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Although the High Llamas are nominally a group, they're pretty much the brainchild of singer and guitarist Sean O'Hagan. O'Hagan did some time in the London-by-way-of-Dublin band Microdisney, in which he was the songwriting partner of Cathal Coughlan. After Microdisney split in 1988 (Coughlan forming Fatima Mansions), O'Hagan released a couple of import-only solo albums before forming the High Llamas. The Llamas issued their debut, Gideon Gaye, in 1994 to high praise in the British press; it was released in the States a year later almost as an afterthought, with virtually no fanfare. Comparisons of the High Llamas/O'Hagan to Brian Wilson/the Beach Boys are unavoidable, and not just from arcane critics. Anyone with a large Beach Boys collection will detect the uncanny resemblance to 1966-1970 Beach Boys, with the sophisticated melodies, the beautiful harmonies, and the elaborate production, with the emphasis on layered keyboards and orchestration. Echoes of Pet Sounds, Smile, Wild Honey, and Surf's Up predominate, though O'Hagan also claims Burt Bacharach as a major inspiration. The Llamas began to build a bigger and bigger fan base throughout the late '90s (in the US as well as the UK) and O'Hagen's ever-shifting, ever-growing stable of side musicians made sure every album was as beautifully arranged and carefully conceived as the last. Subsequent efforts include 1996's gorgeously sprawling Hawaii, 1997's warmly clinical Cold and Bouncy, and 1999's chilly Snowbug. Buzzle Bee arrived the following year, featuring a more stripped-down sound and guest vocals from Mary Hansen from Stereolab. Before her tragic death in late 2002, O'Hagen had Hansen onboard for the Llamas' chamber-pop masterpiece Beet, Maize & Corn. Virtually eliminating the standard 'electric guitar, bass and drums' formula, Beet, Maize & Corn was full of lilting strings, warm horns and gently plucked classical guitars, and proved to be a high achievement for the Llamas with both critics and fans. Four years later, in 2007, O'Hagen and company revisited the sunny sprawl of Hawaii (as well as Cold and Bouncy's technical slickness) for the upbeat and lovingly crafted Can Cladders. For 2011's Talahomi Way, the band opted for a warmer, more overtly '60s-inspired sound.
The High Llamas are a London-based musical group, formed by the Irish guitarist and songwriter Sean O'Hagan after the demise of his group Microdisney. O'Hagan writes and arranges the music and the rest of the group consists of drummer Rob Allum, keyboardist/cellist Marcus Holdaway, and ex-Microdisney bassist Jon Fell. Guitarist John Bennett played with the band for several years, leaving in 2000. The core group is augmented by guitarist Pete Aves and vibist/percussionist Dominic Murcott, both for live performances and on record.
The High Llamas' output (including the eponymous debut album, technically credited to "Sean O'Hagan") showed influences including pre-1950s American pop and folk, Brazilian jazz and bossa nova, film composers of the 1960s, and 1990s European electronic music. O'Hagan's work most frequently included references to Brian Wilson's psychedelic period and/or kitsch lounge revival. Although O'Hagan sometimes expresses discomfort at reviewers' claims of derivative works, he generally wears his influences on his sleeve, even naming several more recent songs after the composers and pop musicians who most inspired that particular track (examples: "Bach Ze", "Pat Mingus", "Shuggie Todd"). The Beach Boys' influence on O'Hagan is most obvious on the expansive, cinematic 1996 album Hawaii, a musical spaghetti western on themes of tourism and colonialism. It blended elements of Pet Sounds, Smile, and Wild Honey such that O'Hagan was recommended by Bruce Johnston to produce an eventually mixed Beach Boys comeback LP. O'Hagan had played on some The Beach Boys dates. The High Llamas had previously provided a backing band for Arthur Lee's Love in the mid 1990s.
The High Llamas' own musical arrangements vary according to album, but marimbas, nylon-string guitars, and heavily reverbed pounding tack pianos are often featured. For a period in the late 1990s, O'Hagan's work was often marked by distinctive vintage synthesizer "gurgling" or "bouncing" effects, first explored and developed in Turn-On, his experimental collaboration record with members of Stereolab. The High Llamas' albums are also notable for frequent guest appearances by members of that band, with whom O'Hagan once played guitar, and for whom he often contributes string and horn arrangements.
The High Llamas infrequently tour and only release an album every few years. Since the group was dropped by V2 Records they have made it clear that their records are personal projects that do not support them financially. O'Hagan frequently does arranging and production work for artists like The Boo Radleys, Doves, Super Furry Animals, and Sondre Lerche, and percussionist Allum has worked with Turin Brakes and the Lightning Seeds. Their work for V2 is anthologized on the compilation Retrospective, Rarities and Instrumentals, and they continue to record for Duophonic Records (UK) and Drag City (US). Can Cladders saw a slight return to form in 2007, plus some favourable touring. In 2008 O'Hagan teamed up with the artist Jean Pierre Muller to publish Musical Paintings Vol. 1. The film soundtrack "La Vie D'Artiste", with Tim Gane of Stereolab, followed. Talahomi Way (Drag City, 2011) was released on 11 April 2011 in the UK. It has received very good reviews, generally making a return to O'Hagan's form of the mid 1990s. The band successfully toured the United Kingdom in May 2011. They toured Spain in July 2011, and then played The Headstock Festival on 12 September 2011. Two gigs followed in Japan in late September. Four gigs have been lined up for December 2011 in Norwich, Milton Keynes, York and Edinburgh.