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Fresh Flowers

from The Sunday Times - May 3, 1998

Michael Ross on an Eighties band that has been revitalised by some judicious pruning.

Eleven years ago tomorrow, Hothouse Flowers released their first single on U2's Mother label, glowing with the halo effect of being buddies with Bono, still dizzy from being acclaimed by Rolling Stone as the best unsigned act in the world. They signed to a major label, London, at the height of the Joshua Tree headiness that saw a generation of Irish bands groomed as the next U2 and then, one by one, cut adrift as the euphoria evaporated.

Tomorrow they take their first public steps as Hothouse Flowers Mark II with the release of a single, You Can Love Me Now, to be followed, in three weeks, by their fourth album, Born, When they went into hibernation four years ago, few expected them to emerge with another album, still less to change direction from the raggle-taggle Celtic mystical dodginess that had become their trademark.

But emerge they did, leaner and meaner, the three core members who started out busking on Grafton Street, Fiachna O'Braonain, Liam O'Maonlai and Peter O'Toole. They fired the other two members, saxophonist Leo Barnes and drummer Jerry Fehily. Then they fired their long-term manager, Robbie Wooton. Then they set about writing songs again, this time with drum machines and sequencers, developing a colder, tougher style, stripped of the irritating Tim Buckley affections, that suggest that they still have some life in them yet.

"I was attracted to the mood generated by loops, and by the sparsity that can be sustained with them," says guitarist O'Braonain. "We learnt that less is more. We had very little sparsity in our music previously. That was one of the reasons for letting the other two guys go, they were quite busy players." According to O'Braonain, the reason why the Flowers split, In January 1994, was a shared sense that they had lost control of the group, that their endless touring was killing their songwriting talent and the repeated efforts to break into the US market had pushed them into a dispiriting zone of diminishing returns.

"Liam passionately wanted to stop. We all had had enough, but the fact that his dad died that Christmas spurred him to call a halt. It was a bit of a treadmill. We got stuck in a rut of always being on duty, touring or rehearsing or recording."

After two years away from each other, the core trio decided they wanted to work together again, but without their old business superstructure and without elements of their trademark sound.

"Some people may have got rich off of the Flowers but the band didn't," O'Braonain says. "We were always just on a salary. We spent an awful lot of money on rehearsals in the Factory. Whenever we were off the road we were in rehearsals and we needn't have been. We had quite a few people on salaries, we had a hefty office bill and we just wanted to get rid of all that responsibility and financial burden. We just wanted to do things our way."