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Coming from the streets

Liam Ó Maonlaí of Hothouse Flowers told David Hennessy why the high point of the 35 years of the band would be when they were playing on the streets of Dublin, about his time living in a squat in Brixton and what the silence when he was singing Carrickfergus in Wembley Arena told him about the power of music and culture.

“I’m looking forward to coming over and breaking bread,” Hothouse Flowers’ Liam Ó Maonlaí said looking ahead to UK gigs that were planned for last year but ended up being cancelled due to Covid-19.

“It’s great to feel that members of the Irish community over there will be reading these words. I really hope I can be over in November but who knows? I’m looking forward to it anyway.”

Known for songs like Don’t Go, Give it Up and I Can See Clearly Now, this year marks 35 years since the band first formed. The band would burst onto the scene in 1988 when their debut album People became the most successful Irish album in history but Liam tells us it was their days of playing on the streets of Dublin that was the highlight for him.

“I can’t (believe it). When I might home in on a memory from 35 years ago, I find it quite astounding. It feels like no time.

“The main excitement of that time was playing on the streets, I think. Playing on the streets was the most vivid and fruitful thing. It was fruitful financially, it was fruitful creatively and it was a step away from civilisation as we knew it because we were outside. We were doing something in a way that was older than the buildings around us. There was a kind of ancient feeling to it even though we were just bellowing out rhythm and blues, blues improvisations but nonetheless there was something about it because it was out on the land and harnessing our own energy, the energy of those watching us and the energy of the open air.

Busk for Simon. Liam O Maonlai and Glen Hansard lead musicians busking on Grafton Street in Dublin in what became a traditional Christmas Eve event to raise money for the Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust.

“It’s a high point in my life. I had broken out of the school institution. I had finished but I had also told my Dad I wasn’t going to be doing third level education and that was a big deal. He really wanted me to do that and it was expected of me but then was the time, the iron was hot and then was the time to do it.

“And he didn’t regret it. He saw this rise to fame and fortune and he saw me go through it. But the highlight of that was the street, no doubt about it. Everybody there knew what they were doing. We got to know a lot of the people from the street: The sellers, the travellers, the people who work the street. It really felt like we were part of an older civilisation out there.”

People would be number one album in Ireland as well as number two in the UK. The follow-up Home would arrive in 1990 but becoming successful took some of the enjoyment from playing music for Liam and the ‘endless touring’ would take a lot out of him.

“You saw the ruthlessness certain people have. I’ve kind of likened it to mining. You don’t give a sh*t about the mountain. You just want what’s in the mountain and you don’t give a sh*t about the community and the culture that live in that area, you just kind of move in and you do what you need to do to gain control over the materials. There was a sense of that. You could see those characters moving around and I mean they’re just people making their own fortune, doing their own thing.

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“But the business wasn’t designed by musicians, it was designed by business people to make money for musicians and out of musicians. It was just the way it was. We did it and we had a great time.

“Seven years we were travelling the world and working like crazy. There was one year I think there was two weeks off in a year and by the end of the seventh year my Dad passed away and I thought, ‘I haven’t seen four seasons in my own home, I don’t even know what my own home is’.

“I was a bit lost so I said to the guys, ‘Guys, we need to take a year off. I think we all need to take a year off but I know I do’. And that was it. I suppose I probably could have been swayed had it not been for the fact that my father had died and that I had that on my mind.

“He saw me then under the pressure of the whole thing and he saw the endless touring and he could see it was taking its toll on me so I knew I was doing it for him as well.”

Mentioning not seeing his own home for so long and being signed to London Records, we wonder if relocating to London was ever necessary but Liam says Dublin remained the base he was always trying to get back to. However, he did come to London and lived in a squat in Brixton when he was eighteen and ‘running away’.

“I tried London when I was 18 but I had nothing. I had no money. It’s a tough town when you’ve got nothing.

“I was there for two months. I was fighting with my Dad a lot and there was a lot of pressure at home so I was kind of running away a bit so this was an opportunity to really run away.

I took the boat and I got myself over to London and I had a few addresses. But I was a depressed youngster, I think. My head was down. As my mother would say, ‘I always had a quiet confidence in my music’. I had never doubted my ability to make music but my self-esteem wasn’t great so I wasn’t very inventive while I was there. It was very much an existence.

“But one of the addresses I had was a squat in Brixton. It was my last address. It was my last resort. I remember I had a quid in my pocket and I was on the tube going to Brixton and it was interesting. I didn’t even know if there would be anybody there.

“I remember knocking on the door, looking through, seeing a bicycle inside but nobody was there.”

But Liam had been seen by a lady who was babysitting across the common and came to let him in.

