The last couple of years have been busy for Dublin folk miscreants, Lankum. Emerging from their roots in the city’s underground, the one-time performance-art enfants terribles 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 always-hot 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 to 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 [he laughs]! It brings a certain level of excitement in its own way”.
Perhaps the biggest milestone, not just for the band, but for the social sensibility of the Irish musical community, has been changing their name from ‘Lynched’ to ‘Lankum’. The intention was to express solidarity with marginalised peoples and the new moniker was inspired by Traveller song ‘False Lankum’, and according to multiinstrumentalist Ian Lynch, was a few years in the deciding:
“This was something that we had been discussing among 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. It definitely seems to me that we made the right decision and we still stick by it. 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”.
Signing to the 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 determined 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 undertaking”. For Ian, the retention of creative freedom was a precondition to 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”.
“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”.
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 bagpipe 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 of 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 LP, follows the band around: halling the Irish tradition of lament and focusing it on the Ireland of austerity and global capitalism, 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 derives from the warm humour in the familiarity of bemoaning the state of things, while the latter looks very soberly at the human cost of cut-backs 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!”.
‘Between the Earth and Sky’ releases on CD, vinyl and digital formats via Rough Trade on October 27. lankumdublin.com, @lankumdublin