwing the ball back at me in a really big way.  You know Andy Ramsay from Stereolab was actually on the Llamas record and the Turn-On.  He came in with banks of modular shit, and analogue drum machines.  He knew what we were after, and he was basically up and running in parallel, while we were recording.  But what we did was start from a very traditional songwriting centre, and we moved to the left.  We started literally with upright pianos and brushes on the snares to get the feel.  And as soon as the backing track went down, we started fucking with it right away.  I think it is better to start in the centre and end up in the left field rather than the other way around.”

ELECTRONICA VS. POP HARMONY

“Well, it’s just the contrast.  Without a doubt, the most interesting music that’s happenned in the last ten years has been really sort of experimental drum’n’bass and the electronica that came out of the top end of ambient dance.  There are people who work incredibly well, people like Squarepusher — well, Squarepusher works much more exclusively than Luke Vibert — Luke Vibert samples sound, whereas Squarepusher uses extraterrestrial sounds to a greater extent.  Those guys really know what they’re doing and they’ve got it totally nailed, but I’m still a fan of the absurdity of pop harmony.  And I feel the way I can make that whole thing work — well, I’d be stupid to not use chords anymore.  I think one thing we can do is work with chords.  We’ve learned the trick of working with chords without being pretentious.”

Well, I wouldn’t know enough about music.  I don’t even understand what a chord is.

“But you do know enough about music to know when something is overblown and pompous.  So when we actually work with those sounds, those harmonic changes, and then we sprinkle and weave the electronics around — I think we set up contrasts, and prods, and all sorts of internal tensions that other musicians never investigate.  We do actually take the absurd extremes and have them affect each other.”

That’s what I think Microstoria does really well.  The way electronic sounds can sound like the horn section.  Or the way it’ll fall into the key of G.

“Well, Jan claims he knows nothing about music.  When I was in the studio with him a couple of weeks just visiting him, and I thought it was a Macoy Tyner sample I was hearing, but it was a sound he’d created.  He was chuffed at that.  He was delighted.  It’s almost like understanding the emotional connection of a certain sound, and then recreating it electronically.”

ON GRAND GESTURES

“No, I find that appalling.  First of all, I love the idea of music being egalitarian.  I love the idea of music being accessible.  I love the idea of musicians being just out there as part of everything.  We’re just wheels making life possible, like the same way as somebody who operates a photocopy machine.  I don’t like the idea of adulation.  I don’t like the idea of hero worship.  I don’t like the idea of reflecting glory.  I don’t like the idea of vanity.”

Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying, and I think half of me agrees with you, but the other half doesn’t at all.  Cause going back in time, the Greeks, the Romantics, it’s been all about glory and megalomania, and I think this is how a lot of great art is triggered by these things.

“Well, I don’t know.  Has it?  Like Robert Wyatt, he’s one of my favorite musicians.  He’s anything but megalomania and self-obsession.  It’s all to do with great ideas, and very clued-in individual who just knows the parameters within to work.  The most radical thing and absurd thing about Robert Wyatt is his ideas.  And I’m very much into the idea of ideas being the most important thing and not personality.  I love the idea of individual personality being taken out of music, so we don’t know who is making it.  But we know it’s fucked, it’s wacky, but who is it?  Like someone like Can.  When they were doing their stuff, they were just boring, bloody odd looking German guys who were making some absurd music.”

WHERE DOES IT BEGIN AND END?  COMING INTO THE AMORPHOUS BODY CENTRE AT ANY MOMENT

“I understand that.  At any point you can sample a section from it, and you don’t need to know where it’s come from and where it’s going to end up.  Again, that’s something I can take into a nice experiment — it’s almost like even though it’s structured in harmony, it’s almost anti-song.  So we are talking about chord movements, but it’s anti-song, because a great song has a beginning, middle, and a finish and a verse-chorus.  That’s the traditional idea of great songwriting.  Ooh, or whatever.  It’s almost like at every stage, we tried to undermine that or get away from that, or turn it on its head, change time signature, change the key.  A great song would suggest that you need to see the full picture before you understand the song, but number one I don’t like the idea of fully understanding music.  It’s much more fun.  And then there’s the other thing — it’s almost like a soundtrack thing.  That’s one of the great things about electronic music.  It has redefined the way we listen to music.  It has reminded us of the fact that great soundtrack music was made.  We forgot about that.  I didn’t, but a lot of people did.  And I think club culture’s brought us back in touch with acres and acres of great soundtrack music that’s been hanging around ever since the 40s and 50s.”

GOOD VIBRATIONS

“The most interesting thing about “Good Vibrations” as far as I’m concerned is the cut-ups.  And I think there are places on Hawaii and on this record that we do it.  Like jumping from two ideas, those back-to-back edits.  So that’s the main thing we take from “Good Vibrations.”  It’s a great song.  It’s great pop writing.”

A DEFENCE AGAINST RETRO CRITICISMS

“Well, if it was retro music, we wouldn’t be working with those things like we did on Cold and Bouncey.  Like all these guys you’re writing about, like Mouse On Mars and Luke Vibert totally affect the way we make music.  First of all, if you’re retro and all you’re doing is going over known ground, then you’re fucked.  But if you’re going over unknown ground, then I think that you’re doing yourself a service, and other people a service.  Like if you refer directly to Sun Ra, who directly refers to Sun Ra?  He’s now being remembered, and celebrated as a musically important happenning, but if people didn’t refer to him then he’d have been forgotten.  And if he was forgotten, then his whole musical philosophy would be lost forever, but it’s been referred to, so it affects the way music is made.  We are filters.  We do listen to music, whether it’s from 66 or 97.  One of the great things about what’s happenned to music is that it’s much easier to listen to current music, because there’s so much good stuff about.”

Yeah, I remember when I started my magazine, like five years ago, and I thought that there is so much shit that can be done, and in the years since then, it seems like 90% of the ideas I had four years ago have been used up.

“I would have said in 1988 or 1986 there wasn’t much stuff around for you to listen to, but in 1997 there is, and you can’t ignore it.  And part of the reason for that is that we actually had to look into the past to look into the future.  Someone like Luke Vibert — he totally uses stuff from the past, and basically just fucks with it.  A lot of his rhythms — basically, he’s into soundtrack music in a big big way, and he knows his hip-hop, and he’s mixing the two.  He’s doing what we’re doing as far as this concerns. We actually go back, and we write, and he goes back and sort of collects and re-associates.”

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