Brian Finnegan of Flook told David Hennessy about 26 years of Flook, how the band retains its magic after so many years and why it’s strange to hear high court judges and doctors say they grew up with their music.
In the 26 years since they first formed, Flook have gone through changes in personnel and taken extended breaks to concentrate on other projects, but flute player Brian Finnegan says when they come back together, it is just like getting back into comfortable old clothes.
Flook cemented their reputation on the international music scene with albums such as Flatfish (1999), Rubai (2002) Haven (2005)) but it has been their live performances that they have really been known for, being crowned Best Folk Group at the BBC Folk Awards 2006.
The band had just released and toured their most recent album Ancora, their first since 2005, in 2019. This brought an end to a 14 year recording hiatus as the band had decided to take a break from 2008 until 2013.
The Irish Times said of their return: “Tour de force return after decade and a half – a luminous reunion.”
Lynette Fay, BBC Radio Ulster, added: “A very welcome return from one of folk’s finest bands.”
Time Out said: “Four brilliant musicians. Four times as much brilliant music.”
Ancora, released with a sell-out 17-date tour of England and Wales, was nominated for Best Album at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2019. That same year they were also shortlisted for Best Folk Group at the RTE Radio 1 Folk Awards.
Brian feels taking a break for those years made Flook more able to navigate the periods of inactivity the pandemic brought as they had already been through it albeit unenforced.
Brian told The Irish World: “We’re very lucky because we were busy in that year before the big pause.
”We were lucky enough to get a good year out on the road launching that (album).
“We did a big album tour of the UK and then some nice festivals, some nice trips abroad- But then music shut its doors after that.
“So we had that year and then subsequently, two years off to think about it and gestate.
“But a few years before that, we took a four or five year hiatus from working together so we could concentrate on other things, family first and foremost, but then other musical projects that we hadn’t been able to accept or get on board with because we were full-time will Flook.
“So we took four years out.
“There was never any pressure to come back.
“It was just a very organic, natural return to working together.
“There was no panic button pressed.
“And I guess, because we had that relatively recently, in 2020 when it was enforced, there was no sense of panic again.
“We kind of waited for a lot longer previously than that to come back together.
“So I think we were equipped to deal okay with two years downtime.”
Flook was formed in 1995 by four friends: Becky Morris, Sarah Allen, Mike McGoldrick and Brian.
With members from London, Manchester and Armagh, Flook have always drawn on a wide range of influences and traditions.
The line- up would change over the years.
The well known McGoldrick would depart to play with other outfits such as Lunasa and Capercaillie.
Of the original line-up, Brian and Sarah remain and are joined by Ed Boyd (currently of Lunasa) and John Joe Kelly.
Damien O’Kane has also been part of the line-up over the years.
“Flook is just one of those bands, because we started it 26 years ago, we were all young and it retains that kind of childlike, or young, sense of wonder and magic about it.
“Even when we grew up and started having grown up responsibilities like families and mortgages and stuff, Flook still had that kind of Neverland atmosphere vibe running through it.
“So it’s great when we regroup because you’re reminded about the simpler way to live.”
Flook burst onto the scene with their Flook! Live! album, released in 1996, and then their Flatfish debut studio album following in 1999.
“At the time there was really no mission,” Brian remembers of the time the band was formed.
“We were more interested in just letting the music show us the way.
“If we thought we had enough material to make an album, we would go in and make an album.
“And then the album would empty us for years. We wouldn’t feel any great urge to go back in, even though in music, it’s all about cycles.”
Indeed while many bands never go more than a couple of years without producing the next album, Flook have always operated with more freedom.
“In the template of most bands, we would be committing harry carry.
“Flook didn’t really operate the same way because we had this unique position whereby we weren’t Irish, we weren’t English folk.
“And so we just inhabited our own little island.
“It felt like we could play music because we loved music.
“There was no expectation to make a trad album.
“We played music from around the world, and with no pretence to playing it as well as, say, a Hungarian band or a Swedish band might play a Hungarian tune or a Swedish tune.
“And then we wrote a lot of our own stuff and that had a more worldly palate to it.
“Our peripheral view of music was about life, journey and connections and stories.
“So we would write music and play music that we felt resonated with us because of the story.
“So when we started we thought, ‘Let’s play together because we all love each other’s playing’.
“And then a friend of ours, unbeknownst to us, recorded one of our first live gigs.
“It was Sidmouth Folk Fest.
“And she really grabbed the bull by the horns and said, ‘I’m going to give you all I can, all I can really give you a good start so I’m going to throw all my energy into getting you going’.
“And then it just took a life of its own really.”
Brian, who has played with other outfits like KAN as well as releasing his own solo album, credits Mike McGoldrick being winner of the BBC Young Tradition Award (1994) when the band started as helping their profile in the early days.
“We were lucky because at the beginning, Mike had just won a big award.
“It was a very fortunate time because we suddenly found ourselves on quite big stages that might have taken five, six years to get to otherwise.
“We hit the ground running really.”
Is it hard to believe it’s now been more than a quarter of a century since their first gig? “It’s hard to believe when you meet kids- who are not kids, who are now doctors and high court judges, and they tell you that they grew up with Flook in the cradle.
“I think it’s lovely.
“I look back and I don’t know where 26 years have gone, because to me it just seems like a long season that just keeps on getting brighter and brighter.
“I think we all come with other coats.
“Sometimes we come with heavy coats because we’ve been on the road, and we’re kind of tired.
“I work all over the world. Ed’s with Lunasa and Sarah has her thing, and John Joe does lots of different projects as well.
