A Conversation With Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas)

Call the High Llamas a group if you’d like. But there’s been little doubt over the past 32 years that the Llamas begin and end with Sean O’Hagan. As far back as the late ’80s, when he was still a member of Microdisney, O’Hagan was toying with what would become the High Llamas’ signature anti-formula (so to speak). His masterpiece is 2003’s Beet, Maize & Corn, on which the High Llamas ceased to become anything remotely resembling a conventional band. Consider it O’Hagan’s answer to the Beach Boys’ Smile, with its orchestral grace, precise arrangements and theatrical pacing. It’s the album that saw him breathing the same rarified air as obvious influences like Brian Wilson.

Two decades later, the latest High Llamas LP, Hey Panda (Drag City), finds the 64-year-old O’Hagan in a much different place, his creative holding pattern goosed by a host of contemporary sounds from artists he learned about through his adult children. Born in England to Irish parents, O’Hagan spent his teen years in Cork, the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland. These days, he lives in London, where MAGNET engaged him in a lengthy conversation about everything from the war in Gaza to his run-in with the Beach Boys to High Llamas superfan Tyler The Creator.

What’s your take on the boycott at this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference? Almost all the Irish bands refused to perform when they discovered the event was sponsored by the U.S. Army and weapons manufacturer RTX.
I became aware of it when a few people I know pulled out. One of the more high-profile ones was Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals). For him, it was a huge thing, because the record he’s got right now (Sadness Sets Me Free on Rough Trade) will probably be his most successful solo album. And playing in the U.S. would’ve been very, very important.

I’m going to be very careful here because I haven’t spoken about Palestine in any of these interviews. I’m originally Irish, but I don’t have a stake in this game, other than I want to see an end to the violence and humanity restored. This has nothing to do with Islam or the Jewish faith. This is purely about a group of people in Israel who are supremacists. For one reason or another, I honestly believe they’re trying to enact famine on a region. They have plans for Gaza, and these people are going to follow that through as long as sanctions aren’t held against their actions. The Palestinian people are victims, but so are democratic Israelis who’ve been subjected to fascism in their own country.

This idea of occupying a land that’s basically your homeland is still very much with the Irish people. It’s still young. The whole idea for the State of Israel was created by a guy names Lord Balfour. He was British aristocrat who worked with what was the Zionist movement back then. He realized that having to integrate the State of Israel with mandated Palestinians would be tricky. But he knew they could do it because they’d done it before—namely in Ireland over the last 200 or 300 years. They transplanted Scottish Presbyterians to Northern Ireland, making sure the Catholic majority already there were sent to the west of Ireland. But the west had very poor soil, and so people couldn’t survive there. The famine happened, and people died. While the British were doing that, they were also using the impoverished people in the west of Ireland as indentured labor in their Caribbean plantations. That’s just a little bit of history.

Getting back to the present, do you miss the days when the High Llamas were a more active live band?
Those few years in the late 1990s when we were touring a lot were the golden days. We’d managed to emerge from period I really didn’t enjoy—this glut of rock. We’d been fighting the enormity of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. But when we came out of that, there were some really interesting things happening. Nineties hip hop was really kicking off. Stereolab made Dots And Loops, which I believe was a game-changing record. People were really trying to make things happen onstage, even if the technology they were using was really clunky. But then touring became impossible for most U.K. bands when the visa costs absolutely exploded. Then Iraq happened. Visa costs have remained high.

Then you have Beet, Maize & Corn, an album that’s next to impossible to play live.
I’d just had my first child, and we didn’t think we could afford to make records, so I did as much as I could at home and went into small studios to do the strings and brass. It was an album without much drumming. I was listening to things like Benjamin Britten at the time. I was trying to capture the essence of German lieder. It seemed like a disastrous career move at the time. But it wasn’t such a crazy thing, because not long after that album, there were a lot of bands using fat brass, ukes and assembled voices. People like Sufjan Stevens and early Fleet Foxes. I’d call it religious indie.

