Return of the bloomtown rats

Don’t go, they said. but they didn’t follow their own advice. Now, after much professional and personal upheaval, the Hothouse Flowers are back, once more in love with the idea of “ringin’ the bell”.

"We were having sort of ‘light crack’ together, but there was an awful lot of stuff that we didn’t really have the place or the time or the energy to bring up.”

Peter O’Toole is not talking about Hothouse Flowers freebasing as a means of self medicating their way through a mid-life crisis that occurred around about 1993, three albums into their career. Rather, he’s referring to the amount of necessary denial that was required in order for the band to see through their professional obligations while being aware that all was not as it should’ve been.

Some bands thrive on antagonism, rivalry, creative tension. The Flowers were never wired up that way – their esprit de corps was always as important as the music; in fact, it animated the music. Theirs was a freewheeling good-time feeling, nurtured by a mutually supportive three-way dialogue between the band’s principal members Liam O Maonlai, Peter O’Toole and Fiachna O Braonain, which in turn translated into “the vibe” that made the live shows special, even for those unconvinced by the records.

In the last three years of the 1980s, the Flowers were forerunners of the raggle-taggle thang that swept Dublin, a rural rustic revival of late ’60s/early ’70s values that prized performance and songcraft, but also advocated playing anywhere, anytime, for free, from the newly pedestrianised Grafton Street to South Circular Road flatland to Eyre Square and the Ring of Kerry.

Beginning as a high-class bar band with its roots in soul, blues and the kind of dance music that didn’t necessarily stick to a click track, the three principal players also had a thriving sideline busking around Dublin as the Benzini Brothers.

The influence of the then resident Waterboys knocked the ensemble onto another trajectory as a sort of nouveau hippy aristo-gypsy band, but when ‘Don’t Go’ and the debut album People both went top ten in the UK (following a inspired publicity stroke that captured an audience of millions in the 1988 Eurovision intermission), the Flowers graduated from being blue-eyed space cadet slackers to next in line to U-know-who. Yet, as the band became increasingly wired up and run down by touring, recording and promotional commitments, that initial creative spark looked in dire danger of being snuffed out.

Following the release of Home and Songs From The Rain, the Flowers were disillusioned men. Their management’s business interests had expanded to include the Dublin rehearsal and recording complex The Factory, and the band itself was a well-oiled touring machine, but the musicians began wondering whether or not the cart was driving the horse.

So, following the death of Liam O Maonlai’s father, they took a four-year sabbatical. Industry veterans called it career hari-kari. For the Flowers, there was no other way.

Sitting with his bandmates in a Ranelagh coffee house, Peter O’Toole ruminates on that mid-decade hiatus.

“I think when we took the break,” he says, “we felt that first and foremost for the three of us to start playing together again, we had a lot of work to do on our relationship with each other.”

How badly had that been ground down?

“Hugely.”

Were they talking to each other?

“There wasn’t much,” says Liam. “Nobody really wanted to go there. So eventually we had this big ball of no-go area in conversation, and as those areas grow, eventually all conversations just lead to those areas.”

What kind of stuff was problematic?

“Ah, it was just the way the band was becoming an institution, it was just being run, it was hard to see life within it. We just had different opinions about the structure of the business of the band.”

Had it gotten to the stage where they felt like the cash cow for managerial interests rather than an entity unto themselves?

“Very quickly, it got to that stage. Maybe even before ‘Don’t Go’.”

So they were pumping money into rehearsal time they didn’t need?

“Yeah. An unbelievable amount of rehearsing.”

Peter takes up the story:

“Plus, the first two years we were up for doing anything, anywhere anytime. We were on the street, we were in nightclubs, we were in the colleges, and it was fantastic.”

“Really potent,” Liam adds. “Some of the gigs we didn’t play songs at all, we just jammed for three hours.”

Peter: “And people loved it, it was really, really interesting and free and great fun, and then it all changed. We had to stop that.”

They couldn’t play for free anymore?

“Not really. There were a lot of gigs we couldn’t do, y’know?”

Liam sips his coffee and drums his fingers off the table.

“We were getting money for those gigs and the money was paying the rent,” he says, “it was good cash. And there was this sort of blueprint of how to succeed in rock n’ roll or something, which said you gotta take your band out of those gigs, and of course there is a time for that, I definitely recognise that, but it was really throwing the baby out with the bathwater, ’cos there was so much creativity there, it was a living scene. It was wildfire, you couldn’t control it, you could just guide it. It was great fun musically. And Leo (Barnes) had just joined and he was bringing his madness to it as well and he was allowed bring his full madness into the whole picture.”