“And suddenly I was home. I was home and dry for the next two months. I never busked or anything. There was a guy Eric who used to try and encourage me, ‘I’ll go out with ya if you want to busk’. People were just trying to get me on my feet but I never did. I did a little bit of work on a stall in Brixton market. I remember that.

“It’s good to talk about it. It’s good to remember it. That summer was incredible.

“I think when you’re exiled you do start longing for aspects of home and I suppose alcohol is associated with blissful times at home. I think maybe that might be a reason that we get more thirsty when we’re away from home somehow: Because we’re trying to reawaken that feeling that comes from summers at home amongst friends, amongst community, amongst family.

Liam joins forces with seven piece bluegrass band “Prison Love” on the top of Grafton Street as they were busking back in 2007.

“I was living in a squat and that was good but there was a loneliness there that I knew just did not exist in Ireland. That’s to do with coming from Dublin, that you’re never too far removed from your own kin on some level or other.

“Coming back (to London) and having an occupation, having something to do in London it was quite exciting.”

Was Liam ever on the receiving end of any anti-Irish sentiment due to the IRA bombing campaign of the time? “No, when I went as an 18-year-old I got searched alright but other than that not really.

“It’s sort of like the elephant in the room, you would be making wise cracks about the history but of course you don’t realise it’s a different history book and a lot of what we know about our own history, they don’t know. They don’t know our history.

“Only those who seek to learn or those who have Irish friends might know but it’s not taught in school. I didn’t realise that and so you would be making these wise cracks and they just wouldn’t be getting the joke. I kind of look back at our innocence really.”

When asked for his highlights in his 35 years of playing and recording music, Liam mentions his experiences in Japan as well as a very special moment in Wembley Arena.

“Well, Japan took me by surprise. I had no major curiosity or interest in going to Japan but in, I think, 1991 it appeared on the calendar. I really loved it. Something about Japan felt like home and I’ve continued to go to Japan over the years and I learn something new every time, except the language. I’m as lazy as the day is long.

“I remember moments. Whenever you talk, other moments surface: The making of Don’t Go. I remember we wrote the song and I didn’t think it was that great. It only had two chords pretty much and it sounded like something else to me but everyone was saying, ‘This is a single, this is a single’.

“But then I remember as we worked on it in the studio in London in Battersea, seeing it take shape and looking at each other and going, ‘This is good’. That was a lovely moment.

“I remember our agent wanted us to play Wembley Arena. We had done the Hammersmith Odeon and I was kind of going, ‘I don’t want to play bigger places, I want to play better places’. Our manager at the time goes, ‘The agent really thinks you should do this, really just think about what you would like to do to make it your gig’. It was one of the best conversations, one of the most creative conversations I’ve had with our manager.

“All our families came over for this gig and we all stayed in the Columbia Hotel which is a famous rock ‘n’ roll hotel. And I remember singing Carrickfergus in English and in Irish in Wembley Arena and there was a silence in the room.

“It said something to me about culture and people and that a heartfelt culture can touch everybody. You don’t need to be Irish to feel Irish culture. You don’t need to be African to feel African culture.

“Because I think culture is something that comes from the people, for the people and it’s not just entertainment. It’s something else. I kind of see culture as a harmonising with creation in a way.

“So I think when you hear a sean-nós song you’re hearing something ancestral and we’re all land people. We are of the earth and when we hear genuine music that comes from a place that isn’t designed to sell, it’s expressed naturally I think we get it and that silence told me that.

“In Wembley Arena when I was singing a foreign language to these people that to some might have political undertones but there was a silence and we all became that song. We all travelled with that song for those five minutes and I think that probably sums up that part of the journey for me, the essential teaching of that journey.”

The band released their seventh album Let’s Do This Thing in 2016 and Liam is more interested in celebrating that they are still making music than the fact that it has been 35 years since they first got together.

“Bands’ age never really interested me. I wouldn’t be running out to see a band just because they’ve been around for 40 years. I want to go and see them because they’re making great music, they’re still making great music. They’re not reproducing music, they’re making it.

“That’s what we’re doing. We still make the music. We still try and tap into that creative energy that we were playing with back in the day when we had broken onto the scene, on the street: That raw, creative ‘anything could happen and probably will’ energy. We bring that to the stages and we bring it to wherever else we’re going to.

“We’re going to do a live stream concert the end of next month. We might mention that we’ve been 35 years at it. I really feel the album Let’s Do This Thing captured the creative side of the band. It captured how we listen to each other when we play and the places we go to musically. Five of the songs are improvised but yet they are songs so when you’re listening to it the singer, which is me, doesn’t know what the next verse is going to be until I’m singing it.

“I have always wanted to capture that.”

Liam Ó Maonlaí plays Tyneside Irish Festival at 7pm on Saturday 2 October. 

For more information, click here.

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