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Arranging strings

Using string players for your band may seem like a pipe dream, but it
can easily become reality as My Life Story and The High Llamas

Think string players, think class, sophistication and glamour. Also think division of payments, awkward soundmen
and tuning nightmares. My Life Story are proof you can attain all of the former while surviving the latter.
Back in 1989, My Life Story was merely in idea in Jake Shillingford's head. As a reaction against tedious lad
bands, Jake wanted to break free of the guitar's restriction and was attracted by the glamour and dynamics of
orchestral music. Touting stubborn idealism in place of any classical training, Jake went about recruiting his band.
"I used to travel around on the tube and approach people carrying violin cases. Eventually, by tapping into groups
of friends on the classical music scene, I ended up with the players I have now."
As Jake's dream was aesthetic (a large number of good-looking, well-dressed people on stage) as well as
musical, was it difficult to persuade musicians of My Life Story's feasibility?
"I suppose I did come across as a bit strange, but I tended to aim for people I thought would look good. If they had
passed their 8th Grade, I knew they'd be good enough to play in my band without an audition."
Jake doesn't pretend that it was easy in the early days. Before My Life Story signed to Parlophone in 1995, the
sheer number of musicians in the band made it impossible to sustain a profit margin and they were basically doing
it for nothing.
Even now, the four string players are all involved in other projects, although they are far from being hack
musicians: they've moonlighted as a quartet for Strangelove among others, Ollie and Becky have written and
arranged for Beth Orton and Jack, and Ollie has worked with Lucy on new material for Mark Almond. They have
chanced upon the pop world and are loving every minute.
"Violins are more rock 'n' roll than guitars," maintains Lucy. "You can throw much cooler shapes for a start."
Rob, the viola player, claims that his classical training has enabled him to adapt to the My Life Story approach.
"Strings are far more versatile than you think and at music college I learned to play in a number of different styles
and in ensembles ranging from a string quartet to a full orchestra."
Cello player Ollie raises an interesting point: "Classical training aids discipline at rehearsals. We've all learnt from
strict teachers that force you to rehearse one bar over and over until you've got it right. Bashing through the whole
song is never very productive."
From the bridge
Sceptical at first, the quartet nevertheless found the live experience so exciting that it's unlikely they'd swap their
current position for the first desk of the Royal Philharmonic."I always wanted to be in a band," explains Ollie, "but it
was unheard of to have a cello in a group."Naively, I assumed that the string players would have clip-on mikes
attached their instruments, but apparently this would be a feedback nightmare. Instead, their customised
instruments have microphones fitted inside the bridge.
"They're not our best instruments," says Lucy. "They get quite a battering on tour so we have to reach a
compromise between sound quality and risk of damage. We have destroyed the odd violin, jumping off stage and
pulling out the whole bridge because the lead isn't long enough, that sort of thing."
It has always been incredibly important to Jake to include all his string and brass players as part of the band
rather than hire out a bunch of session musos: "There's a sixth sense operating between musicians who have
known each other a long time. That creates a force which you just can't get from session musicians who tend to
give you a curt, profess-ional performance. Live, it should all be about chaos."The meeting of musical cultures has


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certainly been central to My Life Story's development.

"Previously I only knew about classical music through the Walker Brothers' use of strings," says Jake, "but now I
can talk authoritatively about Shostakovich. Our roles are completely reversed; it's the string players who are the
gang-banging, rock 'n' roll nymphettes while I sit at home with my cat and my slippers."


