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Hot Press - December 97

Bloom with a view after a four year sabbatical, Hothouse Flowers are back. John Walsh talks to arch-otanists Liam, Peter and Fiachna about just what it was that kept them out of the limelight (or should that be sunlamp) for so long.

Flower power is back. No, I don't mean going to San Fransisco with daffodils in your flowing locks, listening to godawful music and feeling the vibe,man. The flowers I'm talking about are the ones that pleaded with us not to go, because it'll be easier in the morning. The Hothouse Flowers have returned after four years of getting to know their families again, writing and recording with other people and, em, posing naked on the cover of regional newspapers? I'm sitting in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel with Liam O'Maonlai, Fiachna O'Braonain and Peter O'Toole, three of the original seeds that grew to form the Flowers.

Four years after they decided to take a career break, the Flowers now have two new recruits, a string of live dates before Christmas and a new album in the bag.Throughout the course of the interview, all three are polite, well-spoken and seemingly calm and content. No longer spring chickens, or even spring flowers, they have been on the rock'n'roll merry-go-round before.

They've taken a break, seen life from the other side of the microphone and spent time with their families. Now, they're ready to return to the stage in the form that bought them to our attention in the first place. The Flowers are blooming again. After three highly successful albums and a string of hit singles, not to mention performing to thousands of people in a multitude of different countries, the band decided to take a break from it all in January of '94, following a Japanese tour. Why? What went wrong? "We kind of hit a big brick wall, and we decided to just step back from it," remembers Peter. "We were going, at that stage, for just under 10 years, and it was an extremely fast 10 years. It was good fun, a lot of hard work, with no time really for reflection. We did three albums and a lot of touring. We just needed to get away from it."

"It was actually Liam who called for us to take a year off. It was hard to completely understand why we felt that, but as the months rolled on we got to see all the...not holes, but all the stuff that wasn't particularly great about it."

"We were in a rolling situation and there no way of repairing it while we were still moving," interjects Liam. "We had to stop to look at it and say, 'Do we need it? Do we want to carry on with it? How much is it affecting our lives, personally?' All those questions had to be asked and that took a good bit of time."

So how did it feel when they woke up one morning and realised they weren't going to be a Hothouse Flower that day, that they weren't going to see the people they had spent their lives with for the past decade? "It was pretty cool, actually," smiles Fiachna. "I think when something like that happens, once you get over the initial shock, it occurs to you that there are lots of doors open to you when you close one for a while. It is a great sense of relief, really. All of us had time to reflect on life, and our sanity, our health, our families and our creativity. Everything. It was a great space to be in really, when you think about it."

"I worried hard about it for a short while," confesses Peter. "I was just after buying a house, so I was worried about that. I worried about it being over and it was only when I started realising why we were taking a break that I felt calm and felt great power about myself. I became independent. We had a baby boy around that time and suddenly there was more to life than Hothouse Flowers." But how did a year's break become almost four? "Well, it didn't, actually," explains Fiachna, "because we've been spending quite a bit of time writing, hanging out together more, repairing old differences and talking about life and where we want to go."

It turns out that as individuals, all three have not been idle, both in their personal and professional lives, since the Flowers went into hibernation.

"The first thing I did was to stay with a friend of mine in London, who has a studio in his house, on the way back from Japan," recalls Fiachna. "It wasn't really that premeditated. I just stopped off for a few days and ended up playing guitar on something he was working on. Through him, I ended up working with Sinead O'Connor for a while."

When Fiachna returned home, he found himself in demand as a songwriter, with a variety of different people expressing a wish to work with him. "I would often spend afternoons quite happily sitting at home, pen and paper, guitar and walkman, trying to write songs - getting frustrated with it sometimes and getting delighted with it," he recalls. "I was trying to find a more self-contained way of being a songwriter.

I wrote with a guy called Martin Egan. I had met him over the course of a few years and he asked me if he could send me some lyrics and if I could put music to them. That was great. He had a whole set of lyrics that he'd typed out and I got them in the post. Gradually, we developed this pattern of working with each other every Monday morning. I'd go to his house at 10 o'clock and we'd try to write songs until lunchtime."

