Liam Ó Maonlaí, lead vocalist with Irish Band, Hothouse Flowers, chats with Kevin Cooper about the current state of the music industry, his friendship with the late Dudley Sutton, appearing with Inxs at Wembley Stadium in 1991 and his forthcoming appearance at the Cornbury Music Festival.

Liam Ó Maonlaí is an Irish musician best known as being a member of Hothouse Flowers.  Ó Maonlaí formed the band in 1985 with his schoolmate Fiachna Ó Braonáin.

Ó Maonlai first formed a band called The Complex with childhood friend Kevin Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, but left to form Hothouse Flowers in 1984, where they started as street performers.

Hothouse Flowers released their album, People, on London Records in 1988 and it was the most successful debut album in Irish history, reaching number one in Ireland and number two in the UK.

After recording two more albums and an extensive touring schedule, the group separated in 1994.  Reforming in 1998, Hothouse Flowers have gone on to release a further six studio albums, four compilation albums and two live albums.  Members of the band have also pursued solo careers.

Ó Maonlaí is also an active member of the Nuclear Free Future movement and has contributed to the hosting of events in Carnsore and in Wexford Town in 2001.  In 2004 he was a guest at the Barefoot College, located at Rajasthan, India.  In 2005 he released a solo album entitled Rian which is a collection of tunes and songs in Irish.  He also performed in the 2009 Dublin to Gaza benefit concert.

Whilst preparing to perform at the Cornbury Music Festival, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Liam, how are you today?

Hiya Kevin, I’m good thanks, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all, its my pleasure.  I appreciate you saying that but thank you also for showing an interest in what Hothouse Flowers and myself are currently up to.

And how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life is wonderful, and we are having a beautiful summer.  I love music and I have been keeping myself busy.  The family are all great, everybody is well, so you know I have to say that at this moment in time, life is good.

In that case I suppose that we had better talk about the Cornbury Music Festival, hadn’t we?

Probably (laughter).

You are opening proceedings on Sunday are you looking forward to it?

That’s right, we are opening things up on Sunday and I have to say that we are all looking forward to that, very much so.

This isn’t your first time at Cornbury is it?

No, it’s not, we played there almost fourteen years ago now.  We loved it back then and we are all very much looking forward to being back there once again. 

I personally think that Cornbury really does have a nice, warm, family feel to it.  Would you agree with that?

Yes, I would, I totally would.  As you say it has a really nice feel to it plus it takes place in such beautiful surroundings.  For us it is a real pleasure for us to be there.  It still blows my mind when I think what an honour it is for me to be a musician and for me to come to a field full of people, and for me to be a conduit for everyone having a good time.  A bit of dancing, a bit of pleasure, a bit of laughter and even a tear or two.  For me to be a conduit for that it still blows my mind that I am able to do that.  That really does feed me no end. 

Without giving too much away, just what can we expect from your set?

Well, what you have to remember is that the Hothouse Flowers are first and foremost an improvisational band, so bearing that in mind; anything could happen on the day.  We are fortunate in the fact that we have a song list that goes back over thirty years and to be honest we do play a fair few of those songs.  Having said that we never plan ahead.  We go on stage and we see where the music, the day and the atmosphere will take us.

And just how long have they given you?

I’m not totally sure yet, we will find out more about that on the day, but usually at a festival such as Cornbury they will give us an hour.

Is there anyone that you will be watching?

I would have loved to have seen The Specials, but I am being told that they are playing on Friday night.

That’s right, they are headlining on Friday night. However, between you and me I personally feel that you are playing on the best day out of the three.  You have The Beach Boys, Paul Carrack, Alfie Bow and the legend that is Sam Moore.

Tell me more about Sam Moore because I think that I am a bit ignorant there.

Sam Moore is half of the duo Sam & Dave, who had hits with songs such as Soul Man, Sooth Me, Hold On, I’m Comin’, You Don’t Know Like I Know and I Thank You. 

Really, oh my god, that is brilliant.  Sunday really looks like it is going to be a good night of music.  There really should be something for everyone looking at the line-up for Sunday.

After your set, will you be staying on to watch anyone in particular?

