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Petal Power

from The Sunday Times - January 11, 2004

Having survived boom times and bust-ups, Hothouse Flowers are in better shape with a new album, says Mick Heaney

It was at Stormont, fittingly enough, that Liam O Maonlai said no. To others it was perhaps unexpected: after all, as the frontman with Hothouse Flowers, O Maonlai seemed the epitome of happy clappy positivity, singing the Dublin band’s relentlessly uplifting numbers with gusto. But it was no surprise.

True, the Dublin band had once been touted as the next U2 and, unlike most of the pretenders to that throne, had managed to have a few hits. But that was all behind them now. Instead they were caught in an unremitting grind of touring, rehearsing and recording for an increasingly disinterested public. The rest of the band may have been aware of the rut they were in, but only O Maonlai was prepared to shout stop.

“The band was overwhelming me, the sense of endlessness I saw in that,” he says. “So it came to a head. My father passed away and that’s when I said right, I’ve got to look after myself.

“We were in this hotel in Stormont, would you believe, and we called a meeting and I said I need a year off. I think we all need it, but I know I do. And we decided we’d just close it up the following week. I remember our manager saying ‘Will I keep the office open?’ And we said no.”

And so, 10 years ago this month, Hothouse Flowers did just that. And while they came back four years later, it was a leaner band that returned: just O Maonlai, guitarist Fiachna O Braonain and bassist Peter O’Toole. This week sees the release of a new single, Your Love Goes On, a taster from their forthcoming fifth studio album, Into Your Heart. But if the single is a typically full-bodied rock and soul number, everything else has been stripped back.

Back in the mid-1980s, of course, it seemed all too easy: in fact, the band had been formed almost on a whim. As pupils of Colaiste Eoin, the south Dublin Irish language school, O Maonlai and O Braonain were more interested in trad and folk than pop music. That changed after they saw a young rock band singing at Slogadh, the Irish music competition.

“I can’t remember who they were, but it was an epiphany,” remembers O Braonain. “So we put together a band of sundry individuals for Slogadh, including (future My Bloody Valentine member) Colm O Ciosoig on drums. We wrote three songs and won the competition. That was the first taste of being in a rock’n’roll band.”

They went their separate ways afterwards until, a couple of years later, O Maonlai sought out O Braonain, by then a law student at University College Dublin, and asked him if he wanted to re-form the group for a gig that night. They recruited a drummer from the UCD bar and put together a set of three original songs, some blues standards and a few jazzy jams. “It was shambolic, rambling and we loved it,” says O Braonain.

Things snowballed after that. The band named themselves, started to gig at venues such as the Magic Carpet pub in south Co Dublin and recruited Maria Doyle Kennedy (nee Doyle) and O'Toole, who was an old friend of O Maonlai. Meanwhile, O Maonlai and O Braonain were enjoying some local fame courtesy of their busking alter egos, the Benzini Brothers. It landed them their first television appearances, helping to bring them to the attention of, among others, Bono. Then, in 1986, came the moment that propelled them into the spotlight and would hang around them like a millstone in years to come. “I remember that call,” says O Braonain. “Someone said Rolling Stone is on the phone, so I picked it up and a guy says he is indeed from Rolling Stone and had decided we were the best unsigned band in the world, and could they get a photograph.

“I still don’t know how it came about. My suspicion is that Bono had a word with someone at Rolling Stone. He had liked one of our songs and had asked us in for a chat.”

The band’s first single, Love Don’t Work This Way, resulted. Released on U2’s Mother Records, it became an airplay hit on BBC Radio 1, ensuring a frenzy of record company interest. Even by the giddy boomtown standards of Dublin’s rock scene in the 1980s, this was heady stuff.

Soon the band had lost Kennedy, picked up Robbie Wooton as manager and added saxophonist Leo Barnes and drummer Jerry Fehily to their lineup. They picked up undreamed of exposure when they appeared as guests on the Eurovision song contest and, having signed to London records, made their debut album, People. Preceded by the jaunty hit single Don’t Go, the album reached number two in the UK charts in 1988.

