How does a cult band, particularly one that has yet to achieve the cultural cachet of their peers and has little incentive to do the often dull work of touring constantly to maintain a presence in the easily glazed-over eyes of the world’s music fans, find the motivation to carry on? Sean O’Hagan grapples with this question as he faces the promotional slog necessary to generate some buzz about Here Come The Rattling Trees, the latest album by his long-running pop group The High Llamas.
“I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to just get into the studio and record again for no reason,” the 56-year-old songwriter says, speaking via Skype from his home in London. “Who needs another High Llamas record? You can’t just carry on doing it. There has to be a reason.”
O’Hagan’s feelings are entirely practical and entirely understandable. He’s plenty busy enough writing string arrangements for Paul Weller and Sondre Lerche, collaborating on movie soundtracks with his friend and ex-Stereolab bandmate Tim Gane, and making music for Japanese TV commercials and Yo Gabba Gabba!.
And even he would admit that the commercial prospects for any new High Llamas work are slim. Since the band formed in the early ‘90s, it took on a gentle evolution from jangly, slightly agitated guitar pop to a much more austere and precise sound that draws in the influence of bossa nova, lounge pop a la Martin Denny, and the burbles and sighs of vintage synthesizers. Though the band landed on Richard Branson’s V2 Records and scored a spot on the British charts with their 1996 LP Hawaii, they’ve since moved further into the background, releasing their consistently great work on Chicago indie Drag City and playing fewer and fewer shows.
Who needs another High Llamas record? You can’t just carry on doing it. There has to be a reason.
What, then, inspired the Llamas to go into the studio this time around? The reason was entirely practical.
Here Come The Rattling Trees isn’t just a collection of tunes stuck together to fill out two sides of an LP. The songs and instrumental interludes were written to support a stage production of the same name that O’Hagan cooked up in his spare time. It’s not such a play as it is a series of monologues, where a series of six characters—residents of the southeast London neighborhood called Peckham—relay an anecdote stirred up by the news that their local leisure center has been purchased and is being rebranded as a modern gym with a catchy name (Step Tempo). The instrumentals, played live onstage by the Llamas, provide the underscore to their stories, and the songs both separating and commenting on the tales.
The show has, to date, only been performed a handful of times at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, but O’Hagan’s hope is to take the play, his band, and three actors (Richard Heap, Jennifer Scott-Malden, and Ray Newe) to other locales in Europe and beyond. The only way to do that? Book it as a High Llamas tour.
“We don’t have any theater connections,” he says. “Nobody knows who we are in that world. It became obvious that they only world that we, as a band, have any recognized credibility is the music world. If I want this to have a little bit of life, we have to tour it at music venues. And to do that, we needed to have a record out.”
The LP itself may not succeed commercially as an “album,” but should stir up some interest in what the play has to offer. Tracks like the jazzy “Jackie” and the spare “Mona’s Song” evoke the melancholy of their titular characters, both of which wrestle with their place in the world (the former is a housewife worrying over her upcoming book club hangout; the latter, an employee at the gym’s in-house cafe, distressed about the changes happening at her work). Others, like “McKain James” and “Livorno” will no doubt be given deeper resonance once they are heard within the context of the play.
Rattling Trees also offers much for the modern city dweller in nearly any urban landscape to relate to. The core of many of the stories in the piece concern how these characters are either embracing or trying to reckon with an influx of new homeowners and renters, and with them a gentrified shift in the culture around them.
Jackie’s story, which closes out the play, is the most emblematic of this. The sexagenarian remembers how the old canal that was a dumping ground for large refuse, and a place where she would play as a child, has been filled in and turned into a bike track and nature park. More pointed commentary comes via a plumber who tells of a nouveau riche couple’s haughty attitudes about something as simple as a kitchen faucet.
O’Hagan has certainly been witness to this, having lived in Peckham for almost over 25 years. When he first arrived, he was rubbing elbows with West Indian families and white, working class Londoners. Later on, Afghan and Pakistani emigres started moving in. But the new arrivals, he says, are droves of white monied middle class that are causing a rapid uptick in mortgage prices and the cost of rent.
Three-bedroom Victorian houses that were once affordable are now only affordable to people in finance or doctors or lawyers.
“You take the major cities around the world,” he says, “and the housing stock in all of them is reaching a level that reflects a shared aspiration. The super rich want to be in those places and they want to buy property. The housing stock here has become very, very valuable, and three-bedroom Victorian houses that were once affordable are now only affordable to people in finance or doctors or lawyers.”
Just as his neighborhood seems hellbent on either pushing him out or leaving him behind, by taking on a variety of different projects that flex his many muscles as a songwriter and arranger, O’Hagan is at least treading water within a musical universe that is, more than ever, hot for the next new thing.
“It keeps you happy and fresh and I can make a small living,” he says. “I don’t think at this stage in my life, I could churn out a High Llamas record every 18 months. I don’t think the world wants that. I’d rather look to artists like David Bowie or Robert Wyatt, people who have managed to take their careers into their 60s and 70s and do it in a very special way.”