Category Archives: Interview

LIAM Ó MAONLAÍ (HOTHOUSE FLOWERS)

LIAM Ó MAONLAÍ – FRONTMAN OF UPLIFTING IRISH SOUL-ROCKERS HOTHOUSE FLOWERS – TALKS TO THE MOUTH  MAGAZINE AHEAD OF THE BAND’S APPEARANCE AT THIS YEAR’S CORNBURY FESTIVAL…

 

THE HOTHOUSE FLOWERS’ SINGLE GIVE IT UP (RELEASED IN 1990) HAS UPLIFTING MELODY IN ABUNDANCE, IT’S A GREAT PERFORMANCE, AND IT HAS A SOCIAL AND SPIRITUAL MESSAGE… I CAN’T HELP BUT FEEL THAT IT’S THE BAND’S FINEST MOMENT, IN THAT IT’S THE PERFECT ENCAPSULATION OF WHAT HOTHOUSE FLOWERS IS ABOUT…
Right. Well, y’know, I guess it is… You could think GIVE IT UP is a bit, y’know… “give it up, share it out, help who you can, talk about it”… You could maybe think it’s preachy, in a way…

I’VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT IN THOSE TERMS BEFORE, BUT IT DOES HAVE A SORT OF HYMN LIKE QUALITY…
Yeah, it does. Daniel Lanois had just put out an album and we were listening to it a lot, particularly his version of AMAZING GRACE, and we just started jamming after we’d listened to that – and GIVE IT UP is what came out… In this case the sound of the words – “give it up” – fitted the song, fitted with the music… I’m glad you like it!

VERY RECENTLY I WAS LOOKING THROUGH A LIST OF THE BAND’S ENGAGEMENTS, AND NOT SO LONG AGO YOU SHARED A BILL WITH VAN MORRISON AND THE WATERBOYS – WHICH SEEMS ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, TO ME, ‘COS I CAN HEAR BOTH AS QUITE MAJOR INFLUENCES ON HOTHOUSE FLOWERS… NOT JUST THE MUSIC, BUT THE ‘REACH’ OF WHAT YOU DO, TOO…
Yeah. Definitely. I’m very much interested in where music takes you. I mean where it takes you internally as well as externally. So, a lot of the Hothouse Flowers songs do reflect that…

ON THE ONE HAND YOU’VE GOT THE SOUL OF VAN… 

When we’d started up we’d been kind of following the soul thing, the soul model – I was very much into disco music, the soul music – Stax and Motown and that. Aretha. Joe Tex. Marvin Gaye. Al Green… Gladys Knight – she played here recently and she’s as good, if not better, than ever at 75 years of age. All of those people were huge influences on the band. And blues. Blues was a huge influence on me in my playing, and still is a huge inspiration. The fact that a whole people were displaced by slavery, and they reinvent music, they reinvent culture. It’s a truly extraordinary story when you actually stop to think about it…

AND THEN ON THE OTHER HAND YOU’VE GOT THE SORT OF ETHEREAL GRANDEUR OF THE WATERBOYS…
Yeah. I remember meeting a girl in town, in a nightclub, and she asked me if I’d heard The Waterboys, and I hadn’t. So she put on THE WHOLE OF THE MOON, which I really liked. But what really hammered it home was… it was our first tour… and THIS IS THE SEA is what was in the cassette deck while we were travelling. It just… blew my mind…

… YEAH, I CAN HEAR HOW THE SONG OLD ENGLAND WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY IMPORTANT TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF HOTHOUSE FLOWERS…
Absolutely, yeah. It’s such a profound song, such a profound piece of work. It’s amazing. You’ve got this voice which is unmistakably European, with such a complexity of lyric… It’s amazing. And I also felt Mike Scott had this sort of punk rage in his voice, with that directness and simplicity.

… AND THE FOLLOWING ALBUM – FISHERMAN’S BLUES – WAS SOMETHING REALLY SPECIAL, TOO…
Yeah, it was. What really hammered it home for me about how good they were was that when the Hothouse Flowers were first emerging, The Waterboys happened to be around Dublin working on FISHERMAN’S BLUES… I think that’s their fourth album… They were socialising and playing with everybody who was in Dublin and Ireland at the time. Everybody was getting a look in to the studio. I think it must have been the longest time spent in a studio by any band! It was a beautiful thing to observe. They were connecting all the different aspects of Irish music – not just in the studio, but socially. They were hanging out with everybody, they were playing with everybody, they were inviting everybody up as guests. It was a social phenomenon when they were around, because they were showing up everywhere and hanging out. It was fabulous, a really great time.

