Listen to this track by London-based orchestral pop experimentalists the High Llamas. It’s “Checking In, Checking Out”, a favourite track off of 1994’s Gideon Gaye. The band is led by one Sean O’Hagan, formerly of ’80s concern Microdisney, forming the High Llamas in the early ’90s, when most record companies were tripping over themselves trying to find other acts that sounded like Nirvana.
In reaction to that, and with an interest in genres of other eras, and other countries too, the High Llamas went up another path. They pursued a bouncy, bright, cinematic, and lushly arranged sound, with this one being a great example.
O’Hagan’s interest in The Beach Boys, Bacharach/David, Love, and Jimmy Webb certainly played into the sound of this track, and the band’s sound in general, providing a pretty strong stylistic tie to sunny Californian landscapes as filtered through their experiences living in often less than sunny London.
But what led this Anglo-Irish group in this direction in the first place? And, how did a sound like this make it onto a major label?
Well, first this song.
“Checking In Checking Out” strikes me as a song just perfect for an opening sequence in a movie, like an extended tracking shot that gives an impression of a setting, of a location, established before the drama starts. This is a thread in their music on the whole; cinematic, and concerned with a sense of place, where it’s the details that count.
The smooth transition between this track and the next one on the album (instrumental and soundtrack-like “The Goat Strings”) bolsters the effect of a seamless survey of an aural landscape. It’s no wonder we get this effect, seeing that Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack work was on O’Hagan’s radar at the time, as was his work with Stereolab, known for their spacious sonic backdrops. Even Steely Dan’s studio-bound smoothness and Donald Fagen’s “Deacon Blues” timbre and phrasing makes it onto this track.
Yet this varied recipe for pop tunes and album-length sonic architecture wasn’t what sold the band to a major label and subsequent deal. It was a live performance that started their mid-to-late ’90s golden period. The band had appeared with Arthur Lee of Love, performing a live take on the classics Forever Changes and De Capo. V2 founder Jeremy Pierce was there at the performance, and signed them. Their first record Santa Barbara would be released on that label.
From then on, the basis for the sound of the band was in taking all of the disparate musical influences of California, and writing them to suit their own surroundings, which made the sound into something unique. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Sean O’Hagan, conducted by John Lane:
I had been working with Stereolab for two years and made Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Making this record convinced me that quick, loose, impulsive recording had the advantage over balanced overworked, safe recording. I was infatuated with the gothic oddness of California and Yes, so I wanted to represent it in rain-sodden, clunky London …
Again we were drunk on experimentation: wheeling in rank pianos, recording impossibly thin buzz guitars, and for the first time I was experimenting with string writing. As the ideas fell upon themselves, and it all worked, the architecture of the band just started to build itself before us. (read the whole interview with Sean O’Hagan by John Lane).
So, the origins of this song, and the album was something of a chicken and egg scenario, with the sound of the band being informing their next steps as the band built the sound in the moment. This mysterious and wonderful process would provide a bridge to their next album, which began taking shape in O’Hagan’s mind as Gideon Gaye was being recorded.
That record, released in 1996, would be the ambitious Hawaii, a landmark in their catalogue, and recorded during a time when record companies were forced to be open-minded, what with the unexpected success of previously underground scenes, like the one in early ’90s Seattle. The majors were finding their feet as to where the money was. And in the meantime, a band like The High Llamas could make any sort of record they wanted to make on the label’s dime.
In many ways, the mid-90s was a very artist-driven time where major labels were concerned, with left-of-center experimental pop acts like Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, and Bjork also getting a multi-album look-in with major label backing. Now, that’s what I’d call a golden age! But like most golden ages, it would not last. V2 would drop the High Llamas in 2000. They’d start their relationship with another label, Drag City (and Duophonic in the UK) in time for 2000’s Buzzle Bee.
Since, The High Llamas have continued to conceive and record several records while still following the experimental and intuitive impulse they’d always followed, touching on Italian soundtrack music, experimental electronic textures, tropicalia, and other disparate forms off of the beaten path of standard pop-rock styles.
Check out their newest record to date from the High Llamas, Talahomi Way.
Otherwise, you can catch up with what they’re doing on the official The High Llamas site.