The highest llama

Sean O'Hagan specializes in wedding the lush string arrangements and warm vocal harmonies of midperiod Beach Boys to the digital sounds and meandering
Author:
Publish date:

Sean O'Hagan specializes in wedding the lush string arrangements and warm vocal harmonies of midperiod Beach Boys to the digital sounds and meandering compositions peculiar to the style of music often called post-rock. He formed the High Llamas as a one-man band in 1990 after the demise of his former group, Microdisney. Eventually, the High Llamas evolved from a solo effort to the current four-person lineup, with O'Hagan on vocals and various instruments, Jon Fell on bass and vocals, Rob Allum on drums, and Marcus Holdaway on keyboards and vocals. Since 1991 the band has released five albums and two EPs filled with channeled Brian Wilson harmonies, contemplative guitars, tender banjos, and sick synths.

Over the years, O'Hagan has developed relationships with a number of trendsetting acts and artists in America and in the United Kingdom, where he resides. He has worked extensively with Stereolab, writing string and horn arrangements, and has coproduced Chicago denizens Jim O'Rourke, Bundy K. Brown, and John McEntire. He also has a good bit of remixing credits to his name, having worked with such artists as the Boo Radleys, Shonen Knife, Pizzicato Five, and Mouse on Mars. In 1998, the High Llamas gave some of the songs from their fourth album, Cold and Bouncy, to many of these same artists and others for reinterpretation, resulting in the remix album Lollo Rosso.

For their latest release, Snowbug (V2 Records), the High Llamas recorded at the Drugstore, the Jesus and Mary Chain's studio in London, and at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago. I caught up with O'Hagan in London to discuss Lollo Rosso, Snowbug, and the continuing evolution of the band.

How have the High Llamas developed musically?When we started out with our second full-length, Gideon Gaye, I certainly intended to make a harmonic record that worked with some of the fallible analog sounds that weren't being exploited at the time. That was in 1992, and we were still in very conservative rock 'n' roll territory. The Seattle scene was huge, and there were the beginnings of the indie electronic music scene, but there wasn't that kind of exotic, experimental crossover happening at that stage.

We started off as a fairly simple pop group but at a time when there wasn't much melodic music happening. I wanted to make an experimental pop record, and that was Gideon Gaye. We took some of the sounds from experimental pop records from the '60s, things like Vox organs and out-of-tune upright pianos.

Was that primarily your doing?Yeah, but once you're in a studio situation, it's never really just you. We were very much into the idea of cutting up film or cutting up bits of electronic sounds and then crossfading harmonies with the cutup bits. We did blatant stuff like taking the instrumental version of a song and reversing it, which is a really naive trick, but nobody else was doing it in '92.

What we invented for ourselves was a working pattern. It was a way for us to work with harmony and still use experimental forms to create impressionistic music. It was almost like, "How can you create antipop music but still work within pop music?" The restrictions we created for ourselves were an important factor.

Did you have a hard time coming up with the equipment?We borrowed it. We had next to nothing, but after Gideon Gaye I foraged around and found Wurlitzers, Minimoogs, Moog Rogues, little monophonic Elka synths. It was just really cheap, pre-1970s stuff. At that time in England I didn't know anyone who had patch gear. That whole industry has grown up in the past eight years, hasn't it? When we went into the studio to make our third record [1996's Hawaii], we just understood a little bit more about filtering. Other people would do songs where electronics might creep into the arrangement, but we'd do stuff like take the whole track through a filter of the Minimoog. It was almost like saying, "We're going to do this with the crudest filter bank that we can get our hands on." A lot of Hawaii is just that. We'd get the whole track going through the filter bank and apply the oscillator. The track would start to break up as we altered the speed of the oscillator.

We also did on-the-spot remixes: we would do a mix and then just tear it apart. We used cheap ring modulators and modulated the toms or put the banjo through whatever small filter we could get our hands on. Then we would use those as the little crossfade items between tracks. Sometimes we'd take a day here and there after we finished recording the bulk of the album and set up a little studio at home with Cubase, an organ, a mic, and a sampler. We would compose and record something short in 45 minutes or so. We recorded 20 or 30 tracks like that. When we went to master the album, we had the main tracks, which would be deconstructed in themselves, but then they crossfaded into one of the 30 options that we did over two days.

That must have been a lot of fun.It was very fun. The great thing about it is that you'll take a song that you've spent a long time on, getting to the stage where you have a relationship with the particular song, and as soon as you put that song between two other pieces of music-two funny little deconstructed vignettes-you have a different relationship with that music straight away. I love that. You don't really know the record until you've heard it sequenced, mastered, and crossfaded. Only then do you have the total experience.

By the time we began working on Cold and Bouncy we began to collaborate with Andy Ramsey from Stereolab, and I think we really got into the minutiae of assimilating electronica into pop in a playful way. Cold and Bouncy was really the end of that for us. We didn't think we could get any closer to that vibe. So we had to zoom out again and start again somewhere else; that's what we've done with Snowbug. We wanted to say, "Okay, we've learned this way of writing, where you cut up what you've done but present it as pop music. You get the accessibility, you get the tunes, but there's still something obviously different about it." I mean, everybody knows about taking hip-hop loops and putting them through an amp to get that kind of Portishead sound. There are so many cliches, and we wanted to avoid all those cliches while retaining a pop accessibility, or even a Muzak-style accessibility, but with an oddness to it.