OBVIOUSLY MUSIC OUGHT TO BE MORE THAN JUST WALLPAPER IF IT’S TO MEAN ANYTHING…
… Yeah, definitely…

… AND WE ALL HAVE TALES OF THOSE MOMENTS WHERE IT IS SO MUCH MORE THAN WALLPAPER, WHEN IT FEELS LIKE IT’S EVERYTHING… IT FEELS LIKE SOMETHING ‘SPOKE TO US’… BE THAT A PARTICULAR SONG, OR AN ARTIST, OR EVEN JUST A MOMENT… BUT WHAT WAS THAT FOR YOU?
I was into music since I was very very young. There was a piano in our house, and I was sort of drawn to it. It was never closed, so I was always tinkering. My mother was a really great piano player, and my father wasn’t but he still played anyway. So I discovered early on what good piano playing was and discovered what not so good piano playing was. I discovered that dad isn’t always the best at everything, y’know?

A GOOD LESSON TO LEARN!
Yeah, ha ha! That was a good lesson to learn. I remember I said it to my mother that dad’s better at the piano, and she laughed and said “oh no, darling, no he’s not”. So I watched then, and I studied, and I thought “okay, right, I see what she means”… and I could see she was doing all this stuff on the piano with her left hand… and suddenly it opened up an eye and an ear to the craft of playing the piano. I started copying what she was doing. Then a babysitter might come in and they’d play, and they might have a bit of a blues lick to what they were playing. I remember one guy coming in to babysit us. Whatever was going around you’d follow it all. So, anyway, that was going on. And then also there was traditional music – and traditional music anywhere in the world, really is amazing… because it’s music outside of the marketplace. It finds its way into the marketplace sometimes – but it doesn’t live there and it doesn’t exist to be there. It exists on a different level. It exists to provide something for the community, for the locality, for the community…

… SO YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT FOLK MUSIC…
Yeah. I love folk music, I love people’s music, from any part of the world. I love it when it’s played with that sort of ancestral openness. It’s somehow connected to our history and our pre-history, and the tone that we might make as human beings. You can feel it, and you can feel the value of it. You can feel the nourishment that it gives to a person… So I was into all that, as well. It was a great tool – if I played the tin whistle a certain way I could get to a Final… So, at nine years old, to suddenly find that this thing I loved to do could get me somewhere – another part of the country – on my own merits, was a huge handing over of responsibility for my own education in life, and having a handle on my own fate. So that was a big thing. Nine years old…

HOW DID THAT DEVELOP?
At fifteen I remember this summer job I had. I was selling books door-to-door, and it was for commission only. It was merciless… I had one good day. I think I earned about thirteen pounds in a month. Not too exciting! But I kept doing it to get out of the house. Then one day I took my tin whistle and a shoebox, and I cycled into work. I parked my bike and I thought “I’m doing this, I’m doing this”, and went back to the spot that I’d decided I was going to play at. It took me about four times – I walked up and down past the spot four times, out of nervousness. Then I just started playing, and I played and played and played… Just watching the summer walk by – y’know, beautiful women and… just watching life, and playing music. I counted up my takings that afternoon, and I’d got twenty pounds. I was fifteen, so this would have been 1979. That was a big turning point – I knew I could survive, I knew I could live. Whatever happens I know I can put food on the table, if I go out and give it some time. That was huge.

SO THAT WAS IT? YOU WERE ‘OFF’ INTO THAT WORLD?
Well, my parents didn’t like me doing that. I was still only fifteen so I still had to obey. So actually it was back to life – and back to school and being in that lane. But then I remember being at a party when I was about seventeen, and feeling incredibly shy. I remember being really ‘in my head’ at this party, feeling as if I was a really inadequate person. And Tim Buckley was singing, a record or something. Somebody said “You hear that guy? That’s a skinny white guy”… and I thought “Well, I’m a skinny white guy” or something like that, y’know. It was “Oh! I could do that”. So somehow that motivated me in some way… To achieve a living through music is actually kind of mind-blowing after you’ve been through the system of education, and feeling trapped in the expectations of your times. To break down those walls and suddenly realise you’re making a living, with a few mates around you, through music – well, it’s a huge positive in life.

THINKING ABOUT THE ERA OF THE FIRST TWO HOTHOUSE FLOWERS ALBUMS, I’VE OFTEN FELT THERE WAS A GREAT LYRICAL BLOOMING GOING ON – YOU HAD ARTISTS LIKE SUZANNE VEGA, ANDY WHITE, MARTIN STEPHENSON, LLOYD COLE AND YOURSELVES… AND THE LANGUAGE WAS REALLY IMPORTANT. THE USE OF WORDS WAS AMBITIOUS, IT WAS CAREFUL, IT WAS TASTEFUL, IT WAS CONSIDERED, EVEN POETIC… LYRICS WERE REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT…
Yeah, that’s right, that’s right…

I’M DRAWN TO THIS QUOTE FROM YOURSELF, WHICH IS “CULTURE MAKES PEOPLE LOOK UP, NOT DOWN, AND IT LIFTS YOUR HEAD ABOVE THE STRUGGLE”… SO I THOUGHT ABOUT THE NATURE OF THOSE ARTISTS I JUST MENTIONED, AND PARTICULARLY HOTHOUSE FLOWERS, AND HOW THE POETRY AND THE MUSIC CAN BE SORT OF A TRANSFER OF ENERGY… A ROCKET FUEL FOR THE LISTENER…
Yeah, it is. It is like that. Like, think about the blues. The blues is the collective voice of a people alchemising pain into beauty. Yes, there’s pain, deep pain, but the blues is actually saying “look up”, for sure. Look up. It’s all about looking up. Look up and look out – look outwards. It’s amazing when I meet people who our songs mean things to. Ireland in the 1980s was… well, I don’t actually look back thinking it was better or worse. But it was a different time to now. It was my coming of age, that time, so it was a blank canvas. And somehow our records seemed to reflect something for people. So it was great to be a part of something, somehow. Part of the energy of a culture, yeah… Part of the culture.

