Concertina, uillean pipes, fiddle and harmonium aren’t exactly the hallmarks of heavy music, but any instrument can be used to instil a sense of dread, and Irish folk quartet Lankum aren’t your average folk band. The sort of metal Astral Noize usually covers is about as far away as one could go from the world in which Lankum inhabit, but ever since their formation the band have been ratcheting up the extremity, subjecting their unique compositions to increasingly unusual treatments in the way of dynamics and arrangements.
Imagine folk influenced in part by the intensity of My Bloody Valentine and the ambient magnitude of Sunn O))), and you’re somewhat closer to the mark. On Lankum’s most recent record, The Livelong Day, the limits of folk’s traditional instruments are stretched as they drone menacingly, whilst the vocals retain a beguiling and mystical quality throughout – “Imagine the perfect house-band for a Coen brothers’ folk-horror movie,” as The Guardian’s Jude Rodgers once aptly described it.
Despite only eight songs, the album clocks in just a few minutes short of a full hour. Its overall sound can be summed up by the opener, a beautifully bleak rendition of the normally rousing drinking song ‘The Wild Rover’. Despite The Livelong Day being the most obvious example of the band’s darker inspirations thus far, however, the band have always drawn a diverse crowd. Their’s first full-length, 2014’s Cold Old Fire, was even released on cassette by Dublin metal label Sarlacc Productions.
“Even in the early days we always had people of different musical backgrounds coming to our gigs,” the band’s Ian Lynch tells us over Skype. “Lots of metallers, lots of punks, lots of people who would be into heavier music. I think we’ve always attracted people like that and especially now, with the latest album, the heavy influences are a lot more to the fore. We were definitely trying to achieve a heavier sound with the album from the very start of the recording process.”
Speaking from his home in Dublin, Lynch tells us that he was heavily into metal and hardcore growing up – in fact, when he formed Lankum with his brother Daragh (with the lineup later completed by Radie Peat and Cormac MacDiarmada), Ian was also working on a black metal project. And as is often the case with any culture consumed during formative years, metal seemingly plays at least a small role in Lynch’s current musical endeavours. These inspirations can be heard in Lankum’s sound, but the darker aspects of their sound largely come from the realm of drone and experimental music.
“I like to listen to a lot of stuff like Sarah Davachi, Tim Hecker and Kranky Records stuff,” Lynch tells us. “But I also like stuff like Sunn O))). The textures from music like that is definitely something that I think found its way into our last album. We’ve had some spacey and drone-based elements to our music before but I think we let it go where it wanted to go more on this latest recording.”
Due to the originality of their usage, the heavier elements of Lankum’s sound are perhaps the most discussed facet of their music. Truthfully more prominent when listening, however, is the influence of traditional folk and field recordings. Lynch tells us that his interest in such music began as a teenager with bands like The Pogues and The Dubliners, and that it was bouts of apparent homesickness after moving to London at 18 that led him to diving deeper. “Living away from home, [the music] really took on a whole different aspect,” he says. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had similar experiences, you know? Being away and getting a bit lonesome and emotional, you just start hearing different things in the music.”
The band find songs to cover on old recordings, delving into the vast collections put together by folk music collectors such as Séamus Ennis or Hugh Shields, but they also frequent singing sessions and festivals around Ireland. “Spending time with older singers and hearing the songs firsthand from them, you can’t really beat that,” Lynch says. “It’s a different experience altogether. I love hearing them on recordings as well, but it’s only ever an approximation of the real thing.”
In a sense, the band are harking back to the days when songs were shared, travelling nations and continents on the lips of those performing them. Despite some being centuries old, many of them remain startlingly relevant to the worries and troubles of people living in modern society.
Even when playing songs that were written years ago, Lankum’s music can still be considered an expression of the band members and the world around them. “I think that’s why certain songs have lasted so many years,” agrees Lynch. “They speak to something deep in the human condition. It’s like when you look at old folk tales, maybe people were telling the same stories seven hundred years ago because there’s something there that speaks to the human truth and the human condition. It resonates with people and that’s why they continue to tell the stories or sing the songs.”
