Photo by Bleddyn Butcher

Painters Paint

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“I haven’t talked to anyone in the States for ages,” says Sean O’Hagan, speaking by phone from his South London home. “I seem to get a lot of calls from Japan these days, but we really haven’t done much American press.”

The founder and leader of English pop experimentalists the High Llamas, O’Hagan should be in the U.S. at this very moment, playing shows and promoting Buzzle Bee, the band’s enchanting new album. But two years ago, after having failed to turn critical adulation into multiplatinum record sales, the Llamas were gently booted from Richard Branson’s V2 label. Their current home, Chicago indie Drag City, offers plenty of artistic freedom but little in the way of tour support — least of all for a band that’s used to taking up to 12 musicians, including string sections and a marimba player, on the road with them.

“It became obvious that people who make the kind of music we make can really only make it for a small label,” says O’Hagan. “The problem about that is, if we did want to tour, the only way we’d be able to do it would be to go out as a four-piece, with guitar, organ and bass and drums. Whether people would be interested in that, I have no idea.”

But forced exile from the world of major labels doesn’t rankle O’Hagan nearly as much as the recent critical backlash his music has been experiencing. Gideon Gaye, the 1994 album that put the High Llamas on the map, drew worldwide raves for its low-budget approximation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. The sprawling sonic panoramas of 1996’s Hawaii and the electro-pop experiments of 1998’s Cold and Bouncy met with equally warm receptions. But ever since the release of 1999’s Snowbug, the band has fallen noticeably out of favor with its staunchest supporters, the press. These days, the rap on the Llamas seems to be that they no longer write “proper songs,” or, conversely, that they’re too stuck in 1960s California to be relevant to the current musical climate.

“It’s really weird, that,” says O’Hagan. “I mean, unless I’m really stupid, anybody who liked Gideon Gaye or Hawaii should have realized there was something going on that wasn’t just ‘Where’s the sunshine?’ You know? So I get really surprised when people say, ‘Oh yeah, they’ve all gone off on a bit of a tangent,’ because it was heading that way, anyway.

“I think Buzzle Bee is a collection of songs,” O’Hagan says, “but it’s more of a folk record. It’s not the Association, and maybe that’s what people are pissed off about. I like good songs as well, but I think you’ve always got to come at it from a different angle.”

For Buzzle Bee, coming at it from a different angle meant combining the “spooky oddness” of Snowbug with O’Hagan’s long-standing interest in Italian film composers such as Ennio Morricone and Piero “The 10th Victim” Piccioni, and the 1970s Brazilian pop of Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben and Lo Borges. Recorded and mixed in a mere 14 days, the record is both warmer and looser than any previous High Llamas outing, with O’Hagan’s nylon-string acoustic taking center stage amid the lilting female vocals (courtesy of Stereolab’s Mary Hanson), burbling marimbas and whirring modular synths. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who loves “hot” retro-futurists like Air, Mellow or Thievery Corporation could resist Buzzle Bee’s convivial sound.

All the same, O’Hagan finds the idea of scoring films far more appealing than chasing the pop dream. “That’s great when you’re 28, but I’m 41 now, and I’ve got a little boy, and I just don’t want to do it. So how do you make music, stay solvent and keep some sense of dignity about yourself? I think the only way is to write for screen or dance. I wish Buzzle Bee could make its way to a few more filmmakers, because I think it’d be perfect for film, and I could make music like that forever.”

O’Hagan may well get his wish; “The Passing Bell,” a track from Buzzle Bee, is slated for use in Dead Last, a comedy from the producers of High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank that’s set to debut this fall on the WB network. In the meantime, the head Llama is busy collaborating on a multimedia project with Belgian artist Jean-Pierre Muller.

“We’re developing a painting that you can interact with physically,” says O’Hagan. “As you touch it, you create a musical picture as well. We’re planning to make one piece about Chicago, one about London, one about Brussels and one about Tokyo.” He laughs. “I feel delighted that I’m doing something ‘grown-up.’ At last I’ve managed to escape the world of rock & roll!”


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