Liam Ó Maonlaí & Peter O'Toole @Überhaupt in Aachen, Germany, Feb 6th 2020 plus a chat with the two artists
Here I sit, storm "Sabine", wailing around the house - elsewhere called "Ciara" - and it is going to get worse. The perfect time, so, not only to write those lines but to reminiscence about a perfect evening in a cosy location a couple of days back.
The problem is a global one (not the storm, well, yes, that too): In every village and in every town, venues and pubs seem to close. But there is always a handful of people whose love of music and the arts is so all-encompassing that they are willing to get active and even better share. In my town this would be for instance Steffi and Rory of The Wild Rover, establishing a venue for upcoming bands and solo artists. It was Steffi who on Social Media showed in interest in a Liam Ó Maonlaí and Peter O'Toole, also known as long-time members of The Hothouse Flowers from Dublin, Ireland.
You what? Those two in our town? It was true. Thanks to Hella Kunz and Robert Sukrow who open up their house and hearts to the arts loving public and invite to their cosy and beautiful small venue "Überhaupt". They are a dab hand at listing great acts in an usually intimate atmosphere and do all of that in their leisure time - all proceeds go to the artists. A big thank you to Hella and Robert for doing so and also for this fantastic evening.
A performance that was one seamless journey through the music of both Liam and Peter (and The Hothouse Flowers and others and traditionals), travelling through times, genres and picking the slightest changes of atmosphere in both themselves, their interaction and within the audience. Outstanding musicians in an incredibly intimate surrounding, that is a rare treat. Thank you for this, Liam and Peter, and also for our wee chat which is printed below.
Interview with Liam and Peter
OMB: Thank you so much, Liam and Peter, for taking the time to answer a few questions on the occasion of your visit here.
Liam and Peter: Of course.
OMB: Back to the very beginning which was the start of band of The Hothouse Flowers. A lot of people assumed at the time, there is a young pop band who were really lucky, getting Bono Vox and Mother Records involved, spreading the word big time through a video shown at the Eurovision Song Contest broadcast, but really it was not that only. You had started early and really learned your craft. There was nothing manufactured about your career. Liam, you in particular grew up with a lot of love for music and culture in the house. How was that in your home, Peter?
Peter: Not my parents, but my grandparents and my uncles all played music. One of my uncles played guitar. He loved The Beach Boys, so he played Beach Boys songs. And then there were accordions and harmonicas. So the first instrument I played was a mouth organ chromatic harmonica that my grandfather had. My sister was the first one in the family to start buying records. She would buy stuff like The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits and The Beatles, then started getting into Bruce Springsteen and everything that was around at that time. We were just like sponges. And traditional music as well. “A Feast Of Irish Folk” was a big CD in our car - actually it as a cassette, so we listened to all the great songs on that, driving around with my Dad and my Mum and my grandmother. Basically, I was a sponge at that age from eleven or twelve until now.
OMB: There was that and you learned the craft, busking, playing on the streets, exposed to audiences, learning as you went along. Were you supported by the family to choose this life? Was it okay for them?
Peter: For me it happened quite naturally. I just ended up doing music. I was quite young when I started hitching around Ireland doing gigs. My family bought the first guitar. I made a basic guitar out of wood and string. So they kind of felt sorry for me or felt inspired for me, either one, and they bought a guitar. I used to go to a lot of gigs just to study the guitar shapes [of chords] of the guitarists. Then I started hitch-hiking up and down the midlands, Longford and Leitrim, and playing bar gigs there and they were amazing. That was the beginning for me.
OMB: And was there support in your family, Liam?
Liam: Oh yeah, well, yeah, once it was obvious that this is a life, then it was supported.
OMB: At the time, there was a lot of money in music if you were with a bigger label but that also meant pressure from the label and you came to the point where at least you said, I am burned out. It is all about numbers and not how we want to develop. It is just sell, sell, sell. You had a break for a couple of years. If you look at the music industry as it is now, everyone can just publish their songs without a label. But now there is not that much money in it anymore. Can you get by by just doing music or would you have to have a day job?
Liam: I am getting by with just music.
