One of the primary incentives for becoming an artist, and making a living from your art, is the relative freedom it affords. Of course, it isn’t always that simple. A successful artist can be as tied down to schedules and fixed relationships as any company employee, but freedom from those obligations seems more possible.
Liam O Maonlai, the leader of Irish rock band Hothouse Flowers, talks about freedom a lot, and it becomes apparent that he’s freer now as an artist than he was when his band was at its commercial peak in the late 1980s and early ’90s. In fact, the desire for freedom was the reason the band broke up in 1994.
“That’s the thing,” he says. “We did that for seven years, and now we don’t any more. Even if we’re playing a big show, we stay away from set lists. People can be very obedient to certain forms, and it shouldn’t be that way with rock ‘n’ roll, you know?”
When the band emerged from the pubs and streets of Dublin — O Maonlai was also a dedicated busker for a time — it was championed by U2 and hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as the best unsigned band in Europe.
The group’s 1988 album, “People,” was the most successful debut in Irish pop history at the time. The music was both instantly identifiable and immediately appealing, a raucous mess of soul and folk rock forced through a Celtic filter. The band’s concerts were legendary for their unbridled energy, built around barefoot O Maonlai’s fluid baritone, which could slip from full-throated gospel fervor to crooning tenderness without getting bent out of shape, even while he was pounding away at the piano or furiously strumming his guitar.
“I mean, we were always free,” he says. “We always had a free way of working. Before we started touring, in our own city, we’d play loads of different places and each gig would be inspired by the venue, whether it was a cafe or a club. The place dictated the style. Underneath it all, we’re really a jam band. And then suddenly there were people around us who took life very seriously, trying to make millions of bucks out of what we had to offer.”
The decision to take a break from all that was an easy one to make, and it was O Maonlai who instigated it.
“I took a year off, and that allowed time for contemplation and change,” he says. “I don’t like pushing things too hard. I prefer they evolve in a certain natural way.”
He has since been free to explore music in a wider variety of ways, and every so often that involves reassembling Hothouse Flowers, which he will do this month when he comes to Japan, albeit bringing only two members, Peter O’Toole and Fiachna O Braonain. In that regard, nothing much has changed over the course of seven albums and 30-plus years, only the way they go about it.
O Maonlai, for one, has returned to his roots. He often tours solo, playing traditional Irish music on traditional Irish instruments. Though some of that roots sensibility made its way into the Hothouse Flowers’ sound, he prefers a purer form when he’s on his own.
“Peter and I, we’re traditional musicians. It’s our schooling, our lineage,” he says. “During that busy time, the band was like a machine, and off stage, in company or in the pub, we’d sing those old songs and I would play the whistle. It’s my soul music.”
The “soul music” description covers all manifestations of the term. A number of Irish pop artists have displayed an affinity for African-American music forms that seems more bred-in-the-bone: Think Belfast native Van Morrison and his attempts to assimilate his father’s R&B record collection. The Hothouse Flowers’ music is as much about gospel as it is about rock. There’s even a Peter O’Toole original on the debut called “Hallelujah Jordan.”
“Recently, I did some work with (jazz singer) Cassandra Wilson, and we talked about those old gospel songs,” says O Maonlai. “When they sing that they’re crossing over the River Jordan, it means they’re escaping to freedom from slavery. The songs are literally about God and exodus, but what they’re really about is a family planning to meet again on the other side. We have those kinds of songs as well, because our culture was, for a time, illegal. Our language was subject to an economic system called colonialism. We had to sing songs that said it was safe to go and pray in a certain place where we might be shot if we were caught.”
Despite all that, O Maonlai says he’s not religious.
“There are some absolutely beautiful pieces of art that have been written around our version of the Catholic Church,” he says. “My aunts were nuns and my uncle was a priest, a very charismatic man. But I don’t believe in the dogma.”
Instead, it’s the “spirit of humanity” that O Maonlai finds in gospel and traditional Irish music that inspires him when he’s delivering the hippie homilies and sexually fraught self-examination that constitute a good deal of Hothouse Flowers’ lyrical output, not to mention the band’s ecumenical view of the world.
“I want to make more music,” O Maonlai says, when asked about his goals in this regard. “I love African music. I love Mali. I went there three years in a row, and I think a part of me is still there. I want to go back and play tons of music without any agenda, just get lost in it.”
And it’s this attitude that also informs his love of Japan, a country that he has visited numerous times over the past 30 years as the leader of Hothouse Flowers, as a solo artist and as a member of other musical projects.
“In Japan, you can really tell you’re being listened to,” he says. “Maybe I’m imagining it, but it’s a treat to be around, especially if you’re a sensitive person. There’s a great respect for silence, the pause before the words. In the so-called Eurocentric world, we’re obsessed with what’s said rather that what’s implied. Even in a really loud song you can allow room for silence. That’s a pretty powerful combination right there, and to me it’s the holy grail.”
Hothouse Flowers play Shibuya Club Quattro in Tokyo on Oct. 11. The band was scheduled to play at the Asagiri Jam festival in Shizuoka Prefecture, but the festival has been canceled due to a typhoon. For more information, visit hothouseflowers.com.