Pull Up A Chair For A Spoken Gem: A Conversation With Sean O’Hagan

Photo by Steve Brummell

I first heard the name Sean O’Hagan in relation to the band Stereolab, a groop with which he has always been an active collaborator, but not as a full-time member. It was through that connection that I discovered his equally satisfying, harmony-laden and Beach Boysinspired band, The High Llamas, who have released numerous superb albums over the past thirty years. We were surprised, then,  when he announced his newest record, Radum Calls, Radum Calls, as a solo record–a feat he hadn’t done since 1990, when he released his solo debut album, High Llamas.

We needn’t have worried. Everything you’ve ever loved about any of the music he’s ever made is to be found here. To say that there are no surprises might be a backhanded compliment, to be sure. But when the music he makes is this wonderful, you don’t want surprises. Not that he didn’t have some surprises, either; the biggest being the appearance of former Microdisney frontman Cathal Coughlan as vocalist on three of the album’s songs. We’ll let Sean tell you more about that, but suffice to say they are three very wonderful little pop nuggets.

Radum Calls, Radum Calls is out today via Drag City, and is a contender for one of this year’s finest records. Thank you to Mr. O’Hagan for sitting down and talking to us about his music!


Why did you decide to do a solo album?

Even though with The High Llamas I drive the band, in that I do all the writing, I wanted to change the conversation a little bit. It’s kind of a psychological thing wherein I just sort of want to freshen things up, and maybe change my working practice, to sort of bring the world around to a different side of my work. I know it sounds crazy to say, but I do believe if I put another High Llamas record out, people would say, “Who needs another High Llamas record?” If I put a solo album, people might wonder what I’m getting up to! (Laughs) Bit of a trick on my audience, I know!

But I kind of wanted to change the conversation I had with myself, and truthfully, the world has changed, unfortunately. When I take this out on the road—and playing out is something I’m keen on doing–I’m going to be by myself. I can’t afford to take a band out. It’s just how it is.

I was wondering if it was a case of you working on new High Llamas material, and just coming to the decision that what you were doing wasn’t necessarily a High Llamas record, or that you thought the raw recordings were good enough as is.

That goes into the mix at well, because it’s a strange thing, being in a band. You think about a band as a group of like-minded people, people who have known each other for a while, and when a band records or performs, your individual self sort of slides into the background as you come together to form a greater identity. But you have to remember that even though there’s this collective thing, it’s still composed of individuals. It’s different when you’re younger; you have fewer responsibilities, and the ones you do have, they’re easier to manage.

For a band like us, we’ve been around nearly thirty years, and the music world now is so much different, it’s almost impossible for a band like us to exist like we did in the 90s. Bands have to be smarter about what they do nowadays; they have to think much more economically, and even getting out and playing has to be more economical as well. Thus, it’s incumbent on us to try to deliver the best that we can, and utilize the breadth of the canvas in front of us, and still try to remain ambitious. I’m working really hard to accomplish that as an individual

But yeah, I think your point is a good one. I tend to work alone and on my own as I get older, whereas years earlier we were certainly ambitious, where we’d have these grand visionary talks with lots of names and ideas floating around. That was a great way to work, especially in that era. Now, I tend to work on my own to remain focused, and then once I have my ideas down, to work with others. You have to be much more considered these days.

What really impressed me about Radum Calls, Radum Calls is that—well, how shall I put this? I know that with The High Llamas, there’s always going to be a Beach Boys comparison right around the corner, but when I listened to the album, I have to admit I was almost instantly reminded of McCartney II. Is it a true solo album, in that you played all the instruments yourself?

(Excited) Oh, really? That’s an interesting comparison. You know, I quite like that record; it’s a weird one for him, and I know it was hated at the time, but it’s reputation has grown, hasn’t it?

As for your question; yes, for the most part, it is a true solo record. I didn’t play the strings, nor did I play the drums, but I handled everything else. I did invite Cathal Coughlan to sing on three tracks, and I had some backing singers, but other than that, it’s all me.

Were the two songs with Cathal collaborations, or were they just a case of offering him the opportunity to sing your songs?

I said hey, would you like to sing on my new record, and he agreed. I had him in mind several years ago, when I first started toying around with what would become the album, but I hadn’t asked him. Him singing was more of an idea to consider rather than a formulated plan. For “Candy Clock,” I had written the lyrics, but then I got to thinking about the first line, “Where can you be, my candy clock?  I lost you in the garden.” I thought that since the song opens with a question, that it would be great to have him sing the response. But then I got to thinking a bit more about it, and said to him, “How would yourespond to that question?” From that, I suggested to Cathal that he devise his lyrical response to the question, and what he brought in was great. I think it is a much better song in that regard. For the other two songs, “McArdle Brown” and “Spoken Gem,” I wrote the lyrics and the music. He may have helped polish up the lyrics here and there, but I don’t recall him changing things radically.

How was it, working with him again?

It was very natural, and quite enjoyable. It’s funny, because we hadn’t worked together in nearly thirty years, but we hadn’t fallen out. Microdisney had just sort of come to its rightful conclusion; we’d been together for nearly a decade, made some good records, and it wasn’t really fun any more and we wanted to do new things. When the Irish arts council—the Irish government, basically—approached us about a Microdisney reunion, we said yes. We’d been spending time in each other’s company; we’d renewed our friendship a few years prior, and we’d been talking about music for a while.