OMB: Would you think it is particular to Ireland because maybe music is more appreciated there?
Liam: Well, I think, underneath all the modernness of Ireland there is an appreciation of the musician in society alright, I think. And it does not necessary mean you have money. Outside of Dublin in particular, there is still a strong give and take. You might not get money but you’d be looked after if you are a musician. I think, you’ll never want for a place to stay or food if you are a musician in Ireland.
OMB: So there is maybe also an appreciation of music being an essential part of life?
Liam: Yes. And it is an essential part of life.
OMB: In my family we had a conversation about how there are people who can live without music and I said, maybe they just don’t know what they are missing and really, it is essential. And I remembered how you described being in Mali and people were so poor but there would always be music, so music ranges in the pyramid of human needs next to shelter, food and water. Maybe in Ireland it is consciously on the same level.
Liam: Yes, that is still around in Ireland. We are a country that understands the bardic.
OMB: After your time out, The Hothouse Flowers rejoined. Peter, you joined much later, I assume, private commitments, other professional commitments, no rift? (Both Liam and Peter shake heads). Within the band now, how do you think, getting older, pursuing solo careers, the changing times, have influenced your music, your reaching out to other styles of music or even turning more to traditional music?
Liam: I think, every generation reinvents being old and every generation reinvents being young. Every generation has its own version of how to be. Our music is constantly unfolding. I think we are lucky that we are a group of people. The two of us here and more. But we are adventurous, always have been adventurous, musicians. We search, we follow the sound. And we have conversations with music and that’s where we go. That’s where we continue to go.
OMB: That would bring you abroad as well for traditional music or not even necessarily traditional music?
Liam: You could be inspired by one thing one day and by another the next. It depends on what kind of mode you’re in, more in a mode of listening to other things. Or on the road - we are now listening to each other, you know. The gigs are what is inspiring me every night. This is where it’s at, this is were the party is. And this is where the inspiration is. We start of a song and find certain atmospheres and harmonies within a song that are really new and exciting.
OMB: So the songs keep on living, including the older ones. They grow and they can be different depending on the mood, on the day. They are a living, organic thing.
Liam: Yeah. Like a story, I suppose. Like the aural tradition of the telling of a story. The story will have the same heart but each telling will be a little bit different.
OMB: Yes. Tell us shortly what you are up to in your solo careers, your solo plans?
Peter: There’s all kinds of stuff to do. We have an album here tonight that we were recording when touring in The Netherlands and Belgium. That’s kind of the most recent thing. We are doing a lot of work as The Hothouse Flowers as well. It’s forever open and forever changing. We are playing in different ways and with different people all the time. It’s quite open. The songs have structure but are unstructured as well. When we play as Hothouse Flowers, that keeps it inspiring and good fun.
OMB: So even the Hothouse Flowers songs are open?
Liam: They are still vehicles for creativity. What I feel like, at the moment that’s the work. It’s on the stage. That’s the work that’s happening is when we go into a zone and we hit on something. That’s the improvisational aspect of the band. Personally that is what I crave, to go somewhere. But that’s at the moment - just as chance for something to spark. Any song can bring that really.
OMB: Would it be sparked off by other kinds of art as well?
Liam: Anything at all really.
Peter: It could be a sound. It could be a twangy sound on the instrument you are holding. It sets up a new atmosphere for a song. So the song could be the same song but the song has a completely different atmosphere. Because you have got a twang in it and it will bring on a personality that night or that moment.
OMB: Really like an evolutionary thing. It can happen by coincidence but you go, yeah, actually, that sparks off something.
Peter: Yeah, it could be creak in the floorboard that becomes part of what you are doing at the moment. Could be an out of tune piano or something.
Peter: Something that brings personality to it. It’s all good fun.
OMB: You moved to Spain, Peter?
Peter: No, I live in Tipperary in Ireland.
OMB: But you lived in Spain?
Peter: Yeah, I lived there for a while.
OMB: Right, I was going to say, the logistics must complicated even in internet times
Peter: Yeah, I lived there and Fiachna [Ó Braonáin] lived in France for a while and managed to come and go. There’s always an airport nearby or a way of getting somewhere. So we are lucky enough.
