Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hothouse Flowers | Interview
By Tina Calder • Photography: Debbie Deboo
From dealing with unexpectedly reaching the heights of the pop charts to his father’s death at the height of his fame Hothouse Flowers singer Liam Ó Maonlaí has had a roller coaster career.
Famed for songs such as Don’t Go and I Can See Clearly Now the Hothouse Flowers defined an era of music in the late 80s and early 90s.
Despite three top 10 albums and several successful singles Liam, 52, and the band decided to “take a break” in 1994.
The break followed a hefty touring and recording schedule that included forming the band The Acoustic Hippies From Hell and recording with rock superstars Def Leppard.
But for Dublin born Liam the break wasn’t to spell the end of the Flowers, in his mind it made them a stronger band.
He explained: “Everything unfolds as life does and you can’t be in control of everything. The band started and it was wild it was on the streets and that was really exciting.
“I was finding a personality that I knew was in there somewhere but I didn’t know I could find the guts to use it, if you like.
“Then in 1993 my father died, and I used that as my reason to say to the guys: ‘OK I think we all need a break, but I know I need a break’.
“My father wasn’t in the music industry, he could sing though. He was an engineer, he understood the business and we were very close, I used to talk to him about everything that was going on and I had his ear. He was a good confidant.
“So I took a year off and then I took another year and I sorted out a little bit of what was in my head and what was not in my head and where the two met.
For Liam, some of what the Flowers were doing was beginning to get a little formulaic. Shortly before the band took it’s break he began feeling like he was doing the same thing over and over again.
“That was what I was feeling …I would also take responsibility for that feeling in my own head space, you know” he said speaking ahead of the band’s performance at the Holywood Harmony Festival in Co Down on 03 June.
“When I say ‘what was in my head’ I suppose I mean my perception of what was right and what was wrong about being in a band.
“I joined another band and I realised the same kind of things were bugging me about this other band and so I thought OK so it’s not about that band, it was more about the way things happen.
“You know there was no real decisions I could make I could only follow the way things happened and go with them and see how they worked as in an opportunity arose after seven years of hard labour with this band to take some time off so I took it.”
Back in the early days of the band’s split Liam did worry that they may not have ever spoken again.
“There were times when it may not have happened” he explained.
“But we have been through thick and thin with each other. I don’t think there is many could survive what we survived and we still respect each other. We have seen the darkness in each other.
“To be honest I didn’t give it much thought you know. Music communicates in its own way and when we couldn’t talk with words we would always make some communication with music so we are circa the music to each of us and so we are all different.”
Liam is immensely proud of what he has achieved with Hothouse Flowers but is keen to keep other projects on the go at the same time.
“We came back together after those two years and we have been touring ever since sometimes a year will go by and we haven’t done much at all and then another year might go by and we will have done a lot more” he said.
“When the band and myself got together again and we started playing a lot as three and I found that very satisfying we touched a lot on some of the finer music that we were making that wasn’t getting out with the full band.
“I am happy with all the records we have made, but I think we were signed to the wrong record company.
“The record company we had ‘fixed’ bands from what I could make out they kind of created bands or fixed them whereas we didn’t need fixing we just needed someone to watch us and to encourage us to move forward.
“When we got signed and we got into the whole business machine it became very heavy and grey and depressing. And it depressed me because it broke something. There was magic happening in those early days and suddenly it was being choked by this business and by people doing things by the book instead of following the creative influences of the individuals who were making the music.”
Despite being the ‘face’ of one of the most important Irish folk rock acts, Liam admits he is still a shy person.
“By nature I would be quiet,” he said, but on stage he comes alive.
“I have an alter ego that comes out on stage.
“It’s still a part of me, it doesn’t feel any different. But it’s free and I feel like the stage would have been a licence for me to be that way.”
As well as being in other acts Liam is also a successful artist and solo artist, but admits the self employed life isn’t always easy.
He may be a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from guitar, piano and fiddle to accordion, whistles and even the didgeridoo but for Liam it’s important to have variety in his creative endeavours.
“Playing lots of different instruments just suited me. I always knew I wanted to be in music. It just suited me to play them, I would say I am definitely a master of none but it’s like some of the greatest songs were written by people who didn’t play the instruments they used.
“For example John Lennon and Imagine. Sometimes and instrument will guide you towards something that if you were playing the instrument that you are used to you will just play your favourite or your cleverest. Whereas if you’ve got something else you are searching in a different way.
“I definitely have other creative avenues that I go down. I draw and I like all of that stuff.
“It’s mostly for myself but I think I’m working towards an exhibition of some sort or other. But that could happen in a month or a year or ten years.
“I like drawing faces and people and I like doing colour and playing with abstract.
“The last painting I did I kind of merged the two and I’m still not sure what I think of it.”
Next month Liam and his fellow members of Hothouse Flowers will take to the stage at the Holywood Harmony Festival in Co Down. And the singer says he’s looking forward to the show.
“We’ve got 10 years worth of songs” he said.
“We don’t do a set list we go on stage I might indicate what we might do or we might decide on the first song or more but from then on in I’ll think of a song, then someone else in the band might think of a song and start playing the first couple of notes.
“We manoeuvre through the night with our music that way and we manoeuvre with each other that way.
“I don’t have a favourite because a song to play either. That’s the beauty of not having a set list – you start into a song and the band doesn’t know it’s that song and suddenly the new air has been allowed to come into the song and suddenly the bass player playing a different bass line. So suddenly it’s different and it’s got more air in it.”
Hothouse Flowers play the Holywood Harmony Festival on Saturday 03 June. Ulaid & Duke Special on Friday 02 June and Gareth Dunlop and Dana Masters on Sunday 04 June.