“Sometimes when we come back together, it takes a day or so for us to put on that different set of clothes.
“I guess when I’m in another project, I’m completely submersed in it.
“I’m living that project, or that set of music or that continent or wherever it is that I am.
“I get immersed in that and then I go back to Flook, and it’s like peeling off the layers.
“It’s a simple thing that we don’t need to talk about because we did it for so long.
“You don’t need to explain what’s going to happen, we just know.
“You could call it telepathic or intuitive or instinctive, it is just all of those things.
“And then once the music starts, we forget about everything else.
“The music is in charge and it kind of plays us.
“It’s really nice that that is still retained after a break.
“Flook would be quite a unique band in that I would be the main melody player, and then Sarah would take a tune and she would find another path.
“And then Ed and John Joe are just so versatile and in tune with each other, so we can birth new material quite quickly.
“If I have a new tune, I just take it to a sound check and nine times out of ten, we would even try it that night rough and ready and then the more road miles that we get, the more polished it becomes.
“But we’re not afraid to just throw in stuff.
“I don’t really know any other band that I’ve ever worked with… Because it’s (usually) an exhaustive process, ‘Will it work? Will it not?’ And if it does, then you rehearse it, layer it.
“It’s just not like that with Flook.
“As long as we all know what we’re doing as individuals, then it magically just syncs together to form this sound.”
Brian has been overwhelmed to hear firsthand what the band’s music has meant to people over the years.
“The great thing about music is it’s so different for any two peoples.
“When I’m playing, I can see whatever it is unlocking in someone- It could be very old memories or a sense of someone else.
“That’s why it’s so unique and personal, it can unlock these places inside us to help us remember or celebrate something in our life.
“A lot of kids come up to me after gigs and say, ‘This album or this track- I was going through a hard period, or I lost my mum’.
“Or some people have come through cancer, big life changing stuff.
“And they’ll come and they’ll say, ‘This album or this particular tune that you wrote was the thing that kept me afloat’.
“And that to me is very humbling and very beautiful to hear about where the music would have found a home, and to hear a story of it on its journey into the world.
“That’s the great thing about gigs as well, you get a lot of people coming up and telling you about what has happened since the last time they met you.
“It’s really great. Can’t wait.”
Part of the decision to re-group was the understanding that they had much left to say as a band, and a certain responsibility to loyal fans, old and new.
Flook will undertake an extensive tour of the UK through April and May.
Although Brian says they have been used to being on hiatus, was it strange to not be playing together? “Yeah.
“Because when we all found ourselves without music, without gatherings, we were kind of swept out of each other’s lives, and out of each other’s arms, away from each other’s tables.
“It’s almost like you forget about the stuff that unites us at a much deeper level.
“Because as a species, we evolved because we touched and we gathered together. We shared dreams and dances and stories.
“And suddenly we weren’t, loneliness crept in.
“And the minute that we came back to gigs, just the voltage in the room was overwhelming at times.
“It was cautious at the start: People wearing masks and that’s understandable, but you realized quite quickly that there was almost a thawing. I could feel it in the room.
“It was very powerful.
“I realized that music and art has the power to soften hard edges in our hearts and lives.
“We need people in the room because it’s there it catches fire.
“We’ve got the raw materials and an audience flare it into life.
“It’s a very communal thing.
“I know Tom Waits has a beautiful explanation about a good gig.
“He says, ‘Last night we all went out to the meadow’, meaning there was no walls or roof.
“The band were in such a place and the audience were in such a place together, the energy flowed between them that everything else just dissolved around them and they were in a meadow.
“It’s a sense of freedom.
“And we’ve come through this thing where it felt like we weren’t free. We weren’t free to move, we weren’t free to love, we weren’t free to hold.
“Now the sense of freedom is brilliant.
“And that’s the very least that we deserve and desire.
“And that sense of community and togetherness was really missed.
“I know that people close to me were lonely.
“We need human touch and contact, things like music.
“It’s just a reminder of who we are at a different level.
“I felt it’s absence for the two years.
“I loved being back and I could tell lots of folks felt the same way.”
The band’s first live gig back after lockdown was a show at The Irish Cultural Centre last summer.
“The thing that I remember about the Hammersmith gig was that it was the first time that there was no social distancing and it was maxed out.
“It was like 170 people and it was really crammed.
“And I remember looking out into the crowd, and there were a few masks, but there weren’t that many.
“It felt great but at the same time, I wondered how people in the room felt so huddled and close together.
“And then within a couple of sets, all of that stuff, it just dissipated.
“It dissolved into music again.
“Meeting people out front and seeing friends again, reconnecting. It was really powerful.”
Did it feel like a different world from the previous time that they had played live? “Yeah.
“Well, it is a different world.
“We crossed over something vast and immeasurable, that we don’t really still understand. And it was a universal kind of realization that we’re not in control, as in control as we thought we were of life.
“So it’s quite humbling, I think, in a way, to realize that we need each other.
“We can’t do it on our own.
“There’s big lessons in all of this, but I just think to crossover that invisible chasm, this giant leap of faith really.
“I mean, we had no choice, we just had a take it.
“So to come out the other side of it now and to see there’s a few folks who haven’t made it over- There’s a feeling of gratitude, I sense a feeling of gratitude off other people, that they’re happy to be still here and to be enjoying each other’s company.
“And it’s a reminder.
“For me, it’s a reminder of how I want to live my life.
“I want to make sure that I look after my friends and that I live life, not worry about the future because I’ve got no control over it.”
Flook tour the UK from Thursday 21 April- Saturday 21 May.
For more information, click here.