Liam: To be in the same country is good for the way we work at the moment because sometimes it might just be one gig and then another gig and then another two gigs and so on. But you know, if we were in different countries, it would probably be more sensible to have seven gigs and five gigs, something like that.
Peter: In Ireland we actually live quite separate. There’s two in Dublin, there’s one in Wexford, there’s up near Sligo and one in Tipperary. So we all come together bringing our different lives to each other, every time we see each other. It’s always fresh. And it’s personal as well.
OMB: Well, there are bands who communicate and even write songs via email. If you say, your songs develop by playing live, so in physical proximity, it would not be possible, if you lived even further apart.
Peter: Well, everything is possible. If you receive a file with music on it, you are going to contribute in some way and bring yourself to it. So, everything is possible. But it is good, it is actually amazing, when you are feeling off…you are smelling each other really. It’s a very primitive thing. You are looking at each other, you are feeling each other when you are playing together personally.
OMB: It would be more spontaneous as well, not tinned.
OMB: So tonight we just have the two of you playing together. Are there particular songs that you wrote together that you are going to play or is it a mixture of everything?
Peter: It is everything, anything goes. Quite often it is something that just happens at the moment as well. We kind of know each other enough and long enough to be able to just let it go and follow each other.
OMB: That involves a trust as well that has developed over the years?
Liam: Well, it was always something that we had. It was always there. There was a time when we were kind of writing setlist and planning ahead. We were making sure we played particular songs because that was the way to do it at the time. But during our soundchecks, during those long tours we used to do, that was when we went off on incredible musical journeys. And it was always there. I think it was often when our subconscious started playing and the fingers were working. The minds could be wandering in different places and the hands were just doing the feeling and the responding to each other. Now this has come to the main stage, this same, yeah, quality, in our relationship as people and musicians.
OMB: Maybe in the beginning you were catering for the audience as well, thinking, oh, they have come for particular songs and they have to sound exactly like on the album. But now you find out that the audience also appreciates this, current, way.
Liam: Yeah! And they always felt that as well. Because when we were busking, that was what we did. I came to this period where I went like: When I am feeling it, those around me will feel it as well. I think if musicians are feeling each other, that’s all that matters. Whether you are actually reproducing everything, well, as long as you are feeling it while you are doing it, that is the main thing. There’s a feeling going on. It does not even have to be spontaneous, it doesn’t always have to be improvised. I think that is where we are getting a buzz at the moment, is that spontaneous improvisational thing. But it is about the feeling ultimately. And the spontaneity allows that feeling because it is scary and it is into a certain amount of the unknown.
OMB: Is is like a stream of consciousness?
Liam: It is like a real conversation. We don’t write our conversations. You did not write this. We don’t write what we talk to each other about. We don’t write if we are making love. We don’t write that, we don’t rehearse that, we just do. If you are in the ring and having a fight, you might train yourself to respond a certain way. That’s a personal part of everybody’s life, is our relationship with our instruments, be it the voice or the instrument. You go into the ring and…
OMB: You are prepared as far as you can…
Liam: You are prepared but you don’t pre-decide what is going to happen.
OMB: Well, you can’t.
Liam: Otherwise you are reading everything and reproducing.
OMB: Of course you are accomplished musicians. You can do it this way. Younger bands cannot work that way maybe.
Liam: Maybe, or maybe they just think they can’t. I think when good spontaneous music is made, it creates…Most songs are probably written from a jam or going there, taking a leap, taking a deep breath and saying something not knowing what is actually going to come out until it comes out. And then you realise this is it.
OMB: And these are usually the best, because you cannot force a song.
Peter: it is that moment where someone might have an idea. It doesn’t matter how old you are, whether as a young band or vintage. It is when you have an idea and other people start bringing stuff to that idea and something magic just starts happening that you cannot explain or predict. That’s the magic. So as young bands, I think, they really feel that, jamming and exploring. That’s the excitement and we still have that. We have the pleasure of doing that every night that the magic still finds its way into it.
OMB: And are you happy enough for each other and even people from outside to contribute to the songs, changing them, bringing in their own ideas.