Having raced to the summit, the band promptly started their gradual descent, beginning with the recording of their next album, Home.

“Everyone told us we had ‘difficult second album syndrome’,” says O Maonlai. “I was having trouble with lyrics, because I was getting into clouds in the distance and all that kind of thing, but it was functioning. But somebody thought it wasn’t and decided we needed to meet other people.”

The result was that the band ended up recording with a variety of different producers. When the album finally materialised it sold well, but there was a sense that the band had hit a plateau, a notion reinforced by the way they embraced the short-lived raggle-taggle movement. But O Maonlai is not embarrassed by the band’s flirtation with raggle taggle’s cringe-inducing fusion of ponchos, folk and rock.

“I remember being in the Columbia hotel in London, sitting beside (journalist) Stuart Bailie when he said: ‘I’ve got the name for it.’ And he was delighted with himself, as though he’d written a song. But there was a sense of this new music then, which had its genesis in punk but went back into the long hair thing and traditional music as well.”

The band’s new direction attracted derision in the music press, sectors of which had already written the band off as Van Morrison wannabes. “I was sometimes disappointed by what people wrote. It was saddening because it just seemed gratuitous, when it was just a question of taste.”

More serious was the relentless touring, which was also frequently loss-making thanks to their large entourage. And for all their initial success, the band had never been financially secure, something that wasn’t helped by their underperforming third album, Songs fom the Rain. “We never saw the readies, it was always a wage,” says O Maonlai. “We were servants of our own thing.”

For O Maonlai, who had always been uncomfortable with the pressures of the band, things came to a head with the death of his father in December 1993. Soon after he called the meeting in the Stormont hotel.

“I probably felt there was a bit more life in it,” says O Braonain, “but it quickly became clear that there was an unhealthy dependence on one another that needed to be cleaned out. We let it go to the point where we didn’t know if it would come back.”

The band went their separate ways to pursue different projects. After a year they met up again but it was not an entirely happy reunion. Barnes and Fehily were fired; the band are elusive on the exact reasons (“I think the three of us felt we still had something to say together,” ventures O’Toole), but whatever the reasons, the decision left a bad aftertaste.

“I think it’s probably best described that at the time it seemed unacrimonious, but I’m very sure there’s a lot of bitterness since then,” says O Braonain.

The band claim their decision to break with Wooton as manager was more straightforward. “That’s clean,” says O Maonlai. “We just got tired of being managed.”

Afterwards they seemed revitalised by their hiatus. On their fourth album, Born, they sounded like a new group, with a sparser sound driven by drum machines. But the album failed to rejuvenate their career and their relationship with London, their record company, deteriorated, something O Maonlai feels was exacerbated rather than relieved by Chris O’Donnell, their next manager.

“He ’Donnell would come moaning to us about the company,” says O Maonlai. “I think the wrong messages were being conveyed and I think they thought these guys don’t like us, so why should we like them?” There were other factors, not least London then being taken over: the band were eventually dropped via a one-line fax. Record company wrangles aside, however, the band say they are more invigorated than ever. They rediscovered the joys of the road: smaller crews and tighter schedules mean they now even turn a profit when touring America.

And, of course, they are excited about the new album. Whether others will be quite so enthused remains to be seen. The single is full of gospelly vim and there are raw, stirring moments, but the addition of drummer Dave Clarke means the band have largely abandoned the experiments of their previous record. It is still undeniably upbeat and positive in tone, as are the band. Ten years after they split up, the Hothouse Flowers seem determined to stick around.

“I’m always prepared for a bit of pain,” says O Maonlai. “But I think the thing is that although we’re very different people, we have this thing in common and I value that. We know each other’s dark sides better than anyone else. All kinds of puss came out, so we’ve seen the festering. But we changed the dressings.”