Lankum: On the Cusp of the Unknown

This is the unedited version of the Lankum interview from the October edition of Village Magazine. The print edit is available to read here.

The last couple of years have been busy for Dublin folk miscreants Lankum, to say the very least. Emerging from their roots in the city’s underground, the one-time performance-art have completed a transformation into arguably the country’s foremost folk performer-curators, casting traditional gems and original compositions in a mix of folk, traditional and a variety of modern alternative idioms from drone to Krautrock. It’s seen them go from putting down their first “proper” long-player in a bunker under the city, to playing the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Folk Awards and signing with iconic indie label Rough Trade for new album ‘Between the Earth and Sky’. It appears as though the band are on the cusp of wider success, but for vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Daragh Lynch, it’s just the next step. “The last couple of years have been crazy, alright, from playing on Jools Holland, or in the Paris Philharmonic and Royal Albert Hall, playing on national TV in Ireland, and making friends with the likes of Christy Moore and Martin Carthy, having meetings with the heads of Rough Trade, it’s all seemed like a long series of bizarre moments where we keep turning to each other and whispering, “what in the living fuck is going on?” I’m not sure we really feel like we’re on the cusp of something “bigger”, as such, more that we’re on the cusp of the unknown, with a new album, a new record label, a new name and no idea how the next year is going to pan out. Not that that’s anything bad! It brings a certain level of excitement in its own way.”

Perhaps the biggest milestone, not just for the band, but regard the address of social issues among the Irish musical community in recent times, has been changing their name from ‘Lynched’ to ‘Lankum’. A decision taken to express solidarity with marginalised peoples in the current social & political climate, the new moniker was inspired by Traveller song ‘False Lankum’, and according to multi-instrumentalist Ian Lynch, was a call a few years in the making. “This was something that we had been discussing amongst ourselves for a good year or two, before we made the announcement in October last year. I have to say that apart from one or two comments online, most people have been supportive of the change. I know that some promoters were worried about people not recognising the new name and subsequent slumps in ticket sales, but we seem to have gotten over that stage now, and are still doing well in that regard. It definitely seems to me that we made the right decision and we still stick by it, one-hundred percent. I think now more than ever we’re seeing an alarming normalisation of right-wing ideas across the western world – it’s definitely not a time to be sitting on the fence as it were.” The band’s socially-conscious attitude has always been a pillar of the band’s compositions and selections, and for Daragh, the family name had to come second to the current state of play. “It was a very tough one alright, and it was pretty obvious to most people that the name, which had very innocently been chosen a decade and a half ago, was becoming progressively more problematic, especially as our reach began to expand outside Ireland and the UK, at the exact same time as the current rise of far right ideologies in the US and Europe.”

Signing to London-based Rough Trade also represents another step forward for the band, with Geoff Travis’ legendary label currently standing at the forefront of UK folk. With creative autonomy ensured by the label’s independent status and historical weight, the band took it upon themselves to rise to the occasion, according to vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Radie Peat. “I think on a psychological level knowing that the album would come out on Rough Trade gave us a slightly sharper focus. The stakes felt higher, when we released the last album we didn’t even think we would sell five hundred copies, so this was a very different undertaking.” For Ian, the retention of creative freedom was a caveat of the band’s involvement with any label, wary of the exploitation that continues in the industry’s upper reaches in the post-CD age. “From what I’ve heard read and experienced personally, Rough Trade are one of the only labels around that we would even consider working with. They have consistently been supportive of what we do, and any decisions that they have made have been through consultations with us. Geoff Travis is a legend, and if he is into what you’re doing as a band he will support you all the way. Playing the kind of music we do, not everyone outside of the folk scene ‘gets it’, so it’s great to be dealing with someone who does. Compare this to the nightmare world of 360 deals, labels taking merch and tour money off bands, major labels who tell you that they completely get what you’re doing musically, and then ask you would you consider penning a song for the Irish Team in the World Cup, and you can see why the decision was an easy one.”

‘Between the Earth and Sky’ presents a wider sonic palate than debut long-player ‘Cold Old Fire’ from the beginning, but equally as important as production and composition are the band’s selections of traditional compositions. A number of live favourites of the band make the cut this time, not the least of them rebel-song standby ‘Sergeant William Bailey’ and protest anthem ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, written and first performed by prisoners of concentration camps in World War II. Ian outlines the process, pros and cons of such curation. “To be honest, the four of us are constantly researching, learning, and singing traditional songs. There is no shortage of really great songs, obscure or otherwise and its something that we’ve always been into. We’re always bringing new songs to the table and we’ve arranged and worked on at least as many as we’ve recorded. For one reason or another we have a huge backlog of stuff that we’ve either arranged and become a bit jaded with after practicing them everyday for months, of songs that we just forgot about. The upside is that when we come to picking new songs for live gigs or for a recorded we have plenty to choose from.” Adds Daragh on the topic: “These things generally have their own internal creative rhythm, so if something really leaps out then we can have the bulk of an arrangement quite quickly, though this doesn’t guarantee that we’ll use it, and we have a bunch of pieces that haven’t seen the light of day.”