Of course, we have our usual stuff, like organs going through wah-wah pedals, but the actual electronics on the record are very low-tech. There is an AS modular synth that we put the Wurlitzer through. But for a lot of the sounds, we didn't want to use complicated systems of processing. For instance, we wouldn't use a filter system; we would use a wah-wah pedal instead. There's a company in Reading [England] called Lovetone, and they make filter boxes that are just fantastic. There are about 100 of them in England, maybe 200 throughout the world. It's a cottage industry.

We also used little Evans delay boxes that were popular in early '70s dub music. We would put an electric piano through a Lovetone filter and then through one of these delays, and it's just fantastic. At the end of "Cotton to the Bell" on Snowbug, a bizarre little tune on the coda uses that sound as it fades out. We used a slow LFO operating on the AS modular system, which we put the Wurlitzer through, and you just get this really nice, slow wah.

We also used DOD envelope filters. Its classic sound is the Bootsy Collins bass sound, but we would run a Rhodes piano through it instead. We did that on a whole section of "American Scene," and it almost sounds like Sly Stone. We would record an organ through a wah-wah on the first two beats of the bar, and the second two beats of the bar would be a Rhodes through a DOD envelope. You could get the distinctive filter sounds going back and forth, sort of like Sly Stone but without it being funky. We didn't want it to be funky, just off. That was a lot of fun, and it was all done on 2-inch tape, rather than digitally, which was really interesting.

Does it take you longer to work with analog tape?It's very interesting working on 2-inch again after working on hard disk. I did ten remixes last year, and it's a totally different ball game. I found it actually quite fast working on 2-inch. Sometimes we'd have to play things over more; with hard disk you end up saying, "Well, the second chorus is pretty good, so let's just scrub that first chorus and just drop this one in." It's good fun, but you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen. I really enjoyed working with analog this time out and saying, "Let's just play it again."

We also made a decision not to be afraid of making mistakes or of being loose and keeping those takes. The records that we as a band listen to and like aren't afraid of those things. So there was a lot on this record that wouldn't have made it onto previous records.

At this stage, do you guys want a permanent studio setup of your own?My only worry about owning a studio is maintenance and leases and all that. At home I have a Mackie 32-track, a hard disk setup, a couple of good EQs, and a bunch of mics. I like that; it suits me for at-home use. In London you just can't get a cheap little place; it would cost a lot of money to maintain a studio.

What was the process behind putting together Lollo Rosso, the remix album?Very easy, really. To be quite honest, I was a little disappointed that the artists stuck to the originals as closely as they did. I would have liked to have heard something that was filtered to such an extent that I'd barely recognize what was going on. In preparing for the album, I'd talk to each person about the song they were remixing to find out what tracks they needed, and they'd say, "I'm going to use the strings, the Wurlitzer, and maybe the bass part." I would literally record those tracks one by one on the right or left channel of the DAT in mono. That's how they'd get the material most of the time. Stock, Hausen & Walkman just used the CD and cut that up, which I quite like. Jim O'Rourke wanted 2-inch tape.

Actually, I prefer Jim's mix of "Mini-Management." I regard that as a much more successful final mix than our own. It was so adventurous. When we did "Mini-Management" on Cold and Bouncy, the brass playing chords in 6/8 time was very important to me. Jim took those chords, filtered them, and contextualized them in a completely different way. The melody really came to the foreground.

Were you surprised by anything you got back?Not really. I'm not sure how successful the whole thing was. I thought there were a few cliches. When we do remixes, I usually take two harmonic ideas and restructure them. Sometimes I'll put beats in, sometimes not. But I quite like taking the original harmony and just saying, "I'm going to put new chords here." That way, we can come up with something unique.

You were recently in negotiations to work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Did you have ideas about bringing certain kinds of technology to that project?If I had done anything, I would have gone out of my way to encourage them to make a semi-instrumental record. I didn't get to talk to Brian that much, but when I talked with the Beach Boys, I talked about the records of theirs that excited me. I didn't draw on Pet Sounds, because if you do that, the Beach Boys would think, "Oh no, this guy's just going on about Brian's record again." You have to talk abut Sunflower. You have to talk about Friends.

We talked about the instrumentals and about the impressionistic side of those records. I just wanted to get them in touch with the avant-garde side of their pop music. If I'd had the opportunity, I would have tried to make an avant-garde record. They were interested in making a record that was going to turn heads again. They were really up for that. They've said, "We don't know how to be the Beach Boys anymore. That disappeared years ago." And Carl Wilson basically said, "If this record happens, you choose the musicians, you produce it, and you make the record that you think the Beach Boys should be making."

I hope you were sitting down when he was saying all this.The whole thing was very complicated. The lawyers for Brian Wilson weren't interested. I was in the studio with Brian when he began recording Imagination, but I wasn't allowed to be alone in the same room with him. It was just L.A. and Nashville session guys with poodle haircuts. He wasn't in charge of that record. One thing that he did say to me, though, was that he was a big fan of Hawaii. There was one moment when we were heading to the elevator, the only time we were together alone, and he said to me, "You love Moogs!" It really excited him; he can't get enough of those fat analog sounds.

JoE Silva is a freelance writer and author living in Athens, Georgia. He is currently working on an authorized biography of Robyn Hitchcock and trying to increase his Cubase savvy.