When you’ve known someone for forty years, and you worked with them for a decade and then fall out of touch, when you renew that friendship, it’s interesting. You have that foundation, but then each of you have unique adult experiences, so when you start to rebuild that friendship, it’s fresh and new. It’s like we lived in this one place, and one day I go in one direction, he goes another, and then twenty years later, we return from our journeys with curiosity about each other’s adventures, yet we still have that bond. Even though you’re older, you realize you’re still the same two kids who knew each other all those decades ago.

Did the collaboration come before the Microdisney reunion, or after?

I’d asked him before we were approached for the reunion, and he was definitely interested, but it was a happy coincidence that the Irish Arts Council got together and asked us to do the shows. We’d always sort of half-heartedly talked about working together here and there, mainly very provisional talk that you don’t take too seriously. The reunion kind of forced the issue a bit! (Laughs) But it also was nice to pull out the old songs and play them again and get reacquainted musically in a more proper way.

With the reunion shows and the work on your album, has this sparked the interest of you two working together again, possibly as Microdisney?

To be honest, no. I’m quite happy with what we’ve done, and so is Cathal. Now, if I make a new record and want him to sing on it, I’ll happily ask, and vice versa. But if we’re talking about Microdisney, no, I don’t envision us doing more than what we’ve done already. We’d both be much happier with a more casual thing than we would something more formal.

Besides, I think that you can ruin something by being too forced about it. Reunions are very much a big part of the industry now, and there’s always a lingering question that arises after the reunion show or tour is over about whether or not to go into the studio. It’s almost expected that you do that, and that’s a very tricky thing. There have been some great reunion records, and there have been some, well, not so great reunion records. (Laughs) And I understand why. When you’re in a band, you want to make music that is inspired and natural, so adding the weight of expectation to what you’re doing before you even start the creative process can create a massive roadblock that can stifle your work. These things should happen organically—and the music industry is anything but.

Also, there’s something more important to consider. It’s great for some bands to return, but bands reuniting after years or decades can be a distraction, because there’s plenty of excellent music out there, just waiting to be discovered, by young and fresh new talents who are often just as good, if not better, than the bands making the comeback circuit.

Over the past thirty years, you’ve had a very interesting and vibrant career. Looking back at it now from today, how do you feel about it all?

I would lie if I didn’t say a part of me wonders a little bit why I’m not better known. The High Llamas are a bit of a secret still. People still discover us, and they fall in love with us and that’s always wonderful. But yet I wonder. We never went out of our way to make things hard; we made pleasant music, songs that are intelligent and interesting that reach out into many genres, ranging from Sunshine Pop to Brazilian and African and Caribbean. But we never quite broke through that ceiling. Obviously, people liked us, we did and do have a loyal and warm audience, but we just never grew out of that cult status. And I do wonder about that nowadays. The answer I keep coming back to is I think we were perhaps a bit too clever, as they say.

I want to temper that by saying that I also realize how lucky I am, and how privileged and happy I am to have had the career I’ve had. We’ve made some amazing records; I’ve toured the world, I’ve met people from all over the world, and I’ve made some amazing friends, like Stereolab, and got to experience the world from their perspective as well. After and aside from the Llamas thing, I have always done quite a lot of arrangement and production work, and I’ve developed a reputation which leads me to travel to all over Europe, to America, to Japan, just to work on music, without all of the hassles and struggles of being in a traveling band. To top it all off, I’ve done five movies! A lot of people in the music industry, they don’t get to do that because they’re in a band or have a viable solo career, so they have to tour a lot, and when not touring they’re making music or working in the studio, and that’s a dream they have but never quite obtain.  So for me to have that under my belt,  that’s quite satisfying. Plus, people in bands wind up hating each other, fighting, breaking up, reuniting, and then the cycle repeats itself. No thank you! I think I’ve been lucky—aside from not getting what I hoped was our due, I really cannot complain.

Plus, thanks to the internet, bands that didn’t get that due have a tendency to be rediscovered and enjoy new life.

That’s definitely true, thanks to the way music is delivered now, and I think I’ve seen some of that for us already. When you go online, you can find not only find a wealth of good music, you can present it to the world almost instantly—no more waiting six or nine months after the last mixing session to share it, like it used to be with the Llamas or any other band for that matter. Plus, the internet makes it easier to archive dig. You hear a song you like on YouTube or Facebook or Spotify, and you can seek out more—whereas you used to have to crate dig, and, more importantly, have the money to hear these really rare records. You don’t have that now, and while there’s an element to collecting that’s quite fun, I must say I’ve probably listened to more music in the last five years thanks to the internet than I ever did in my first forty. It’s always nice to hear from a teenager or young adult who’s just heard Hawaii or Gideon Gaye for the first time, because it means the Llamas were worth it in the end.

Have you officially retired The High Llamas?

Not officially, no, and I don’t consider them as such. But what needs to happen, and I am desperately trying to make happen, is to get the rights back to our label output from the Nineties. They’re owned by Universal, who are extremely reluctant to do anything with our catalog, and I’ve really been wanting to get them remastered and pressed on vinyl, and maybe do an expanded series like Stereolab have done. If we can get that to happen, we’ll tour. Maybe not a full-scale tour, but perhaps residencies where we play one or two albums a night over two or three nights. If we can get those albums reissued, we’ll definitely tour. Maybe we’ll do a new record to go along with them. Then we might use that as an opportunity to officially retire—it would be a great way to close that book, don’t you think?

Agreed. But you know, if you do decide to make one last record, you have to title it Sean O’Hagan.

(Confused) What?  What do you mean?? I don’t…(Pauses, then bursts into uproarious laughter). Joseph, my friend, that is brilliant! I simply must do that, you’re absolutely right!  What an absolutely perfect way to bookend it all!*


*Drag City, I’m holding you to this.

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