Beet, Maize & Corn also touched off a rash of Brian Wilson comparisons. You almost had an opportunity to collaborate with him, correct?
It could’ve worked out. I could’ve pushed it. That was a long time ago: 1996. I was in the room with him several times. I didn’t feel as though he was running his own life. If people came to him with ideas, I don’t think he understood the full consequence of engaging with that idea.

The reason it nearly happened was because Richard Branson had just started V2 Records, and he wanted a big signing. (The Beach Boys’) Bruce Johnston had heard (the High Llamas’) Hawaii, and he got in touch with Richard with the idea that the Beach Boys could be his big signing and they could make their next great record. I found myself being shuttled back and forth to the States, being introduced to lawyers, the band, Brian, (his wife) Melinda. I was coached on how to deal with these people and how to push the right buttons. Basically, I was introduced to American royalty—and I was pretty shocked by the whole thing. I was very domestic person, and I was suddenly in movie land. It was mad. I wasn’t sure whether Brian was completely on board. At that time, I didn’t feel like there was a structure or a plan.

Carl (Wilson) died not long afterwards. I had a great meeting with him where he really wanted it to happen. He wanted me to write and produce, and he wanted the Llamas guys to be on the record. He said a very interesting thing to me at the time: “Whatever it was we knew that made us great together, we don’t know what that is now—and we rely on people like you.” Al (Jardine) was really positive about it; Bruce was quite ambitious about it; Mike (Love) was very difficult. Then we’d go to these lawyers’ offices in L.A., on the highest floor with the biggest chairs and the best views, and these guys would literally be swinging around in their chairs saying, “It will never happen!”

A ton of contemporary influences found their way on Hey Panda—even Auto-Tune.
Oh, yeah. Auto-Tune is all over the place. I’d been listening to Pharrell (Williams), Tyler The Creator and Solange (Knowles) since 2015 and was really into it massively. But as an old Irish guy, I didn’t feel I had the understanding or the latitude to do a record like that. I felt as though I’d be appropriating. But then I began to hear so much more of what I see as this beautiful hybrid. It’s like bedroom indie hip hop crossed with dream pop. I woke up to the fact that this music is completely contemporary. There doesn’t seem to be any irony or post-modernism. It’s really music of the time. In fact, it’s not just music of the time … I think we’re in a bit of golden age. Us old guys have to go out, see these people, buy their records and talk about them.

Apparently, Tyler The Creator is a big fan of yours.
He likes the Llamas, yeah. I was lucky to do a score for this guy named Owen Kline for a movie called Funny Pages, a dark, difficult film. Tyler was at (a screening), and he came out and straight away said the score was amazing. He loves (2007’s) Can Cladders and (2011’s) Talahomi Way, and he’s a massive fan of the song “Dorothy Ashby.”

Did you latch onto someone younger for help with Hey Panda?
I made Hey Panda with Ben Garrett from Fryars. He basically brought me into the present, big time. I did the record God Melodies (2021) with him—he asked me because he loved my arrangements. The whole thing started in 2018 when I was in the studio with him. I also worked with Rae Morris, Ben’s wife, on her record (2022’s Rachel@Fairyland). I came out of those two projects with this fresh knowledge and this new ambition. I was listening to Tierra Whack’s Whack World, Pivot Gang and stuff like that. I was more excited than I’d been in years.

Hey Panda is certainly a very different record than your last one, 2016’s Here Come The Rattling Trees.
For Rattling Trees, I was writing for theater because I truly thought I couldn’t have an impact as a contemporary musician anymore. Then, after working with Ben, I was thinking, “There’s this really vibrant and joyous thing happening. If I can do it at this age, I’ll be really happy.”

Hey Panda still sounds like a High Llamas album. You’re still in there.
Totally. That’s basically because I write on a piano and a nylon-string guitar. Anyone else would go where the melody leads, but I try to bring the listener to a very different place. I don’t want to leave people struggling for air. But I do want to introduce something that makes them go, “Woah, what was that?” Then, the second time you listen to, it feels natural. You shock them for a minute, and then it becomes pop music.

—Hobart Rowland