Hi, Llama – Sean O’Hagan

Posted 2 months ago in Music

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Sean O’Hagan has been a constant in my life, even when I didn’t know it. First as Microdisney when they’d be played on local radio. Then as a member of Stereolab when Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane rather more dominated the headlines. It wasn’t even his first album as The High Llamas, but Snowbug which properly grabbed my attention and I became a devotee, discovering I’d been a fan all along. After battling illness during COVID he’s back with a new album, Hey Panda and I got a chance to speak to one of my heroes.


Why is the album called Hey Panda? Were you feeling a little endangered?

Endangered, very good, no. So many of the releases at this time go back to the pandemic. During the pandemic I was reasonably busy. Busy, I was actually on chemo. I was recovering from cancer at the time. So, I had a strange old time and people said to me, “Wow, what a great time to have cancer, you didn’t miss anything.” Yeah!

I was entertained every day by a panda from a zoo in China somewhere, who ate huge, giant carrots every day, huge. This animal had a great personality, and he ate the carrots like they were like cigars, they were half his body size these carrots, and I used to watch him every day, and I got to think that social media has been the defining characteristic of the last 20 years. There’re endless debates as to ‘Is it a good thing or a bad thing?’ and ‘what’s the eventual outcome?’ And I really warmed to the idea of TikTok, mainly because it was owned by the Chinese, and hopefully it’s owned by The Communist Party (I hope it is, that’s a much better story), and the fact that there’s actually huge communities all over the world. Obviously, it’s a platform for polarisation, but it’s also a platform for avoiding conflict, just basically reaching out to people who might enjoy this one thing somewhere else in the world. It could be quite a good thing and that’s sort of controversial.

So, I was really close to this panda, that’s basically the size of it. Panda and his carrots and my admiration for this panda, and it’s just such a gift of a name. Hey, Panda.


You’re obviously a fan of Fryars work. What specifically do you think he brought to the Hey Panda production? 

Ben Garrett (Fryars) is a massively talented, wonderful songwriter and a very fast, insightful producer. It was 2018, making God Melodies, when a big change happened for me. I’d always kind of loved hip hop and R&B, but never thought I had the language or the ability. The idea of a man in his 60’s, just trying to reach something like that was cringe worthy. I just thought I love this stuff and I genuinely believe that. A Tribe called Quest, J Dilla, MF Doom and those people were massively huge and while we were all sort of messing about making retro lounge music, this stuff was going on and we kind of missed it a little bit. I just love the post-J Dilla world and I think it’s a much more interesting world than the pre-J Dilla world. I kind of wanted to have access to it. I just wanted to make this one record that has a contemporary R&B feel.


You’ve collaborated with your daughter Livvy before, but it must have been a pleasure to have her play such a big role in the album. 

Yeah, by the way, just going back to Ben, he basically opened that whole world of R&B up and the other person who opened it up to me was Livvy. She’s got an amazing ear and she’s a great songwriter and I literally go to her with ideas and say, ‘is it any good or not?’ And she’s like, got a great A&R head.

She seeks out this strange little world of lo-fi hip hop which is just exploding and there’s all these people out there making this bedroom hip-hop and it’s amazing. It’s beautiful. So, I have her on the record and she has this voice, which is a voice that is beyond definition, really. So many voices have a signature or a character. She’s almost transient in her delivery, it was just a pleasure. It was wonderful. I love this coterie of younger people who gather around when I’m making records.


On a recent podcast episode you talked to Paul McDermott about Hawaii and the fact it was highly conceptualised. Could you say the same thing about Hey Panda or is it a more casual affair?

OK, conceptualised, insofar as I wanted to sort of escape from my own sort of self-referential world. I mean most people thought The High Llamas we’re slightly untouchable figures playing with the right 60’s influences and the right Brazilian and West Coast influences and I wanted to kind of escape that because I’m so buzzed by contemporary music. Conceptually, if it’s anything, it’s a record that’s saying thank you to this generation. But there are two themes that run through it. One is animals and the other is learning difficulty, not being able to learn classically, academically being a slow reader and not being able to do exams and achieve, which I couldn’t do.

I left school with nothing, with no paper in my back pocket and called onto a building site at barely 16 and got a job in 1976 and I’ve never been able to study. But I love to read at my own pace and I gain knowledge through listening and conversation and radio. I assimilate the knowledge and can write it down and write quite a lot, but I can’t do exams, so there’s three songs about not being able to achieve academically. I achieve kinetically not academically. ‘Toriafan’ is that, ‘The Water Moves’ is that and ‘Stone Cold Slow’ is that.


