Lankum: ‘We wanted the biggest, most apocalyptic sound’
The four-piece band like to distort cosy preconceptions of traditional music
Lankum: ‘We just knew we wanted to make an album that was bigger, more immersive, a deeper, darker world that you can enter into.’ Photograph: Ellius Grace
There’s a sense of foreboding coursing through the veins of Lankum’s third album that lingers long after the final notes have faded. Somehow it’s a fitting soundscape, a snapshot in time that echoes the disquiet of the age we’re living in. For brothers Ian and Darragh Lynch, founding members of the band, it’s all of a piece: they knew exactly what sound they were seeking. “Basically we wanted to get the biggest, most apocalyptic sound we could from our instruments,” Ian declares nonchalantly. “It’s something we’d be trying to do with the last album and couldn’t quite figure it out when we were recording the instruments: how to get that weight, that heft behind it.”
This four-piece band had been ploughing a very particular furrow ever since they got together officially in 2012. Back then they were known as Lynched. And with fiddle player, Cormac Dermody and singer, Radie Peat, they’ve turned well-known songs like Rocky Road to Dublin on their heads, teasing out the subtleties of Irish, English and traveller ballads and infusing them with a visceral quality that renders them utterly contemporary and of their time.
In the three years since their last album, and their first on Rough Trade records, Lankum has been busy mining deep seams of our tradition. Cold on Fire, their first album (under the moniker of Lynched), was released in 2014. It set the scene: here was a band fuelled by an anarchic sense of what was possible, schooled in the diverse genres of punk, death metal, electronica and American garage rock – along with a rich acquaintance with Irish and English traditional and folk music. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade came calling for their second release, Between the Earth and Sky. It was akin to detonating an improvised explosive device in the midst of audience’s expectations. Dark and brooding, this was music that hacked at cosy preconceptions of traditional music as a safe or predictable place to rest your pipes and fiddle on.
Now they’ve taken that distinctive sound and turned the amps right up to 11. It’s a Phil Spector-like wall of sound that sucks the listener in from the dissonant opening chords of The Wild Rover. And it’s precisely what Ian Lynch was looking for, when he and his band mates took to the studio earlier this year.
“That’s why we enlisted the help of our sound man, John ‘Spud’ Murphy, who’s been working with us live for the last three years,” Ian explains. “Having him helped us to get the sound that we had in our heads the last time, but couldn’t quite achieve. To me, the way it’s turned out is exactly how we had imagined it and how we had described it to one another before we even started.”
For some people, context is everything when it comes to making art. In a world where it seems that Marvel Comics have unleashed their most dastardly creations on to the political stage, sweetness and light are in short supply. Yet maybe villainous politicians can help breed anarchic art, such as Lankum’s The Livelong Day.
Ian Lynch is sanguine about the relationship between the political climate of the day and the songs and sound of their new album. “I suppose we took it as a general mood,” he offers, with a clarity of purpose that is largely absent from the world of politics and current affairs. “The world we’re living in today is very uncertain. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope for anything. I’m sure in a subconscious way that probably played into the overall sound: doom laden, and a general sense of despair and hopelessness.”
Old songs, new stories
Lankum pulls no punches when it comes to getting old songs to tell new stories: simply by virtue of airing them anew. Meditations on patriarchy and its oppressive impact on women’s lives are threaded throughout. Katie Cruel is an old Appalachian ballad from the War of Independence, which they first encountered on a Karen Dalton album. It sounds its deathly toll in Radie Peat’s bereft vocals but almost could have been written within the last decade. And there’s Ian’s Hunting the Wren, written in response to a songwriting challenge from Lisa O’Neill, it charts the stories of a disparate group of independent thinking women who lived in the Curragh in the mid-19th century. Present and past coalesce seamlessly.
And then there’s The Young People, a song that came to Darragh Lynch, much as Port na bPúcaí came to Blasket Island fisherman: insinuating itself into his subconscious in the dead of night. Its beautiful harmonies belie the heartbreak at its core: a song of suicide and loss and pain that’s got a softness at its centre that’d break the heart of the hardest chaw.
“Darragh dreamt about it one night,” Ian declares nonchalantly. “He just woke up and it was in his head, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d heard it somewhere else or whether it was another traditional song that he had misremembered, as often happens. He had recorded it on to a Dictaphone when he was half asleep so he brought it in to a recording session one day.”
The capacity for songs to leap across centuries is something that Lankum have always trusted. They’ve always subscribed to the notion of letting the songs speak and sing for themselves.
“If a song resonates with us, then it’s also likely to resonate with audiences,” Ian says. “We can’t be the only ones getting these sense of meaning from these songs. That’s the beauty of a lot of songs, I think: they’re open to be read and interpreted in a number of different ways. They’ve been on people’s lips for the last 300 years: they have to be songs of quality that resonate. Otherwise they would have died out a long time ago.”
The Wild Rover is another example of Lankum’s ability to transform a song, through dint of pure research and the finest of tunings.
“It was really quite a revelation for us to hear that version of the song,” Darragh recounts, recalling hearing this version of it sung by Dónal Maguire. “It took on a whole new layer of meaning as we realised that it was originally an English temperance anti-drinking song. So it’s amazing to see how songs have changed their function over the years. A song that’s widely seen as an Irish drinking song started out as a very different.”
Deeper and darker
We seem to be experiencing a remarkably fertile period in Irish music, where musicians have freed themselves of any shackles or constraints, as Toner Quinn has written about recently in the Journal of Music. Their influences cross traditional, classical, jazz and folk idioms, with a fluency and alacrity that’s of its time: a contemporary response from musicians who speak their musical language with confidence and who straddle borders without apology.
Darragh Lynch sees the band’s sound as something that crystallises after they’ve laid down their instruments and taken the time to listen again themselves.
“I think it’s only afterwards, when you get a chance to look back on something, that you realise what kind of sense it makes,” he says. “We just knew we wanted to make an album that was bigger, more immersive, a deeper, darker world that you can enter into.”
For Ian, the death of art is repetition. “If you want to challenge yourself and you want to make art that means something to you, you have to trust yourself and also trust that the people who are into your music are going to follow you along that road too. It feels very fulfilling to push the boat out, even in the knowledge that we just don’t know whether the audience is going to walk out. You should be giving your audience what you think they need, not what they think they want.
“I read this line somewhere recently: ‘Make art, not friends.’ That’s what it feels like for us: we’re into making something that feels very fulfilling. We want to feel we’ve created a sound and a piece of art that we all stand behind. Everything else is a bonus after that really.”
The Livelong Day by Lankum is released on October 25th. They play Vicar Street on October 25th (sold out)