Lankum are keeping that tradition going, but Lynch has hinted in the past that Irish audiences weren’t initially all that receptive to the band – “It was only after the UK kicked in that Irish people started paying attention,” he once told the Irish Examiner.
“People have a certain amount of shame that’s attached to Irish culture,” Lynch suggests. “I think it’s very much a post-colonial thing. I think it’s something that people were dreadfully embarrassed by. Even talking about the songs and the Irish language, a lot of people feel funny about it. There’s a baggage there that people haven’t quite come to terms with.”
This is something Lynch believes is changing with the younger generation, citing artists like The Mary Wallopers, Lisa O’Neill, Junior Brother and John Francis Flynn, but his suggestion that there’s baggage with his nation’s culture is most likely an astute observation. Often bands, or indeed anyone who’s looking to the past to some degree, can get lost in a rose-tinted view of the past, and a narrow-minded form of nationalism that can come with it.
It’s therefore notable that Lankum are a band conscious of contemporary issues, not to mention the defiant legacy of folk. They have songs addressing recession and war, they’ve played benefit concerts and been involved in a campaign to repeal abortion legislation in Ireland, and when the Pope visited, they took part in a protest, singing ‘The Granite Gaze’ about the legacy of the Catholic Church.
Lynch and his brother Daragh, the band’s founding members, initially called the band Lynched after their surname, but renamed in 2016 to avoid associations with the practise of lynching. An accompanying statement read: “We will not continue to work under our current name while the systemic persecution and murder of black people in the USA continues.”
This political expression, Lynch explains, partly derives from he and his brother’s involvement in the DIY hardcore punk scene in Dublin. “There were always a lot of benefits and stuff going on,” he tells us. “It was always quite active on the radical politics side of things. I suppose it’s carrying on from that, it makes sense to us. For us, a lot of these older songs hark back to a time when people singing about their grievances in society and the hardships they were going through was sometimes the only recourse they had, the only form of protest they had. Even if the songs aren’t overtly political I think they can be seen as a political act in themselves.”
The band have never seen a need to put forward their politics, but it seems to come naturally to them. “We wouldn’t sit down and say ‘we need to sing a song about WWII, let’s do ‘The Peat Bog Soldiers’,’” Lynch explains. “It’s more a case that we hear it and go ‘that’s amazing.’ The fact that that song was written in a concentration camp by communist prisoners, there’s so much to it, so much feeling in it. It resonates with us on that kind of level. It’s more to do with the feeling of the song because of the background.”
“I think it’s important to speak your truth and be true to what you believe in,” Lynch admits. “Sometimes people say it’s your responsibility as a musician to speak about certain issues but I don’t think people making music have any responsibility except to themselves. You can make whatever art you feel compelled to make, no matter what it is. You shouldn’t be beholden to anybody else’s ideas or expectations. You should just go with your gut feeling and do the right thing. I’m very careful about making statements but it kind of ends up happening anyway naturally and that’s fine. But I don’t worry about it too much, I don’t feel compelled to do that.”
Speaking to us from his home during lockdown, Lynch also expresses his disappointment at having missed out on the opportunity to perform at festivals this Summer, particularly this year’s Roadburn and Supersonic (“two festivals we’ve been dreaming of playing”), but has been using the time at home productively. He has a radio show, is working on a podcast and also set up a YouTube channel for sharing simple recordings of traditional songs, often backdropped by derelict industrial environments.
“Hopefully we’ll use this period to start coming up with material for a new album,” he adds. “I think we want to get started on that as soon as possible. There’s rumours about maybe doing some soundtrack work which I’m excited about but apart from that I’m just keeping going on my personal projects, which are keeping me sane.”
Despite the situation, and his obvious disappointment at missing out on exciting opportunities, Lynch remains upbeat. “It’s not looking good for gigs before the end of the year the way things are going,” he admits. “So we’re looking forward to next year, hoping that we’ll still get to play festivals then. We’re not sure how that’s gonna work but hopefully we get to play Roadburn, Supersonic and a lot more. Everyone will be dying to get out and see some live music when it’s all over I imagine.”
Too fucking right we will.
The Livelong Day is out now. Order here.
Words: George Parr