by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, March 1998

The High Llamas

It's the perfect setting for the High Llamas: the nostalgic elegance of a landmark Hollywood hotel. As piped-in chamber music plays over the lobby sound system, Sean O'Hagan couldn't be more in his element.

See, as maestro of the dazzlingly baroque Llamas, O'Hagan is doing his best to inject some old-school classicism into the slam-bam, mmm-bop '90s. Blending modern pop whimsy with traditional orchestrations of strings and horns, he endures nagging comparisons to Bacharach, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks while forging his own bold identity, painting imaginary landscapes of pastoral beauty via epic releases like Gideon Gaye, Hawaii and his latest work, Cold and Bouncy.

"It's definitely pop music," he states, "but I like the idea of making egalitarian music. It's egalitarian, and slightly left-field at the same time. You know, my favorite things are avant-garde music and totally accessible pop music. I'm trying to mix the two."

The avant-garde bubbles to the surface on Cold and Bouncy, as a new emphasis on high-tech bloops, bleeps and twitters unmistakably reflects O'Hagan's side work with Stereolab, Turn On and Mouse on Mars. Otherwise, the sound will be familiar to High Llamas disciples -- O'Hagan crooning about heaven-knows-what in his thin tremulous voice, relaxed walking tempos, lavish yet airy arrangements and an equal balance between instrumental and vocal tracks.

"The obvious move is that the electronics are integrated into the sound, as opposed to being a contrast during the segues," says O'Hagan, comparing the new album to 1996's acclaimed Hawaii. "I think the arrangements would be boring without the electronics now. The sound has also gotten a bit more Italian. It's less American, and more European. Italian and French soundtrack music is a very big influence on this record. Those were two things that I really wanted to try working with. It was inevitable. One has to move on and change...or move sideways."

O'Hagan's melodies remain a marvel of sophistication, whether they're wordless saunters like "Glide Time" and "Over the River" or impressionistic odes like "The Sun Beats Down," "Three Point Scrabble" and "Painters Paint." He admits that his impenetrable lyrical imagery is often "complete rubbish," but points out that harmony and melody are where he wishes to leave his mark. Such rarefied goals can be seen as pretentious, but O'Hagan insists otherwise, ever fighting the back-to-basics, pub-rock mentality.

"It can be done intelligently. One shouldn't be afraid of key changes, and stuff like that. You shouldn't say, 'Oh, Joni Mitchell did it and I hate Joni. She represents everything I don't like in music.' Once your ideas are good, you shouldn't be afraid of what you're working with . It's almost like a dirty word, harmony. Trying to be inventive with chords, and things like that."

Nostalgia-mongering is another charge often levied against the Llamas, but O'Hagan believes there's a double standard at work, based upon which past influences one chooses to show. Grumbling about the forgiven "heritage-rock sounds" of Oasis and their Britpop kin, he nevertheless takes criticism good-naturedly.

"When you make a record, you're putting yourself on the line. You're doing an arrogant thing -- it's like, 'Here's my music.' If someone criticizes, you've got to accept that. I'm not offended by it, but I do think it's lazy. All we did when we made Gideon Gaye was say, 'Look, you guys are all listening to bloody Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soundgarden.' That's all that was going on in 1992 or 1993. I was bored with that, and wanted to move the spotlight a little bit. Like, 'Hey, there's these guys as well.' I found it so weird when everybody went over-the-top about Nirvana. I thought, 'Come on, you saw support bands in 1978 that were as good as that.' It was major-minor, major-minor. That's all it was. People have been doing that for years. Boston did that, for chrissake. Except they had poodle haircuts when they did it."

As for his peers in the so-called "ork pop" genre, O'Hagan would rather avoid that club also.

"They're very good at what they do, but I don't like the idea of the ork-pop movement. I have much more in common with Sonic Youth, I think, than with all that. I'm not into grand gestures. I mean, when we go up there, I wouldn't dream of putting everybody in three-piece suits and getting that whole 'let's re-invent the past' feel. I love the idea of being very much part of our time. Our music is a hybrid of stuff from the last 50, 20 or 30 years, whatever. It's definitely about making music for tomorrow."

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