- 25 Mar 20
Into The Music
Last year, in the before, I was honoured to be asked to interview Liam Ó Maonlaí as part of the Dún Laoghaire Vinyl Festival. The brief was to discuss People; Hothouse Flowers’ debut album that, in 1988, made genuine if unlikely pop stars out of a gang of raggle-taggle gaeilgeoirí soul boys. Now, being as how it was Liam – and I’m not totally without blame here either – our conversation was forty minutes old before we got around to even mentioning the record. I had called him up the night before to see what he wanted to talk about. “I think the less we plan it out, Pat,” he reckoned, “the better it will be.” I was reminding him about the shortest distance between two points, and he was going “yeah, yeah, never mind all that, let’s see what’s over there…” He’s very hard not to like.
One of the things we did manage to discuss was this bestowed status of pop star, and how it sat with him. Liam acknowledged that he’d had a bloody good time of it, but he wasn’t always comfortable with the mantle. He was in it for something else.
I’m not saying the Flowers weren’t good at being pop stars, because they most assuredly were, and those early albums still stand up, especially Songs From The Rain which, for this writer at least, is one of the great Irish records. Tellingly, the Flowers had, by that point, started to record the way they always wanted to, coming closer to capturing their live magic on tape. Go forward a few years, and things had changed. After taking a break to deal with personal business – marriages, divorces, births, deaths - the band re-emerged as a looser thing, and live, an even better thing, as twenty-minute African tinged versions of ‘Don’t Go’ became the order of the day. They weren’t really pop stars anymore; they were something else.
A couple of albums were released in this period. Born, from 1998, is a bit tricky. The band, reduced down to the core three-piece of Ó Maonlaí, guitarist Fiachna Ó Braonáin, and bassist, bouzouki-ist Peter O’Toole, went for more electronic arrangements and production than before, with mixed results. Songs like ‘You Can Love Me Now’ and ‘Forever More’ still shine, but others are less well remembered. Into Your Heart (2004) was a better bet with tunes like ‘Your Love Goes On’, ‘Magic Bracelets’ and the beautiful ‘Feel Like Living’. And then? Nothing.
Well, no, not nothing. They were doing their own thing, and the gigs were joyous affairs as the band, now aided and abetted by Dave Clarke behind the drums and Martin Brunsden on double bass, consistently took flight, quoting music from Spiddal to the Sahara. No two nights were the same as the band, armed with a lifetime’s gathering of songs and music, followed the muse wherever she went, with one eye on Ó Maonlaí either dancing out the front or sat at the piano, a man no longer interested in, or tethered by, any kind of expectation, a spirit set free.
It was with this sense of freedom that they camped out in Windmill Lane for a week in September 2015 with, as they said themselves “no baggage, no agenda, no direction… just a blank page.” Finally getting a widespread release on the streaming services, Let’s Do This Thing is the glorious result, and it might just be the Flowers’ masterpiece.
Things roll in gently. Are the ‘Three Sisters’ borrowed from Chekhov? Is the tune lapping against the rocks on a secluded shore of one the three Southern rivers that Edmund Spenser eulogised in The Faerie Queen? Or is it merely three siblings taking a bus ride into the unknown, like three brothers did when they first joined musical forces in the long ago? Ó Maonlaí sings from a collected sketchpad of lyrical ideas, going wherever feels right in the moment. “Wake up, you’ve got one chance” Both an exhortation to live, and a declaration of intent. The music swells up behind the lyric, a combination of bouzouki, guitar, and bass, lifted as Clarke kicks in and Ó Maonlaí hollers his plea. In another dimension, and another time, it would have been a hit single, but we have passed on from there, and then.
