Sean O'Hagan fends off many brief interruptions from his son in his home studio, but it's fair play to young master O'Hagan because it is, after all, his bedroom that his father decided to set up shop in. As long-standing captain of the High Llamas' destiny, O'Hagan has weathered some career twists and turns. From having first been part of indie-rock darlings Microdisney (a group much admired by pop DJ supreme John Peel) to being tapped by the Beach Boys as a potential producer for the comeback album that never was, he's seen the music business from every possible angle.
But a favorite vantage point is from the comfort of his own home, where O'Hagan pieced together the majority of the new High Llamas LP, Beet, Maize & Corn (Drag City, 2003). The album continues to step away from the much-praised Moog-y electronics of 1998's Cold and Bouncy (V2) and builds further upon the band's love for simple, elegant songcraft and lush instrumentation. Instead of looking to high-tech means, O'Hagan is leaning on more traditional platforms. “I have an upright piano that I recorded downstairs with a couple of old Coles microphones,” he says. “Because the main instruments are either a nylon-string guitar or that piano, I could record everything [in my son's room]. We did all the singing in one of the other rooms.”
To pull all of that together, O'Hagan relied on Emagic Logic 5, an Apple G4 and a MOTU 828 interface. And he completed much of the mixing with Logic's virtual mixer, as well as with his Mackie SR24•4 VLZ Pro. This practical, scaled-down approach echoes the Llamas' real-world view of what it takes to record an album within its means.
“At the end of the day, I love the sound of 2-inch tape, and you can work faster with it,” O'Hagan says. “When you're working with the speed of tape, you can make quick decisions. But the reality is that if you want to make a record with the money that you've got to make records now, having [a DAW] will enable you to make it.”
Still, O'Hagan managed to pull enough money together to pay for a small orchestra, the music for which he scored with the Llamas' own Marcus Holdaway. The two worked out the parts together at O'Hagan's home before taking them to producer Fulton Dingley. “I write the parts on piano,” O'Hagan says, “and then when I've got the sketches, we sit down and score it longhand. We do work with the computer to play the parts so we actually hear them. But the string players don't actually hear that. We go to them with the scores. We recorded brass and strings in two tiny rooms in South London and were just fortunate to have the players, and then everything was imported back into Logic as audio files.”
The results couldn't be more stunning for all of this seemingly modest production, illustrating Lance Armstrong's point that “it's not about the bike.” “It's a kind of inevitability, really,” O'Hagan says. “I think it's impossible now for bands like ourselves to exist in what was the industry mainstream. There have been huge changes. Shareholders and accountants have made decisions about how record companies should be run. [So] you make a decision about how you make your music and how you live your life. Eight years ago, we were very privileged in that we were able to do what we wanted musically and tour. Now, we realize that if you want to make this music, you either have to find another way of making a living and doing it or work with technology that allows you to make cheaper records. But it doesn't really mean you have to make limited records. You can still make the records you want to make.”