So what happened?

“It seemed like suddenly things just closed up. I think a lot of the musicians started to believe that it was important just to get a deal, and that the deal seemed to be the goal instead of the song, or the gig. I just noticed that all around, and it was sort of being projected onto us as well. America seemed to be very important, we spent a lot of time travelling around America.”

To no good end?

“Ah, lots of great gigs, a lot of seeds sown. We go back now and we can still play gigs without any album. But certainly we were working our butts off, we were doing these really long tours with no reward, we weren’t even getting income for the gigs, and I remember looking at the calendar one time and we were home for two weeks out of the whole year. A lot of it was America, and we did Australia and Europe and Japan, great times as well, but just too long, and there was a sense of we couldn’t see the light ’cos it was always around the corner, and I think that was a good device to keep us running along, the carrot.”

Were they broke at the end of it?

“Not at the end of it, not particularly, but it didn’t take too long to run out of cash.”

Then, as we’ve said, Liam’s father died, and the ensuing break gave the band the first real opportunity in seven years to assess what else had been lost. This was a watershed period Liam has frequently discussed in the press over the last few years. Put it to the singer that he seemed to take his father’s passing harder than most people, and he has this to say:

“Well, I just think my life is just that little bit more obvious (to the public) so that might be more noticeable. It was just pivotal: he was very sympathetic to what I was feeling about where the band was going at the time, so I knew it was deep within his will that I got it sorted out, and so there was great power, I felt completely selfless – even though it was selfish – but I felt warranted, I felt I had a very good reason to call a stop to the thing. I just didn’t have that self-doubt when I said to the lads, ‘Look, I need a year’ which I could’ve had three weeks earlier.”

While Fiachna and Peter variously busied themselves playing with Sinéad O’Connor, Michelle Shocked, Simon Carmody and others, Liam immersed himself in traditional music, teaming up with Andy White and Tim Finn as ALT, fulfilled the ambition of making a television series with the help of John McColgan, and generally drifted, going from the cover of NME and Melody Maker to bearded Catweazle about town.

Was it hard to shrug off the glitter?

“The glitter came off easily enough,” he laughs. “That seemed to just look after itself. I think I was about two years in some sort of trance. I didn’t go out very much, I lived in Howth and sort of didn’t know where to be putting myself a lot of the time, and then at other times I got loads of things to do. The TV programme kind of led up to the birth of Cian my son. I suppose I woke up really when I met Cian’s mother, that was when I started feeling like a human being.”

If they fled the band to find comfort in the bosom of family life at the end of phase one, would it be fair to say they now flee to the band from the heartache of marital breakdown and the headaches of parenthood?

“Well definitely touring is very enjoyable now,” Liam admits, grinning, “especially to get away for a week is really fantastic, just sleeping in.”

So they’re the only band that actually gets more sleep on tour than at home?

“Oh Jesus yeah, I do a lot of it! When in doubt, for me, I remember that we’re all dads; we’re all operating on that level, even abroad. If I’m in any doubt about why am I here, once I just look and see we’re all functioning fathers, that’s great, that’s the strongest thing in the band I think.”

Peter: “My wife describes it as going on holidays! I’m not going working or touring or anything, I’m basically going in holidays! So the packing is always great; when I’m getting ready, I rub it in a bit!”

It was never going to be easy for Hothouse Flowers MKII to repeat the kind of chart action that distinguished their early years, but it’s no small compensation that they’re now calling the shots.

And, over the course of their four-year hiatus, the musical, cultural and political climates all underwent some pretty substantial changes. If the recreational drugs ingested by the Flowers’ audience back in the late ’80s were spliff and Guinness, the mid-’90s were fuelled by heroin, coke and vodka. The prevailing air in music, film and literature was one of anger and excess, paranoia and anxiety, an all-pervading millencholia against which the Flowers’ innate positivism seemed anachronistic, if not quaint.