YOU PARTAKE OF A LOT OF OTHER CREATIVE ENDEAVOURS, SO IT’S NOT AS IF YOU’RE SITTING IN YOUR HOUSE ‘BEING LIAM FROM HOTHOUSE FLOWERS’ AND WAITING FOR THE HOTHOUSE FLOWERS MOMENTS IN A YEAR TO ARRIVE… SO, IS THE BAND NOW A SORT OF ‘HOME’ TO RETURN TO, FOR YOU? I GUESS ANOTHER WAY OF PUTTING IT IS: HAS THE BAND BECOME A SORT OF TOUCHSTONE OR A MARKER OF TIME?
Well, y’know, it’s still many things. It’s a puzzle in a way… It’s an ongoing kind of thing… I’ll be honest, there are those times when I think I should just go “Well, that was then and this is now”… but, really, friendship is a huge part of it, and it’s still exciting because the fact is that we keep digging. When we play a show we do play a load of our old songs, but we’re always digging… We go into musical zones – we’re a jam band, I think – and there’s always an energy of movement with us, and trying finding that moment where nobody in the room knows where we’re going next. Including us… We like to find the moment when we’re all standing on the threshold. When we’re all on the crest of a creative wave…

IT’S INTERESTING YOU SAY THAT, ACTUALLY, BECAUSE (TO MY SHAME) I’VE NOT SEEN YOU PLAY LIVE ‘IN THE FLESH’ – THOUGH I DO REMEMBER FIVE OR SIX SONGS FROM AN OUTSIDE BROADCAST ON SOME MUSIC TV SHOW BACK IN THE DAY… SO FOOTAGE FROM A GIG, BROADCAST LIVE… AND I CAN CLEARLY VISUALISE IT, TO THIS DAY… THERE WAS ‘SOMETHING ELSE’ GOING ON, OTHER THAN THE TRANSACTION OF A BAND PLAYING TO AN AUDIENCE… THERE WAS JUST SOMETHING ‘MORE’, A SORT OF ‘NOW’ ABOUT IT…
Wow, well I’m glad you remember that. I didn’t know we were achieving that, back then. I think music has to be in the moment. A song can be sung in exactly the same way, but still have that energy of the ‘now’. It’s a great satisfaction to hear you say we were doing that, back then. I think if the listener and the player are both in the same moment, it’s very healthy. Very healthy.

IS THAT THE OBLIGATION AS AN ARTIST?
Yeah, I think it is. I think it’s the obligation of being a musician – to take all present, and go…

… THAT’S A TRULY SPECIAL THING…
It is. Another part of my formation as a human being, and as somebody who recognises music as something of value, is this style of singing in Ireland which is called Sean Nos. It’s as old as the hills, literally. It’s ancient. You could liken it to African, Native American, Hebrew, Arabic… It’s solo voice and you might be in a public place, a bar, and it might be two o’clock in the morning. People might have been talking, laughing, fighting, drinking, whatever, y’know… And somebody invisible, somebody who’s sitting down in the corner somewhere, sings one of the old songs. One of the big old songs that don’t have a rhythmic meter – it’s a very open call – and everyone just quietens down. And everyone travels with that song and with this person singing it. Everyone just goes off, leaves that room, leaves that moment, and goes travelling off with one of these ancient songs… And I’m just so lucky that I’ve had some of those old songs in me as well. Those old songs would kind of bring me away from the self-absorption of songs written by myself, y’know? You’re always wondering, when you write something, “Is this good? Is this any good?” – and those old songs don’t even ask that question. They just take you.

… THEY OFFERED YOU THE CHANCE TO GAIN SOME PERSPECTIVE?
Yeah – y’know, you get yourself into a situation of being in a band and eventually having the attention of a lot of ears – a lot of people listening to what you’re saying and looking at what you’re doing. But the sort of ‘commercial heyday’ of the Hothouse Flowers was actually quite a tough time for me. You saw the best and the worst of the music business – you saw the ruthlessness, the dehumanisation… And the pressure of knowing that there’s a board-room full of people discussing your work… and discussing it in a quantificational kind of way. It could make you sick. It could make you ill, literally… So it was tough, getting through. But I learned to maintain my own energy, regardless of what I was seeing, perceiving and feeling as being done… I learned a lot, by getting through. And I’m still making music – and even at the tiniest of gigs I find that it’s still an incredible pleasure to get lost in that music…

 

Hothouse Flowers play Cornbury Festival on Sunday 7th July