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Home Thoughts From Abroad: The Hothouse Flowers

from Irish Voice, 4 August, 1990

Dublin's Hothouse Flowers recently played sell-out concerts in New York while promoting their second album, 'Home'. Helena Mulkerns caught up with the band to discuss their music and identity.

OVER the last month or so, The Hothouse Flowers have once again hit North America and are back with a vengeance. Or should we say with a new lust for life. Back with a second album that's driven with their own brand of gutsy Gaelic soul, that sparkles with an insuppressible optimism yet at the same time touches with a naked vulnerability. It's the mixture of positive energy and reflection that drew fans to their first album and previous tours, and drew some heavy flak from the critics at the same time.

In the aftermath of their last American tour, after impressive success with 'People' here and in Europe, it turned into boomtime for the begrudgers when their next record wasn't cranked out immediately. Had the difficult "2nd Album" syndrome proved too much for the sky-eyed champions of Celtic Soul?

Anybody who caught them recently at either the Bottom Line or The Rock Academy swiftly sent that rumor off with a flying kick in the direction of the East River. Their performance if anything, has been honed - they are tighter, O'Maonlai is wild and charismatic as ever and the new material blasts through the venues and sends the crowd into waves of unstoppable motion. Towards the end of 1988, after a whirlwind 18 months touring and the various tinng duties that go with it, something had to give. "'When you go away you miss it, but when you get home only for a few days at a time, it can be a bit frustrating," observes guitarist Fiachna O'Braonain. "Especially since when you're lashing around the world at such a hectic pace all you want to do when you get back to Ireland to chill out for a while. When you're just home briefly, catching up with everyone is nearly just as hectic - you never have time to get to see as many people as you'd like."

The answer was a re-grouping period where the band got back togrips with normality and back into the creative process outside the hectic pace of life on the road. Having covered England, Europe, America (twice) and even Japan, it's interesting that the album's title is 'Home', after one of the most memorable tracks on the album. Other Irish references are scattered within it too. "Well, we liked the idea," explains bassist Peter O'Toole. "It's simple, and we like the word, and the place."

The band began to record the new album away from it all in a country house in Borris, Co. Carlow. Was that part of the chill-out process? "It was a bit of that. Just getting out of the environment you're used to had a lot to do with it. But there's still a hell of a lot of distractions in Carlow!" (laughs) One of the first songs recorded was the unusual 'Water', which has a stunning exotic feel to it. "When we were in Borris, an Australian didgeridoo player called Philip Pike, happened to be in town," begins Fiachna. "And Clive Langer, our producer had an Indian fiddle player over, so they both came along and joined in on that track."

"Another interesting thing," notes Peter, "was how (Flowers' saxophonist) Leo was just standing in the room and he began to move the chandeliers with his hand - we liked the sound so much we recorded it!"

Other recording locations included Wales, New Orleans as well as London and Dublin. 'Home' also boasts over five credits for producers. How come so many hands on so many decks? "That definitely wasn't intentional, it just turned out that way really," explains Fiachna "It kept moving with us, and in fact some of the songs were written while we had been on the road and some at home, so it's almost like a diary of the last year or so."

Whereas 'People', their debut album, produced by Langer and Alan Winstanley, tended to be over-polished, the latest venture has a more vibrant feel, with a clarity of instrumentation and lyrics. "We did want that feel on the album," agrees Fiachna. "For example, we wrote and recorded 'Shut Up And Listen' in just one afternoon when we went to visit Daniel Lanois in New Orleans. It was great, we were there and we just started playing, we finished the whole thing in a couple of hours - a sort of back to basics approach."

'Shut Up and Listen' is a lovely, lilting track that you can imagine played by a group of people in a setting no more formal than a front room or a cafe, evincing a spiritual, loving instinct that can be found throughout the album. It stands to their credit that the Hot Housers, who started up as a busking band, have obviously not forgotten the magic of spontaneity.

Songs like 'Give It Up' ("love is endless and the world is wide") or 'Christchurch Bells' ("think of others, ask for a prayer/underneath Christchurch Bells") have a genuine warmth and honesty that's rare. The straightforward vulnerability of some tracks, like 'Home' or 'Trying To Get Through' reveals an earnestness that, in combination with the belting rhythms and musical cadences, never lapses into heaviness. The songs are largely personal, and if that personal view includes ideas like environmentalism or the universal power of love - which they do - it comes within that personal context, without grandiose pretensions.

It's this very sincerity, however, that leaves them open to ragging. While most reactions to their new album have been positive, they've also been pigeon-holed as "Irish Hippies" or accused of being anachronistic. In particular, the British rock press has gone out of its way to try and categorize the Irish scene into what they call a "raggle taggle gypsy" movement. On one level, this can he seen as a final recognition of the powerful intersecting forces within Irish music that are lacking on the trend-drenched British rock scene, but why then try to define it as retro? Either way, as both Peter and Fiachna agree, the categories don't matter to them, "only the music!"

"Well, I suppose there always have been hippies in Ireland, attracted by the countryside, by Irish traditional music or whatever," continues Fiachna. "But there is also a resurgence of interest in the culture again, really. It's something that is been there and is real. It's just that some of the English press are trying to make out it's something "nouveau." There was an article in 'The Face' the other day all about "nouveau hippies" - there was loads of Irish people in it. It made Dublin suddenly sound like a very good place. I think Dublin always was a good place, where people have always played great music."

It's possibly an indication of the kind of new Irish musical identity being bandied around the place these days that a roots rock band can wind up an album with a sean nos in Irish - the closing track on 'Home' is an abbreviated version of 'Seoladh na nGamhna' "We had wanted a track on the last album in Irish, and in the end we ended up not doing it. But in fact it's as easy as just going into the studio and singing the song," says Peter.

"It's amazing the amount of people who come up to us at gigs in Ireland and speak Irish to us instead of English," offers Fiachna. "It's great."'

The current Hothouse Flowers tour, actually started in the heart of the Gaeltacht, with a wild kick-off at a venue in Dingle, moving up to Galway and across to Dublin before hitting Europe and North America. It winds down at the end of this month in Atlanta, Georgia, but look out for an extensive second tour commencing this Autumn, taking in larger venues around the country.