O’Toole’s bouzouki stands out on this record, a warm sound that lies somewhere between an especially twangy acoustic guitar and Japanese Koto, and it drives ‘Sunset Sunrises’, a musing on the unremitting passage of time, advising us to stop, ignore time's arrow, and listen, to ascertain what is missing. It is only by looking back that we can decide what it is we really need to see. The instrumental ‘The Yacht’ floats on the insistent back-and-forth of Ó Maonlaí’s piano chords before O’Toole breaks through with the melody, echoed in the distance by Ó Braonáin’s electric guitar over the rhythm of Clarke’s brushed snare and Brunsden’s rubbery bass.
We’re floating again in the temporal realm with ‘Back Through Time’ but the temporal realm doesn’t really exist. Time passes differently for each of us; we perceive change in our existence, and use the notion of time to measure it. The song’s lyric drifts between different points in the singer’s life, the constant being music, it is “like a wild creature”, the key that he loves. Someone, somewhere calls his spirit name, he is down under, he is dancing under the moon, he is broken down by the side of the road near Carlingford, for memory is amorphous, impervious to measurement by the constricting notches of time. The music forms into a steady groove with multiple voices and faint trumpets, but there’s no set structure of verse and chorus, it also is a fluid thing, temporal but temporal as the word defines an earthly life, a lifetime related in five minutes.
‘Baby Is It Over Now’ was the only completed song brought to the sessions, a sombre ballad written and sung by O’Toole over a stately piano as a string line builds behind it. In some ways, O’Toole might be seen as the third of the three brother Flowers – Ó Maonlaí, the front man, is the star, and Ó Braonáin, whose public profile has risen over the last few years, isn’t far behind him, but, again, O’Toole’s masterful playing is one of the strands that holds this record together and it’s worth pointing out that it was he who wrote ‘Feel Like Living’, the aforementioned best song from their middle period. Like all the great bands, The Flowers are more than the sum of their parts, but those parts taken alone are hugely impressive.
The bouzouki and piano gently dance with each other on ‘Blue Room’, another lyric where the narrator tries to decide who and where he is. He is water, dust, air, pulse and breath, but also music – an element just as essential as the others. He is there and then not there. Life is fleeting, an eye’s blink, a temporal moment that passes while our gaze is elsewhere. The title track – a phrase that became a mantra during the recording - calls us to steel ourselves and embrace the confusion of life. Twin it with ‘Are You Good’ which wonders if you’ll “keep your vision steady”, despite “the fools along the way”, Ó Maonlaí’s voice opening up to his full soul scream, bemoaning the confusion and hate, imploring with us to dig deep for the sake of love.
‘Music That I Need’ is a light hop and skip of a tune where Liam comes out and says what he’s been hinting at all along: music is everything to him. I can’t claim to know the fellow that well, but I have sat beside him in bars and witnessed his whole being become animated as the discussion turned to music. For him – for most of us, I expect - music is the ‘Dance To Save The World’, whether it is the furious jig that closes this record, or the soulful musings that constitute much of the rest of it.
According to Ó Braonáin, many hours of playing were edited down into song length and, while you can tell that the music is improvised, it never disappears into self-indulgence. This is the playing of a band that have spent decades together and know each other as well as they know themselves. All the vocals are first takes and Ó Maonlaí’s voice is as exceptional as ever, rising from whisper to holler. He is, perhaps, our only male vocalist deserving of a seat at the table beside Van Morrison, and ‘One Tree Hill’ Bono. The Celtic soul categorisation that they used to hang on Van is especially appropriate, as Ó Maonlaí’s submergence in the Irish tradition - the drones and sustained notes of sean-nós - combine with his love of soul music of a different stripe. Only last week, his voice, alone at his piano, coming down the wire as a lockdown broadcast from his living room to mine, reduced me to tears, although, to be fair, gin was involved.
In that interview, Ó Maonlaí spoke of feeling something at the Flower’s very first gig, something he said was worth chasing. It has been a worthy lifetime’s pursuit, and they have captured something very special here; a paean to rhythm, a hymn to feeling, an extolling of the universal language, a celebration of music as the life force that charges us all.