Both Peter and Fiachna joined Michelle Shocked's band for a time, touring throughout Europe and America, and they ended up recording an album with her. "In the course of working with her we found out a little bit about how other people work," admits Fiachna. "You realise that there is more to life than the way we had been working up until then. It opens up a whole new world, really."

Fiachna then went on the road again with Michelle, this time without Peter, who stayed at home. Fiachna also wrote and recorded with the songstress, and released a CD which was only available at gigs. "It gave me an opportunity to sing, which was something I had a huge block about before," he confesses. "It was a case where I felt I could really get somewhere if I could manage to deal with that block."

Additionally, Fiachna had been married with two children, and when he and his wife separated, that brought its own traumas. "I have two kids and I had a whole new relationship to continue with them as a single parent," he says. Liam, too, had a lot of personal turmoil to deal with. The death of his father had left the singer with huge scars, which are still healing now. "I went to live in a lodge on an estate, a cottage-type place, mainly on my own, just with the idea of being in one place: to be at home in Ireland in my own environment for a year," he remembers. "And that year, I guess, was mainly a grieving year, where I was going through the shock of losing my father and the shock of coming off the road as well. When I look back, I realise I was in a bit of a daze for most of that time.I just got on with coming to terms with a big change in my life, dynamically, with my family. One major character of my family is no longer present," he says quietly. Understandably, it took Liam an awful long time to come to terms with losing his father. "My father had been with me since I was born and he's not there anymore. You just keep coming to terms with it. Coming to terms with it is a living thing, it's not something that is in my life - it's a child that I have, my father's absence; how I relate to my father now that he is not physically present. It hasn't differed in a lot of ways - I still talk to him a lot, as I think people do." After living in a lodge for a year, Liam went to Australia, where he made the ALT album with his old muckers, Tim Finn and Andy White, which they then toured. There was also the small matter of meeting the woman who has since become his wife and mother of their child.

With all that going on, i wondered if he found time for anything else? "Well, I posed naked for a Kerry weekly newspaper, where I appeared on the front page nude," he smiles mischievously. "Not full frontal, but that option was there." Excuse me? Liam O'Maonlai baring all for the press? How, pray tell, did that come about?

"I was at a festival down there, sort of a mind/body/spirit event," he explains. "I was staying in a hostel and they were really nice to me. They said somebody was interested in doing an interview with me and taking a few shots and they wondered would I be interested. I said 'Yeah, sure', and they said that if I did they would give me a few nights free in the hostel. So I thought that was a great deal," he recalls with a smile.

The festival had bought out the best in the singer, who had made friends with a lot of different people and was playing music and enjoying the craic 'til the wee hours. On the penultimate day of his stay, Liam was informed that there was a photographer waiting to take some snaps of him.

"She was a local girl, a real character who was really into her Kerry humour," he recalls. "She said (affects deep Kerry accent) 'I want to take you to some water', half putting it on. So we got to the Torque Waterfall, which is in the National Park just outside Killarney. I said 'I'm going to go for a bit of a swim. Shoot away, I don't mind.' Shoot away she did, ending up with some fine shots of a naked Liam both in and out of the water. She showed him the photos and asked if he minded which one she used. He said no, but then thought better of it and decided not to go with the "three bags full. I had to draw the line somewhere," he grins.

Then I got away from the whole thing and I was thinking, 'Jesus, what have I done? Here I am, bowing out of public life, so to speak, and suddenly I appear naked on the front page of a Kerry newspaper', he laughs. It turns out that Liam's regional exposure ended up in the national press too. "It made the Sunday World, but it was only about that size," he says, making a small box shape with his hands. But my Auntie saw it, who was born in Midleton, and it brought tears to her eyes. In a way it would have been interesting if it had got a bit more publicity, because it's an interesting subject, being naked. What's the big deal, really?

If it had become a big deal I would have enjoyed the consequences of talking about it, however far it might have gone." He's not going to appear in Playgirl just yet, however. "That wasn't really the plan. That wasn't the atmosphere I had intended," he smiles. "But if people feel that atmosphere, then great."

