Sunday December 8, 2019

Bringing it all back drone

Dublin band Lankum's new take on Irish trad and folk music has brought them international acclaim, but for them it's all about sharing the songs and the stories behind them, they tell Sarah Taaffe-Maguire

24th November, 2019

The sounds of the apocalypse wage for over ten minutes. Sharp, cutting strings raise anxiety levels. Vocals haunt. Bellows-driven instruments bring an increasingly loud drone with a paranoid feel. Bowed guitar and banjo create hyperventilating noises. You’re absorbed by a wall of sound. But it’s not the end of the world, it’s The Wild Rover as you’ve never heard it before.

It’s beautiful and it’s the sound listeners of Dublin four-piece Lankum have become accustomed to. Their third and latest album The Livelong Day, which has received across-the-board overwhelmingly positive reviews, is filled with eerie soundscapes.

“I just wanted to get the dirtiest, most fear-inducing sounds out of our instruments however we could,” vocalist, uilleann piper and tin whistler Ian Lynch says. He and his brother Daragh, the vocalist and guitarist, are sipping coffee and enjoying a late breakfast of pastries in the open surrounds of the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre. They’re one half of trad-folk band Lankum with Cormac Mac Diarmada and Radie Peat joining them on fiddle, and harmonium, accordion and vocals respectively.

When we meet, Ian’s head is freshly shaved. Yes, it’s cold, he says, but the resulting prickly scalp is perfect for keeping the fabric of his hoodie in place. Daragh hadn’t prepared for the shoot by getting a haircut, but he did stash a couple of T-shirt options in his bag and ditched the black top he arrived in. Photographers' requests for costume changes are something to which he has grown accustomed.

I guess that’s what happens when the critics rave about you, and you repeatedly sell out Vicar Street in Dublin and venues across Britain. Lankum’s third album, The Livelong Day, has been met with five-star reviews, not just from Irish publications but from the likes of The Guardian and Mojo music magazine. After a recent performance in Wales for Other Voices Cardigan, the group are off touring again, this time in England and Europe.

So, how does it feel? It’s great, they reply, but are quick to note they’re taking reviews with a pinch of salt. “You can't start looking at it as a reflection of you as a person,” Daragh points out.

“Or even of your music - it’s just one person’s thoughts,” Ian interjects. “This time I'm reading all the reviews but half of them are repeating what other reviews are saying and I wonder do they even think that themselves?” He feels that after the first few reviews were published, there wasn’t a whole lot new said. “It's like [Lankum] is this new thing that's happening in Dublin and they want to be seen to be the ones writing about it. That's what the cynic in me says.”

Ireland’s a small island, and the trad scene in Dublin smaller still. There are distinct benefits to this - it’s great to have a community and to be able to form a band through people you happen across - but there are disadvantages, too. A lack of honest reviews is one issue Ian identifies. “I think people will either give a four or five-star review or they just won't review [an album],” he says. Chances are, he tells me, you’ll run into that reviewer at some point, so people won’t risk writing a true account. “It's rare to see constructive, critical reviewing.”

What’s certainly true is that the trad scene is thriving, especially among the younger generation. Outfits like Ye Vagabonds, Lisa O’Neill and The Gloaming are putting their take on trad and folk out into the world, winning awards and making a living out of it too.

So what accounts for that blossoming scene? Might the growth of digitisation projects (such as the National Folklore Collection at UCD and the Irish Traditional Music Archive) be linked to young people turning to trad? “I definitely think they've something to do with each other,” Ian reckons. Thanks to these archival and digitisation projects, trad fans can listen to songs from up to hundreds of years ago for free.

Ian, who worked in the Irish Traditional Music Archive, witnessed first-hand the interest in this wealth of easily accessible trad music history. While at work he saw young people from the newer trad bands researching on a daily basis, he says. “All of the bands that I can think of now that are playing around, I've seen all of them in the archive at some stage researching songs.”

Lankum themselves have benefited from digitisation. After all, you can listen to a 1971 recording of the song False Lankum, the band’s namesake, on the UCD library website.

More than others, however, Lankum have a deep knowledge of trad history pulsing through their music. Ian spent time as a lecturer at UCD’s department of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore. “Having that academic background led to the sleeve notes that we have on our albums and our approach to songs,” he says. Darragh adds: “That's definitely one thing that we have that most other bands would never be able to do, even traditional ones: we have a deep academic understanding of a lot of the songs."

In their mid-to-late thirties, yet veterans of many musical projects, why do the Lynches think Lankum has taken off? It’s a mix of different elements working well together, Daragh replies. “There are lots of bands around that have three or four of the elements that we have but just because of the four people who are involved in Lankum, the combination of elements ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of people.” The mix of drone, American old-time music, traditional Irish music, vocal harmonies, trad tunes and original songs, according to Daragh, is the winning formula.

It’s a style the brothers came to in relatively recent years. As teenagers and in their early twenties they gravitated towards punk influences. “I was in a lot of weird punk bands and shock-rock cabaret outfits with bits of pantomime and theatre thrown in, with nakedness and debauchery,” Daragh tells me. “I was in a band called Cat of Nine Tales at one point and we played a gig that was so disgusting that someone vomited in the corner.”

He describes another memorable gig in Belfast: “It ended up with the singer naked, smashing a computer on stage and the following three seconds of silence was one the most amazing things I've ever experienced.” In the next breath he says: “But at the same time, we were getting into traditional music in Dublin.”

Meanwhile, Ian was a mature student and had taken up the uillean pipes. He and Daragh would meet up on Sunday evenings and play traditional tunes. Aoife Dermody, an old friend, was taking the fiddle up again after playing as a child, so she joined in for a time. Her brother Cormac was introduced, and the Lynches began to join him at sessions. Cormac knew Radie through secondary school, and with her on board Lankum was formed.

With their cobbled-together beginnings, Ian and Daragh reflect that they never set out to have Lankum as their livelihood. Quite surprisingly, they’re glad commercial success didn’t come sooner. “I'm so glad it didn't happen when I was younger,” Ian says without batting an eyelid. Daragh agrees. “Oh, we would have lost the run of ourselves,” he says. “Well, we were already losing the run of ourselves in our twenties without any of this, doing gigs with 20 people at it and thinking 'yeah, this is mad!'”

Success is not centred on sales, Ian contends. “I always define success as when you come out of recording and you're sitting down with the people you made this thing with going, 'Yes! This is absolutely the best thing that we could have done, we've really done everything we can to make this an amazing piece of art and there's nothing about it now that I would go back and change.'”

The opportunity to dedicate themselves fully to Lankum is another marker of achievement, Ian continues. “I feel really lucky that we can do this as our living and scrape by. To me that really feels like success as well. It's an accomplishment to be able to do that.”

It’s clear that what excites Lankum most is the re-introduction of historic song versions (as with their version of The Wild Rover), and bringing trad music history to new ears. “I think it's nice to be able to share our enthusiasm for the background of the songs and the social history: why they meant so much to people in the past, where they stem from, why they changed the way they did by going to different countries,” Ian says with a smile. “That's just something that I really am mad about. I just love having an excuse to show that off.”

It’s a passion that’s paying off. “We realised that something can be really hackneyed, but if you give it a chance, re-think it and give it more of a sensitive treatment, you can really make something new altogether of it," Ian says.

Lankum play Róisín Dubh on New Year’s Eve and a second Vicar Street gig on January 5 has tickets available. The performance from Other Voices, Cardigan will air on RTÉ in the new year

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