We're creating radical pop music," says Sean O'Hagan, the man behind the High Llamas' masterplan. "The
power-base of the British music industry is still hung up on this idea that you have to make a lot of noise to be
radical, even though thoughout Europe, in places like Germany and the more interesting parts of the US, people
don't think that. The really interesting music in this country doesn't address the industry, it works outside the
industry and the media. It's a law unto itself and we are with them."
Since 1993's massively acclaimed long-player Gideon Gaye, the High Llamas have produced an elegant
collection of fizzing pop classics. Comparisons with Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell have been used
to describe O'Hagan's complex arrangements, and the image of Brian Wilson has forever loomed large in the
background.O'Hagan is a man with a vision of pure pop, constantly striving for innovation, while sticking-up a
defiant two-finger salute at current trends and retro drivel, as seen on the next LP, Cold and Bouncy, out this
"I want to destroy the traditional ideas and constraints of music.
I'm trying to re-write the rules and change the basic parameters within which people write. I just hate the idea that
you have to start with a song, although I still work in song structures to an extent. But on this record, I've got away
from them and instead I tended to write more in samples. I had bits of tape everywhere and I hung the songs
together in a very unprofessional way, ignoring the age-old recognised craft. I wanted to make a record that
redefined the roles of pop music, cutting-up electronics, tape loops and arrangements," explains O'Hagan.
Electro avenues
The last couple of years have seen the explosion of electronic music as a mainstream movement, via the Prodigy
and the Chemical Brothers, and the more radical infusing of turntables with traditional rock, like the Lo-Fidelity
Allstars. O'Hagan is fascinated by the idea of combining electronic sounds with his music and Cold and Bouncy
sees the band incorporating these ideas into the main body of their sound.
"I wanted to make a big move on with the electronics and really acknowledge that side and make it more
experimental. It'd be a gross mistake for us to make a record and not acknowledge those influences and drum 'n'
bass and electronica. Our contemporaries are making radical records and that's the High Llamas blueprint - not
classic pop and rock records."
O'Hagan began his musical career in the early 1980s, forming Microdisney with Cathal Coughlan, and recording
four LP's, before splitting up in 1989. Frustrated at the lack of originality in music and full of disdain for the music
business, O'Hagan considered retirement."Music at that time was just focused on guitars and rock was coming
back, and as far as I'm concerned, rock hasn't done anything interesting since the MC5.
This was around the time that the NME were wetting their pants about Nirvana. I saw support bands doing the
same thing as them in the early '80s. It certainly wasn't Kraftwerk in 1975 or Pet Sounds. It was just as if
somebody had changed the guitar settings and they were playing songs by Boston. Smells Like Teen Spirit is no
different to More Than A Feeling, although the hair was longer and Nirvana 'meant it'. I though it was a dreadful
state of affairs."
Pet sounds
It was at this point that the genius of Brian Wilson started to infiltrate O'Hagan's mind and the direction of his
music. Having recorded a couple of low-key releases as The High Llamas, O'Hagan set about truly relaunching
himself on the music business and putting together an LP to match his bravado.
"I wanted to make a 1960s lo-fi record. My touchstone was The Beach Boys - even if it was going to be totally
derivative. Music was so dull - harmonically uninteresting and one dimensional - and we made a record that was
dabbling with vibes, strings and odd ideas."
1994's Gideon Gaye - which featured the unashamed salute to Steely Dan of Checking In Checking Out - was
recorded in ten days at a total cost of 2,500 and yet made it into many of the end of year top 50 charts in the
music press.


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"I was just making it up as I went along. Instead of spending 2000 getting a string section in, I got a quartet in
and multitracked them. If you know how to write a harmony, it's going to sound like a nice solid block of strings.
Even though we had very little time or money, I just wanted to be ambitious and try and capture the bizarre,
surreal nature of avant-garde pop music."
Chords are chords
It was while recording Gideon Gaye that O'Hagan learnt how to arrange strings, although he had no training, and
instead relied upon imagination and the assistance of fellow High Llama, Marcus Holdaway.
"We multitracked our harmonies, using the piano - whatever the piano does, you do - and it worked. Then we
realised that what worked for the harmonies could work for the strings. Notes are notes, chords are chords.
Whether a chord is made up of a trombone, a sax or strings, it's still a chord and you just space it as to whether
it's close, clustered, distant, wide or whatever. And then you have the rudimentary movement. We were just
experimenting, acting instinctively, but it meant that we didn't have to spend 15,000 to get a decent sound."
Gideon Gaye was described by Q magazine's David Cavanagh as "the best Beach Boys album since 1968's
Friends" and 1996's Hawaii album gave O'Hagan the chance to meet and work with his idol Brian Wilson. "The
band were out of a deal and Bruce Johnston had heard Hawaii and loved it. Brian heard it as well and was into it
and so I went over to Los Angeles to meet them. Next thing I know, I'm with Brian Wilson at his massive
showhouse. The thing is, he's not really responsible for his day-to-day life, he's totally dependent on other people.
He wouldn't be able to live life on his own.
He's not mad, but he's got a kinda weird adult autism. "I asked him what sort of record he wanted to make and
told him he could have strings and brass, and I was witness to him running around his house shouting 'Too much!'
and 'You're blowing my mind!' over and over. You try to tell him that he wrote the best records of all time, but his
attention span goes and he's not aware of what he's done. He'll never make a good record again."
O'Hagan, probably wisely, decided not to get involved with The Beach Boys. '