Well, we are playing a festival here in Ireland the following day, so we really do have to fly back to Ireland immediately after our set.  I would have loved to have hung around and taken in some of the music but unfortunately this time circumstances dictate otherwise. 

I must tell you that you have made me feel a little older today.

Oh really, have I really, in that case you had better tell me more.

If I may I would like to take you back to Saturday 13th July 1991 which was the first time that I ever saw Hothouse Flowers. 

Really (laughter).  Now you have me intrigued.

You were supporting Inxs at Wembley Stadium in front of almost eighty thousand people.

Wow, that is such a long time ago now.  Had you heard about Hothouse Flowers before then?

Yes, I was aware of the band but that was the first time that I had seen you performing live.

That really was a great day.

It was a great day together with a great line-up; yourselves, Jesus Jones, Roachford, Deborah Harry and of course Inxs. 

It was a lot of fun and I must tell you that Deborah Harry was really nice to us.  She took the time to chat to us backstage, and I believe that they broadcast our part of the concert on the BBC.   In fact, there is a bootleg of that concert out there that somebody put together, and as I say it really was a lot of fun. 

What I vividly remember is the late Dudley Sutton (best known for his role as Tinker in BBC TV’s Lovejoy) coming out onto the stage to play the harmonica with you.

Yes, that’s right he did.  I must tell you that Dudley was one of the good guys.  We all just hit it off with him right from the word go.  He knew Ireland really well and he knew a part of Ireland that my parents would have grown up in as Dubliners, together with the evolving cultural theme that was happening in our capital city.  Dudley could name check a lot of people who we would have known or who we would have admired. 

How did you and Dudley meet?

We did a crazy episode of Lovejoy and that is how we met Dudley.  It really was so much fun, and I remember always being able to know exactly where everyone was because there was always laughter.  I would just follow the laughter and that’s where I would find everyone.  Dudley would always be reeling out these stories; he really did have a great attitude for life, right up until his last breath.  We were all in touch with him right up until his very last breath.  It was amazing because we really connected, and I still get emotional when I think about it.  For him to reach out to us at a time where you keep your nearest and dearest around you, and you don’t really have the energy to be giving to people who you don’t know so well.

So, for us to have been included in his thoughts at that time is an enormous privilege.  He broadcast something shortly before he died, and he showed a fantastic attitude and balls in the broadcast.  He was giving the fingers to both life and death in a very positive way.  He really was amazing; a unique man and a unique exit.  That Lovejoy experience was wonderful.  We were embraced and in the bosom of some great countryside together with some great old English towns.  The weather was glorious as well and the whole thing was an idyllic piece of time. 

I can always remember seeing Dudley in programmes like The Saint when he would always be playing the tough guy.

Yes indeed, Dudley had the looks for playing the heavy guy.

Now coming up to date, in 2016 you released your album Let’s Do This Thing but here in the UK it is only available as a download.  Whose idea was that?

The album sort of made that decision itself.  The thing is that we are not a managed operation anymore; we no longer have a driver.  We gather together, and we do a gig, we gather together, and we do a bit of recording, so we just thought that the quickest and easiest thing for us to do would be to make the album available for download.  However, we quickly realised that we hadn’t done our homework on it.  I personally would like to have the album as something that you could buy as a physical thing and I am thinking about doing something with vinyl as well.  Funnily enough, there is a physical CD of the album out there and available for purchase in Japan of all places.  They insisted that we release it on CD for the Japanese market, so we did. 

Were you happy with the fan’s reaction to the album?

Yes, I was, absolutely.  From my personal point of view the album just had to be made and it had to be what it is.  Having said that we haven’t really gone out on the road and played those songs.  There are one or two songs off the album that we play, and we are still learning the rest of them.  You don’t really know what the fans think until you are playing the songs for them.  There is a song on there called Three Sisters and we play that, and it goes down well. 

Are there currently any thoughts on a new Hothouse Flowers studio album?

To be honest with you I would have to say not at this moment in time.

What about your solo work, will we be seeing any new work from you?

Its funny that you should ask me that because I will be going over to Japan later this month where I will be playing a couple of concerts and I have been asked if I would like to record some new material whilst I am over there which will be my own work.  I am really looking forward to the pleasure of filling that space and making something viable. 

