Odd Pop and the 1890s

Artist: The High Llamas
Published: 2004-03-07

Most bands avoid touring Canada and the northern US in the dead of winter, fearful of treacherous driving, small crowds and other such roadside hazards.

England's High Llamas are not most bands. In fact, they welcome our North American winters as a delightful alternative to the rainy UK seasons they're accustomed to. "It's actually lovely seeing the snow, really," says Llamas' songwriter/arranger Sean O'Hagan. "We saw deer and we saw some Canada geese flying south. That was fantastic. I'd really love to see a bear. Apart from them trying to kill you, I'd really love to see one."

The High Llamas are touring in support of their new album Beet Maize & Corn, which adheres to the classic Llamas formula: beautiful arrangements, strong melodies and a real attention to detail. What's missing is the strong electronic element that was present on previous efforts such as 1998's Cold and Bouncy. "I wanted to reclaim our individuality, and the only way we can do that is with chords and melody, the things we know," says O'Hagan. "That's why we're not fucking around with electronics this time out because that's just ubiquitous. There's no identity there unless you're very, very good. The technology's there but everybody's doing the same thing—whereas everybody isn't doing the same thing on upright pianos."

What makes Beet Maize & Corn so unique is the massive frame of reference from which it was drawn, based largely on O'Hagan's wealth of divergent musical tastes. The use of rim taps, glockenspiels and heavily-muted guitars throws the album back toward the dark ages of popular music, something O'Hagan is completely unapologetic about.

"Most journalists are embarrassed by the fact that I've even addressed the music of the 1890s. They don't think that can be 'pop' and 'counter culture,' but it actually is. I was influenced by composers like Benjamin Britten who, at the time, were 'counter culture.' They were responsible for introducing extended harmony and dissonance into all music. Most pop music claims to be 'counter culture' but they only reference the '60s and '70s. Nobody references the '50s because it's all embarrassing except a few lounge acts like Perry & Kingsley. Nobody references Austrian composers like Arnold Shoenberg, people I've learned to love in my adulthood because I didn't know about them as a child. It's like the sweet shop is open and I'll have a go."

While the disposability of most modern pop music is something that has troubled O'Hagan since his days in '80s post-punk outfit Microdisney, so too has the media's tendency to assign the same exhausted touchstones to all popular music, whether warranted or not.

"Something like [modern jazz songstress] Carla Bley was an influence on the High Llamas but it was really Carla Bley from '71, 'Escalator Over the Hill.' That didn't have anything to do with the '70s, anyway; it was more of a Mingus thing. Why can't we be grown-ups and talk about all these things without insisting on the eras themselves? People think everything has to be post-Beatles or post-Monterrey or have a punk-reference, or reference England in '86, the acid house thing. There seems to be only designated places you're allowed to go."

One comparison that has continued to dog O'Hagan over the years is him to Brian Wilson, the erstwhile leader of the Beach Boys and braintrust behind modern pop music's ground zone, 1966's Pet Sounds. While O'Hagan freely admits to being a Wilson admirer, the antiquated notion that the High Llamas have based their entire career upon that single album is fallacy he may never fully escape.

"It doesn't bother me, but you get tired of it because there's so much more. What happens with most journalists is they're given a job and do a little bit of research. Most of the journalists who are writing about us don't even know what Brian Wilson actually sounded like at any given time. They might have heard Pet Sounds and know 'Fun Fun Fun' from their childhood. Because we have a harmony with sweet melodies, they assume it must be the same thing. It's the same type of people who, if they hear a trumpet, they think it's influenced by Miles Davis. It's just stupid and lazy, really."

Overall, Beet Maize & Corn will probably sell in numbers close to its predecessors, and the High Llamas will continue to play mid-sized venues both in their native UK and in North America. And truthfully, you get the sense that this suits O'Hagan just fine. Having recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary as a band, Sean O'Hagan and the High Llamas really have nothing left to prove to anyone but themselves and can simply enjoy the continued sharing of their bouncy pop thrills with their small-but-loyal fanbase.

"We're really just a pop group at heart, I think. We like to think of ourselves as a bunch of old boys who are still a pop group. We're not classical, we're not jazz guys, we're not contemporary this or that. We just play a slightly odd pop music. That's all."

Writer: Cameron Gordon

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