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Back to the Hothouse

from The Western Mail - 7 May 2004

They enjoyed chart success with a number of hits, including the anthemic Don't Go. Then Hothouse Flowers suddenly disappeared from view. Lead singer Liam O'Maonlai tells Karen Price where they went and why success is sweeter second time around.

IT was 1993 and Irish band Hothouse Flowers appeared to have it all. Just five years after the former buskers had set out to impress music fans with their hybrid of rock 'n' roll, Irish folk and gospel influences, they had three albums under their belt and were enjoying worldwide acclaim.

Then suddenly, nothing. Lead singer Liam O'Maonlai decided that he was not entirely happy and took himself off to Howth, a picturesque village near Dublin Bay.

"We finished our third CD as Hothouse Flowers (Songs from the Rain) and it was probably the era when the band was at its best but I wasn't 100% happy with the way things were going," says Liam.

"I wasn't really seeing the rewards to match the amount of work we were doing. I felt we had to get a life.

"I said that we needed to stop for a year and think about our lives and get the reference points back.

"It was a rough card to pull as it meant everyone had to stop." The sudden break came as a huge shock to fans. After starting out busking on the streets of Dublin, they built up a huge following, particularly among the student population.

The track Don't Go was one of the most memorable anthems of the late '80s.

But at the time of the break, as well as feeling unhappy with the band, Liam was also grieving for his father who had just passed away.

"His wishes would have been for me to get things in order so I had the strength of him with me." Today, it is as if that period had never happened. Three of the founding members of Hothouse Flowers - Liam, Fiachna O'Braonain and Peter O'Toole - are back together and touring once more and later this month they visit Wales.

They also recently released the 13-track album Into Your Heart, which, by all accounts, has been met with "an incredible response" from fans.

And earlier this month, Liam entertained music fans along with his fellow countryman Ronan Keating at the Belfast gig to mark the 10 new countries joining the European Union. Liam believes that the break, which eventually lasted around two years, did them the world of good. During his time in Howth, Liam did some song-writing, painting, walking and sleeping.

"It was a bit of a simple lifestyle for a while. My brother would come a see me but I was on my own mostly."

Some of the songs he penned related to his father's death.

He also formed another band, Alt, with Andy White and Tim Finn, the brother of Crowded House's lead singer Neil.

He says he doesn't know how the rest of Hothouse Flowers felt about him forming a new band after literally walking out on them.

"I'm sure it crossed their minds that this was the real reason for me going."

But while Liam enjoyed making music with Alt, he says he knew he had to resolve the situation with Hothouse Flowers.

"We had unfinished business so we started meeting up again. We decided that we had to even talk about maybe ending Hothouse Flowers but it became an unmentionable subject."

But while two of the original members, Jerry Fehily and Leo Barnes, both left the group, Liam, Fiachna and Peter decided to continue.

"We felt we had gone so far with Jerry and Leo and we needed to simplify the band. It was a brutal decision on reflection."

So a fourth studio album, appropriately entitled Born, was released in 1997 and it revealed a harder, more electronic edge.

Born attracted excellent critical reviews and it resulted in a tour as well as a support slot with the Rolling Stones during their Bridges To Babylon tour.

With US tours in 1999, 2001 and 2002, Hothouse Flowers proved they were back with a vengeance and continued to reaffirm their presence on the live circuit.

Since reforming, Liam says the pressures have been taken off him as the band's frontman. In the past, the singer, who also plays keyboards, guitar, tin whistle and didgeridoo, used to write the lyrics to all of the songs. But, during their time apart, Fiachna and Peter, who Liam met when they were all growing up in Dublin, both started writing too.

"They both found an outlet to write songs and so it's taken a huge amount of pressure off me."

In February, they released their fifth studio album, Into Your Heart, which features 14 brand new tracks. Fiachna has described it as "the most raw, soulful record we've ever done.

"Hothouse Flowers, which now also features Dave Clark on the drums, are about to embark on a UK tour, which includes a performance in Wales.

"We are playing mostly in theatres so you get a sense of the people who are there," says Liam, who has an eight-year-old son, Cian.

"It's really lovely as you can sing without a mic and people can hear you."

While Liam sounds enthusiastic when he now speaks about the band, he says that it hasn't all been rosy since the reunion.

"There are days when it feels like it's the best job and there are times when I think I should be doing something else but I think that's life," he says.

"We have learned that we have something very, very valuable between us. We have a strong network of fans out there and people get a great energy from being followers of a band."

In fact, many long-standing fans of Hothouse Flowers have become some of Liam's closest friends.

"It might not even be financially viable to keep going but for now we are just enjoying the gigs."