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

The nature of what I do and what we do as Hothouse Flowers means that it is constantly bettering itself.  Whenever you play a good gig then that gig is the best gig ever.  That is the way that it is.  When you hit that moment in music it is incomparable to anything else and I am glad to say that still happens.  So as long as that still happens, then it simply keeps getting better.

Next year 2020 will be the 35th Anniversary of Hothouse Flowers.  Have you got anything special lined up in order to celebrate the occasion?

The simple answer to that is no.  I mean we might all get together and go out for a pint.  Its not something that I find very sexy really, a band celebrating thirty or forty years together on the road.  It doesn’t excite me as a punter.  I just think ‘fair play, it’s amazing’ but that’s as excited as I get about the whole thing.  It is something that we could celebrate ourselves, and yes, we might do something, but at this moment in time, I don’t know.  I guess that it is an opportunity for us to say “look we are this now, we could do this and let’s do that” but I always think that these occasions are more of a selling opportunity for the record companies and it allows them to cash in.

But as you rightly say, it is a landmark.  It really is amazing that we are all still talking to each other after all the thick and thin that we have experienced.  It is an amazing reality to have people in your life that know both the best and the worst of you. 

Do you have a favourite Hothouse Flowers song?

No (laughter).  They are like kids, they are all living things, if we feed them they are alive, and you can always find a different strength in a song.  You can also suddenly find that the song has a whole new meaning for you depending upon the sort of day that you have had.  It really is an amazing thing.

From your personal point of view, is the music industry dead or is it simply changing?

It is constantly changing.  Music, you see, is a law and a life unto itself and the music industry is a totally different animal altogether.  The music industry is made up of the promotion, the playing and the buying and selling of music.  There are those who fight the cause, and there was a time when musicians would be making a lot of money within that industry.  However, I have to say that was a short-lived window for musicians.  The problem that you are always faced with is that the music business was not designed by musicians, it was designed by business people.  So, it doesn’t really work in the musician’s favour that much, but the nuts and bolts of the music business are changing all the time.  What I do love about the way things are now is that somebody obscure can, if they have a talent, do it.  The world can hear your work without you having to sign a contract, or to be owned by somebody.

I feel that is a very healthy development.  But in answer to your question, music is going strong.  You might not hear it on mainstream radio, but evolution is very interesting, and it is reflected within the music and it is reflected in how people present themselves and what people tend to listen to, how they dance to it, all of these things are really interesting and exciting.  I recently read a big long Tweet by somebody who has been to every Glastonbury since the beginning and he said that this year’s Glastonbury was the best.  He claimed that this was partially due to the fact that the cultural exclusivity had been completely broken and all of what makes England great was represented in a beautiful way and that has to be good news. 

What both worries and angers me is that the paying public here in the UK now seem to accept with open arms that most of the American acts who perform over here will at some point during their shows be miming.  Surely that can’t be healthy?

No way.  Just how many will do that?

Well there are very strong rumours that Janet Jackson was miming during her recent performance at Glastonbury. 

Oh well, I suppose that she could be.  Some of those acts have massive productions and maybe she wouldn’t be miming, she would most probably be performing to lots of backing tracks, I don’t know.  If she was then I personally wouldn’t be too excited about that, I don’t think that is very impressive at all.  I don’t think that anyone should call themselves a working musician if they are miming.  Despite all of that, what you must remember is that there are still some great Rock and Roll players out there who just plug in and play.  I saw Gladys Knight in Dublin a couple of weeks ago now, and that was just beautiful.  Even now her voice is sublime.

Her band was amazing; they were all impeccably disciplined, they were so soulful and so rhythmic.  The whole evening was simply amazing.  Everything that we all dream and wish for in a band she had it and the whole evening was glorious. 

What was the first record that you bought?

The very first record that I bought, I’m not telling you (laughter).  It was Spanish Train by Chris de Burgh and I have to say that not a lot of people know that.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

It was actually, I don’t even know what the song was, but I walked into a coffee shop and there was this band playing over the speakers and the song moved me to tears and it was by The War On Drugs.

Liam on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, its been fantastic.  You take care and I will see you at Cornbury.

Thanks Kevin, that’s brilliant.  You take care and I will see you there.