Furthermore, when they reformed and released their comeback album Born in 1997, the band had undergone significant personnel changes. Gone were Leo Barnes, a gifted jazz saxophonist and classical musician whose latter-day role in the band had seemed to be increasingly reduced to cameo solo spots, and also Cork drummer Gerry Fehily, now replaced by Dublin veteran Dave Clarke, who favours on-the-nose grooves over his predecessor’s polyrhythmic frills, and came to the band through Maria Doyle Kennedy (herself a former Flower), with whom he and Peter have recorded and toured over the last three years.

“I just kind of fell into it,” Dave explains, “there was never really too much thought, which was a good thing, I would just get up on stage and try and catch a moment with everyone else, go by the skin of my bottom and try and get out the other end.”

Liam: “And we’d given up set lists as well…

Dave: “So I never did any rehearsing, never listened to the records, just got up and played.”

So the band pressed on, maintaining their fan base, morphing into a looser, more organic live unit, one closer to that original mid-’80s incarnation. Now, as they release their fifth album Into Your Heart, they can claim the mantle of elder brother figures in a local scene that has rejected The Deal in favour of bootstrap business practices and local-means-global horse sense.

Also, the band’s compositional practices have altered. The new material is attributed to individual writers rather than the shared credits of the first few albums, with Liam, Fiachna and Peter largely producing completed songs rather than the collaborative jams of yore, a process that squarely placed the responsibility of lyrics and melodies with their singer.

Does this new methodology work out better for Liam?

“It’s better for now,” he says. “I’ve a sort of a hunger to go back as well, just because we’re starting to get these little hints of stuff happening among us, offstage jamming, but the pressure’s way less on me personally, ’cos I always wrote the lyrics and finished the vocal approach for the first three albums. That was big pressure and I wasn’t always up for it.

“I look back and I’m happy enough with what was there, but it was great for me to go up to Peter’s house and he’d have four or five little journeys for me to go through, he’d have the lyrics and a melody line. And I made a point of not even asking myself did I like it or not, which I think was an important decision to make, ’cos you can dislike the best of things, especially if you’re so close to where they’re coming from.”

Which makes sense when one considers that even the most vociferous critics of the Flowers’ compositional abilities – and there were a few – always had to acknowledge O’ Maonlai’s skill as an interpreter of other people’s material, from Nina Simone to Joe Heaney.

“I have an interpretive centre,” he laughs, patting his chest. “Sorry! Yeah, I think maybe before everything I’m a singer of traditional songs, I probably feel most in my power when I’m singing an old sean nos song. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to think about me when I’m singing it.”

Another early aspect of the band that eventually became secondary was their facility with the funk, not to mention Liam’s admiration for vocal scat masters such as Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.

“Tim Buckley was interesting for me because I remember one night being at a party, stoned again, sort of on my own in this crowd, and I heard this voice singing this mad voodoo song, just funky, funky, funky, just like a chicken’s head had been taken off and there was all this sound just pouring out, and it was Tim Buckley, a song called ‘Get On Top Of Me Woman’ and that’s a very clear moment in my life where I went, ‘I recognise that; I could do something like that, that’s a mantle I could put on.’”

Some of the new album’s finer moments, songs like ‘Better Man’ and ‘Peace Tonight’ also see Liam’s vocal approach tapping into Al Green and Sly Stone territory, or even Prince circa ‘The Beautiful Ones’.

“It was always there, that style,” Liam says. “I think when we started on the trail of People, Home and Songs From The Rain, I got very inspired by the lyrical writers, people like Mike Scott and The Waterboys. So we’d sort of left that fun thing that we really were born in, that jamming, ‘See-Line Woman’, soul-y influence. And it’s just started creeping back again. I dunno, maybe I’d been listening to Prince the day before or something, and that vibe was fresh in my head. I think that’s what we used in the end, was the original demo voice.”

So what are the band’s expectations for the new record? Will it be a cottage industry sleeper like For The Birds or O? Or will the siren song of the US market lure them back on the rocks?

“Haven’t a clue,” says Liam. “Except I love the idea of ringin’ the bell, and having something that hits. And that atmosphere is here with the radio play; the record seems to playing a lot on the radio. So we’re guided a bit by that, and by a bit of what we didn’t finish, to take something home, and take something further.”

Into Your Heart and the single ‘Your Love Goes On’ are both out now on Rubyworks. Hothouse Flowers play Black Box, Galway (March 18); Olympia Theatre, Dublin (20); UCH, Limerick, 21st; The Forum, Waterford (26); Opera House, Cork, (27)

 

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