Twenty years in the music industry have scarred the Hothouse Flowers singer. “If you go back to 1994, Hothouse Flowers decided to take a break, because the machine was killing me, killing all of us, in fact,” says Ó Maonlaí. “We definitely needed time away. Then, one year become another year. When we got back together, things were very different. We had become a cottage industry, really. We were doing it on our own terms.”
Championed by everyone from U2 to Gay Byrne, in the late ’80s the Dubliners were one of Ireland’s biggest music exports. Starting with ‘Don’t Go’, they notched up a slew of top ten hits across Europe and built a huge fan base among Irish-Americans. They seemed destined for a long sojourn at the top. It didn’t work out. Ó Maonlai says there was an unsustainable tension between who they were as artists and the group their record label wanted them to be. They were never going to be just another pop outfit.
“London Records was an interesting label,” says Ó Maonlai. “However, by the time we arrived they were kind of inventing groups, people like Bananarama and Fine Young Cannibals. Those were bands that seemed to be ‘fixed’. London thought we were ‘broken’ in some way and that we needed to be repaired.”
Since reforming in the ’90s, the group has continued to tour and write, but on their own terms. Ó Maonlai has a successful solo career, a vital outlet for creative impulses that do not fit within Hothouse Flowers’ aesthetic. “The solo stuff allows me to go out on a limb without putting everyone else’s life at risk, so to speak,” he says. “It has been hugely, hugely useful. I thrive on adversity and difficult situations. By having the band and my stand-alone stuff, I can have the best of both words.”
The group will play classic material at their Leopardstown Racecourse gig this week, but they are stuck in the past. “There is still a lust for music within us,” he says. “We are moving towards a new record. There is a plan to spend time in [U2’s stomping ground] Windmill Lane over the next couple of months. We think we are in a position to make the ‘right noise’, if that makes sense.”
He doesn’t object to success, but it must be on the group’s terms. “I like the idea of good music reaching the top — of ringing the bell and having a hit. In that regard, it never felt as if we were being corralled. It was never black-and-white. A lot of people understand what we were doing, I think. Chris Blackwell, of Island Records, has said that he regretted not signing us, for example.
“The very beginning of Hothouse Flowers was a wonderful dream come true. We were playing on the streets of Dublin, jamming with people. The world was our oyster. Then, the business side came in and we had to obey dull standards. Dullness was a big part of it, something that was very hard to live with. Eventually, we thought, ‘you know what, enough is enough’. We’ve left all that behind us now.”
In his late 40s, Ó Maonlai doesn’t fear aging. The music he creates is more interesting with time. “A huge number of our idols and role models would be older people,” he says. “They are the sort who never felt they should stay young or pretend to be someone they weren’t. The wheels turn a lot slower for the band nowadays — and that seems to suit us.”
*Hothouse Flowers play Leopardstown Racecourse tomorrow night.