Apart from displaying his bare necessities for all to see, Liam has also worked with Donal Lunny's band. He performed on a track on the Common Ground album called 'Cathain' written by Ronan O'Snodaigh from Kila, which "gave me a new song to sing which I really felt I could deliver a lot of my spirit through." Liam also made a music programmme for RTE, called Sin E E, "which also explored people's motivation in life, and their perspectives on what they feel spirituality is all about."

Peter also performed on Sin E E, playing in the shows resident band, at Liam's request. He also, as has already been mentioned, toured with Michelle Shocked for a year. Then it was family time. Having bought a house around the time the Flowers took a break, he set about, eh, settling in: "I made loads of furniture for the house, because another love of mine is carpentry," he recalls.

"There was lots of stuff going on," he smiles fondly. "We'd had a son in 95 and that was amazing. But it is also a major change in your life. So Michelle was going out again, but I decided that I didn't want to tour any more. I wanted to spend time at home. We had this studio up in the house and I was getting really interested in programming, engineering and writing songs. So I kinda got over that bad patch and wrote a whole heap of songs up there."

Peter's studio soon became a communal stomping ground for the Flowers and their friends, with people like ex-Golden Horde leader, Simon Carmody, using the studio to demo new material.

Peter then went to Spain to work with his partner's sister, who is one half of European techno duo Double Vision. "That was great," he enthuses. "What we ended up with was a flavour of what I'm about, what she's about and what Pedro, her partner, is about. The results were techno but they were more song-oriented, "By his own admission, Peter "then hibernated in Wicklow, writing and hanging out at home." As time passed, the Flowers all gravitated towards his studio and "eventually ended up with a load of songs which were Flowers songs, which we felt we wanted to record." The Flowers then set about recording their fourth album. The album has been recorded and mixed, but has yet to be given a running order or a title. It was recorded during the summer in London, in Twickenham's September Sounds studio. The album will again be released through the Polygram chain of labels, and is scheduled for release in March, with a single released in late January/ early February.

These days, do they feel the same sense of urgency and the same drive which first led them to form a band? "We feel a very different sense of drive, I think," says Fiachna. "It is one that has been allowed to disappear, almost. We've talked about it over the last couple of years and it is something that goes beyond words, that was left unfinished, that we still had to do together. Some promise that was never fulfilled. I think we've fulfilled part of that now and we are continuing to fulfil it. It's not very urgent, mind you," he laughs.

"We've kind of discovered what driving ourselves is all about, as opposed to being driven," interjects Peter. "So we're now driving ourselves and we've got some people on board to help us with that, co-pilots if you like."

These co-pilots are the band's new rhythm section, which comprises Wayne Sheehy on drums and Rob Malone on bass. The Flowers also have a new manager, London based Chris O'Donnell. Hothouse Flowers spent much of their time on the road prior to the extended break. Now, though, they have families to consider, and presumably there won't be the same marathon tours that they endured previously. But will it still be strange to leave the family, even if only for a couple weeks at a time?

"I don't think going away for a couple weeks at a time is all that weird. We've still got to sit down and figure it all out," Fiachna notes. "We're also possibly figuring out inventive ways of bringing family along - there's nothing worse than people coming along and having nothing to do. We haven't planned any touring beyond these few gigs, but we will be, and this will probably become clearer as that comes closer."

Before then, however, Hothouse Flowers are embarking on a short tour of Ireland in the run-up to Christmas, including December 16 at University Concert Hall, Limerick and December 17 at Dublin's Olympia Theatre. The lads are really looking forward to getting back up on stage. They have already had a few warm-up shows in West Cork as well as a couple of gigs in London, but this is their first Irish tour in some time. The final word goes to Liam, who has a special message for Flowers fans attending the shows: "I'd like people to know that we're expecting them to dance - to use the opportunity that we will provide on the night, and the space provided by the architect and the venue, to dance. I'd like that very much to be stressed."

You have been warned.