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Hothouse Flowers

The Sydney Morning Herald - 8 April 2006 - by Michael Dwyer

It's a mild spring evening in Dublin, and Liam O'Maonlai is walking home along Charlemont Street. He's trying to remember the name of the band Hothouse Flowers supported on their last tour of Australia.

It turns out to be an obscure little outfit called Dire Straits. They were kind of popular once, but 13 years in the music business is several lifetimes by any other measure.

O'Maonlai sounds like he's lived several since Bono gave him a leg-up to the big time in 1986.

"We were working mercilessly," he says, "and we didn't seem to be accumulating any reward. Not that that was the central desire, just that it was becoming a bit linear and the adventure wasn't as much there.

"And I was missing being home," he adds over the roar of a passing bus. "I hadn't seen four seasons in Ireland for five years or more. Your seasons are your reference points and I was feeling a little bit lost."

For some musicians, roots are more important than pinnacles.

O'Maonlai and Fiachna O'Braonain were a busking act in these streets 20 years ago. They'd met as kids at a Gaelic-speaking school. Traditional Irish culture, once crushed by church and state, was an indelible passion that informed their music.

Then Rolling Stone magazine called them "the best unsigned band in Europe". They were snapped up by U2's label and the pop industry's virulent strain of globalisation was brought to bear over three hit albums. Australian audiences stuck by Hothouse Flowers longer than most, but in early '94 the band fell into a long, deliberate hiatus.

Through the media pinhole by which the world views these things, it seemed Hothouse Flowers had dried up. But according to his musician friend Andy White, who traded Dublin for the Dandenongs in 2003, Liam O'Maonlai is one of those guys who's practically naked if he's not holding a musical instrument.

"Wherever you put him on earth he'd be playing and singing," says White, who made an album with him and Tim Finn under the ALT acronym in 1993.

"He's an amazing singer, as everyone from me up to Bono will tell you. He'll make the hair stand up on back of your neck every time."

Walking now between the redbrick Victorian houses of the South Circular Road, O'Maonlai falls into his own reverie. He sees the iconic National Stadium up ahead and reminisces about past gigs - Irish giants Rory Gallagher, Horslips and singer Millie Jackson. "One of the best Flowers gigs was played in that stadium, too."

There's not a hint of longing for more heady days, though.

"I get up in the morning and I hope it's gonna be a good day," he says.

"That's the same whether you're on the front of a magazine or not. I'm enjoying life in a simpler way than I ever have, I think. Those momentary highs, whether they be with my son (10-year-old Cain) or up on stage, they're higher than they've ever been."

There's also been a concerted effort to dig the other way, to know and consolidate the deepest roots of his country and craft. Like Sinead O'Connor before him, O'Maonlai last year released an album of traditional Irish "sean-nos" ("old-style") tunes, Rein. It was hardly a viable road back to those monster Rolling Stones tour supports Hothouse Flowers enjoyed in the early '90s.

"It's music that has been formative for me, and which connects me to the land and the people and history - the Dreamtime of the country, in a way," he says.

"That's where I would have aspirations, just to represent the music, to share in the glee, the feeling of deep excitement I get when in the company of great players anywhere."

In 1996, O'Maonlai presented an audacious 12-part TV series in Ireland, a bilingual interview and performance program called Sin'e'e. He describes it as a personal attempt to paint a panorama of influences, both musical and more broadly philosophical, with a domestic focus but antennae raised far beyond.

"The supreme highlight was when I was blessed to have a few words from Uncle Banjo Clarke, an elder from Gunditjmara country around your Port Fairy there. He and Shane Howard sent us a piece of video talking about culture that has stayed with me."

Closer to home, traditional Irish accordion player Tony McMahon was another highlight of the journey, he says. "That was pretty awesome. He plays slow airs like not many can. He can really haunt with his playing; he can arrest the listener, really cast a spell. And he did, for us, on the show."

He reaches his front door and steps into a room littered with musical instruments: a metre-high Irish harp, a banjo, an acoustic guitar, a didgeridoo, an African mbira, which sounds like an otherworldly xylophone when he plays it with a pair of wooden tongs.

"I've just come back from Mali and I took the harp with me," he says. "It was kind of a homecoming for the harp, I think, because there's a sense about Mali that it's the ancestral home of stringed instruments. The Irish harp is like a greatgreat- grandchild or something, so I felt great playing it over there."

O'Maonlai has been back to Australia several times since '93, not staying at the same five-star hotels Dire Straits favoured back then, but arguably doing it for better reasons. In 2003 he made a low-key appearance at the Morning Star Concert for West Papua at the Melbourne Concert Hall.

"The people of West Papua aren't allowed to sing their songs, you know," he says. "They're not allowed to speak their language because a mining company wants to dig up their land. I also come from a place where people were forbidden from making our music and speaking our language and doing our dances, whether by the king or the church or the pope.

"It still goes on, it just changes disguises, wherever there's a pristine relationship between human beings and the land. There are cultures that know how to live without money, and it seems to be the order to get rid of them as quickly as possible."

If the pop charts were your sole guide, you could almost count musicians among them. To most Western ears, music only exists if it's been bankrolled, streamlined and legitimised by a corporate enterprise of some kind. Hence the uncanny "disappearance" of Hothouse Flowers in 1994. In fact, they've made four albums since - you'll just need to go to one of their gigs to buy one.

"The way I look at it now is, I'm making the music, I'm meeting the people, and I know I've got a lot of music to make," O'Maonlai says.

"We look to the music, those of us who are interested. We hear something good, and we know it's good. People try and formulate why it's good, but it's beyond technique and it's beyond polish and it's beyond sound and it's beyond technology and it's beyond presentation. It's something that the musician just has to let through."