From its first note, the tone of the new album is different from its predecessor: album opener ‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money?’ invests Peat’s scintillating take on the old Traveller song with a thick, monotone drone; ‘Sergeant William Bailey’ is pockmarked with military snare and brass, and original composition ‘The Granite Gaze’ features the Philip Glass-like squeezebox parts that the band’s social media teased a while back. Daragh expands on the fullness of sound that accompanies the new platter. “From the start we decided we wanted the new album to sound similar to ‘Cold Old Fire’ but definitely with a bigger, more ‘lush’ kind of sound, with a wider and more expansive and immersive low end, so there’s definitely a bit more drone involved. We definitely spent more time on that when mixing, doing all sorts of mad things like quadrupling drone tracks, putting two of them back through analogue compressors and pushing them out to the far pans, or gradually building up multiple low end drones across a track so that if you listen to it on headphones it nearly sounds like you’re being submerged. It was a lot of fun! We’re all very into different types of music, from Pink Floyd and Brian Eno, to The Jimmy Cake, various Black Metal bands, Autechre, Neu! and so on, as well as traditional music and song. So it’s probably more a case of us incorporating all of those influences into some kind of bizarre, bastard mutant music child.”

‘Cold Old Fire’, the eponymous single of their first long-player, follows the band around: placing the Irish tradition of lament and focusing it on the Ireland of austerity and neoliberalism, it struck a chord with various audiences. ‘Déanta in Eireann’ and ‘The Granite Gaze’, the new record’s pair of originals, act as natural follow-ons, the former follows off from the warm humour in the familiarity of bemoaning the state of things, while the latter looks very soberly at the human cost of austerity and the lost decade. Composer Ian discusses following up on one of their career works. “It definitely depends on the song. With ‘Déanta in Éireann’, I sat down and composed the song in one long go. I had originally intended to write a modern day emigration song – which is what it is – but I definitely didn’t think it would take eight verses for me to get it all out of my system. I sang it around a good number of singing sessions around the country and it always seemed to go down well – I would often have elderly men and women come up to me afterwards to tell me that they really liked it and they understood that you have to use harsh language to describe harsh situations, so that was its baptism in a way. We were talking about arranging it for the band for a long time but could never come up with anything satisfactory. We tried again when we were recording the album and were really happy with how it came out, so it was a keeper.” Meanwhile, ‘The Granite Gaze’ was a more collaborative effort, tackling the realities of post-austerity difficulty and alienation, according to Daragh. “It looks a lot more at some very dark and disturbing elements of Ireland’s recent history, and the very real impact that we still feel from that today. When we sat down to work out the lyrics, we were sure that we didn’t want to spell it out too obviously though, and that it would be a far more effective song if we alluded to things and used phrases that might have more than one meaning, and that this would serve to create more of a general feeling and mood than a straight up commentary. I have to say that I’m pretty happy with the job we did and hope that we can do a lot more of it!”

The next step for the four-piece is to head back to the UK to plug the new album, ahead of the usual extended promotional campaign. At this stage of the game, with the brothers Lynch in particular knocking around in different iterations for over twenty years, the lads have the touring regime down to a fine art, according to Ian. “Well, we’ve been heading off on so many of these tours over the last few years. At first it seemed like hard work coordinating everything, but we’ve done it so much that now we know exactly what everyone should be doing – we’re a well-oiled machine! We now know that the day is too busy to organise to meet your friends in a city, that you’re not going to get to stroll around most places that you play, that someone has to get the merch set up as soon as you get in somewhere, that someone has to organize the itinerary, that you should bring an mp3 player with loads of podcasts and audiobooks, et cetera. All obvious stuff, but you only get good at it through experience. I really look forward to heading off on these tours now. You don’t have any time to relax really, but its all geared towards doing what you love, you get to sing songs and play music with your best friends as well as meet great people every night and the best thing is you’re not taking orders from anyone. It’s better than tarring the road, as they say!”

‘Between the Earth and Sky’ releases on CD, vinyl and digital formats via Rough Trade on October 27th. For more, check out lankumdublin.com, and @lankumdublin.

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