Over your long career what’s been your happiest era in music?

Hard one that. It’s so weird. I think I remember fondly really enjoying those first trips to America around Gideon Gaye. Just because we were allowed to go to America and it was so long ago, New York was very different. I haven’t been to New York for a long time, but New York in the 90’s was quite special. Meeting people stateside and we had this incredible reputation over there and we didn’t really have much of a reputation, certainly not the UK. Then going to America and people really thinking that you were special, that was nice. And before we did bigger shows there, we played little places like the Mercury Lounge. I really enjoyed those days. Yeah, I think that if I had to lock in a time, then that would be about 94/95.


You’re in your 60’s now. Do you recognise the Sean O’Hagan of your 20’s? Do you still have much in common?

It’s strange, such a good question. I am amazed at some things I did… behaviours… that’s a tough one. It’s really interesting because you change massively when you have children, when you watch your kids grow up and then you see some of what you did as a child through them. Then you think oh, that’s possibly what I was like. But you do feel as though you are looking… It’s out of body, you’re looking back at somebody else. There are certain things, little angry moments, but less afraid, less afraid and I love nature now, whereas I couldn’t give a monkeys about nature when I was young, when I was that age. I was surrounded by nature and it was just that stuff out there. I think the little bit of the excitement in writing a song is probably the same.


Do you have any hopes, plans or possibilities to tour the album?

I would love to try to get together the four of us and see how much of it we can play. I mean we haven’t played together as a band for so long. I’ve been doing lots of solo stuff but we’ve had a little go at playing a few of these songs, and the thing about it is that Drag City have actually got plans to reissue Gideon Gaye & Hawaii and then Snowbug and Cold and Bouncy over the next year and a bit.

So, there’ll probably be a bit of playing then. With this record I might try to learn a few of the songs and then maybe bring a little bit of technology along to see if we can represent it. I wouldn’t say there’ll be a lot, but there might be something if we get it together, we’ll definitely be in Dublin and Cork, probably Kilkenny. I’m trying to crack that nut right now to be quite honest.


Do you have a feel for how the industry is for young bands starting out? Do you feel the viability has changed?

Oh yeah, I got a real feel for how difficult it is. You know selling lots of records and becoming massively famous and ubiquitous probably isn’t there, I think. First of all, there’s so much talent. There’s so much access to equipment. It’s actually relatively easy to make a great sound because the technology allows you to, but there’s also plenty of talent making that great sound. Then they bring it to the stage and they usually they can do that themselves.  There’s a little bit of complacency insofar as that my cohort, the listeners, feel as though we own history, if you see what I mean, because we lived through it, we lived punk. We were kids and it was glam, then it was punk and then whatever and we’ve seen it all and we’re looking, sitting, surveying, and everything is referential.

Of course, I don’t believe that at all. I believe that certainly we experienced everything, but because we experienced it doesn’t mean we own it and because of that attitude, you get a lot of people of my age group and they might just say things like, ‘well, it’s great but it’s not as good as it used to be’, and ‘it was all said and done and sure those guys are just trying to be these guys or whatever’, without really listening. There’s such great talent out there. There are changes and there’s new information out there with these youngsters and I really love it. I actually really like being surrounded by that energy, it’s really wonderful. I’m lucky, because I get to work with some of these people as a string arranger and I get invited in, which is so, so beautiful.


Our editor reckons you’ve been part of the three best bands ever in Microdisney, Stereolab and The High Llamas. How does it make you feel to hear such a thing?

Oh God. That’s a very, very nice thing to hear. I was lucky. In Microdisney, I was lucky to meet one of the most talented human beings ever to walk on the earth in Cathal Coughlan. I was really lucky with Tim, I’m still a very good friend of Tim Gane from Stereolab. We’re very close still and we still work together.

Basically, I thought I’d never do The Llamas again, but I’m so happy that this records happened and if we do play again, I want to have a version of The High Llamas with myself and Rob and John. But I’d love to have some young singers with me as well, that would just be so joyful. I know who they are and that would be such a lovely version of the band. I really look forward to that.


It’s great that we’ll hopefully get to experience more Llamas music

Thank you. There’ll be more, I’ll always make music and I’ll always collaborate. When I make another Llamas record or not, I don’t know when that be, but there will be stuff. Now I’ve made this record I feel as though I’ve taken pressure off myself. I did have pressure that I’ve gotta make the record that I want to make, and I think I’ve made it.

Words: David Carr

Images: Sean Russell

The High Llamas new album Hey Panda is out now on Drag City.



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