by Adrian Deevoy - Q magazine, August 1988
Liam O'Maonlai pauses mid-autograph and holds the young girl fan's poster at arm's length. "Jesus, can you believe how corny this is?" he asks. After a swift and desperate search for a suitably profound, incisive and sexy reply the wide-eyed fan settles for a high pitched gurgle. "'Hothouse Flowers'," Liam reads from shamrock-festooned sheet, "'The Pride Of Ireland!' I'm surprised they don't put a few little leprechauns on it as well, aren't you?" She gurgles again in agreement, clutches the poster to her chest and sprints back across Folkestone seafront to her friends and re-enacts a slightly embellished variation of her conversation with HIM.
Liam shambles off to look at the sea and ponder how, at just 23 years of age, he and Hothouse Flowers have managed to stimulate both under-age libidos and seasoned rock fanatics' curiosity.
"People of all ages seem to feel a real warmth for us and from us," he says. "I think it's because we genuinely love playing music to people. You can sense that..." the sentence trails off into a look of contented bewilderment. Then an afterthought. "I'm not really that surprised at the success we've had. It's something we've planned for and worked for so it's not exactly a shock. We didn't hope to be here, now, a year ago. Things roll forward..."
While Liam O'Maonlai tends towards the slightly mystical, nice-bloke-wrong-planet outlook where such imponderables as fame are concerned, guitarist Fiachna O'Braonain earthily recalls how the almost preposterous series of events that led to Hothouse Flowers' current success began with a piece of paper.
"We had formed the band in April '85," he says with the air of a veteran storyteller, "and we began busking the next summer, calling ourselves The Incomparable Benzini Brothers. We used it to advertise gigs and get ourselves known. So we'd go down to Grafton Street in Dublin and have a few pints and get the guitars out and just have a bit of a ball. We used to pull a huge crowd because we'd do formation dancing and get people involved. Then one day while we were busking someone gave us a piece of paper. It turned out to be an entry form for a street entertainers competition and we thought we'd enter for the hell of it and we won. In retrospect it was a great thing to have done because through that we got on a radio show and got on to The Late Late Show on RTE. Anyhow, Bono had seen The Late Late Show and he asked if we wanted to do a single for a new record label he was setting up, Mother Records."
The association with U2 inevitably led to fevered media and major record company attention. The media drew very tenuous connections between Hothouse Flowers' and U2's distinctively different musical styles, imaginatively hailing Liam as "the second Bono" and clumsily calling Fiachna "the new The Edge". Following a heavily attended autograph-signing session at a Dublin record store, the Irish press decided to go one better than the obvious comparison and amidst headlines screaming "Liamania!", proclaimed them to be "The Irish Beatles". With uncharacteristic enthusiasm, Rolling Stone dubbed the group, "the greatest unsigned band in the world" but, as Fiachna says, they saw these weighty accolades more as gushing compliments than a huge pressure. ("When we saw them we just... laughed").
Meanwhile, Hothouse Flowers signed with a major record company and released the single Don't Go. The Irish warmly embraced the breezy melody and the poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyric and the record went to the top of the Irish chart. In England, however, it was stubbornly ignored until it was re-released in June '88, whereupon it became a hit.
This second-time-around success was largely attributable to a promotional manoeuvre of nothing less than pure genius. In the guest spot of the Eurovision Song Contest, usually reserved for Sacha Distel or Charles Aznavour's amorous slobberings, Hothouse Flowers appeared in a specially recorded video of Don't Go. The effect was that of discovering a diamond in a septic tank.
"The producer wanted to do something to revitalise the Eurovision Song Contest," says Fiachna. "We were a little bit wary at first but once they suggested the idea that they filmed us as we busked Don't Go around the major cities in Europe for two weeks we agreed because it sounded perfect for us because busking was our back-ground. Of course we knew that the Eurovision Song Contest was considered by most right-minded people to be the lowest form of entertainment but that was too good an opportunity to turn down."
"And the show is still selling," adds bassist Peter O'Toole. "It's just been sold to Canada and Australia and Japan so it's estimated to be reaching around 800 million people."
Such massive exposure has resulted in packed houses all over Europe and their first LP, People, entering the album chart at Number 2. Even rumblings of "stadium gigs before the year is out" have been heard at their record company. In fact, the only criticism the band have had to cope with thus far is the fact that their album sounds strongly reminiscent of Van Morrison and, occasionally, Bruce Springsteen.
"That's very difficult to explain," says Liam, by way of explanation. "Van Morrison comes from the same country as us so there's the same roots, the same tradition of music. But none of us have ever had a severe or strong following for Van Morrison. There's no period of Van Morrison I could put my finger on and say, yes, I think we sound like that. The first time I heard Van Morrison was when he had a hit in Ireland with Bright Side Of The Road and he struck me as being someone who had listened to a lot of the old black soul but had very strong Celtic roots. But it wasn't really until people started saying that we sounded like Van Morrison that we got into him so really the accusations of plagiarism and so forth were quite educational."
"It's the same with the Bruce Springsteen comparison," adds Fiachna. "The only album of his I've listened to from start to finish was the last one, Tunnel Of Love, which I bought the other day."
In a group whose oldest member is 24, it seems odd that Joe Cocker, Planxty, The Chieftains and Al Green crop up regularly in conversation whereas mention of groups from the late '70s and '80s takes considerable prompting.
"Well punk didn't dig as deep in Ireland as it did in England or more specifically London," reasons Liam. "Because all the heroes of that era were in London. Although, I suppose you could argue that Johnny Lydon had strong Irish connections. But we started well after the punk thing had come and gone so in that sense we were virtually unaffected by it."
The band claim not to be particularly aware of "a new breed of Irish group" but add that Sinead O'Connor has "a fantastic voice" and express deep admiration for The Pogues.
"I don't think it's so much a recent trend," says Liam, "as a common Celtic feel. That's not something that you can just tack on. It has that quality or it hasn't. I think a lot of bands fall down when they try to shove an old pipe in here or a tin whistle in there. It just sticks out and sounds corny. It's a rhythm and a sense of playing together and sensing the strength of the song."
Irish music, Hothouse Flowers are frequently reminded, cannot be discussed without the conversation eventually turning to U2.
"People forget that there's plenty of room for U2 and us," says Peter. "They assume neither of us can stand each other and that we live in this huge shadow but it's nothing like that."
"They've been very good for and to us," says Liam, "especially about personal things and the situations we find ourselves in where the only people that could possibly advise you are people who have been there themselves. The last time we saw them they told us that they stayed in Manchester once and all the beds in the hotel had nylon sheets, but once they got through that there was no looking back..."
And if Hothouse Flowers go on, as the smart money would have us believe, to success of stadium-sized proportions. What will be the major pitfalls to avoid?
"The thing you'd be most wary of is becoming a cliche," says Fiachna. "You mustn't lose touch with your roots. Oh my God, that's the biggest cliche of them all, isn't it? It's started already!"