Peter: Well, the audience is doing that as well without being conscious of it. They are very much part of that moment.
Liam: That feeling.
OMB: You buy a song, you take it home and see something from your own perspective in there that probably never was in there.
Peter: And you might see someone with a certain face and you react to it when you play and there is maybe a smile…
Liam: Or even a cynical expression. It puts fire into you. And every day is different.
OMB: So you are doing a wee tour in Germany, mainland Europe?
Liam: Germany, you know, some interesting stories unfold with friends and people who want to help. It is not a statistical thing, more an organic, a feeling thing. But really lovely and inspiring.
OMB: One last thing: What do you think of the music scene in Ireland nowadays? Is it alive and well?
Liam: Very much so.
Peter: Yeah, it is alive even in the house. People are still reacting amazingly to music, young and old. It is great seeing what music does to an old person who is frail and music comes on and they get that energy in their body. As a scene, there is so much great stuff. It’s in people. Luckily in Ireland, it’s able to come out. It’s a free scene, non-judgmental, people are quite open to other people’s music and other people’s sounds.
OMB: So the different genres would not be separated from each other?
Peter: No, it’s all mixing.
Liam: And evolving. As I say, every generation has their own story to tell. We are lucky to have this traditional music that all the generations tap into. Not everybody from all the generations but it covers all the generations. The oldest can be playing with the youngest and there is no limit to who might play with who. We live in a country where this is very much a reality and it is not an industrial tradition, it is a community tradition. Maybe one of the best box players ever still works at whatever he does and every Thursday night in his town or in his village. People might come from miles around and hear that person play. That’s still around and that gives you great freedom in your mind.
OMB: When you were at school, Liam, and taking an interest in traditional music and tradition in general and speaking Irish, was it not frowned upon? Were you not made fun of?
Liam: Oh yeah! Especially in Dublin. Being a colonised country has a complex post-traumatic issue. Some people really hate the Irish language.
OMB: I noticed over the past couple of years what with arrival and demise of the Celtic Tiger and the people themselves pulling Ireland out of the bankruptcy, that a certain, well, not pride, but appreciation of Ireland has arrived. Not long ago, people for example would not speak about the famine and now they do. They were ashamed, but know now they needn’t be, on the contrary. Maybe that will help the traditional culture as well?
Liam: Yeah. It depends on where you are.
Peter: There are a lot more gaelscoils in the cities now. Definitely when I was young, we used to point and say: There are the Irish speakers. That must have had a big effect on families, being almost outsiders in the streets and in the communities because of it. But seems to have gone. People are now wanting to send their children to gaelscoils, not having Irish themselves, and because it is a really good system. Great to have the language and the tradition that’s involved at schools. But you had that on your street, Liam?
Liam: Oh yeah. Our neighbourhood would not have been too excited about our type of people. It was dark, you know. But it gives you an insight into being a marginalised person. I have a friend whose people are from Nigeria. She was born in Dublin. She asked: As an Irish speaker do you sometimes identify with other Irish speakers in sort of a quiet little nod? She said, we do. And I said: Yeah, we do have a sort of feeling for each other. It’s not really conscious, it is just …that channel is open.
OMB: As in, there is a community there?
Liam: Yeah, and you might not notice or experience it unless you are in it. But I definitely feel you can have empathy with people who have experienced belittlement. Certain people of our whole country have experienced belittlement in order to further another agenda. We have experienced that. It came from the official side of things, it came in shiny clean uniforms. We were told the wild thing is a bad thing. And tidy clean and shiny was the good thing. You had to listen to that and be told you are wrong because you spoke this language. Or that could speak this language even though it was not your natural language. Weird. If look at it, really weird. It is very much at large today. In our country we surface a little bit but you do get this wall there. Some people still would like to see the Irish language go away. It is a kind of a dirty thing.
OMB: Because it is connected to nationalism for them or…?
Liam: Or because it is just not connected to the winners. Maybe. The winning team. A superior race…
OMB: On this sad note but with a view to finally getting you to have dinner and get on stage, thank you very much, Liam and Peter!